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ADP Arbitrage - Running Back Draft Bargains

Did your parents ever ask you, "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, does that mean you would too?" Well, that is how fantasy football mostly works when it comes to drafting your team yearly. There is something called ADP (Average Draft Position) that is nothing more than just an aggregated mark that lets us know where a player is being drafted on average. Oh, and although most folks take it as gospel and follow the crowd like lemmings, you shouldn't do so.

While ADP is very informative and can help you be informed about where you should start worrying about potentially missing out on a player, it shouldn't affect your decisions massively. Take Josh Allen's 2020 season: 396.1 fantasy points to lead the whole NFL, and current holder of a 16 ADP that is seeing him drafted inside the first two rounds (!) of drafts these days. Does that mean you should absolutely trust Allen having another monster year that when all is said and done gives you a good return on investment after paying a second-round pick for him? Nope! In fact, the most logical thing to happen is Allen regressing and finishing with more average-ish fantasy numbers in 2021.

In this four-entry series, I'll go through the four offensive positions of fantasy football, highlighting names that are going cheap in early drafts and evaluate how they are expected to produce similar numbers to other much more-hyped players.

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Identifying Overpriced RBs

I'm not going to play games in this column and bring middling names to the table. Instead, I'll be going for the fences and swinging the bat full force to get some fantasy-heavy names here and there. No second-tier players here.

There are 32 players with an ADP under 36 (PPR format) at the time of this writing, and 15 of them (more than 40%) are running backs. Injuries sustained last season are all keeping Christian McCaffrey (ADP 1.9) from having a straight 1.0 ADP, but it's understandable those are giving a little bit of pause to fantasy GMs out there. Draft CMC first overall, though, and I'll congratulate you. Draft him second (somehow) and you'd become a fantasy God. Other than the Panther, though, things start to become harder to assess when it comes to price and actual value.

In PPR leagues, five other rushers are going off the board in the first round: Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Jonathan Taylor, Derrick Henry, and Dalvin Cook. The vast majority of top-tier RBs are hearing their names called in either round one or rounds three/four, with a smaller group of four rushers inside the second round and only one in round five.

Here is what I'm looking for when trying to identify comps for those top-ADP receivers at lower spots. If we build some sort of "combined profile" of them, we can land at something close to:

  • At least 12 FPPG
  • Ideally 150+ PPR on the season
  • Ideally 95+ fantasy points on pure rushing stats
  • Ideally 80+ fantasy points on pure receiving stats


Identifying RB Bargains with RD4+ ADP

After applying those filters and thresholds to the projections data, this is what I was left with.

Only 10 players getting drafted with third-round+ ADPs made the cut. We're in an era where do-it-all tailbacks are what is truly valuable, no matter how you look at it, so it is very important to include their receiving prowess in the equation.

The players going at cheaper prices/later spots are those to the right of the plot. As you see, almost all of them (except Chris Carson) racked up fewer points than those bunched to the left, but the differences are not staggering while the price you'll be paying for them is definitely going to be much lower. In fact, there is a gap of almost 20 spots (close to two full rounds) between Carson and Myles Gaskin, and one of nearly 40 (more than three rounds!) between Carson and new Falcon Mike Davis, already part of the eighth-round.

Let's go through the identified players, highlighting their value for the 2021 season:


Josh Jacobs, Los Angeles Raiders (ADP: 44.0)

It can be said that Josh Jacobs was properly valued by fantasy GMs last summer. Leading up to his sophomore season, Jacobs was getting drafted with an ADP of 14 overall and RB7, and when all was said and done, Jacobs finished 2020 as the RB8 and 47th-overall best player in PPR leagues. When it came to rushers, his draft position and fantasy finish were almost on par.

That was thanks to rushing for 1,065 yards (eighth-most) with a low average of 3.9 YPC, perhaps the most concerning number in Jacobs' line. He made up for it with a massive 12-touchdown tally to which he added 238 yards in pass-plays with 33 receptions. He will share the backfield with Kenyan Drake in 2021, but PFF has Jacobs outperforming Drake with 213.3 PPR points compared to Drake's 171.7 projection. At the time of this writing, Jacobs projects to return a positive ROI as his draft position is lower than his projected finish among RBs.


Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 43.4)

Sanders' ADP has taken a heavy hit this offseason compared to how it looked just a year ago: it's gone from RB10 and an overall 20.8 pick to more than double that, getting drafted inside the fourth round of 12-team league drafts these days. It is reasonable, considering how Sanders could only play 12 games in 2020 and all he did was finish as the RB23--borderline RB2--after getting drafted as a top-10 tailback.

