The Running Back Dead Zone
Here we are at draft week. Finally! Every year, a problematic dilemma often occurs as many of us scramble to change our strategies for the umpteenth time for a daft in 48 hours. How should we deal with the notorious “running back dead zone.”
The running back dead zone represents RBs drafted in the 3-6 rounds. Some believe it is around 4-7. Still, it historically represents a steep drop in overall production from running backs drafted after the top two tiers are off the board.
Last year’s round 7 was a massive outlier and not representative of what the running back dead zone usually entails. Players like Tony Pollard and Rhamondre Stevenson had great years with 7th-round ADPs. Still, those two guys expected to be number 2 on the depth chart ended up seeing an expanded role. Dead Zone RBs are usually lead-backs or in a strong timeshare with some reason for concern that would make drafters weary of taking them in the first two rounds. For the sake of this article, we will explore rounds 3-6.
There were 13 running backs with an ADP between 25-72. This would represent rounds 3-7 in 12-team leagues. We saw Josh Jacobs be the 20th RB off the board and go on to be the RB3 in PPR and RB1 in standard. While an outlier, it shows the running back dead zone isn’t entirely dead. 2022 gives some reason for optimism with how the dead zone performed.
At first glance, it looks grim. Besides Jacobs, only Travis Etienne and A.J. Dillon finished at or above their ADP. Both did so by the narrowest of margins. When you dig deeper, though, there is room for encouragement. Some finished slightly below their ADP, including Antonio Gibson and James Conner. Others were straight-up passed on the depth chart and didn’t perform, such as Ezekiel Elliot, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Elijah Mitchell. Conner. Injuries took the rest of the crew, including Breece Hall and Javonte Williams. Breece was on [pace to finish as RB7 before getting injured in week 7. Another diamond in the rough was Cam Akers, whom I will discuss later.
Who to target?
Now that we have covered the dead zone let’s discuss who to target. Like the previous sample, these are players with ADPs between 25-72. I will be selecting two guys from each round.
Travis Etienne: Jacksonville Jaguars, RB 11 ADP 27.3
Etienne was RB8 in the second half of last year. The drafting of Tank Bigsby is overblown, and Etienne’s role will continue to progress in what looks to be one of the top offenses in the NFL. It is also being reported that he is getting more goal line and receiving work in camp.
Jahmyr Gibbs: Detroit Lions, RB 14 ADP 34.0
Jahmyr Gibbs went 12th overall in this past year’s NFL Draft, which was a shocker to many. Not because Gibbs could be better, but there has been a narrative against drafting running backs in the first round, let alone number 12. Plus, Detroit seemingly had other needs after just signing running back David Montgomery. Ben Johnson’s offense could have been more friendly to pass-catching back Deandre Swift. Still, I think they would only use such high draft capital if they didn’t plan on revamping the offensive playcalling to feature Gibbs heavily. This pick is a little more risky than Etienne, but the Lions were a fantasy carnival last year, so the sky is the limit here.
Aaron Jones: Green Bay Packers, RB 15 ADP 38.3
I understand he is getting older, and Aaron Rodgers is gone, but a fourth-round ADP is crazy. If anything, a first-time starting QB might lean on a pass-catching back more often in the early going. Jones has finished as a top-10 fantasy running back in the last four seasons. There is little legitimate reason to think he will regress significantly. This is probably the safest pick of the dead zone.
Dameon Pierce: Houston Texans, RB 17 ADP 43.0
Pierce lived up to the billing as a common sleeper pick last season, netting just under 1,000 yards rushing before a season-ending injury. Pep Hamilton could have used him to his total capacity. Pierce was inexplicably taken out on goal-line opportunities in favor of the aging Rex Burkhead and Dare Ogunbowale, which could have been more successful. A more competent Bobby Slowik is bringing the RB-friendly Shanahan Offense to Houston. This bodes very well for Pierce. Devin Singletary will be in the mix for carries as well. However, it is a projected 70/30 split, which is more than enough volume to outproduce this ADP.
Cam Akers: Los Angeles Rams, RB 22 ADP 57.0
My feelings regarding Cam Akers over the year have been less than complimentary. I have not so affectionately referred to this man as “Scam Fakers” due to his frustrating injury history/inability to produce. Last year, however, he finally gave me something to look forward to. Akers turned it on in the final six after a lackluster first 12 weeks to the season. During that time, the season averaged 17.5 fantasy points per game. Over the course of an entire season, that is on the fringe of top 5 RB status. I am not touting him as a potential top 5 running back. I am also paying attention to how bad the Rams will likely be on both sides of the ball. The 22nd RB off of the board, though, after what he showed during the latter half of last year, is too good to pass up.
Javonte Williams: Denver Broncos, RB 24 ADP 62.7
There is obviously a ton of concern for Williams after his devastating knee injury. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill knee injury, either. Williams tore his ACL, LCL, and PLC all at once. Obviously, making a full recovery in one year would be remarkable. Having said that, he is back, and he is playing. The upside is too tremendous here to bypass at the end of the 5th round. Javonte finished as a top 24 back in his rookie 2021 season despite being essentially the backup to Melvin Gordon. That was under Vic Fangio. Now he is running for arguably the two best fantasy football coaches for running backs Sean Payton and Joe Lombardi. We have seen what they’ve been able to do with Alvin Kamara and Austin Ekeler in recent years. Even if he is eased back into a regular role, Williams will get enough touches in this system to live up to this ADP.
Rachaad White: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, RB 27 ADP 70.7
Leonard Fournette owners are probably rolling their eyes at this selection after what the Bucs running backs were able to do last year, but hear me out. Byron Leftwich is gone. So is Tom Brady. Some combination between the two led to the Bucs running the ball under 25 percent of the time last year, which was by far the least in the league. New OC Dave Canales plans to implement a system similar to what he worked with in Seattle. That system got a great rookie season out of Kenneth Walker and ran much closer to the league average. Some are concerned with White’s underwhelming performance backing up Fournette last year. However, the fact the team did nothing in the off-season to improve their RB room and all-pro Tristan Wirfs is back out there blocking for him bodes well for White. He is a steal here.
James Cook, Buffalo Bills, RB 28 ADP 71.3
The Buffalo Bills have a dynamic offense year in and year out. They, for whatever reason, always seem to get little fantasy production out of the running back position. That likely plays a significant role in Cook being drafted so far down. Cook is set to be the feature back after the departure of Devin Singletary and the season-ending injury to Nyheim Hines. Dalvin’s younger brother has a ton of upside, much more than his predecessors at the position in Buffalo have had. You know the volume will be acceptable. At this point in the draft, The upside is so tremendous that he is an excellent back-to-target.