Trends in Past Late Round RB Sleepers
Fantasy football drafts are lost in the early rounds and won in the later rounds. We have already gone through trends in early round running back busts. Now it is time to dive into trends that can help us spot late round league-winners. James Conner and Nick Chubb were both drafted later than the 10th round in 2018. They finished as the RB6 and RB17 in PPR leagues. Hitting on a late round running back is not easy. Conner and Chubb, for example, needed a little luck to secure the lead role on their teams. Luck is certainly a factor in fantasy football. However, there are edges to be found that can give us a better chance at finding next year’s diamond in the rough.
Current average draft position has 27 running backs being picked after round seven in 12 team PPR leagues. Which of these late-round running backs have the best chances to be league winners? What has history told us a sleeper running back looks like?
Note: All ADP (Average Draft Position) data is based on PPR scoring per Fantasyfootballcalculator.com.
Defining a Sleeper
There is no universal way to define a sleeper in fantasy football. A “sleeper” is generally a player who is drafted late in fantasy football drafts and performs far above expectation. But who decides what counts as a late draft round? What is considered an above expectation performance?
For this study, we will consider any round after round seven as a late draft round. The first seven rounds are generally when the first 36 running backs are drafted. These running backs are expected to be weekly starters in fantasy football. For this reason, we will define performing far above expectation as any running back taken after the seventh round who produces at least seven top 24 weeks in a season. The typical draft is usually 15 rounds long. Thus, we will consider a sleeper as any RB drafted after round seven but before round 15 who has at least seven top-24 weeks in a season.
Looking back since 2013, there have been 153 running backs with an ADP (average draft position) between round eight and round 14. Within that list, 38 running backs (25%) fit our definition of a sleeper. You can read a players ADP as round.pick. For example, an ADP of 8.10 means that player was typically picked with the 10th pick in the eighth round.
These running backs gave fantasy football drafters a great return on investment. What do they have in common?
Rookie Draft Capital
27 of the players drafted between round eight and round 14 since 2013 were rookies (18%). When we take a closer look at these rookies, there is a clear trend in successful sleepers versus late-round RBs that do not pan out. We will call the late-round RBs that are unsuccessful “unsuccessful sleepers.” Below are the NFL draft round and overall draft pick used on unsuccessful vs. successful rookie sleepers since 2013.
No running back drafted later than round four has ever qualified as a sleeper. Draft capital matters in fantasy football. Every successful rookie running back drafted outside of the first four rounds of the NFL draft, such as Phillip Lindsay, could be found on the waiver wire in fantasy football. Avoid drafting rookie running backs taken later than round three of the NFL draft in redraft leagues. Additionally, draft capital can be used as a tiebreaker when deciding between two different rookie running backs late in a fantasy football draft.
Previous Year Consistency
In part one of this series, we found that previous year consistency was a helpful indicator for spotting running back busts. It turns out CV%, the metric used here at FFStatistics to measure consistency, is also a helpful indicator for spotting sleepers. CV%, originally used for the stock market, explains the amount of risk associated with starting a player weekly. The lower the CV% the less risk there is with that player. Below is a chart with the average CV% for all running backs drafted between rounds eight and 14 that were successful sleepers vs. those that were unsuccessful sleepers. Only players who played the previous season are included in these groups.
Successful sleepers were significantly less risky in their previous season. A closer look at consistency tells us even more. 60% of running backs in the unsuccessful group had a CV% greater than 70 while only 39% of Sleepers in the successful group had a CV% greater than 70. In other words, nearly two-thirds of unsuccessful late-round running backs had a CV% greater than 70 in their previous season. Avoiding running backs with a CV% greater than 70 in the later rounds of fantasy football drafts is a good rule of thumb.
Taking a look at where teammates of late round sleepers are being selected can help us better identify which sleepers to target. A handcuff should be a running back drafted solely as insurance on a top running back. Thus, we will define a true “handcuff” player as someone drafted between round eight and 14 who has a teammate drafted as a top-12 RB. The first 12 running backs are typically drafted in the first two rounds.
Roughly 29% of all successful sleeper running backs were drafted as handcuffs. However, a closer look shows us that drafting handcuffs in fantasy football is a sub-optimal strategy in redraft leagues. When looking at the entire pool of players drafted between round seven and round fourteen, only 11 out of 65 (17%) of handcuffs drafted in this range have qualified as successful sleepers. Avoid drafting handcuffs in fantasy football. Instead, target running backs in backfields with less predictable roles to increase your chances at getting the late-round league-winning running back.
Sure, it worked out last season if you drafted Nick Chubb and James Conner. But even in 2018 only 35% of handcuffs drafted were successful sleepers. Not to mention many owners had dropped Nick Chubb by the time he took the lead role in week seven. Any strategy can win in fantasy football. However, drafting handcuffs who need an injury to produce in fantasy football is not an optimal strategy. History shows that handcuffs usually do nothing more than take up a roster spot.
What This Means for 2019
Below are the 30 running backs currently being picked between round seven and round 14 for 2019. Remember, we defined a handcuff as any player drafted between round eight and 14 who has a teammate picked in the first two rounds.
Darrell Henderson is a name to keep an eye out for this off-season. He currently fits our definition of a sleeper, but his ADP has been rising since the NFL draft. If concerns about Gurley’s knee continue during preseason expect Henderson to move into the seventh round and possibly higher.
Gurley saw his workload decrease as the season went on. Newly signed CJ Anderson was given a larger workload while Gurley got more rest. This trend continued through the playoffs. The Rams traded up to draft Henderson in the third round. This is a sign that they intend to use him in 2019. Henderson offers potential standalone value if he carves out a weekly role in the offense. He also has league-winning upside if Gurley is unable to overcome his knee injury.
Ito Smith is expected to be the second running back for the Falcons behind Devonta Freeman in 2019. Below is how the second RB on Falcons has done since Matt Ryan arrived.
The RB2 on the Falcons finished as a top-20 RB in 2016 and 2017. Ito Smith struggled in this role in 2018 as a rookie, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry. However, Smith had an encouraging 47% CV%, one of the lowest on the list. If the Falcons offensive line can improve in his second year, Smith offers standalone value without a Devonta Freeman injury.
Dion Lewis did not have a great season in 2018. In nine out of 16 weeks last season Dion Lewis failed to finish as top-36 RB. However, there are reasons to target Dion Lewis as a sleeper in 2019 fantasy drafts. Below is the market share for rushing attempts and targets in the 2018 Tennessee backfield.
While Derrick Henry started to take over the rushing duties as the season went on, Dion Lewis maintained his role as a receiver. Dion Lewis is currently being picked as the 50th RB in drafts. His receiving role in the offense should give him standalone value as a weekly RB3 with upside. Additionally, if Henry picks up an injury Dion Lewis could be a league winner.
Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber
Someone needs to be the starter for Tampa Bay in 2019. The Buccaneers are expected to have a training camp battle between Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones for the lead role in the offense.
Bruce Arians has shown he can get the most out of running backs in fantasy football. He helped David Johnson have back-to-back top-10 seasons in 2015 and 2016. Both Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber struggled in 2018. However, at their current cost, one of them will have a significant return on investment in 2019.