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If you have researched fantasy football this summer, chances are you have heard of the dreaded "Running Back Dead Zone." For the uninitiated, the trendy nickname refers to Rounds 3-6 of 12-team drafts. History tells us running back scoring tends to fall off more sharply in these rounds than at wide receiver.
If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics, check out Jack Miller’s article on Establish The Run. Miller’s data is specific to best-ball leagues, but ADPs are similar enough across formats to apply his major takeaways to traditional redraft leagues:
Target wide receivers in Rounds 3-6
If you don’t draft running backs with your first two picks, wait until Rounds 7-10, where similar running back production to what you would get in Rounds 4-6 is usually available.
Attacking your draft in this manner makes sense intuitively and is backed by years of data. But there is a problem with carving this strategy (or any other) in stone. Typical snake drafts leave too much outside your control. Your draft position and opponents have more to do with which players will be available each time you pick than you do. Sticking to a rigid positional strategy often comes at the expense of maximizing the projected fantasy points in your starting lineup, which is counterintuitive.
It’s also not as though running backs drafted in Rounds 3-6 never hit. They just do so less often than wide receivers. Last year, for example, Jonathan Taylor (3.09) and David Montgomery (5.05) were each drafted in the dead zone and were instrumental in deciding league championships. And in 2019, Aaron Jones (3.03), Derrick Henry (4.04), and Austin Ekeler (5.10) each finished inside the Top 5 PPR scorers at the position.
So while avoiding running backs in the dead zone gives you a greater probability of maximizing the value of your picks, it isn’t a requisite for constructing a championship roster. If two or three league-tilting running backs are found in Rounds 3-6 most years, it’s a worthy exercise to try separating the ones who have the best chance of emerging from those more likely to end up value traps we should have seen coming.
Below are the 14 running backs currently being selected in (or close enough to) the dead zone, tiered by their chances of delivering an outlier season.
Alive and Kicking
J.K. Dobbins (ADP 34.1) - Dobbins meets all the criteria for a running back primed to buck the dead zone trend.
Potential Top 10 offense - The Ravens finished ninth in scoring last year and first in 2019. The additions of Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman at wide receiver make this year’s offense the best on-paper version of the Lamar Jackson era.
Versatility as a runner and pass-catcher - Dobbins has a chance to be one of the best rushers in the league. As a rookie, he finished third in yards created per touch and fourth in expected points added. With Jackson freezing enemy linebackers at the line of scrimmage, Dobbins’ rushing upside isn’t in question. His receiving opportunity playing in the same backfield as Jackson is more of an unknown. But Dobbins can catch. Per Player Profiler, he had a 59th percentile target share at Ohio State, and both Dobbins and the coaching staff are saying the right things about getting him more involved as a receiver in 2021.
Big-play athleticism - Dobbins checks this box easily. He was the best SPARQ athlete in his class coming out of high school, and his exceptional speed and burst translated as a rookie, as evidenced by his league-leading 8.2% breakaway run rate.
Opportunity - The Ravens were eighth and thirteenth in running back rush attempts in 2019 and 2020, respectively. And despite the threat of Jackson at the goal-line, Baltimore running backs have 47 rush attempts from inside the opponent’s five-yard line over the last two seasons -- the third-highest total in the league.
D'Andre Swift (ADP 33.2) - Swift sharing Detroit’s backfield with Jamaal Williams is an unfortunate truth at this point. But here is the saving grace --the Lions are going to stink. They have zero wide receivers of consequence, a quarterback who can’t drive the ball downfield, and a defense that allowed a league-leading 32.4 points per game a year ago.
Coaching staffs love backs like Williams. He pass-blocks well, picks up what gets blocked in front of him, and has soft hands. But in an offense that will need to manufacture yardage, Swift is the play-maker Detroit will lean on more often than not. He ranked eleventh in breakaway run rate as a rookie, tenth in targets per game, and sixth in yards per route run. Swift also has a chance to lead all Lions pass-catchers in touchdowns. He commanded nine red-zone targets in 2020, which ranked eleventh among all running backs despite missing three games.
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