CHECKING IN ON THE RUNNING BACK DEAD ZONE
The season may feel like it has just begun but we’re already 25% of the way through the fantasy football season. Months of offseason debates are slowly shaking out into actual results. Hot take tweets are magically disappearing and dynasty contenders are suddenly finding themselves in an unexpected rebuild. Whilst it may be slightly too early to draw conclusive arguments on everything we shouted about this offseason, it seems like the running back dead zone may be starting to provide yet more evidence that it can be best to avoid taking running backs in rounds 3-6 of redraft and best ball. Some people believe this extends to round seven as well. Dynasty owners might be served well by paying attention to the Dead Zone each year and deciding if a player's appearance in that area bodes badly for their fantasy rosters. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the Dead Zone, I’d recommend reading the two links below.
Here’s a look at all the players who featured an ADP in rounds 3-6 on both Underdog and Sleeper (single QB, PPR redraft) through July and August 2021.
We start with one of the clear success stories of The Dead Zone. Drafters were typically put off by the idea of the Lions offence being turgid and unable to sustain drives, but with a few surprising performances, Swift is the RB8 in points per game, despite the presence of Jamaal Williams, who himself has put up respectable scores. Williams was long a thorn in the side of Aaron Jones drafters in Green Bay and it made sense that he would be used actively in Detroit too. Whilst that has played out and recent reports indicate the Lions will continue to use both players, so far it hasn’t been overly detrimental to Swift’s fantasy output. The main area it has affected Swift has been in rushing attempts where he has 41 attempts over four games, an average of 10.25 per game, which he has turned into a disappointing 139 yards. That average of 3.4ypc ranks 71st out of players to attempt ten or more rushes. Williams has seen an almost identical 42 and turned it into 187 yards at 4.5 YPC. If Swift had a larger portion of those rushing attempts we’d be talking about legitimate top-five upside. Where Swift has rewarded drafters is in the passing game. Through four weeks he ranks 19th in the NFL for receptions across all positions, with 23 on 29 targets. Only Cordarrelle Patterson has more targets and receiving yards at the position with 26 receptions for 235 yards, whilst Swift has 23 for 199. Swift also has run the second-most routes at the position only trailing Najee Harris (120-107). Swift owners most likely feel comfortable with him on their roster and feel like they gained a bargain, although I would understand if they wanted to sell high.
Sadly, particularly for me as a Ravens fan, J.K never made it as far as the season. Neither did Gus Edwards who vaulted up to 5.09 on Sleeper and 4.3 on Underdog (thanks specifically to Josh Norris of Underdog for digging that one out for me). Given how hot Lamar Jackson has started despite the injury woes, it’s fair to believe Dobbins and Edwards could have been putting up good numbers. Sadly we’ll have to wait another year to find out whether either could have paid off a Dead Zone ADP.
One of my big offseason concerns was that despite a new OC, Pete Carroll would keep the Seahawks offence reigned into a manner acceptable to his steady mindset. Sadly that’s played out and week on week we’re seeing the Seahawks playing slowly and conservatively, as they lead the league in fewest plays per game with 52.8. Despite Carroll’s belief in establishing the run, the running backs and specifically Chris Carson haven’t delivered to date. Carson is the RB27 in points per game, and whilst his games have included PPR scores of 16.20 and 15.10, they have been very touchdown-dependent. The 15.10 score for example was against Tennessee and included two touchdowns. For a running back to score two touchdowns at 6 points each and only manage 3.1 more points conjures up images of 2020’s Jordan Howard in his brief spell with the Miami Dolphins. Carson is playing on a disappointing 57.1% of the team's snaps, which ranks him 25th at the position. Despite Rashaad Penny seeing very little of the field due to another injury, Travis Homer (18.9% of snaps) and Alex Collins (25.8%) have eaten into his snaps enough to keep Carson where many believers of the dead zone felt he belonged. Many of these backs belong down here due to their lack of pass-game work, Carson has 6 receptions in four games, slightly down on last year's average of 3.3 per game. Efficiently hauling in all six targets is good, but still not enough to reward drafters in either PPR or .5 PPR. What does it say about Carson that Travis Homer has five receptions, and runs only marginally fewer routes (5.5 per game to Carson’s 7.8). Perhaps Russell Wilson will start throwing to his running backs at a rate closer to last year's 26%, rather than the 12.8% he’s currently averaging and this might help Carson. Failing that Carson’s best hopes lie in Pete Carroll experiencing an epiphany where an Angel visits him and implores him to play with pace. There’s no doubt he’s a talented back, but his ceiling seems capped by the situation around him even if he does play for a contending team.
