Quality Starts - Running Backs
By Jeff Pasquino
June 30th, 2011

There are some fantasy football players that believe that the lineup you pick can lose you a game just as much as it can win a contest. Having a player give you a consistent performance week after week can be considered more valuable than a player who goes off every third week and then takes two weeks off between those fantastic performances. Consistency has a value, and it does not take much of a leap to understand that players that you can rely on for solid games when you need them (such as in your postseason) are a huge advantage.

Baseball has a term called "Quality Starts" for pitchers, which is a statistic that represents how often a starting pitcher will put up a good (not great, just good) performance in a given game. The bar is set neither high nor low (six innings pitched, three earned runs or fewer) so as to gauge a decent performance. The theory behind it is that if your pitcher gives you a Quality Start, your team has a fighting chance to win a given game.

So now we need to translate this to football. What is "quality" for each position? How do we define a "Quality Start" for quarterbacks or running backs or any other position? Looking back at the 2010 season, I decided to take the #12 RB for the year (Ahmad Bradshaw, 203.9 fantasy points) and take that fantasy total and divide it by 16 for a per game average. Now a case can be made to argue against doing this. I did not account for missed games or a per-start performance metric, but I believe that the numbers will get averaged out by doing this method. Also, taking RB12 seems a bit arbitrary, but if you are looking for a bare minimum of quality, the 12th RB should be the "worst starter" in your fantasy league as a RB1 and a great RB2.

So now we move on to the next question - one of quantifying the quality. At what point do we decide whether or not a quarterback has given us a quality performance? Here is where it gets a bit murky, but looking at the distribution of RB performances by starters over the season and it becomes evident that the using the 12th RB average and adding or subtracting a percentage gives us a good range for a RB Quality Start.

Using the RB Quality Start range, we can also define a bad performance or an excellent performance as either falling below or exceeding the Quality Start range. Table 1 gives us the fantasy points that it takes to fall in each of the three areas:

RB Start Type
Fantasy Points
Bad Start
0 to 9.5
Quality Start
9.6 to 15.9
Excellent Start
16.0+

Table 1: 2010 RB Quality Start and Fantasy Point Ranges - Standard Scoring

Table 2 shows us the breakdown of all the Top 50 RBs and how many of each type of start resulted for each:

Running Back
Team
Type Of Start
Excellent
Quality
Bad
Total
Arian Foster
HOU
10
4
2
16
Adrian Peterson
MIN
7
4
4
15
Jamaal Charles
KCC
7
6
3
16
Peyton Hillis
CLE
5
6
5
16
Chris Johnson
TEN
8
2
6
16
Darren McFadden
OAK
5
4
4
13
LeSean McCoy
PHI
4
7
4
15
Rashard Mendenhall
PIT
7
4
5
16
Ray Rice
BAL
4
7
5
16
Matt Forte
CHI
6
4
6
16
Michael Turner
ATL
6
3
7
16
Ahmad Bradshaw
NYG
5
6
5
16
Maurice Jones-Drew
JAC
6
3
5
14
Steven Jackson
STL
4
7
5
16
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
NEP
5
5
6
16
Cedric Benson
CIN
5
1
10
16
Mike Tolbert
SDC
4
3
8
15
LaDainian Tomlinson
NYJ
2
7
6
15
Knowshon Moreno
DEN
6
2
5
13
Frank Gore
SFO
3
4
4
11
Fred Jackson
BUF
3
2
11
16
Brandon Jacobs
NYG
2
5
9
16
Jahvid Best
DET
1
4
10
15
Felix Jones
DAL
1
4
11
16
Danny Woodhead
NEP
2
6
7
15
Thomas Jones
KCC
3
3
10
16
LeGarrette Blount
TBB
5
0
8
13
Michael Bush
OAK
3
4
7
14
Brandon Jackson
GBP
2
3
11
16
Ronnie Brown
MIA
1
3
12
16
Darren Sproles
SDC
2
3
11
16
Ryan Torain
WAS
3
3
4
10
Marshawn Lynch
SEA
1
3
12
16
Ryan Mathews
SDC
1
4
7
12
Mike Goodson
CAR
1
3
12
16
Tim Hightower
ARI
2
2
12
16
Christopher Ivory
NOS
2
2
8
12
Jonathan Stewart
CAR
0
5
9
14
Shonn Greene
NYJ
0
3
12
15
Jason Snelling
ATL
1
1
12
14
Cadillac Williams
TBB
0
4
12
16
Ricky Williams
MIA
1
2
13
16
Rashad Jennings
JAC
2
3
8
13
Justin Forsett
SEA
0
2
14
16
Leon Washington
SEA
1
3
12
16
Keiland Williams
WAS
1
2
13
16
C.J. Spiller
BUF
1
0
13
14
LaRod Stephens-Howling
ARI
0
3
10
13
Joseph Addai
IND
2
2
4
8
Donald Brown
IND
1
3
9
13
 Totals
154
176
408

