For the better part of the last 20 years running backs were thought of as the most important position and driving force of fantasy football teams. With the fantasy football landscape shifting and moving towards the dynasty format and more recently superflex formats the position has been devalued. The fantasy world has mirrored that of the NFL with running backs being seen as much more replaceable. Running back value in general has decreased as a result of this view.
With the shifting of the game many managers have lagged behind in their approach to the position.
Running back factors to consider
The approach to the running back position has many factors to consider. From a player perspective: age, draft capital, and contract are very important.
Rookie running backs can be extremely productive. The window for a running back is so short that teams are looking to utilize running backs immediately.
The higher the draft capital the more likely a running back gets touches immediately. It’s not a revolutionary thought, but it is a clear signal to fantasy managers what a team thinks about the value of a running back. When factoring in how replaceable the position is thought to be by the NFL, investing significant draft capital (round one, two, or three draft pick) in a running back is extremely telling.
Money talks. Rashaad Penny is electric when he is on the field. Statistics support that Penny is amongst the best running backs in the league when healthy. Penny landed in a lauded spot with the Eagles this off season. Penny is not a running back who has job security. He signed a one year deal with a max value of $1.35 million and $600,000 guaranteed. It is quite possible he could be cut if there are any issues before or during the season.
Miles Sanders, the former Eagles running back, signed a four year deal with a max value of $25.4 million and $13 million guaranteed. Despite what managers feel personally about Sanders the NFL, specifically the Carolina Panthers, value Sanders very highly. His real-life value should directly affect his fantasy value.
This information is useful for how to approach rostering and managing these players on our teams. Penny is someone that should be considered a sell by many managers. The hype surrounding his signing is a perfect situation to capitalize on. Managers who are in a win now mode and are utilizing him for depth are in a better position to hold Penny.
Running back window
When looking at how running backs should be managed on dynasty rosters, they are like the truffle grated on the top of an amazing dish. The rest of your roster should be well formed and filled with strong pieces before adding a premium running back. The reason for this is the short career and even shorter premium production window of running backs.
To best capitalize on these windows, you want the rest of your roster in a position to compete immediately when adding a high value running back. The likelihood that a high value running back will produce right away makes it easier to build a roster that is ready to perform at their respective peaks together. This creates a window in which your team has the best chance to win.
The green bars represent when your players are playing at a high level. In years one and two the position groups are aligned, and the team is competing for a championship. In years three and four the running backs and tight ends are outside of their windows. The team manager should be selling running backs in year three and four. The high-level play window for all other position groups does not align again until year five. Entering year five running back value has increased for the team. The manager should be acquiring running backs to seize the opportunity to compete.
Most running backs will have a career between two to four years in the NFL. Elite backs will have a career that most often falls between five and seven years. Of those five to seven years there will be two to four years of high-level production.
Veteran Running Back Exceptions
With everything in life there are exceptions to this rule. Most running backs are not highly productive after year four in the league. A running back like Sanders finds himself in a situation where he should break the mold.
Sanders’ contract dictates that he should see heavy usage. Despite getting the biggest contract of any running back this off season in free agency the fantasy community is generally down on Sanders.
This is a great buy window for competing teams. The Panthers are not likely to be great this year but that should not cause you to write off Sanders. There is no other position where the saying “Opportunity is king” is truer than running back. Sanders is going to see significant work even on a bad team.
Non-competing teams running backs approach
Running back value is lowest for teams that are not competing. On non-competing teams productive running backs that have low draft capital should be moved whenever possible. Examples of these players are Tyler Allgeier, Isaiah Pacheco, and Khalil Herbert. Despite strong performances last year fantasy football is not about storylines or emotions.
There are far more cases where a player with low or no draft capital at the running back position is moved on from despite good past performances than there are of these players becoming long term successes. For every Austin Ekeler, Chris Carson, or Aaron Jones there is a James Robinson, Phillip Lindsay, or Marlon Mack.
Teams that are not ready to compete should be selling running backs that have been productive to acquire quarterbacks, wide receivers, or tight ends. These positions generally have a longer window of time in which they will compete at a high level.
This does not mean these teams should pass up on value in rookie drafts. If a running back is the most valuable player available there are options. The manager should look to trade the pick or draft the running back and then trade it to acquire more draft capital or a young player at another position.
Competing teams running back approach
Running back value is highest for teams in their championship window. Teams that are looking to compete should be actively pursuing elite running backs. Investing first round rookie draft capital at the running back position is ideal. The first choice would be to acquire a rookie running back with high NFL draft capital because of age and immediate production. If there are not ideal options in the rookie draft trading the pick or drafted player to acquire a veteran running back can work too.
Acquiring a veteran running back, like the aforementioned Sanders, or a David Montgomery (based on his high dollar contract from the Lions) can net great returns. The flexibility competing teams have to address the running back position is beneficial. Veteran running backs can often be acquired cheaper than their younger counterparts.
Managers should be evaluating the other position groups to ensure they are aligned for elite performance before targeting running backs. Whatever avenue that is used to get high level running backs alignment of the window to compete is paramount.
When contenders should sell running backs
Contenders often should be adding running backs to their teams to fit the final piece to their championship winning puzzle. This does not mean that they should always stand pat with their rostered running backs. Trading a depth running back that is going to lose value can return a piece that can be valuable to a contending team.
The key to moving running backs as a contender is to have a path to increase the potential for points scored. Package the declining running back with a pick or other asset to trade for a higher value running back or better pick in the rookie draft.
A player like Damien Harris could be packaged with a late second round rookie pick or an early third round rookie pick to move up into the early second round of the rookie draft. The early second round in a rookie draft should return a top five rookie running back (think Tank Bigsby) who should provide some points with a higher upside while being younger than Harris.
Understanding when to buy and sell running backs will go a long way in building a strong team. Mastering it will give you an advantage over your league mates.
How have you handled running backs on your dynasty teams? Join the conversation and drop us a comment!
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A fantasy football degenerate with an extreme love for the game. The only position Sam has ever played in any form of competitive football is armchair quarterback.
An affinity for football and watching games together was a part of growing up for him and his three brothers. 30 plus years as a Vikings fan has made him a glutton for punishment and a believer that he can do something his hometown team can’t, put together a championship roster.
Now 22 years into his fantasy football general manager career he is here to offer insight, advice, and the same hope for championships that he desperately clutches to for his Purple People Eaters.