Forecasting 2017 NFL Rookie Running Back Success: 3-Year Model

Aug 04, 2017
Forecasting 2017 NFL Rookie Running Back Success: 3-Year Model

My last article looked at the new class of rookie wide receivers trying to break into the league in 2017. Here, the spotlight shifts to the newest class of running backs. While none of the rookie receivers have a strong chance of becoming fantasy relevant this year, several rookie running backs appear poised to do so. We will discuss those RBs below.

As with receivers, we will also try to look a bit further into the future and attempt to determine which rookies are likely to be fantasy starters at some point over the next three years, even if not right away. That information is especially important to those readers in dynasty or keeper leagues, who can stash rookie players on their deep rosters for multiple seasons.

Click Here to Read Forecasting 2017 Rookie Wide Receivers

By the way, if you’re in a dynasty league, you should definitely check out all the content from our friends at Dynasty League Football. They have much more information on all of the rookies I talk about below.

Forecasting Running Back Success

Last year, I built a statistical model that predicted the odds of a rookie running back having a top-24 season in one of their first three years in the NFL. That model uses the pick at which the player was taken in the NFL draft, along with their age, 3-cone time, market share of team touchdowns, and number of receiving touchdowns.

This year, I've added a more sophisticated machine learning (ML) model (specifically, a support vector machine model). Combining different models with similar individual accuracy typically leads to more accurate forecasts due to a wisdom-of-crowds effect. The "combined model", whose forecasts I discuss below, are a weighted average of these two different models.

Obviously, the best RBs to draft are those that look good by both measure—both this year and over the next three years. However, unsurprisingly, such RBs will require substantial draft capital. We can look for bargains either by grabbing players who are not good prospects but are in good situations (for this year) or by selecting players who are not in good situations but are good prospects.

The top four prospects according to projected three-year success—Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, and Dalvin Cook—are also the top four by projected one-year success. All four are projected as RB2-types in our rankings and are being drafted as such.

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

Fournette has the safest floor in terms of touches. He will almost certainly be the Jaguars primary running back. (His floor in terms of fantasy points may not be the highest, though, since targets are more likely than carries to turn into fantasy points.) Fournette is an RB1 in our rankings and is being drafted as such.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

McCaffrey comes second in both our rankings and in ADP. He is also sure to see a good volume of touches, with many being targets—which are more valuable than carries in PPR leagues. However, McCaffrey's situation has more question marks than Fournette's. It is not clear, even unlikely, McCaffrey will see goal-line work, with those touches instead going to Jonathan Stewart. There is also uncertainty about how many targets McCaffrey will see as running quarterbacks like Cam Newton often prefer to run with the ball themselves rather than dump it off to their backs.

Joe Mixon, Bengals

While Mixon is being drafted third out of this group, many evaluators saw him as the most talented, with his stock falling in the NFL draft mainly due to concerns about his off-field behavior. That sounds like the recipe for a bargain; however, there are solid counter-arguments. First, Mixon faces more competition than Fournette, McCaffrey, or Cook. He could very easily lose goal-line work to Jeremy Hill and receiving work to Gio Bernard. Second, the Bengals offensive line is one of the worst in the league, which will likely make running difficult for any back.

Continue reading for eight more rookie running backs with potential to have a top-24 season in one of their first three years in the NFL...

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