Sanders was a popular player for those who denied the dead zone. Often citing stats or theories that were plenty plausible. I was almost dragged in by talk of a Ravens like bump to the whole running game if Hurts was under centre. We all saw Lamar Jackson’s play help send Mark Ingram to the Pro Bowl, what could Jalen Hurts do for Sanders? Sadly it hasn’t played out well for Sanders who finds himself the RB38 in PPR points per game, with a disappointing 10.1. Lagging nine spots behind Kenneth Gainwell who has impressed and had good usage. Sanders finds himself trying to run behind a beaten up offensive line that started Week 4 missing four of their five first choice linemen. So far this season Sanders has picked up just seven first downs on 37 attempts, in contrast to six on 19 for Gainwell. The rookie has also out-targeted Sanders 18-14 and caught 13 to Sanders 11 receptions. The thesis behind Sanders being able to outplay his ADP involved him having a solid three-down workload, that isn’t the case, unfortunately, with just 64.4% of snaps and no indication of the team wishing to use him in that way.
Another of the early season Dead Zone escapees looked to be David Montgomery before he injured his knee this weekend. Montgomery is somebody that I am ready to admit I was wrong about. During last year's cupcake end of season schedule, Montgomery lit up plenty of terrible run defences and won many people their championships. I felt like that he was an easy fade coming into 2021 and I felt sure his regression to the mean would come about. Montgomery looks far more explosive this year than in previous years and has consistently played well, starting the season with a very tough matchup against the Rams, where he went 16-108 and a touchdown on the ground and added a ten-yard receiving touchdown through the air. Montgomery could have been a Dead Zone hero, but now looks set to miss four to five weeks with a knee injury. If drafters can survive Montgomery’s time out and if he comes back strong, perhaps there’s a chance he climbs into round three of 2022 drafts.
Josh Jacobs is for me, one of the least interesting running backs in the league, in both fantasy and actual NFL terms. Jacobs will flash good runs and then follow up with attempt after attempt going for 2-3 yards, he’s lacked burst and elusiveness in his NFL career to date. The consensus thinking was to fade Jacobs because of the generous contract the Raiders gave to Kenyan Drake, guaranteeing $11m over two years. It’s quite hard to judge how this backfield will play out across the rest of the season. Week 1 Jacobs was injured, Weeks 2 and 3 Kenyan Drake and Peyton Barber shared the work with Barber impressing the most. In Week 4 Jacobs returned in a game where the Raiders trailed constantly and he put up a disappointing 3.1 YPC and picked up just one first down. Whilst I’m not a doctor and hate to label players injury prone, it’s worth mentioning that Jacobs played 13 games in 2019 and 15 in 2020. Having missed two games already, Jacobs health could be one of the biggest barriers to him outperforming his ADP. Jacobs best hopes of really breaking out lie in injuries to Kenyan Drake and Peyton Barber but even then he faces a tough schedule the rest of the way with ESPN’s Mike Clay projecting Vegas to face the fourth toughest schedule for running backs for the rest of the season.
Williams was a clear example of the fantasy community being enamoured with a player a little too much and not listening to what the team was telling us. All offseason the Broncos backed Melvin Gordon and his contract situation was healthy enough that we shouldn’t have assumed he would be moved on. Perhaps the best case has come to pass for Williams, seeing an almost even share of the workload so far with a 43.5% opportunity share and playing on 50.8% of snaps. Melvin Gordon must have felt motivated this off-season and he came back in good shape, ready to show that he wasn’t finished yet. The Broncos started with an easy set of fixtures against NYG, JAX and NYJ and looking at the schedule they’re unlikely to have such an easy stretch again. With the team trusting Melvin Gordon I feel it’s unlikely Williams can take over this job, without injury, whilst the team is in contention. Even if they fall out of contention for the playoffs, I’m not too sure what the motivation would be to bench Gordon. Instead, I think it’s realistic that we see a boost to Williams workload in the weeks after their Wk11 bye, like many rookies experience.
If you picked up Davis when McCaffrey went down injured in 2020, you were probably more of a believer in him coming into this year than some people were. The tape checked out that Davis was a good player in 2020, and if you don't believe me check out Hayden Winks on the subject. Not only did Davis finish 12th in his final PPR fantasy position, but he also finished top five in broken tackles with 21. In Carolina, Davis was playing as a powerful back bouncing off tackles and punishing linebackers. His usage in the passing game made him a great replacement when CMC went down. He appeared to be primed for a solid season in Atlanta, with no noticeable backups looking likely to impede his workload. Todd Gurley had been fairly good for the Falcons in 2020, so why couldn’t Mike Davis do similar or better? Unfortunately, the offence has sputtered under Arthur Smith and the offensive line has been poor, despite returning five starters they’re frequently letting pass rushers into the backfield with Mike Davis ranking 48th in Yards Before Contact Per Carry, with just 0.3. Simultaneously we’ve been blessed with watching Cordarelle Patterson emerge from a fantasy cocoon to fly like a beautiful butterfly, ruining everything we thought to be true. Patterson’s emergence seems to be unsustainable in some contexts, he has played only 34.4% of snaps yet has a 36.4% opportunity share within the team. It’s fair to say that Patterson is the only aspect of this offence that has functioned at or above expectation so far. The last strike against Davis I have is that it’s notable that Wayne Gallman was active for the first time in Week 4. Whether the running game issues start with Davis or not, it’s clear the team is considering different ways to get the team moving.
