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By the Numbers

The Running Back Dead Zone's Zombie Uprising

by Jack Miller
Updated On: July 21, 2021, 2:11 pm ET

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We are one week away from a six-month-long grind.

Three teams – the Cowboys, Steelers, and Buccaneers – report to training camp on July 21. The rest of the league reports on July 27. We’ll have articles to read, hype trains to jump on, injuries to mourn, and news to digest.

For now though, there’s not much going on. Mandatory minicamp ended a month ago. We haven’t had a lot of actual new information since then.

Despite that, ADP has completely transformed over the past few weeks. I’ve never seen anything like it. Sure, you’d still expect some players to move up and down despite the dead period, but there has been a seismic change in how Underdog best ball drafters approach the game.

In June, Denny Carter wrote about the “RB dead zone.” For those who aren’t familiar, backs in Rounds 3-6 have not fared well over the past six seasons (which is as far back as we have best ball data). Meanwhile, wide receivers in those rounds have consistently overperformed. In fact, RBs with an ADP in the dead zone have averaged a below-average win rate in six straight years. Wideouts in that range have been above-average every year since 2015.

 

YearRB Average Win RateWR Average Win Rate
20158.1%9.1%
20168.1%8.5%
20178.1%8.9%
20186.9%9.2%
20197.8%9.1%
20207.7%8.7%

 

People listened. Four weeks ago, 12 RBs had an Underdog ADP in Rounds 3-6. Today, 11 of them are going later than they were then. 24 wideouts had an ADP in that range, and 22 of them are going earlier today. The average RB ADP in those rounds has dropped by 4.1 picks, while wideouts are going 1.8 picks higher.

This begs the question: Should you zig when others zag and grab the falling knives? Or is the collective right in fading RBs?

Let's find out.

Are RBs Going Later Than Usual?

RBs are going later than they were earlier this offseason. Whether they're going later than previous years is a different question entirely. This isn't a perfect comparison because I'm using BestBall10s data for 2015-20 and Underdog for 2021, so there might be some discrepancies caused by the difference in platform. Since BB10s are PPR and UD is half-PPR, you'd expect RBs to go earlier on UD, so we'll just make a mental note of that.

 

YearRB1-6 Average ADPRB7-12RB13-18RB19-24RB25-30
20156.818.434.643.461.0
201610.426.145.660.474.6
20176.720.541.357.677.6
20184.113.929.045.162.6
20194.515.831.344.458.0
20204.012.726.141.656.3
20213.912.927.553.276.7

 

RB ADP was all over the place from 2015-17. If you recall, 2015 was an apocalyptic year for the running back position. Devonta Freeman finished as the RB1 from a Round 8 ADP. Danny Woodhead and DeAngelo Williams were double-digit-round picks and ended the year as the RB3 and RB4, respectively. The following year, four WRs were drafted before the first RB in most drafts, and a trio of first-round backs – David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott – smashed at discounted prices. The market reverted back in 2017, but Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham were still top-five picks.

Things have been much less reactive over the past four seasons with RBs consistently dominating the early picks. Even non-elite RBs have gone way earlier since 2018 compared to the three seasons prior. It's the same this season in the first two or three rounds, as the first three 2021 groups in the table above are in line with 2018-20.

After that, not so much. Right now, RB19-24 have an average ADP of 53.2. In the past three years, the latest those RBs have gone is 45.1. It gets even more extreme after that, with RB25-30 (which you need to scroll to see in the table) sporting an average ADP of 76.7 this year, whereas that group went in late Round 5 or early Round 6 between 2018-20.

Basically, best ball players are picking RBs at the same rate in the first few rounds before pivoting harder than usual to other positions. Looking at a plot of RB overall ADP vs. positional ADP in 2018-20 compared to 2021 makes this abundantly clear. Not only are mid-round RBs going later, but not as many of them are being picked in the first eight rounds (which makes sense considering they are going later). Drafters aren't just fading RBs in Rounds 3-6; they're fading all backs from Round 3 onward.

 

RB Positional ADP vs. Overall ADP in 2018-20 vs. 2021

 

The community is treating the RB dead zone as if it's a causal phenomenon. In other words, people are avoiding RBs simply because their ADP falls between Round 3 and Round 6. If this were not the case, we would also see early-round RBs dropping compared to previous seasons. But we don't; it's literally only those with an ADP in the RB dead zone or later who are falling. And it's people like me who are at fault for this because we portrayed the dead zone in that manner without clarifying that everything is price-dependent and most players can become appealing if they fall enough. And to be clear, I'm even guilty of drafting like this myself, as I usually gloss over RBs in those rounds.

We are not dealing with strict boundaries. A back doesn't become un-draftable the second his ADP moves from 23.9 to 24.1. Over the past few years, you actually would have done well if you filtered RBs out of your queue after the first two rounds, but we have to think more critically this year because of how the market has adjusted.

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Why Does the RB Dead Zone Exist?

The dead zone exists because people chase projected volume at the RB position without properly accounting for the chaos of an NFL season. Basically, our predictions are not that accurate. And once you get out of the first two rounds, RB is the position for which ADP is least accurate. On the other hand, we are relatively good at drafting WRs. It's easy to predict how the high-end backs will do, but we overestimate the accuracy of projections and ADP in the mid-late rounds.

The dead zone is based on data from the past six years, but we just learned that 2015-17 ADP looked much different than 2018-20 ADP. RBs started going much earlier in 2018. Since the dead zone is not causal – it's not ADP making these players underperform – we should check whether the dead zone has started earlier with backs going earlier.

