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Running Backs in Dynasty Football: Stashing Sleepers and the Paradox of “Value”
By Alex McCarthy
Simple EconomicsThe conventional wisdom is that dynasty fantasy football is all about wide receivers. They have relatively long careers, they are less prone to injury than running backs, and the NFL itself is becoming more pass-happy every day. You can spend a lot of capital on a young stud WR, secure in the knowledge that they will be a contributor for your team for years to come.
This being the case, why does it always seem like acquiring an RB requires a draft-day reach or a big overpay via trade? Why is so everyone so thirsty for running backs when wide receivers are supposed to be the truth? The answer is basic supply and demand. In the modern pass-happy NFL there are fewer RBs who produce dependably, and fewer still who can be true difference-makers for your fantasy team.
Breaking It DownThis fact is best demonstrated by examining the number of running backs and wide receivers who broke specific point thresholds last season. In PPR there were 7 RBs and 6 WRs who scored over 250 points, indicating that the number of elite starters at each position are similar. Bring the threshold down to 200 points, however, and only five RBs join the group as compared to fifteen additional WRs (bringing the respective totals to twelve and twenty-one). There are only enough of these running backs for each owner in a twelve-team league to start one, while there are nearly enough wide receivers in this category for every owner to start two. Bring the threshold down a bit further to 150 points (as good a cutoff as any for “startable” players) and only 24 RBs qualify, compared to 48 WRs.
The lower the threshold, the more evident the trend becomes- there is drastically less depth at running back than there is at wide receiver. WRs who are good enough to be your second starter are a dime a dozen, whereas RBs who can dependably fill that role are a valuable commodity. To put it in perspective, Cole Beasley and Lamar Miller both scored 180 points in PPR last year and both have roughly the same amount of time left in their careers, yet Miller has an ADP of 36 compared to Beasley’s 186.
Quenching the ThirstSo what is a desperate owner to do, you ask? In my opinion, the best way to address the shortage of useful running backs is what I call the Patriots approach- volume, volume, volume. Running back is an inherently volatile position, so if you sell the house to acquire a single proven commodity then you assume a lot of risk. My preferred alternative is to identify unproven or undervalued RBs in your league and acquire as many of them as possible for cheap, hoping that one or more will outperform expectations. There are a few archetypes of RB that I like to target, and I have summarized them and included currently relevant examples below. To make the cut, RBs were required to have an average draft position in the seventh round or later (ADP 72+) according to DynastyFFTools.com. These players may not be sexy, but they could be the missing piece to your championship team.
Cheap StartersAlmost all the RBs that are NFL “starters” will be off the board by the end of the fourth round, but there are a few out there that lack name-brand cache and will thus slip farther than they reasonably should. These are my favorites:
Ameer Abdullah. The fact that he enters the season as the starter is reason enough to like him at his current price, but Abdullah also comes with elite athleticism. His SPARQ-x score of 138.7 places him in the 98th percentile of drafted RBs.
Why He’s Cheap: Injuries and lack of name recognition. Abdullah missed all but two games last year with a foot injury that required surgery, so many owners have forgotten about him altogether. This may change soon as owners come to realize that the Lions ignored RB in the draft, so get him while you can.
Why He’s Cheap: Because he doesn’t have the skillset to be a three-down back. The thing people forget is that this doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t see enough touches to be a fantasy threat, especially considering his versatility as a former WR.
Pass-Catching SpecialistsThe pass-catching specialist RB is fast becoming a staple of NFL offenses, and those who fill the role well can be dependable fantasy producers (and usually come at a discount due to their perceived secondary role). The pass-catchers I would target in 2017 are as follows:
Why He’s Cheap: Because he’s boring, and because his worth in non-PPR leagues is negligible. Despite playing fifteen of sixteen games Johnson only put up three double-digit performances, which isn’t particularly enticing. Still, I see those numbers getting sexier in an improved offense with an improved offensive line.
Why He’s Cheap: This one is simple- because he’s thirty-two years old. He probably only has one year left, but you can get that year of production essentially for free.
