Rookie running backs always get a lot of hype and analysis going into the NFL season. Everyone is looking for the next Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson to lead their fantasy team to a championships in their rookie seasons. Last year one of my first articles for FantasySharks was one about rookie running back studs and duds. I told you about seven rookie running backs to keep an eye on, and except for injuries that occurred before the season (Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams) I hit the nail on the head with four out of five of those running backs. So, as of right now, my published record with rookie running backs is pretty good.
I told you that the three things I look at when determining a rookie running back’s chances of being productive are, first, if they have a chance to play. Unless the rookie is drafted in the first or high second round, odds are they’re playing a backup role, so you have to take a look at who’s in front of them. Second, I look at if the rookie has any injury history and how old it is. If the rookie is carrying an injury from late in their college career into the NFL, odds are he’s not going to last long in the NFL with bigger, better players trying to hit the crap out of him. Third, I look at the rookie running back speed scores from the combine. In case you forgot, or haven’t heard about the speed score before it is calculated as follows:
Speed score = (players weight in pounds x 200) / (40-yard dash time in seconds raised to the fourth power)
Calculating speed scores are a good way to compare running backs on a purely statistical standpoint. A 230-pound running back running a 4.5 40-yard-dash is a lot better than a 195-pound running back running a 4.5 40-yard-dash. Not only is it a good way to compare different rookies, it’s also been researched by Football Outsiders. According to their records, there have only been four running backs since 1999 with speed scores under 95 to be viable NFL starting running backs (Frank Gore, Brian Westbrook, Ahmad Bradshaw and recently Darren Sproles).
This year I dug even deeper in the speed scores to see if I could dig up any trends that might be useful to the fantasy football player. I started by getting all of the combine stats from 2004 until 2011. Seven years of stats should be a good amount to find a trend. I found that there were 219 running backs that I could find weights and 40-yard dash times for from 2004-11 so I could compute their speed scores. Next, I wanted a cutoff for the amount of points a running back should score for me to consider them as having a good “contributing season” fantasy-wise. Over the last few seasons the 30th-running back every season ends with around 170 points on average.
The 30th running back right now is being drafted around the seventh round on average in mock drafts. That should be around the time you’re drafting your last running back or first bench player. I found that of the 219 running backs in my analysis, 43 had at least one season where they had more than 170 points, and only four of those 43 were below the 95 speed score mark as per Football Outsiders recommendations. I must be on the right track.
Next, I wanted to see if there was any correlation between where a running back was drafted in NFL draft and if they had a contributing season scoring more than 170 fantasy points. What I found can be split in to three groups: first-round running backs, second- to fourth-round running backs, and fifth-round, sixth-round, seventh-round, and undrafted running backs.
First-Round Running Backs
Here’s a few of the things I discovered about first round running backs and their contributing seasons:
- 22 running backs were drafted in the first round from 2004-11
- 21 of those 22 had speed scores above 95
- The only first-round running back without a speed score above 95 was Mark Ingram
- 14-of-22 (64 percent) running backs had a contributing season by their second season, and 18-of-22 (82 percent) had one by their third season in the league
- Eighteen of those 22 running backs have had at least one contributing season, and 12 have had two or more
- The four players drafted in the first round that haven’t had a contributing season are: C.J. Spiller, Chris Perry, Donald Brown and Mark Ingram
- The only two players with speed scores above 95, are still in the league, and haven’t had a contributing season yet are Donald Brown and C.J. Spiller
- Players that fit into this category and broke out last year were Ryan Mathews and Beanie Wells.
What is this telling us? It’s almost guaranteed that first-round draft picks eventually have a fantasy season where they score more than 170 points. If they haven’t done it yet, it’s just a matter of time before they do. Please note that not all of these players are fantasy studs and some would be considered “busts” based on what their NFL teams were expecting them to do, but for fantasy football they have been doing enough to warrant being in a starting lineup. Players in this category are guys like Cadillac Williams, Felix Jones, Kevin Jones and Jonathan Stewart.
For the 2012 season, C.J. Spiller and Donald Brown are the two guys that are still in the league and have speed scores higher than 95. Right now both of their average draft positions are in the seventh round of mock drafts. I’d highly suggest grabbing one of them as a flex player or bench player because the chances of them being an RB2 or flex player for your fantasy roster are pretty good. Both of them are coming into their prime seasons in their careers. Brown is the starter on his team, although Indianapolis has a poor offense he should see a majority of the carries. C.J. Spiller is behind Fred Jackson in Buffalo right now, but Jackson is 31 this year, and after an injury last year Jackson is definitely on the downslope of his career. This should open the door for Spiller this season.