Table 2: 2010 RB Start Types Sorted By Top 50 RBs - Standard Scoring

That's a lot of info to digest, so let me help. First, we see that there are almost as many Excellent Starts (154) as Quality Starts (176), but given some injuries and more committee backfields it does make sense that there would be fewer elite performances. In comparison to 2008 and 2009, the numbers are not too far apart (186 Excellent Starts in 2008 as compared to 184 Quality Starts, while 2009 was 173 and 192). A concerning trend line is starting to take shape as 2010 is the second year of declines in Excellence (184 to 173 to 154). Some of it can be explained by the increased amount of points it took in 2010 to qualify for an Excellent Start (16+ points, compared to 15.3+ in 2009), but that really does not matter. All we care about are RB12 or better performances, so grabbing top notch RB talent is critical. There are also a large number of Bad Starts (408), but we are only looking for the best here, plus a "start" is not as definitive for a positional player that may just see partial playing time.

Now, to dig deeper, let's look at the numbers distributed in two different ways. First, I need to define a valuable starting quarterback in this system. We want a RB that will win more fantasy games than lose them, so we want either "Quality" or "Excellent" starts. Using a simple formula of scoring each type of start, we can define the value of a given NFL running back. Here is the formula:

Starting Fantasy RB Value = Excellent Starts - Bad Starts

We neglect to look at Quality Starts because they neither win games nor lose them on average - they are just average RB performances. We only really care about how often he helps our team vs. how often he hurts it. Giving a "-1" value to bad starts and "+1" to excellent ones does this for us.

On with the results, sorted by value:

Running Back
Team
Type Of Start
Net Value
Excellent
Quality
Bad
Total
Arian Foster
HOU
10
4
2
16
8
Jamaal Charles
KCC
7
6
3
16
4
Adrian Peterson
MIN
7
4
4
15
3
Chris Johnson
TEN
8
2
6
16
2
Rashard Mendenhall
PIT
7
4
5
16
2
Darren McFadden
OAK
5
4
4
13
1
Maurice Jones-Drew
JAC
6
3
5
14
1
Knowshon Moreno
DEN
6
2
5
13
1
Peyton Hillis
CLE
5
6
5
16
0
LeSean McCoy
PHI
4
7
4
15
0
Matt Forte
CHI
6
4
6
16
0
Ahmad Bradshaw
NYG
5
6
5
16
0
Ray Rice
BAL
4
7
5
16
-1
Michael Turner
ATL
6
3
7
16
-1
Steven Jackson
STL
4
7
5
16
-1
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
NEP
5
5
6
16
-1
Frank Gore
SFO
3
4
4
11
-1
Ryan Torain
WAS
3
3
4
10
-1
Joseph Addai
IND
2
2
4
8
-2
LeGarrette Blount
TBB
5
0
8
13
-3
Mike Tolbert
SDC
4
3
8
15
-4
LaDainian Tomlinson
NYJ
2
7
6
15
-4
Michael Bush
OAK
3
4
7
14
-4
Cedric Benson
CIN
5
1
10
16
-5
Danny Woodhead
NEP
2
6
7
15
-5
Ryan Mathews
SDC
1
4
7
12
-6
Christopher Ivory
NOS
2
2
8
12
-6
Rashad Jennings
JAC
2
3
8
13
-6
Brandon Jacobs
NYG
2
5
9
16
-7
Thomas Jones
KCC
3
3
10
16
-7
Fred Jackson
BUF
3
2
11
16
-8
Donald Brown
IND
1
3
9
13
-8
Jahvid Best
DET
1
4
10
15
-9
Brandon Jackson
GBP
2
3
11
16
-9
Darren Sproles
SDC
2
3
11
16
-9
Jonathan Stewart
CAR
0
5
9
14
-9
Felix Jones
DAL
1
4
11
16
-10
Tim Hightower
ARI
2
2
12
16
-10
LaRod Stephens-Howling
ARI
0
3
10
13
-10
Ronnie Brown
MIA
1
3
12
16
-11
Marshawn Lynch
SEA
1
3
12
16
-11
Mike Goodson
CAR
1
3
12
16
-11
Jason Snelling
ATL
1
1
12
14
-11
Leon Washington
SEA
1
3
12
16
-11
Shonn Greene
NYJ
0
3
12
15
-12
Cadillac Williams
TBB
0
4
12
16
-12
Ricky Williams
MIA
1
2
13
16
-12
Keiland Williams
WAS
1
2
13
16
-12
C.J. Spiller
BUF
1
0
13
14
-12
Justin Forsett
SEA
0
2
14
16
-14
 Totals
154
176
408

