Is the Bell Cow Extinct?
Have we seen the end of the bell cow running back? In the last decade, the emergence of running back platoons and committees has pushed every fantasy manager to the brink at some point. Reliable fantasy running backs seem more elusive than ever and RB depth feels almost impossible to achieve.
Whether or not you believe the bell cow back is extinct does not matter. What matters is identifying those elite, trustworthy running backs that you can plug into your lineup every week without hesitation. Most running backs don’t fit the mold of a prototypical bell cow anymore. Derrick Henry’s 378 carries last year were the third-most in a single season in the last 15 years. Only Demarco Murray in 2014 and Larry Johnson in 2006 had more work on the ground in that span. In today’s NFL, running backs don’t need 300-plus carries to be productive. We’re in an age of offensive creativity.
The most reliable predictor of fantasy success for running backs will always be volume, and volume comes both on the ground and through the air. Yes, touchdowns will determine how high the ceiling is for a lot of players, but touchdowns alone are much more difficult to predict than the path to high volume. Does a running back have three-down-back skills? Can he pass-protect? Is he a good route-runner with good hands? Can he muscle-up for a hard-earned yard on third-and-short or on the goal line? And lastly, does he have competition in the backfield? Running backs with the necessary tools and opportunities seldom disappoint. Running backs without the necessary tools and opportunities rarely overachieve.
The table below illustrates top-12 running backs’ opportunities (carries + targets) since 2015.
Over the last six years, 76% of top-12 RBs also finished inside the top-12 in total opportunities. 96% of top-12 backs finished inside the top-24 in total opportunities. Regarding the elite, just two top-5 running backs in the last six years have finished outside the top-12 in opportunities. To simplify, more opportunity translates to a higher fantasy-finish.
The Hard Part
It’s fairly effortless to look at a list of rankings, throw a dart at the highest-ranked RBs, and end up with a centerpiece for your team. What’s more complicated is distinguishing the good from the bad in the middle and late rounds. If you’re a fan of the Zero-RB or Hero-RB draft strategy, you’ll find yourself rummaging through the muck that is mid-round running backs.
Finding yourself in need of a starting running back in the third or fourth round has not been a friendly place to be over the last three years. Since 2018, running backs with a third or fourth round ADP have only finished as RB1’s 17% of the time. They have finished top-24 54% of the time, but if you’re drafting a running back in the third or fourth round, you are relying on that player to be a weekly starter. A coin-flip’s-chance at being a season-long starter feels like a risky play when there is so much wide receiver talent on the board. As a result, some people opt for a receiver and wait even longer to grab that second running back. Unfortunately, fifth and sixth round backs have finished top-24 just 39% of the time in the last three years.
Mining for Gold
Although there has been limited success for mid-round RBs in recent years, it does happen. If you do find yourself rummaging through the muck, you can actually end up with a league-winner. So far this year, there are 10 running backs with an ADP in rounds 3 or 4. The key here is finding a guy with a path to abundant opportunity.
There is one running back in this range who really piques my interest: David Montgomery. In 2019, he ranked 12th in total opportunities despite playing alongside a healthy Tarik Cohen. In 2020, he ranked 4th in opportunities and finished 4th in fantasy points at the position. Since 2015, running backs who finish top-5 at the position and play at least 10 games the next year have had tremendous fantasy success, as shown below.
In the last five years, running backs who finish top-5, then play at least 10 games the next year, have never finished outside the top-24 and usually finish inside the top-10. Injuries are impossible to predict, but it’s worth noting Montgomery has only missed one game in his two-year career.
Montgomery skeptics will cite his weak schedule down the stretch as the rationale for ranking number one over the last six weeks of the fantasy season. While that might seem like a reason to believe his success is unsustainable, check out Montgomery’s last six matchups this year and their 2020 fantasy ranks against opposing running backs: Lions (32), Cardinals (18), Packers (27), Vikings (28), Seahawks (15), Giants (19). Things can and will change, but that’s not exactly a gauntlet.
In the third round, Montgomery is an excellent target if you took the elite tight end route in one of the first two rounds.
Opportunity on the ground and through the air qualifies a player as a modern-day-bell-cow. If you can grab running backs with clear paths to a big workload, you’re much less likely to deal with the agony that unreliable RBs provide. With that being said, these are not instructions on how to draft. Sometimes, elite wide receivers or tight ends fall unexpectedly and it’s important to stay flexible to get the best value for your team. Stay tuned for a similar piece on wide receiver production based on ADP.