Running back, the position on which fantasy football was first built. Great were the days when you could draft at any slot 1 through 12 and get yourself a bonafide stud running back. Guys like LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, and Priest Holmes could single-handedly win your week for you on a consistent basis. Just ten years ago, in 2007 we had 17-1,000 yard rushers. In 2017, we were graced with 9-1,000 yard rushers. Although the game of football has changed quite a bit (even just over the past decade), running back remains the premier position in fantasy. Owners are now looking to committee backs or 3rd down backs to supplement their rosters with so few true bell cows being available. We are approaching a 2018 rookie class loaded with different options at running back, how can we decide which ones will best translate their college success to the NFL? While there are many important factors such as a player’s film, combine, pro-day, interviews, and a list of intangibles, there is one baseline factor that severely affects a running back’s ability to be a top fantasy performer - their weight.
Running backs of all shapes, sizes, and abilities can succeed in today’s pass-driven NFL. However, there is a firm line in the sand that says, in general, the best running backs in fantasy are over 215 pounds. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and Chris Johnson have been dominant fantasy players despite being undersized. “He’s comparable to Jamaal Charles” is a statement you’ll hear year after year from people talking about a rookie, even though it isn’t a close comparison. The reason far-off comps like this are used is because there are so few good examples of small yet dominant backs. Let’s take a look at the rule:
In the last 5 seasons (in our pass happy league), backs over 215 pounds have dominated the top 10 fantasy finishes for running backs (standard PPR scoring, weeks 1-16). Only 12 running backs under 215 pounds have had a top 10 RB scoring season in the past 5 years! This means that out of the top fantasy scoring running backs in the last 5 years, 38/50 have been over 215 pounds. So who are our outliers? 8 different players have accounted for those 12 top-ten finishes by small backs.
|2017||LeSean McCoy||207 lbs||RB7|
|Christian McCaffrey||205 lbs||RB10|
|2016||LeSean McCoy||207 lbs||RB3|
|Devonta Freeman||209 lbs||RB6|
|2015||Devonta Freeman||209 lbs||RB1|
|Danny Woodhead||200 lbs||RB3|
|2014||Jamaal Charles||199 lbs||RB7|
|Justin Forsett||198 lbs||RB8|
|2013||Jamaal Charles||199 lbs||RB1|
|LeSean McCoy||207 lbs||RB3|
|Chris Johnson||203 lbs||RB8|
|Reggie Bush||203 lbs||RB9|
As you can see from the chart above, 80% of the best fantasy RB’s have been over 215 pounds for the last 4 years straight. The outlier small guys that make this list have at least one of two necessary traits in common.
1. Elite pass catching ability
2. Elite speed
The biggest takeaway from this article is that when you are scouting college running backs or making your rankings, this weight threshold should have a massive impact in your analysis. Can guys under 215 pounds be elite RB’s? Absolutely, however they must be elite as a pass catcher or possess elite speed, preferably both. Even then, the odds are strongly against them. For every LeSean McCoy there are a hundred Bishop Sankeys. Does a RB have to have a top 10 finish to be valuable? Of course not, players like Duke Johnson, Chris Thompson, and Theo Riddick are tremendously valuable in the popular format of PPR. This analysis is for the purposes of evaluation and ranking of rookie running backs. The most important distinction in fantasy and predicting future outcomes can be derived from this question; “What’s most likely to happen”?
This 2018 rookie class is riddled with talent at the running back position. From Demi-god Saquon Barkley, to everyone’s favorite riser Sony Michel, to sneaky sleeper Chris Warren III, there is value to be had. One particular player’s name I want to put in red lights, is dynasty favorite Ronald Jones II. Playing for the always infamous University of Southern California, “Rojo” is a 1st round rookie pick on almost every board. Coming in at 201 pounds (official weight TBD), Rojo is clearly under our threshold of 215. So now we ask, does he possess one or both of the traits necessary for a small back to be successful?
1. Elite pass catching ability (ex: McCaffrey, McCoy, Freeman, Woodhead)
Jones had an anemic 29 catches in 36 games at USC, making him one of the lowest producing receivers in this draft. Out of fairness, this does not mean that he can’t catch, it just means his school chose not to use him in that way. His combine drills for NFL scouts are very important to showcase his ability (or lack thereof) to catch the ball and run routes. His pro-day will also give him this chance.
2. Elite speed (ex: CJ2K, Jamaal Charles, Reggie Bush)
How fast is Ronald Jones? Reports from 4.41 all the way to 4.55 40 yard dash times are being projected for Rojo. On film he certainly looks electric. He has a burst combined with elusiveness that has allowed him to be a very successful college running back. Buyer beware: everyone in the NFL is fast, so a running back of Jones’s size that is not an elite pass-catcher must possess 4.30-4.42 40 yard-dash speed to even have a chance. Our example comps of Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, and Reggie Bush all ran in the 4.3 zone. The jury is still out until we get some official numbers from Ronald Jones, but we are all paying attention.
Ronald Jones may be a contributing player at the NFL level, but until he proves that he possesses the necessary traits to be successful at his size, he is being heavily overrated. I have Ronald Jones in the middle of the 2nd round in rookie drafts right now, a more fair price compared to the 1.03-1.06 ranking given by most in the fantasy football industry. Can Ronald Jones be an outlier? Does he have what it takes to beat the historical odds against him? I certainly hope he does. Until he proves it, I can’t advise using 1st round capital when there is so much other talent in this class.
Team big running back has put its stamp on the history books of fantasy success, dominating the scoreboard. However, this is just one narrow avenue of baseline scouting that can be very useful in determining the future production of college running backs transitioning to the NFL game. I hope it’s useful for you as you evaluate, rank, and draft this next crop of rookie running backs.