League Winners: Finding Undervalued Running Backs
The degree to which we can attribute success to skill in any field is inversely proportional to the amount of randomness inherent to it. That is, when luck doesn’t play a significant role in outcomes, we can be confident that results are a reflection of talent.
If I compete against a professional poker player for a few hands, I have a decent chance to beat him because there’s so much variance there. We couldn’t be confident that the results would reflect our relative talent. If we were to play 1,000 hands, however, there would be far less luck involved, meaning we could be fairly confident the better player would win out.
Football is filled with randomness. On the season-long level, there’s more variance than in every other major sport because there are only 16 games. Even if the best teams win the majority of the time, lots of weird things can occur when your season is less than 10 percent as long as that in baseball.
There’s lots of variance in team results, but there can be just as much for individual players as well. Further, that luck which so strongly defines the path of certain players differs on the positional level, too; some positions are just more susceptible to randomness than others. One of my main goals in launching RotoAcademy is to help people identify and exploit that volatility.
Running Back Randomness
In certain ways, running back is the flukiest of all skill positions. Running backs have decent week-to-week consistency because they usually see a high number of touches relative to receivers, but they aren’t as consistent on the seasonal level.
For one, they get injured more than any other position, and for the most part, we can’t predict injuries. Second, they’re very reliant on a bunch of different things for their success: play-calling, offensive line play, overall team strength (since winning teams run the ball more), and so on.
With so many variables, there’s a ton of variance in running back results, which decreases the amount of confidence we can have in identifying talent. We see this in the NFL draft, as teams are very inefficient at figuring out which running backs are best. It’s really difficult to separate their play from that of their teammates.
Running Backs Sorted By Conference
In the past, I did research that suggested running backs who played at non-BCS schools have had more NFL success (relative to their draft round) than big-school players. Here’s a refresher showing running back approximate value.
These results aren’t all that surprising when you consider 1) since teams can’t accurately spot running back talent, they generally just side with big-school prospects when they probably shouldn’t and 2) since running backs continue to be dependent at the next level, there’s a lot of variance in NFL results as well.
In any random situation, it’s best to maximize opportunities at the cheapest possible cost. Instead of drafting a first or second-round running back, it would probably behoove teams to side with a pair of mid/late-round rookie runners. Individually, they might be just as likely as the earlier pick to produce in the NFL, and combined, it’s no contest.
Non-BCS running backs are more likely to be overlooked in drafts, and since running back production is so dependent and random, they usually offer more value than their BCS counterparts—not because they’re better, but because they cost less.
To expand on that idea, take a look at rookie running back efficiency for players drafted from 2003 to 2013, broken down by college conference.
Four of the top five conferences are non-BCS schools. Those players don’t necessarily have elite bulk production because they often aren’t provided with the same workload as BCS running backs, but the numbers suggest they should see more touches. When you have a non-BCS back who figures to see a normal No. 1 workload (Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, etc), he’ll probably offer quite a bit of value as a rookie.
Looking at the conference breakdown further, we see this trend continue even in regards to bulk stats.
Combining the five small-school conferences on this list, we see 29 backs drafted since 2003, compared to 131 big-school running backs.
Although only 18 percent of all backs drafted were from small schools, the non-BCS running backs have posted plenty of NFL production. Take a look at 1,000-yard rookie seasons.
Of the 1,000-yard first-year rushing seasons from 2003 to 2013, one-third came from small-school backs. That’s significant for two reasons. First, you just saw that big-school backs outnumber small-school backs by more than four to one. That means the small-school running backs were nearly twice as likely to rush for 1,000 yards as big-school backs during their rookie years.
Second, we know that non-BCS players typically get drafted lower than their BCS counterparts. Thus, small-school backs have excelled despite being severely outnumbered and drafted low.
It’s not just yards, though. The scoring effect is even greater.
Of the rookie running backs to rush for at least eight touchdowns in their first NFL season, 42 percent were from a small school.
Career Outlook for Small-School Running Backs
Let’s look at how rookie running back success extends throughout an entire career. I’ve broken up career rushing data according to college conference.
For the most part, these numbers are even. Small-school running backs have rushed for more career touchdowns than big-school backs, and they’ve also had a higher probability of starting 16 games. Big-school backs have averaged slightly more total games played.
Again, the important thing to remember here is that, on average, non-BCS backs get drafted lower than BCS ones. The fact that they’ve been able to remain consistent with them in terms of bulk production is pretty incredible; on a per-carry basis, small-school backs have out-produced BCS running backs after we account for draft round.
Putting It Together
Are small-school running backs better than big-school running backs? No, of course not. However, they do offer more value as a whole because they drop too far in the draft (which leads them to fall too far in your fantasy draft, too).
They’re undervalued primarily because running back is such a dependent position, making it very susceptible to swings in variance. If 90 percent of a running back’s production is due to the quality of his offensive line and only 10 percent is due to his own skill, does it really make sense to draft one that high? Not only are they simply not that important (in real life football, that is), but it’s also very likely that they’re assessed inaccurately because it’s so difficult to untangle their talent from that of their teammates.
The latter point is the most important. Running backs who fall in the draft are usually dropping for the wrong reasons. They’re every bit as likely to play efficiently in the NFL as those drafted highly. Small-school backs are the most likely of all running backs to fall because of the perceived risk surrounding them—risk which doesn’t exist (or at least isn’t any greater than that for BCS backs)—meaning rookie running backs from non-BCS schools can and do offer value to fantasy football owners.