 

YearsADP RB1-6 Average Win RateRB7-12RB13-18RB19-24RB25-30
2015-178.3%9.4%7.3%8.2%7.9%
2018-2010.1%7.3%7.2%7.5%7.6%

 

And it has. As RBs have been pushed up draft boards, they have also underperformed ADP more. Top-six RBs have been incredible lately, but it gets ugly after that. With this, it's worth noting that these are arbitrary groups. There's nothing material separating the RB18 from the RB19. I'm just splitting it up this way to display the data easier, but you should be looking at each cell with the context of the cell on the right and left of it. We also have to keep in mind that the cells are negatively correlated. For example, RB7-12 win rates got pushed down because of how prolific top-six backs were between 2018-20 (if you drafted a low-end RB1, it probably meant you didn't get a top-six RB). That partially explains why we see lower win rates in 2018-20, even though all buckets scored more actual fantasy points.

 

SpanADP RB1-6 Average PointsRB7-12RB13-18RB19-24RB25-30
2015-17195.6182.2135.4138.9116.4
2018-20252.5196.5166.7154.0131.4

 

High-end RB production is up the most, but scoring is actually up among all backs through at least the mid-RB3 tier. With that in mind, it's safe to say that win rates are also down in part because RBs started going earlier in 2018. Even though they're scoring more, these players have been worse values over the past three years because they are going anywhere from half a round to 1.5 rounds earlier than they used to.

Plus, it's more difficult to speak on the correlation between cells for RBs outside of the top-12. Low-end RB1 win rates were worse because high-end RB1s were better (and ADP made it impossible to get both), but the same cannot be said for the last three groups. It was entirely possible to draft a top-six back and then follow it up with someone in the RB13-30 range. But even those buckets had worse win rates despite scoring more points, which leads me to believe the jump in ADP is playing a role.

With all of that in mind, it might be fairer to say the dead zone starts at a certain positional ADP rather than a certain overall ADP. Maybe it's not Rounds 3-6 but rather RB7-30 (it's probably not exactly RB7 or exactly RB30, but the point remains that we should be using positional ADP. More accurately, it's low-end RB1s until mid-range RB3s that fit the mold of a typical dead-zone RB).

In 2021, RB7-18 are going just as early as they did in 2018-20 when they averaged a 7.2% win rate. Meanwhile, RB19-30 are going significantly later. In fact, RB19-30 this year are going in a similar range to where they went in 2015-17 – when they averaged a respectable 8.1% win rate (vs. 7.5% in 2018-20). That's still slightly below-average, but it's significantly better than what most dead zone analysis portrays. Based on this, it seems like the market correction is actually making these guys somewhat palatable once again. On Underdog, the dead zone might not exist anymore because ADP has changed so much to account for it. 

We should also be more skeptical of highly drafted RBs who are not among the true elites. Because the dead zone should be based on positional ADP rather than overall ADP, pushing up stereotypical dead-zone backs into Round 2 only makes them worse values. Instead of fixing the problem, it actually exacerbates it. And this is especially apparent in 2021, as 15 RBs are currently going in the first two rounds on Underdog compared to an average of 11.2 between 2015-20 (and an average of 13 over the past three years).

Closing Remarks

You should be price-sensitive as a fantasy football player. Over the past few years, it was viable to take a hard stance on fading all RBs between Rounds 3-6. There were always going to be success stories from that range, but predicting them in advance was like finding a needle in a haystack.

This year, RB19-30 are going significantly later than they did in 2018-20. They're actually going at a similar price to 2017-19 when they had respectable production relative to ADP (using win rates). Because of that, it makes sense to be open to drafting them as long as their ADP stays depressed. They aren't necessarily targets – especially since WRs in Rounds 3-6 still had better win rates in 2015-17 – but the auto-fade mindset probably isn't the move anymore.

It should be noted that this uses Underdog ADP. I wouldn't expect your home league to be as in tune with the latest analysis circulating on fantasy football Twitter, so it's up to you to make the call on how your league-mates will treat the RB dead zone. Remember, you should be comparing positional ADP to overall ADP rather than simply fading all RBs in Rounds 3-6.

We also have to be warier of non-elite early-round backs. Fantasy players "solved" the dead zone by pushing overvalued archetypes up rather than down. ADP forces you to pay a premium for RBs who are multiple tiers below the truly high-end workhorses. These guys have characteristics that make them intriguing, but we could just as easily be falling into the trap of projectable volume. Since early-round ADP stabilized in 2018 with RBs going earlier, this group has not performed well.

There's also no reason RBs past Rounds 3-6 should be falling. I understand that guys in that particular range are dropping because there has been a myriad of research this offseason about how they're overvalued, but RBs in Round 7 onward have not had the same misfortune.

 

YearRB Average Win Rate in Rounds 7-10WR Average Win Rate in Rounds 7-10
201510.9%7.3%
20168.3%8.3%
20177.9%8.5%
20189.6%7.7%
20199.4%8.7%
20207.6%8.3%

 

Now is a great time to capitalize on backs going in the late single-digit rounds or later because everyone is fading all non-elite backs instead of just those who meet the historical dead-zone criteria (and we know now that we should recalibrate our definition of the dead zone to account for positional ADP).

Jack Miller

Jack Miller is a fantasy football and prop betting analyst for NBC Sports EDGE and Establish The Run. You can find him on Twitter @JackMiller02.