What to Expect from the 2016 Rookie RB Class Over the Next 3 Seasons

What to Expect from the 2016 Rookie RB Class Over the Next 3 Seasons

By Kevin Zatloukal (4for4 Contributor) on Jun 1, 2016

Kevin Zatloukal's picture

Kevin is a Ph.D. computer scientist. His doctoral work at MIT was focused on quantum algorithms. During the fantasy offseason, he teaches computer science at the University of Washington, his alma mater.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kczat.

We continue our look at the 2016 rookie class from a fantasy perspective by discussing some of the key names to know at running back going into the season. What to expect from the 2016 rookie wide receiver class can be found here.

For drafters in standard re-draft leagues, there is really just one rookie running back name to know: Ezekiel Elliott. He has essentially everything you could want in a draft prospect: elite college production (he averaged roughly 1,800 yards and 20 TDs over each of his last two seasons), solid athleticism (he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at 225 pounds), and an elite draft pedigree (he was taken No. 4 overall). He was also the youngest running back taken in this draft! And it would be hard to think of a better landing spot than Dallas, where Elliott will run behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

With all that in mind, it may not come as a huge surprise that John Paulsen has Elliott ranked as the RB4 going into this season. Only one other running back is ranked in the top 50 (Kenyan Drake; RB42), so owners in re-draft leagues can mostly ignore the rest of this class for now.

However, if you're a reader in a dynasty or keeper league, you will be interested to know there is a lot of value to be found in rookie running backs -- as long as you can look beyond this season. Below I'll discuss my rookie running back forecasting model and then I'll point out five running backs that I think offer the most value at their current price (i.e., draft position). As usual, price will be a key theme.

Forecasting Running Back Success

John's rankings give you the best possible forecasts of how these rookies will fare in 2016. But those of us in leagues where you can hold a player for multiple seasons need to look ahead to the future as well. My aim is to find running backs that will be startable (top 24) in one of their first three seasons, I'll call those running backs "successes".

We can get good forecasts using only two parameters for wide receivers, but we will need to consider significantly more information to evaluate running backs:

  1. Draft Position. The best predictor of running back success is draft pick number, which is also the best predictor of wide receiver success. A simple model that says running backs will be successful if and only if they are taken in the first 48 overall picks is over 80% accurate on my data set. (As with receivers, adding more factors only increases this accuracy measure to 85%. However, these achieve larger improvements in more sophisticated measures that weigh "bad misses" more than "near misses".)
  2. College Rushing TD Production. As we we saw with wide receivers, college production is the next most important factor for a running back. My preferred metric of running back college production is the percentage of the team's rushing TDs that the running back scored. I take an average of the final year percentage and the career percentage. (Other stats like yards per attempt may be good predictors of running back performance by themselves, but I have found that rushing TD market share improves the model the most after accounting for draft pick.)
  3. Age. All other things equal, a younger running back is more likely to be successful, in part because his college production was achieved when he was less physically developed than others, making his accomplishments even more impressive.
  4. Athleticism. I mainly use three-cone time for athleticism, which is almost equally important to age (after controlling for draft pick and college production). The 40-yard dash seems to provide useful information about running backs overall, but not once draft pick is taken into account. In other words, NFL teams seem to value speed fully in making their picks already, so including 40 time in our model would be like double counting it. (Other than three-cone, the only other drill that provides a lot of predictive value post draft pick is the vertical, but strangely, the coefficient has the wrong sign, meaning that whatever attribute is measured by the vertical is actually being over-drafted by NFL teams!)
  5. College Receiving TD Production. Since we are using PPR scoring for this study, it is not surprising that good numbers in the receiving game have an impact here as well.

The fact that this model includes five factors whereas the model for wide receivers included only two should not be taken as evidence that this one is more reliable. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. The fact that it requires five factors to achieve the same accuracy for running backs as a two factor model for wide receivers is evidence that running backs are simply harder to predict than wide receivers, which makes it less likely for me to want to spend high draft picks on running backs.

The data on all rookie backs is below. As we decide who to target, we'll take the five factors into account, along with the running back's opportunity at his landing spot. Once again, we will try not to overreact to the latter.

Recommended backs to target in rookie drafts appear in bold and will be discussed below.

