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Running Back "Dead Zone" - What Is It and Do You Really Need to Avoid It for Fantasy Football Drafts?

Joe Mixon - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Some controversies will never be settled. Did Franco Harris catch the pass? Did Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? Should Trey Lance start over Dak Prescott?

With that said, there's no hotter controversy on Fantasy Football Twitter than the so-called "running back dead zone." Does it exist or not? What is it even?

Let's take a look at the details and let me make my case. I'll tell you why the RB dead zone is a conspiracy theory created by Big Fantasy to mess with the markets and deprive you of quality RBs. Here we go.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers won two writing awards and received 12 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. A big congrats to our very own Byron Lindeque (Golf) and Jordan McAbee (NASCAR) for both winning Writer Of The Year awards! Be sure to follow RotoBaller's analysis and advice all year long, and win more. Win More With RotoBaller!


What Is The RB Dead Zone?

The RB dead zone has been defined as the space around rounds three through six, where there is a big drop-off in value because all of the legitimate starting running backs are off the board. According to the theory, there are only so many three-down bell-cow running backs. And if you go for a running back in the dead zone, you will end up with a mediocre RB who is probably going to be splitting time in a committee.

In 2022, Kevin Tompkins pointed to numbers that showed RBs picked in the middle rounds posted significantly fewer top-12 RB weekly finishes compared to their counterparts who were picked in both early rounds and late rounds. Take 2020 as an example, where Le'Veon Bell was taken as the RB20 and the 44th overall pick in redraft leagues on average. Bell was one of the most productive young running backs in the league, surpassing 1,200 rushing yards in each of his previous three healthy seasons before the Steelers franchise-tagged him in 2018. He refused to sign and ended up missing the entire season.

He disappointed in 2019, rushing for just 789 yards and three touchdowns for the Jets, but fantasy managers were hoping he would return to his pre-holdout form the following year. So, he seemed like a value as he fell into the fourth round. Instead, he feuded with the Jets over his usage and was cut before the trade deadline. He ended up signing with the Chiefs and finished the season with just 328 yards on 82 carries.

Bell was the RB20 in the draft and ended up finishing as the RB62 overall. Other examples from the 2020 fantasy season include Mark Ingram II, who was drafted at RB22 and finished as RB71, Raheem Mostert (ADP RB23, finished as RB47), and Jordan Howard (RB32/RB84). There are players that bust at every position in fantasy football, but the RB position seems to produce some epic busts. That said, there was also league-winning RB value to be found in the middle rounds of the 2020 drafts. Then-rookie Jonathan Taylor was drafted in the late third round at RB19 and 32 overall. He ended up rushing for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns and finished as the RB4.


Does The RB Dead Zone Even Exist?

chart created by Pranav Rajaram of 4for4 shows that the average points scored by running backs between 2017 and 2022 declined in each round of the draft, until leveling out in round six. His chart shows that RBs taken in the first round scored close to 20 points per game on average, second-round RBs scored almost 15 points per game, and third-round RBs scored about 12. There was a slight increase from round four to five, but overall the trend is downwards.

My question is, "So what?" Shouldn't we expect average scoring to decline with each round? That means fantasy managers, as a group, are doing a pretty good job at talent evaluation. If there was an RB dead zone, you would not expect there to be any correlation between round-drafted and fantasy production. That would mean you should avoid third-round running backs because you can find the same value in round eight, but that's not what the numbers show.

Running backs taken in the third round score more than those taken in the fourth round. There was some statistical variability in the fourth and fifth rounds, but RBs taken in round four still scored more, on average, than RBs taken in rounds six and seven.

Indeed, it is true that several elite RBs, such as Josh Jacobs (ADP RB22/season-long RB3) and Breece Hall (RB7 through the first seven weeks), along with capable RB2 options like Miles Sanders, Travis Etienne, Ezekiel Elliott, and David Montgomery, were all drafted in the third round or later in most 2022 drafts.


How The RB Dead Zone Has Changed In 2022 And 2023

Some things happened during the 2021 season that changed drafts the following year and pushed running backs later in the draft. One thing was the increasing popularity of the "zero-RB" strategy, which advocates taking running backs in the middle and late rounds. Another game-changing event was Cooper Kupp's triple-crown season.

Kupp led all fantasy players in PPR scoring, besting Jonathan Taylor, who was the RB1, by 66 points. He even outscored QB1 Josh Allen by 22 points. Kupp's record-breaking year occurred simultaneously with Ja'Marr Chase's rookie season and two years after Justin Jefferson's record-setting rookie campaign. Thus, the power of a superhero WR1 was brought to light. That, combined with a number of injuries to highly-drafted RBs like Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry, led to wide receivers being drafted earlier and running backs being drafted later.

Consider the number of players at each position who were taken in the first two rounds in recent seasons, according to FantasyPros data, which was sourced from ESPN:

Year - QBs - RBs - WRs 

Aug 2023 - 3 - 9 - 11

July 2023 - 2 - 7 - 14

2022 - 1 - 12 - 8

2022 - 1 - 13 - 8

There has been a shift in recent drafts, with fewer running backs being taken in the first two rounds and more focus on wide receivers. The result is that quality running backs are available even later than usual. However, you will notice that the trend shifted somewhat during the summer.

In July, 14 WRs and only seven RBs were being drafted in the first two rounds. Now, 11 WRs and nine RBs are going in the first two rounds. The number of RBs going early is still lower than it was in previous years, but the difference is not as extreme as it once was. Seemingly many fantasy managers noticed the quality of RBs available in the first two rounds and changed tactics accordingly.


Dead Zone RBs To Target In 2023

I am going to say any RB drafted between round four and round eight would fall into my definition of the "RB dead zone." There is value to be had. I am bringing up the National Fantasy Football Championship (NFC) data as well, as it is more competitive than the leagues from which Fantasy Pros sources their ADP data.

Running Back - FantasyPros ADP - NFC ADP

Joe Mixon - FP Overall 33 - NFC Overall 47

Kenneth Walker III - FP 43 (+10) - NFC 50

Isiah Pacheco - FP 71 - NFC 81

James Conner - FB 63 - NFC 77

Mixon is still the RB1 on one of the best offenses in the league, which lost its RB2 and didn't make a high-profile addition. There is a chance that he gets cut in favor of one of the many veteran running backs on the market but as of now, he's the Bengals' RB1. KWIII was the runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year and is going to have a major role in the Seahawks' offense even if he does end up losing third-down work to Zach Charbonnet.

Pacheco finished as the RB39 despite not becoming the Chiefs' starter until halfway through the year. He was RB17 from Week 11 on and the Chiefs didn't add any competition this offseason. James Conner was the RB16 last season, and while there's not much to be excited about in the Cardinals' offense, that does mean Conner should have an expanded role, even if he might be less efficient. If there's one strategy that could be more effective with elite RBs being pushed into rounds two and three, it's the robust RB strategy.

When you can take Bijan Robinson in the late first round, Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley, and Nick Chubb in the middle of the second, and Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard if he falls (all based on Fantasy Pros ADP data), you could be starting the season with an RB1 in your flex spot.

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