The Eagles rusher averaged 14+ FPPG, sure, but he was often off the field and that hurt his upside. All in all, the 867 yards were low but the efficiency wasn't bad as he averaged 5.29 YPC in his 164 carries. Not only that but he was also able to score six times on the ground. Sadly, pass-catching prowess is not one of Sanders' calling cards, which hurts him in the PPR format even though he'll now be playing under (we assume) much better quarterbacking with washed Carson Wentz out of town. The addition of Kenny Gainwell complicates matters so we will have to see how the RB situation plays out in training camp.


David Montgomery, Chicago Bears (ADP: 46.7)

The evolution Montgomery has experienced in his first two years playing for the Bears is absolutely ridiculous. He wasn't bad as a rookie, already finishing as the top-24 RB in 2019 thanks to racking up 170.4 PPR points, but he absolutely destroyed everyone's expectations last season by scoring a massive 264.8 PPR points in one fewer game to close the year as the RB4 of the season! The FPPG went from 10.7 in his rookie year to a silly 17.7 in 2020. That's insane, folks, yet the ADP isn't catching up that much.

Getting drafted inside the first four rounds of most drafts, that still feels super low for Montgomery given his past. Montgomery's getting drafted as an RB2, and that's precisely what he's done in his two years as a pro. The kid doesn't know how not to produce numbers. Montgomery was the only RB to hit 1,000+ yards rushing and 400+ yards receiving in 2020, followed by Dalvin Cook already down to 361 of the latter, and Aaron Jones (355). He finished with 10 total touchdowns on the year, tied for 10th among RBs.


Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks (ADP: 53.5)

While Carson has been getting drafted higher and higher each passing season (from RB61 in 2017 to RB14 last season), the truth is that he's been quite an up-and-down, bouncy player throughout his whole career. Since becoming a full-timer in Seattle, and although he has yet to play all 16 games in a single season, Carson has been good-not-great with only one RB1 finish (in 2019) in the last three years.

Carson, though, comes at a steep discount with an ADP of 53.5 overall these days. That's nice for pretty much a locked-in RB2 who will rack up numbers even if he misses a fourth of the season, such as he did in 2020. In just 12 games and a career-low 178 touches, Carson put up 187.8 PPR points total and averaged a career-high 15.7. That was thanks to 681 yards rushing with five scores over the year and 287 receiving yards to go with four touchdowns. Carson was one of only three RBs (Kamara, Hunt) to score more than four touchdowns both on the ground and receiving in 2020.



Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 71.9)

The Dolphins passed on adding a top-tier rusher this past draft and folks all around the globe are celebrating in anticipation of drafting Myles Gaskin, now the true linchpin of Miami's backfield. While Gaskin missed time last year and could only play 10 games, all he did was sublime. Gaskin finished a low RB28, which looked at out of context is a rather middling finish, but not so much if we consider the low 183 touches Gaskin logged over the year.

Gaskin's 16.4 FPPG in PPR leagues were as good as they could get, and he got there both on receiving (388 yards and two touchdowns in 41/47 receptions) and rushing (584 yards and three touchdowns) production. Barely drafted during his first two seasons as a pro (overall ADPs past the 24th (!) round in the last two years), he's now a top-75 player and the RB25 off draft boards. It won't be hard to see him finish as an RB2 in 2021, so the price looks more than right.


Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 92.3)

I don't think I'm introducing you to anything new in Mike Davis by now, but here we are. Backing up Christian McCaffrey for a large part of the 2020 season, Davis was insanely productive, and that allowed him to finish the year as an RB1 when the season was over. Davis racked up 206.5 PPR points in 15 games for an average of 13.8 FPPG, yet he didn't feature heavily in five of those 15 matches.

Davis, now a Falcon, is part of an offense that recently lost WR Julio Jones and has no more viable options in its backfield while only having added TE Kyle Pitts to the receiving corps. Yes, it took Davis six years to score more than 137 fantasy points in a single season, but he was sublime in 2020, getting to 642 rushing yards and an even more impressive 373 receiving yards to go with six and two touchdowns respectively. It takes guts to spend big on such a small sample of excellence, but the 92.3 ADP is far from a luxury knowing the sky-high ceiling and upside that comes attached to Davis entering a new stage in his career as part of Atlanta's lineup.

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