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Brief Look At The RB Dead Zone: Three Running Backs To Target

dead zone

Most of us have heard about the running back dead zone, but the dreaded "dead zone" exists for other positions, too. It doesn't mean avoiding all positional players in that range. However, it's a warning sign about player archetypes, as Josh Larky explains in detail. Each position has an ideal profile, but we can't have it all, so we hope to minimize the risks in finding a potential value.

In the RB dead zone, history tells us we find breakout receivers in Rounds 3-6, sometimes extending into Round 8 instead of taking TRAP backs. A TRAP back is a running back with projected volume and garnering low-value touches, primarily via rushing like Damien Harris or Elijah Mitchell. Again, we're oversimplifying a bit, but the RB dead zone means there's a point in the draft to avoid selecting receivers. That, typically, occurs after the RB dead zone, where the receiver cliff falls off. 

Another way to think about this concept is by putting positional players into tiers based on their skills, opportunity and preference. Without knowing how each draft will play out, it's helpful to bucket players into different profiles. 

Challenging The RB Dead Zone: 3 Running Backs To Target 

In life, I find motivation in challenging these prior notions. With that, let's examine some backs to consider in the projected RB dead zone, though history tells us to avoid these red flags. Last season, D'Andre Swift came out of the dead zone. Can we find another back or two with the potential to smash? 

The two backs that draw us in are Travis Etienne and Breece Hall, who are going after pick 24 in round three to six or eight. Meanwhile, we have a third back surging in Dameon Pierce—the preseason darling. Since Etienne and Hall haven't played a regular-season snap, the community has mixed thoughts on both backs. 

Dead Zone RB To Target No. 1 — Travis Etienne

Etienne and Hall remain near-elite prospects for varying reasons. Although Etienne didn't close out his college career strong as a senior, he posted two seasons with more than 1,600 rushing yards in 2018 and 2019 translating into a 61% backfield dominator rating in 2018 and 72% in 2019. He also thrived in the receiving game with a 10% target share and 14% share in his final two seasons in college. 

dead zone

According to Sports Info Solutions, Etienne ranked highly in the advanced stats. He ranked third with YAC/Att and third with a 41.5% broken plus missed tackle rate amongst backs with 100 carries from 2018 to 2020. If we look at Etienne as a receiver, he ranked second with 3.6 yards per route run amongst college backs with 50 targets (2018-2020). Etienne finished with the most EPA and EPA per target as a receiver in front of another personal favorite, Kenneth Gainwell. 

Although we haven't seen it in the NFL, Etienne possesses the skills of an elite back in the rushing and receiving game we would typically value as a first or second-round pick. Buy into Etienne in the RB dead zone as a potential week-winner. 

Dead Zone RB To Target No. 2 — Breece Hall

When Hall compares to Dalvin Cook, we should pay attention. Hall finished with back-to-back seasons with more than 1,400 rushing yards and a respectable 7% target share in his college career. He produced near-elite numbers with an 81% backfield dominator rating. 

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Hall also checks the athleticism boxes with a 95th-percentile Speed Score, 95th-percentile Freak Score and 94th-percentile Explosion Rating as a young back at 217-pounds. Before the Jets selected Hall, I loved Michael Carter heading into 2022 since Carter showed the receiving upside as a rookie. It's safe to expect the Jets' offense to leap with Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson, Hall and Carter as their core offensive players. While we probably can't roster both, look for Hall and Etienne in the RB dead zone since they have a balanced rushing and receiving profile. 

Preseason Riser — Dameon Pierce

One back that seems like he isn't similar to Hall or Etienne includes Pierce. With a mediocre and unexciting college profile, Pierce finds himself as the potential lead back for the Texans. At Florida, Pierce shared touches with a mobile quarterback in Emory Jones, plus other backs like Malik Davis and La'Mical Perine. That seems like a common trend, so account for that with Pierce's peak 2021 season.

He rushed for 574 yards and added 216 receiving yards, translating into a 48% backfield dominator and 7% receiving share. Some of Pierce's top comparisons via college production, draft capital and 40-yard dash time include DeeJay Dallas, Harris and Jordan Wilkins as the most recent options. Harris seems like the best-case scenario with the potential for a backup role in the future. Meanwhile, Pierce's workout metrics look mediocre, with a 47th-percentile Speed Score and 54th-percentile Explosion Rating. 

Pierce's Sneaky Good Underlying Metrics

It's helpful to look at the SIS data for college players, and Pierce boasted sneaky good underlying metrics. Amongst backs with 100 carries in 2021, Pierce ranked 26th with 3.4 YAC/Att and 16th with a 27% broken tackle plus missed tackle rate. Although there's a college workload difference, Pierce's metrics compared similarly to Falcons' rookie Tyler Allgeier with 3.5 YAC/Att and 27.2% BT+MT/Att. 

In the preseason, Pierce showed the ability to create yards after contact while evading and breaking tacklers. Pierce's ADP in best ball and redraft leagues keeps climbing with the preseason hype, and rightfully so. With the fluid RB dead zone and the casual drafter possibly sleeping on Pierce, we'll want exposure to him, but don't get too overzealous.