2016 RB Draft Class 3 Year Odds of Success
ADP Player Team Draft Pick Production Age 3-Cone Rec TDs Odds Oppr. Tier
1.01 Ezekiel Elliot DAL 4 0.59 21.1 6.95 0 78% A 1st
1.06 Derrick Henry TEN 45 0.85 22.1 7.20 0 50% D 2nd
1.08 Kenneth Dixon BAL 134 0.70 22.6 6.97 7 50% C- 2nd
2.06 Kenyan Drake MIA 73 0.03 22.5 7.01 1 17% A 3rd
1.11 C.J. Prosise SEA 90 0.38 22.2 7.10 1 21% C 4th
2.02 Paul Perkins NYG 149 0.54 21.7 6.94 1 17% D 4th
3.06 Tyler Ervin HOU 119 0.57 23.1 7.05 2 18% D+ 4th
1.12 Devontae Booker DEN 136 0.46 24.2 6.90 0 7% D+ 5th
2.03 Jordan Howard CHI 150 0.33 22.5 7.09 1 7% D 5th
3.01 DeAndre Washington OAK 143 0.41 23.5 7.03 2 9% D+ 5th
3.04 Jonathan Williams BUF 156 0.39 22.5 7.03 2 9% D 5th
3.05 Wendell Smallwood PHI 153 0.36 22.5 6.83 0 10% B 5th
2.10 Keith Marshall WAS 242 0.14 22.5 7.03 1 1% C 6th
3.07 Alex Collins SEA 171 0.65 22.0 6.99 0 10% F 6th
4.01 Josh Ferguson IND UDFA 0.23 23.2 6.89 2 1% C 6th
4.04 Daniel Lasco NO 237 0.19 23.8 7.22 0 1% D- 6th
5.03 Kelvin Taylor SF 211 0.68 22.9 7.12 0 3% C- 6th
5.10 Dwayne Washington DET 236 0.15 22.3 6.98 3 2% D+ 6th
5.11 Darius Jackson DAL 216 0.70 22.7 6.99 2 6% D 6th
7.05 Byron Marshall PHI UDFA 0.02 22.1 7.03 6 2% C 6th

Players to Target

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

There isn't much more to say about Elliott beyond what I said above. He's the top running back option in this draft and a legitimate top-5 running back this season. Even if you don't want a running back, it would be foolish not to take Elliott, as you can trade him for a stud at any other position.

The main question facing drafters with the 1.01 pick in rookie drafts is whether or not to trade it. Elliott's ADP is roughly 18th overall. Per the draft pick calculators I use, that would be worth approximately two first round picks (say, 1.05 and 1.07). Personally, I would be willing to accept that trade simply under the belief that most drafters are underestimating the variance in this prediction. (There is evidence that most participants in the stock market underestimate the variance of their predictions, which suggests to me that the same is probably true for fantasy drafters as well. And underestimating the variance here would mean that Elliott is being overvalued.) I'd be happy to trade the 1.01 this year for an early 2017 first round pick and the 1.09 this year (to snag Tyler Boyd).


Kenneth Dixon, Ravens

After Elliott, the next tier of running backs consists of Derrick Henry and Kenneth Dixon. My model gives each a 50% chance of success over the next three seasons. It likes Henry because of his high draft pick and Dixon because of his receiving TDs in college (and his overall college production).

If given a choice between the Henry and Dixon, I would probably still take Henry simply because I trust draft position more than anything else. However, Henry is generally going before Dixon in recent rookie drafts, so I'm happy taking the cheaper Dixon given that both grade out about the same in my model. (Henry actually went after Dixon in rookie mock drafts from our friends at Dynasty League Football; I'd gladly take Henry if Dixon went earlier.)

In current ADP, Henry and Dixon are being drafted just before Will Fuller and Boyd. If you have the 1.08, a natural question is whether you should take Dixon there or grab a receiver instead. Personally, I would take a receiver simply because I trust the two-factor model I used for receivers more than the five-factor model I used for running backs, so assuming that both Fuller and Boyd are still available, I would rather trade back one spot (in exchange for an extra 2017 third or fourth) and grab Boyd, or even just take him at 1.08. If you have a strong need at running back, then it would be natural to want to grab one there, but pick 1.08 is worth roughly the 80th overall pick, which can be used on a running back that you can use right away. Neither Henry nor Dixon is likely to be a top-24 running back this season, but the 1.08 could probably be traded for Duke Johnson (ADP 88), whom John predicts to be RB24 this season.

