Rookie Draft Strategy – The RB Rounds

by Paul Patterson · Draft Strategy

Jonathan Taylor, Ja’Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts, Justin Herbert. These are the mouth-watering prospects that make rookie drafts incredible. They can single-handedly change the talent profile of your dynasty roster. Unfortunately, that well of talent and potential tends to dry up long before the end of the second round. So, you’ll likely find yourself on the clock in the third, fourth, and sometimes fifth round of your rookie draft with very few attractive options. Whether it’s bad draft capital, poor athleticism, or uninspiring production, the players here have more red flags than Ron Swanson’s ex-wives. But that doesn’t make the selection pointless. On the contrary, navigating these later rounds (the RB rounds) properly can give you a significant edge over your leaguemates.

The Data

There are many ways to categorize “hits” or “success rates” among fantasy players. For this article, I will be using thresholds created by my friend and fellow Dynasty Football Factory analyst Chris Miles. In his rookie model, Chris sorts fantasy players into four buckets based on their first three seasons of NFL production. 

You can probably guess which bucket the average late-round rookie pick tends to fall into. But the actual percentages may surprise you. I’ll be referring specifically to Day 3 picks here because they comprise the majority of late-round rookie selections. And because reliable rookie ADP is difficult to find. 

The Khalil Herbert Corollary

For both RBs and WRs taken on Day 3, the “elite” and “good” thresholds are almost unattainable. In fact, just 4.9-percent of RBs and 2.4-percent of WRs taken on Day 3 since 2014 have found their way into those top tiers. Even finding “usable” players has been difficult; with just 3.3-percent of WRs and 11-percent of RBs taken on Day 3 since 2014 qualifying. In other words, the odds of hitting on a valuable player are low for both positions. Though you’re almost four times as likely to find some “usable” production at RB later in your rookie draft. 

However, these season-long Fantasy Points Per Game thresholds actually understate the utility of many late-round RBs. After all, you’re only going to insert a RB into your lineup when they are expected to start. Or at least play a significant number of snaps. Imagine, for example, a sixth-round rookie RB who is third on the depth chart to start the season. The starter and backup get banged up, and this rookie is asked to carry the load for a four-game stretch. He averages 19.5 carries per game and over 13.0 FPPG. That predictable RB2 production is incredibly useful, even for a short stretch. However, with a season-long FPPG of 5.2, he’s well on his way to becoming another Day 3 “miss.”

If this totally hypothetical scenario sounds familiar, that’s because I’m actually describing a 2021 rookie RB named Khalil Herbert. Check out his performances from Weeks 1 to 9. Can you tell which games David Montgomery missed?

Khalil Herbert 2021 Game Logs, Weeks 1-9

Past Classes

Khalil Herbert wasn’t the only late-round rookie RB to provide usable production in 2021. In fact, Elijah Mitchell, Chuba Hubbard, Kenneth Gainwell, and Rhamondre Stevenson each provided at least two games of 13 or more PPR points. Including Herbert, that group of five combined for twenty such games over the course of the season, including thirteen games of 16 or more points.  

Now consider the WRs drafted in that same range. Mostly Day 3 picks: Tylan Wallace, D’Wayne Eskridge, Tutu Atwell, Seth Williams, Cornell Powell, Jaelon Darden, Dazz Newsome, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Anthony Schwartz. As rookies, that group combined for two games of 10 or more PPR points, and zero games of 13 or more. As a result, most of these players have already hit your dynasty waiver wire. Of course, there were some complete whiffs at RB, like Javian Hawkins and Kylin Hill. But overall, the RB position dominated the later rounds of rookie drafts in 2021. And you’ll find this trend holds true nearly every season. The 2020 class was top-heavy for RBs. But in 2019 and 2018, players like Nyheim Hines, Chase Edmonds, Devin Singletary, Alexander Mattison, Myles Gaskin, and Tony Pollard could be found later in drafts, far outnumbering the occasional D.J. Chark or Hunter Renfrow.

The Lesson

We don’t know exactly how the NFL Draft will shake out at this point. But WRs like Justyn Ross, Alec Pierce, Romeo Doubs, Khalil Shakir, Bo Melton, Kevin Austin, Calvin Austin, and Tyquan Thornton could easily slip into Day 3. You may like some of those players, and rightfully so. But the data shows that draft capital is a huge part of the equation.

If the NFL doesn’t like them as much as you do, turn your attention to the RBs instead. There are several prospects with the requisite size, athleticism, and pass-catching ability to provide spike weeks in the NFL, even as Day 3 picks. Brian Robinson and Dameon Pierce are at the top of that list, though they may even sneak into the third round. Beyond those two, keep an eye on Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, Tyler Allgeier, Jerome Ford, Tyler Goodson, and Isiah Pacheco. Whether those players are more talented than their WR counterparts is mostly irrelevant because the comparison between positions is not apples to apples. RBs simply have a more straightforward path to touches, and, by extension, fantasy points.

That’s right, I’m advocating for a RB-only approach in the back half of your rookie draft.

Forget trying to find the next Darnell Mooney needle in a haystack of future supermarket employees. Instead, once Round 3 rolls around, just toggle off the other positions and queue up any RB capable of latching onto an NFL depth chart. Remember, your odds of finding the next WR1 or RB1 at the 3.09, 4.05, or 5.11 are exceptionally low, and that’s okay. If you can squeeze three or four games of RB2 production out of a pick that late, you’re doing just fine.