Talent and opportunity. Players need both to be solid, go-to fantasy football options, and sometimes (I’m looking at you, Shonn Greene), having only opportunity can suffice.
Entering the 2013 NFL Draft, there were obvious openings – opportunities – at the running back position. The Steelers certainly needed one, as Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have proven to be nothing better than mediocre runners, and Rashard Mendenhall left the Steel City for Arizona during early free agency battles. The Packers have needed a guy to compliment their powerful passing game, and DuJuan Harris just didn’t seem to be it after Cedric Benson went down in 2012. In Peyton Manning’s new land, the Broncos entered the draft with an aging Willis McGahee alongside a disappointing Knowshon Moreno and a fairly undersized Ronnie Hillman. They certainly needed someone to run the rock. And lastly, in Cincinnati, BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ plodding didn’t seem to be solid enough to ease pressure off of the borderline Andy Dalton. An athletic, change of pace player with upside seemed to be the perfect type of selection for the Bengals.
Each team got their guy. The Steelers drafted the big bodied Le’Veon Bell. The Packers picked up fan favorite Eddie Lacy and the underrated Jonathan Franklin. The Broncos snagged experienced Wisconsin back Montee Ball. And the Bengals got the very talented Giovani Bernard.
They’ve all got opportunity. It shouldn’t – and wouldn’t – surprise any of us to see these players as starters entering the 2013 season. But we need to temper our expectations.
It’s rather convenient that our very own Phil Culbertson just published a great piece on Recency Effect. Recency Effect states that the most recently presented items or experiences will most likely be remembered best. In fantasy football terms, this usually is associated to individual players. If, say, you had Darren McFadden last season, then you’re probably not going to want him in 2013. His disappointing 2012 season is what you remember most. You may ignore the fact that, just a few years ago, McFadden had nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games. That’s fine – you’re human. Recency Bias impacts us all.
In fantasy football, Recency Bias doesn’t have to be just player-focused. We saw massive numbers posted by quarterbacks in 2011, and as a result, owners started drafting signal callers at the beginning of fantasy drafts in 2012. They ignored the fact that 2010, 2009, 2008 – history – brought us little variation within the position. The position was never all that valuable. Yet after just one season, the fantasy world jumped to the conclusion that 5,000-yard passing seasons were becoming the norm. Recency Bias.
If you were a Doug Martin or Trent Richardson owner last season, there’s a chance you’ll be exposed by Recency Bias in 2013. Because the running back position was so thin entering 2012, Richardson and Martin each shared fairly high average draft positions. More than likely, if you drafted in August, both backs were gone in your draft by the end of Round 3. It’s kind of crazy, too, as neither guy had played a single snap in the NFL.
Why did people draft them? Well, for the same reason you’d draft Bell, Ball, Lacy, Franklin or Bernard: Opportunity. Both Richardson and Martin were in favorable situations to grab the starting job as rookies, and both finished as worthy fantasy starters.
They were the only rookie runners to be selected, usually, in the top-half rounds of fantasy drafts. They provided success, and joined Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte as recent runners who proved to be valuable early- to mid-round fantasy selections at the position. But don’t let this Recency Bias cloud your judgement in 2013.
We can name Peterson, Lynch and Forte, but I can also give you some names that were misses. DeAngelo Williams was a fairly high draft selection in his rookie season, 2006, and produced 800 total yards and just two scores. Brandon Jackson (I can’t believe I’m writing about Brandon Jackson) had a sixth round ADP in 2007, and finished his rookie campaign with 267 yards in just 11 games. Other highly drafted rookie names – like Javid Best and Ryan Mathews – proved to have opportunity and not succeed as rookie runners.
The fact is, it’s difficult to gauge true rookie season production when players have touched the ball zero times in the NFL. The talent side of the equation suffers, and it shows on the stat sheet.
Now, I fully expect each of the new rookie running backs to have significant redraft ADPs. Bell and Ball seem to have the best opportunity for starting gigs, and Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin will probably make a nice combo in Green Bay. Franklin will more than likely be a solid option in PPR formats, while Lacy should see goal line touches. Giovani Bernard, the Bengals back, could easily take over for the not-so-talented BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They have opportunity, and this opportunity will dictate their competitive ADP.
If we look at history, however, it’s the late-round rookie running backs who provide the most value to fantasy football rosters. Alfred Morris, the most recent example, finished as a true RB1 in most league formats last season. Don’t forget about Steve Slaton (finished as the 4th in standard leagues his rookie season), Chris Johnson (finished 11th), LeGarrette Blount (finished 19th), DeMarco Murray (finished 30th), Roy Helu (finished 31st) and Vick Ballard (finished 25th) either. And those are just the names since 2008.
We’ve got to be cognizant that each of the opportunistic 2013 running backs weren’t first round draft choices. They may not have the talent needed to make the most of their opportunity. Not to say this is truth, but when you play fantasy football, you have to weigh the risks and rewards.
The running back position, too, is deeper than it was a year ago. If you’re drafting any of these rookie backs as an RB2, you’re pushing proven talent like Darren McFadden or Darren Sproles out. In 2012, you could afford to make the risk. The upcoming year is different, though.
My advice? Don’t value any of them, at least at this point, as anything more than a high-end flex player. Unfortunately, there will more than likely be an owner in your league who really wants one of them. Let them. Continue to draft for value, and realize that the position has enough depth that you can pass on them in redraft leagues.
Target the late-round rookie backs, too. Zac Stacy, selected by St. Louis, could be a sneaky late-round running back selection with two young runners ahead of him on the Rams’ depth chart. Why not? You may end up getting him for free.
Recency Bias is going to tell you that Bell, Ball, Lacy, Franklin or Bernard will finish as top running backs. And while that could easily happen, you have to be a realistic fantasy football owner: Drafting one of them may not bring you the value you’re hoping for.