One of fantasy football’s most basic aphorisms is that running backs are the best assets to collect — particularly the workhorse variety that rack up copious touches on the ground or through the air. According to a value-based drafting model, which measures a player’s scoring relative to the scarcity of production at his position, the most valuable player in fantasy has been a running back in 17 of the past 20 years. And when an owner hits on the stud running back du jour, it can go a long way toward helping win her league. But just how safe is it to bet on the preseason consensus top running backs with a high pick?
To begin to answer the question, I gathered ESPN’s fantasy projection data going back to before the 2006 NFL season and noted the 12 running backs with the greatest expected fantasy points in the coming season. I then tracked how often those players ended up in a given RB tier at the end of the season. Here are the numbers over the past eight years:
That’s a statement on the scarcity of sure-thing running backs, as well as the power of regression to the mean. The consensus top three running backs in a given year are usually safe bets to be viable fantasy starters (assuming a 12-team league with two starting RB slots), which is why there’s so much demand for them at the top of any fantasy draft. But in the tiers directly below them, running backs Nos. 4 through 9 are more likely to be among the bottom half of starters than the top half. The median running back ranked in slots 10 through 12 wasn’t a viable starter within the league structure described above.
Then again, running backs are also the most consistent players in fantasy football. The truth is, all individual football statistics are relatively tough to predict because they depend on so much beyond the player himself, from teammates to coaches and everything in between.
In light of that, it’s no wonder that many fantasy owners are too risk-averse.