Assuming it is not possible to trade the 1.08 for the 1.09 or for a player like Johnson, Dixon is a sensible pick here. After Dixon's tier, the odds of success for this year's rookie running backs gets more than cut in half -- my model gives no other back in this class a chance of success greater than 20%.


Kenyan Drake, Dolphins

Kenyan Drake is the Will Fuller of rookie running backs. Drake was the third running back taken overall, yet is being drafted as the RB8 in rookie drafts. Overall draft pick is highly predictive of NFL success, so it is surprising that Drake is falling so far.

Drake's opportunity also looks quite good with only Jay Ajayi standing between him and a starting job. John currently ranks Drake second amongst rookies (RB42) in his 2016 projections.

Drake joins a tier of running backs in my model with a 17-20% chance of success: C.J. Prosise, Paul Perkins, and Tyler Ervin (who I'll talk about next). Both Prosise and Perkins are going around the first round turn, which seems early to me (the Seahawks are my local team, but I am not as high as some on Prosise's chances of early fantasy success). If we give Drake a reasonable bump for having the best opportunity of anyone in this tier, then he represents value at 2.06.


Tyler Ervin, Texans

Ervin is going in the third round, making him the cheapest in the 17-20% tier by a large amount. Given his absurdly low price, Ervin may be the best running back value in the draft.

If my draft plan starts by getting Boyd or Fuller in the first round (the best values at wide receiver), then Ervin becomes my primary target at running back. Ervin's odds of success are nearly as high as Prosise's, who is being taken at 1.12, while Ervin is usually still available in the third round.


Byron Marshall, Eagles

Miami often comes to mind when you think of a good landing spot for a rookie running back, but Philadelphia is a good spot as well. While Ryan Mathews has demonstrated that he can be a lead back, he has only managed 200 attempts in two of his six seasons in the league.

Byron Marshall was signed by Philadelphia as an UDFA and stands out because he has the same opportunity available to fifth-rounder Wendell Smallwood, who's going much earlier in rookie drafts. I do like Smallwood because of his opportunity and the fact that he is one of the cheapest running backs in the 7-9% success tier. Unfortunately, Smallwood is still not cheap enough; he's typically drafted before Ervin, who has twice the odds of success. Even after giving Smallwood a sizeable bump for landing spot, I'd still prefer Ervin. Since all of the players being drafted after Ervin have odds of success less than 5%, I'd prefer the cheaper Marshall to Smallwood in the Eagles backfield.

One key question mark with Marshall is whether or not he will continue to be listed as a wide receiver by myfantasyleague.com. He played a hybrid running back/wide receiver role in college, but chose to sign with the Eagles specifically because of their lack of depth at running back. For him to be valuable as a fantasy asset, we probably need to see him designated as a running back. However, that will presumably happen if he gets significant work in the backfield (which we'd also need to see).

I wouldn't bet much on Marshall being a success in the NFL, but thankfully we don't have to bet much because of his price. His ADP is currently in the fifth round, but I've also been able to pick him up in the sixth and seventh at times. Compared to what else is available in those rounds, Marshall offers decent value.


My overall strategy with running backs in 2016 drafts is to take the cheapest of the options in each of the tiers that I discussed above. The list of targets gives you some key running backs to aim for in each of the first three rounds, as well as one (Marshall) that you can get practically free.

As I mentioned in my article on wide receivers, my preferred strategy is to trade back into 1.09 and get Boyd (or Fuller).

Then in the second and third rounds, my preferred strategy is to trade back from the second round pick in order to move up in the third.

With two picks at around 3.01, I can take Ervin and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, who are just as good as the second round options in my model. (I would also be willing to move back in the fourth in order to get two early third-rounders.)

Finally, in the fourth and fifth, I would grab Smallwood if he is available, and if not I'd take a flier on Marshall.


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Filed Under: Preseason, 2016

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