It’s been said that dynasty fantasy football is a lot like the stock market. We have assets (players) who rise and fall in value depending on various factors (age, performance, situation, to name a few). While it is true of all players, there are some running backs who are far less risky. These running backs have insulated value as the aforementioned factors impact them less.
One way to measure a player’s value is by looking at their average draft position (ADP). Startup drafts can give an idea of how others value certain players. So while the ADP data will tell us who the consensus favors as fantasy RB1’s, it is only one piece of the puzzle. Not every RB1 value is the same, and identifying which players are safe versus risky can give you a significant advantage in drafts and trades.
Insulated Value in Running Backs
Insulated value is important in fantasy because situations change regularly, which can cause wild swings in player valuations. For example, when Jacksonville’s James Robinson goes from undrafted free agent to starting running back, his value swings upward dramatically. However, what happens when his situation changes in April if a rookie running back is taken in one of the first three rounds of the NFL Draft? The market will likely swing (probably too drastically) the other direction. Robinson does not possess great insulated value.
When evaluating running backs that have insulated value, you will want to keep in mind these three truths:
- Draft capital matters
- Immediate ‘high’ perceived value matters
- The market impacts aren’t as dramatic
Draft Capital Matters
The easiest and arguably best time to acquire the ‘safe’ running backs is during a rookie draft. From my assessment, I found a strong correlation between insulated value and rookie running backs that were immediate top-15 running backs in dynasty ADP before ever playing a down in the National Football League. From 2017-2020, 11 different running backs entered the league as top-15 dynasty options at their position. Perhaps not coincidentally, all were drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. In addition to James Robinson, Myles Gaskin is another perfect example of a player who is productive but is not a safe value.
Immediate Value Matters
The 11 rookies who entered the league as top-15 dynasty running backs enjoy a few benefits over their counterparts. Most importantly, they do not see their value impacted as much based on their actual rookie year production. Fantasy managers perceive these players to be valuable, regardless of how they perform.
Consider, 8/11 underperformed their rookie ADP. The three exceptions are noted below:
However, of the eight who underperformed, only two saw their ADP fall a year later (Derrius Guice & Clyde Edwards-Helaire). The other six running backs saw their ADP remain steady or improve even after falling short of expectations!
The Market Impacts Aren’t As Dramatic
Typically failing to produce at an expected high-level will cause a player’s value to plummet, but that is not necessarily the case for running backs with insulated value. You can see above that poor rookie seasons do not automatically result in a drop in value. However, even for those who fall in ADP, it is typically a much less steep decline. Equally as important, the safer value running backs can withstand market fluctuations and fully recoup their original value.
Let’s take the Colts Jonathan Taylor, for example. In August of his rookie season, Taylor was sitting at RB10 in dynasty startups. After a November slate of games where he averaged 11.5 carries and 38 rushing yards while playing less than 35% of the snaps, Taylor’s early-December ADP saw him fall to RB12. Just one month and four games later, his value rebounded all the way back to RB3.
Another longer-term example would be Dalvin Cook. After entering the league as the RB13 in startups, he climbed up to RB8 after his rookie season. Injuries occurred, and at one point, Cook’s startup ADP fell as low as RB14 in December 2018. One year later, Cook was being drafted as the RB5, fully recouping his original value and then some. This is a benefit not afforded to non-insulated backs, such as a David Montgomery or Ronald Jones, whose value has yet to fully return to their rookie season ADP regardless of production.
Making Use of the Information
So what am I doing with this information? The running backs from 2017 and 2018 who would have insulated value are still somewhat safe. But the further along in a career, the more risk is involved—age matters at running back. Even if Saquon Barkley has a solid 2021 season, he is likely still a depreciating asset unlikely to climb any higher in value as a mid-20-year-old running back.
From the past two classes, the ‘safe’ running backs include:
Everyone already knows how valuable Taylor, Dobbins, and Swift are. I would focus my attention on the other two on this list first. Even as Jacobs and Edwards-Helaire’s values trend downward, I wouldn’t be actively looking to move those assets. You would be selling at a major discount compared to even just three months ago, which isn’t a great process. Secondly, these are the types of players whose value can rebound quickly and fully. Will they definitely rebound? Maybe not. But if they show any signs of life to start the season, we know the value can and likely will come back. That would then create a sell window if you don’t believe in the talent or long-term situation.
Najee Harris and Travis Etienne are probably the only running backs for the incoming class that have a chance to sniff top-15 status right away. If either of those two secure that lofty billing, I would aim for either in startups or trades this offseason. From what we know about backs with insulated value, both Harris and Etienne could be great bets to see a market value increase over the next year, regardless of their rookie season production. Those high-yielding stocks are ones I want to get my hands on by any means possible.