Off-Field ConcernsPlayers with off-field concerns can be some of the biggest bargains in fantasy football. There is always a chance that you are acquiring a player who will never shed his baggage and your investment will fail; however, there is also the chance that you got an elite asset for pennies on the dollar. These are a couple of players for whom I think the latter is a distinct possibility:
Why I Like Him: First and foremost, because the Ravens didn’t draft an RB. This shows commitment to Dixon as their potential RB of the future, which makes sense as he looked extremely strong over the second half of last season and appeared to be taking the job from incumbent Terrance West.
Why He’s Cheap: Because he’s suspended for four games for PED use. Granted this is not a great thing, but it is also not an issue that historically recurs with NFL players (unlike, say, recreational substance abuse). Current owners won’t love him sitting on the bench to start the season, but if you’re looking to acquire him for a discount the suspension could be a blessing in disguise.
Doug Martin. With his teammates talking him up for a bounceback year, consider me among those buying.
Why He’s Cheap: A very rocky, injury-plagued career and a recent failed drug test have left many reactionary owners fatigued and wanting off of the Doug Martin train. All the better for us.
Upside BackupsThese are not players who can start for you week one. However, it is all but guaranteed that a few players who enter the season as starters will end up casualties of injury or poor play. These are a few prominent backups who could be one bad cut or string of fumbles away from becoming weekly impact players:
Player I’m High On
Bilal Powell in the twelfth round gets me higher than Josh Gordon when he found out he wasn’t getting reinstated. When called on to replace injured starter Matt Forte last season, Powell stepped up in a big way and put up RB1 numbers over the last four weeks. Though Forte is the presumed starter going into 2017, he is on the wrong side of thirty and coming off an injury. With Powell having proved his mettle already, it is only a matter of time before he makes the Jets backfield his own. At his current price I am trying to acquire him in the later rounds in every one of my leagues.
Why He’s Cheap: Because he’s technically still just the backup, I guess? Honestly, this one baffles me. You can acquire both Powell and his counterpart in Forte for next to nothing and lock down a solid, injury-secured RB2 for bargain-basement prices, and apparently very few people have noticed. Don’t be one of them.
Mike GIllislee, Williams becomes the definitive backup RB in an offense that loves to run the ball. If Shady stays healthy all season he may end up being worth nothing, but if you’ve got a spare roster spot he is absolutely worth a gamble at his current price. One bad cut and torn ACL and he becomes an RB2 based on volume alone.
Why He’s Cheap: Because until recently, he wasn’t even the first backup in Buffalo. The Gillislee move instantly made him much more valuable, and not everyone has caught up yet. If you can, trade for him before his current owner realizes what has happened.
Cheap RookiesThe players in this category could also reasonably be described as upside backups, but I felt that their rookie status merited a separate designation. The fact that they are unproven and were overshadowed by the likes of Fournette and McCaffrey means that these rookies can likely be had at a bargain, and you would be wise to take advantage. I would recommend targeting the following players in particular:
Doug Martin, thus giving yourself a good chance at the Bucs starter without spending much.
Why He’s Cheap: Because he is a rookie with low draft pedigree who, even if he sees enough of the field to be relevant in fantasy football, wouldn’t be more than the fourth or fifth option in his own offense.
Frank Gore. As fantastic a player as Gore is, his playstyle-dictated limitations also limit the offensive potential of the Colts, and Marlon Mack is a dynamic player who could open things wide up. Though he will not likely be the starter barring a Gore injury, Mack should see much more use than a player with a fifteenth round ADP has any right to expect.
Why He’s Cheap: Because he is a low-pedigree rookie drafted by a team that, by all appearances, doesn’t actually have an offensive line. However, he is still one bad cut (or the inevitable encroachment of Father Time) away from being a probable RB2 on volume.
Why I Like Him: Because Kyle Shanahan likes him. Do I need another reason? In all seriousness, though, Shanahan has demonstrated a propensity both for offensive genius and for feeding two running backs. If Williams becomes anything even approaching what Coleman has been in Atlanta then he could be the steal of many a rookie draft.
Why He’s Cheap: Pretty simple- low pedigree rookie, no clear path to starting, currently weak offense. I feel that all of these arguments can be effectively refuted by the presence of Shanahan, of course, which is why I recommend you go out and get him.
And that’s it! Make some moves, wheel and deal, do what you have to and get yourself some of these players. Grab yourself a cheap handful of dirt and filter through it for the hidden gems of the upcoming season, and thank me later.