Through four weeks Kareem Hunt is the RB8 in PPR. Nick Chubb is the RB13. Hunt is clearly outplaying his draft spot at the moment and with Baker Mayfield looking average at best, it might be fair to expect Hunt to continue to outplay his ADP as the team relies further on the run game. One small surprise has been the emergence of Demetric Felton, taking up a small but notable 9.1% target share. Hunt has been exceptional when playing, as noted in the graphic below (via PFF’s Ian Hartitz), Hunt stands out on a combination of Yards After Contact and Missed Tackles Forced Per Carry measurements. Whilst conservative predictions this off-season speculated Hunt would see a noticeable amount of snaps less than Chubb, currently, Hunt averages just 4.5 fewer snaps per game than Chubb’s 35.8.
I’m not victory lapping too many things this early in the off-season, but I’m feeling fairly good about an appearance on the excellent Fantasy Wildcard podcast this summer where I highlighted Gaskin as a sell. Backfield’s like Miami always make me feel nervous when they add free agents and whilst Malcolm Brown is only the 33rd highest-paid non-rookie RB this season, he’s being paid the same as James Conner. We have to believe teams actions over their words, and adding another running back, whilst being linked to Etienne and Harris in the draft felt like a trap. Like many backfields that inhibit the Dead Zone, Gaskin isn’t dealing with just Brown, he also faces Salvon Ahmed taking a 16.7% snap share through four games. Brown has seen more goal-line usage than Gaskin, two attempts to Gaskin’s zero. Ahmed has seen eight targets, which ranks second behind Gaskin’s eight, whilst ahead of Brown’s 3. Perhaps if one of these backs were to go down Gaskin might hoover up more of those sections of work, but it’s very hard to see him becoming a stud now. Running behind one of the league's very worst lines was always going to be difficult. Doing so whilst a backup quarterback struggles to move the ball, even more so. Attempting all of that whilst in a running back committee is disastrous. Miami’s strength of schedule for the rest of season may be Gaskin’s only hope. Mike Clay projects Miami to have the fourth easiest schedule from here on out, and specifically for Miami RB’s to have the 10th best schedule for RB’s. If Gaskin can play well in his upcoming games with Jacksonville and Atlanta, fantasy owners could do well to try and move him on.
Underdog 11.05 (July)-4.08 (Sept)
Sleeper 14.07 (July)-4.08 (Sept)
As is noted in the ADP shifts above, Henderson was a late riser into the Dead Zone and there are arguments to be made that he never belonged there in the first place. When Cam Akers went down for the season, Henderson jumped quickly into the fifth and then the fourth round. On such an explosive offence, was this high enough? Chris Carson and Miles Sanders were still being drafted ahead of Henderson whilst his workload mostly seemed clear. Even with the trade for Sony Michel it seemed like Henderson was the team’s clear favourite for the role, pending his ability to stay fit. Despite missing Week 3 with injury, Henderson stormed back into an every-down role in Week 4, playing 61 snaps to Sony Michel’s seven. To emphasise this point, in weeks where Henderson has played the opportunity share between him and Michel looks like this;
Wk1. 89.47% - 5.26%
Wk2. 58.06% - 32.26%
Wk3. Henderson out injured.
Wk4. 86.96% - 13.04%
Michel’s only targets came in the Week 3 game that Henderson missed. Otherwise, Henderson has seen 100% of the targets to running backs. The only thing that can stop Henderson from outperforming his ADP would be his ability to stay on the field. If Henderson can stay on the field, in this superpower of an offence, I believe he’ll have a solid RB2 season.
Looking at the Dead Zone as a whole it’s rather hard to argue against the theory that this is an area we should be avoiding running backs in. All drafts are different and we have to adjust depending on the flow of the draft and for the team you’re constructing, but when we consider players we could have drafted around Swift (Lockett, Lamb), Carson (Kupp, Moore) and Montgomery (Chase, Thielen) as examples, it’s easy to see how many solid wide receiver options were available in a similar range and how generally it’s been easier to hit on receiver rather than running back in that area. The Dead Zone isn’t a hard and fast rule that must be stuck to at all costs, more a mindset of caution that we should embrace. If you believe in a guy, go get him, but don’t over stack your roster with running backs in rounds 3-6. Perhaps in 2022 we’ll see drafters get even smarter and avoid the dead zone more frequently, in turn creating value picks as RB’s fall. Or perhaps several on this list make statements throughout the rest of the season and leave us reconsidering what we thought about a relatively young theory, in a relatively young game.