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RB projections vs. ECR: Mining tier values ​​like Saquon Barkley, James Conner and more

So little to do, and so much time to do it. Strike that, reverse it (if you happen to get my obscure references, just know you have a friend for life). Welcome back, one and all, to The Athletic Fantasy, where there is no rest for the weary. Today we’re picking up right where we left off, preparing diligently for the upcoming 2022 fantasy football season. Last week, we plotted Jake Ciely’s QB projections to identify market inefficiencies. I also introduced a useful chart reading tip for beginners that I think you’ll be able to use in the future — if you missed it, you can check it out HERE. I hope you’re ready for the running back installation of this fun, yet critical offseason exercise.

Before we begin dissecting the ECR Big Board below, I want to preface the analysis. I think it’s important to note that drafting RBs is dissimilar from QBs, even more so at this early point in draft season. Best ball is currently the most prevalent format, so it dominates ADP narratives through sheer volume. However, it’s drafted very differently due to overall components and the inability to add players to rosters. I wanted to make sure our specific redraft research reflects that. Therefore, I decided to use Expert Consensus Rankings for its stability instead of ADP.

ECR 1.0-5.0, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • Jonathan Taylor, IND: ECR 1, 323.5 Pts
  • Christian McCaffrey, CAR: ECR 2.7, 317 points
  • Derrick Henry, TEN: ECR 3.3, 304.2 points
  • Austin Ekeler, LAC: 3.3 ECR, 269.4 Pts

Only three players in the NFL at the RB position (Taylor, McCaffrey, Henry) are projected to eclipse the 300-point plateau, so it’s no shock two of three are being drafted inside the Top 5 overall. After Taylor and McCaffrey, the decision-making truly begins. I’ve always been a fan of the consistent volume and goal-line work that you get with Henry. He even flashed some hands for the Titans early last season, catching a dozen balls through his first three games. As an early RB drafter, I have found myself stuck at points if Henry is off the board. I had been drafting Austin Ekeler, but therein lies the rub. He’s going as high as Henry but he is projected for ~10% fewer points.

Having multiple shares of Ekeler, and somewhat skeptical myself, I was curious as to why. Upon digging into the projections, it turned out to be a simple matter of expected TD regression. Jake’s projections (845RuYd, 74Rec, 677ReYd, 14TD) are nearly identical to Ekeler’s line from 2021 (911RuYd, 70Rec, 647ReYd, 20TD), minus the surplus scores. This really felt pretty fair on his face, even having me reconsider my own position. The recent glowing reports surrounding Isaiah Spiller in camp and Ekeler’s own comments about sustainability through load management aren’t helping the matter either. Now I find I’m having a hard time ignoring the potential trapdoors that were, just up until recently, in my blind spot. That being said, we all just got a nice refresher on the importance of scoring touchdowns, and how greatly they impact final standings.

ECR 5.1-9.9, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • Najee Harris, PIT (9): ECR 5.3, 276.3 Pts
  • Dalvin Cook, MIN (7): ECR 5.3, 238.3 Pts
  • Joe Mixon, CIN (10): ECR 7.0, 246.8 Pts
  • Nick Chubb, CLE (9): ECR 8.7, 230.6 Pts
  • D’Andre Swift, DET (6): ECR 9.7, 231.8 Pts

Using Jake’s projections, Harris is the clear standout at this stage from a value standpoint. He’s not just projected to score the fourth-most points as the fifth drafted RB; that total is also nearly 11% higher than the next at the position. To expand even further, if you look closely you’ll notice the graph brings up a very interesting apples-to-apples debate. Cook has the same ADP as Harris, but with a lack of competition for carries and an unchallenged backfield target share, Harris projects for almost 2.25 more points per game.

Mixon, Chubb, and Swift all project fairly in my opinion atop the board as featured backs who also catch the ball. I generally aim to have drafted a running back at this point in the mid-second even if there are some comparative values ​​on the horizon. Draft rooms take on a life of their own sometimes. There’s no replacing what this type of player does for your fantasy squad, where missing out could spell disaster. Lastly, don’t forget Swift gets a nice boost in full-PPR, being in line to catch more balls at the position than anyone not nicknamed CMC.

ECR 10.0-14.9, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • Javonte Williams, DEN: ECR 10, 219.1 Pts
  • Aaron Jones, GB: 10.3 ECR, 224.4 Pts
  • Alvin Kamara, NW: 11.7 ECR, 216.3 Pts
  • Saquon Barkley, NYG: 13.3 ECR, 239.8 Pts
  • Leonard Fournette, TB: 14.3 ECR, 229.7 Pts

Once we’re deep into the second round, any remaining potential three-down starter at the running back position is in high demand, and expectedly so. We see this market behavior manifest in the form of consolidation, both in price, and projection. The point is that it’s no secret there isn’t an abundance of workhorse backs. Therefore, most teams without one after the first round are sure to address that need on the comeback. The longer you wait, the greater the sacrifice.

Four of these five players (Williams, Jones, Kamara, Fournette) project very similarly, though it should be noted they’re drafted almost nearly in reverse order of expectations. Personally, Williams and Jones, in particular, worry me due to similar concerns. Both must withstand not only the threat of a quality backup eating yards, but the possibility of losing out on precious touchdown opportunities. That being said, they’re all featured backs who also catch the football, exactly what you should aim to build around.

My choice in this tier coming into this exercise was actually either Kamara or Fournette. Kamara’s off-the-field situation has suppressed the price of an elite player who was Top 5 last year in overall touches (287). Tampa Bay is the second favorite on the Super Bowl futures board (+700) for good reason. Lenny has come to be a favorite of Tom Brady, dominating not only carries but targets as well (And what TB12 wants, TB12 gets). In 2021, Fournette had more than three times the targets and nearly twice as many carries as any other Buccaneers RB. Oh, and he’s skinny again.

