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Fantasy Football: Identifying sleeper and late-round RBs to target

Dec 19, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back A.J. Dillon (28) rushes with the football during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

NFL football games are often won between the trenches, but fantasy football championships are born at the running back position. Bonafide stud running backs are crucial to league-winning rosters — that's why RBs are currently flying off the board in the first two rounds of Underdog best ball drafts.

It's no secret who the league’s top dogs are in fantasy Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry but the talent falls off quickly outside the first few rounds. 

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That doesn’t mean we should avoid the position after the heavy hitters, though. There’s value to be had with middle- to late-round running backs; you just need to know where to look. 

I’ve collected a sample of 67 running backs since 2017 who were drafted outside the top 24 (or went undrafted) and outproduced their ADP in PPR formats. The goal is to find common themes among these league-winning running backs — like Mike Davis and James Robinson and apply the findings to the upcoming 2021 season. 

Most productive RBs drafted outside top-24 since 2017 (PPR)
Player Team Year ADP Fantasy Finish
Austin Ekeler LAC 2019 RB30 RB4
Mark Ingram II NO 2017 RB25 RB6
James Conner PIT 2018 RB56 RB6
James White NE 2018 RB42 RB7
James Robinson JAX 2020 RB65 RB7
Tarik Cohen CHI 2018 RB36 RB11
Duke Johnson Jr. CLE 2017 RB38 RB11
Mike Davis CAR 2020 RB65 RB12
Phillip Lindsay DEN 2018 RB65 RB13
Miles Sanders PHI 2019 RB29 RB15
Chris Carson SEA 2018 RB30 RB15
Dion Lewis NE 2017 RB65 RB15

Every year, several running backs drafted outside the top 24 finish the year as fantasy RB1s in PPR scoring. But identifying and drafting these backs is easier said than done. 

To start, we need to look at when these specific backs were taken in drafts to find out if there's a sweet spot for RBs primed to smash their expected outcomes in a certain ADP range.

Fantasy Finish and ADP

The sample size includes running backs drafted outside the top 24 who beat their ADP. But breaking them into subsets of ADP ranges offers a clearer picture of the best value spot at the RB position. 

The RB3 range (RB25-RB38) presents the greatest hit rate for fantasy running backs to return a mid-range RB2 (RB16.8) finish. That’s not Earth-shattering news undervalued starting RBs are often selected in this range. There are also plenty of RBs in crowded backfields and backs who offer serious pass-catching chops.

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