I didn’t come here to marry priors, so I’d be remiss to not separately cover a player I’m not currently overexposed to, but it is easily the biggest standout on the entire board. Saquon Barkley projects as the seventh-highest scoring back in the league but is being drafted outside of the Top 12. That’s the kind of pick that changes the trajectory of your season on its own. I had a feeling I’d be hard-pressed to find the explanation in a box score mired by injury, and I was right, likely accounting for the market’s disdain. We know Barkley’s healthy and stands to benefit from Brian Daboll’s influence on QB Daniel Jones. The projections expect a return to normalcy for Saquon, not some monster breakout. He’s also not being projected to score more TDs than any other RB going before him, which feels very reasonable. Here’s a player with the finest pedigree, a history of elite usage, an overall RB1 ceiling, and a total lack of viable competition. The more I think about it, the more I wish I had been more aggressive earlier. I highly doubt we will be seeing Saquon make it past the turn once high-stakes redraft leagues start to go live.

ECR 15.0-19.9, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • David Montgomery, CHI: ECR 16.3, 186 Pts
  • Ezekiel Elliott, DAL: ECR 17.3, 204 Pts
  • Antonio Gibson, WAS: ECR 17.7, 217.2 Pts
  • Cam Akers, LAR: 17.7 ECR, 227.9 Pts
  • James Conner, ARI: 17.7 ECR, 236.8 Pts

From a technical standpoint, this is easily the most fascinating block of running backs, thus far. Though, from a glance, they appear to adhere to the prevailing trend and fit within the greater descending channel (outlined in the QB piece), we’ll benefit from zooming in on the individual section itself (image below). Notice that it’s inverted. If we wanted this to properly represent value, it should be reflected on its Y-axis. The lowest scoring back by far (Montgomery) is being drafted first, and vice versa. Once we get to this grouping, the real fantasy concerns begin to surface for me. I’m worried about Tony Pollard nipping away at Elliott’s usage and what Gibson’s target volume will look like with JD McKissic returning. That being said, I think I had Conner in a blindspot with his main competition for targets having moved on to Miami. James Conner is probably the current ideal RB2 target given the cost, projecting as the ninth-highest scorer but being drafted 17th.

ECR 20.0-24.9, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • Josh Jacobs, LV: 20 ECR, 210.3 Pts
  • Elijah Mitchell, SF: 20.7 ECR, 173.2 Pts
  • JK Dobbins, BAL: ECR 23, 183.4 Pts
  • Travis Etienne, JAX: 23.3 ECR, 192.1 Pts
  • Breece Hall, NYJ: ECR 23.3, 179.3 Pts

Last call! Yup, it happens in a flash. Just like that, they’re gone. By the time we’re at just the 20th RB off the board (~ADP 40) only one 200-point-back remains in Josh Jacobs. In my opinion, he’s the last reliable RB2. If I’m in a situation where that second RB roster spot is not yet filled, I find myself feeling vulnerable, basically praying he’ll fall. Considering there are 11 other teams vying for a minimum of two RBs each, even my limited math skills are aware that isn’t enough to go around. Factor in the expansion of wide receiver target trees in today’s pass-heavy NFL and I don’t see how forgoing elite pass-catching RBs is worth the opportunity cost. Then just when you think everything is going swimmingly, it begins. A run is instantly created when one manager decides they want to roster three of the top RBs — case in point for not using ADP as anything more than a guide. Roster construction is infinitely more important.

From a value standpoint, Mitchell is easily the back to avoid, being limited by competition and a lackluster receiving skill set. The player I’ve been targeting myself in overall competitions, or whenever I end up without a chair as the music stops, is Etienne. It’s not that I disagree so much with Jake’s projections. I just think we could see the higher range of his receiving columns if the Jaguars stink again. Remember, in 2021 Jacksonville was dead last in Team Pass Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (Pass DVOA — courtesy of Football Outsiders). Falling behind early and often could tailor the Jaguars’ playing style directly to Etienne’s strengths, where the ceiling is DeAndre Swift-esque garbage-time domination.

ECR +25.0, and projected RB fantasy points scored

  • Damien Harris, NE: ECR 25, 185.5 Pts
  • AJ Dillon, GB: 25.3 ECR, 175.3 Pts
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire, KC: ECR 26, 158 Pts
  • Miles Sanders, PHI: ECR 28, 141.1 Pts
  • Devin Singletary, BUF: ECR 29.3, 151.9 Pts
  • Kareem Hunt, CLE: ECR 30.7, 146.6 Pts

Yikes. Do not allow a team you supposedly love to enter the RB3 dark realm in the seventh round needing a weekly starter. This is, at the very least, a pretty precarious proposition, and at the very worst, fantasy malpractice. If not already a backup, there’s a non-zero chance there isn’t one regular starter in this bunch. I get the love for AJ Dillon from a skill standpoint, but to me, the certainty for opportunities isn’t there. Let me explain. First, the Green Bay Packers are the NFL equivalent of molasses. Aaron Rogers is beyond methodical and that materialized in terms of pace of play. GB’s 30.5 seconds per play in 2021 was dead last in the NFL by a country mile and even though they were Top 3 in offensive yards per drive, they still finished below average in total plays. We’ve also seen the Packers with Dillon and Jones at the same time, and it has been underwhelmed for fantasy purposes. If you started Dillon the games that Jones started, he actively hurt your team and you should be open to the possibility that doesn’t change. It’s possible the departure of Davante Adams opens up a slot role for Dillon, but that’s paying a premium for a pocket full of hope that may have a hole in it.

(Top photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

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