Table 3: 2010 RB Start Types Sorted By Value - Standard Scoring

This is a lot of information once again, but some names leap out at us. For example, the Top 4 names should come as no surprise, but a non-PPR stud like Rashard Mendenhall is right there with some of the bigger names. If Pittsburgh does not add a third-down or goal-line specialist, Mendenhall could be a great value for 2011. Darren McFadden is also right up there, so if you get a late first round pick you can do much worse than picking him this year. Two surprises come next as both Ray Rice and Michael Turner are not too high on this list. It is clear that Ray Rice needs help from PPR and also loses value from having a touchdown vulture around like Willis McGahee. If McGahee does not re-sign in Baltimore, Rice stands to skyrocket. As for Turner, the thought has always been that he is worth more in standard leagues, but based on this analysis it is time to really rethink that opinion.

Before we move on, we do have to address two more running backs from Table 3. Knowshon Moreno is a classic "numbers lie" back from 2010, as Denver is aching to replace him as their top back. Do not use 2010 as a reason to draft Moreno high. James Stewart is also quite concerning here as even with DeAngelo Williams out with injury most of last year he still could only gain five Quality Starts and ZERO Excellent Starts. That would scare the bejeezus out of me if I was planning on grabbing Stewart this year as a RB2 with upside.

One back that is a hidden gem is Marshawn Lynch, who closed out the regular season with a Quality Start and an Excellent Start in December when he finally settled in with the Seahawks after a trade from Buffalo mid-year. Lynch really broke out with national exposure with a very memorable playoff game as the Seahawks upset New Orleans in the Wild Card Round. If Seattle does not add another running back, Lynch could be a great dark horse pickup for sharp fantasy team owners.

Lastly I will sift through it for you and get right to the heart of the matter with our final table. Here we have the results sorted by value for the Top 36 RBs on the 2011 ADP list.

Running Back
Team
Type Of Start
Net Value
ADP
Excellent
Quality
Bad
Total
Arian Foster
HOU
10
4
2
16
8
2
Jamaal Charles
KCC
7
6
3
16
4
4
Adrian Peterson
MIN
7
4
4
15
3
1
Chris Johnson
TEN
8
2
6
16
2
3
Rashard Mendenhall
PIT
7
4
5
16
2
10
Darren McFadden
OAK
5
4
4
13
1
15
Maurice Jones-Drew
JAC
6
3
5
14
1
6
Knowshon Moreno
DEN
6
2
5
13
1
39
Peyton Hillis
CLE
5
6
5
16
0
26
LeSean McCoy
PHI
4
7
4
15
0
7
Matt Forte
CHI
6
4
6
16
0
21
Ahmad Bradshaw
NYG
5
6
5
16
0
32
Ray Rice
BAL
4
7
5
16
-1
5
Michael Turner
ATL
6
3
7
16
-1
14
Steven Jackson
STL
4
7
5
16
-1
17
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
NEP
5
5
6
16
-1
62
Frank Gore
SFO
3
4
4
11
-1
13
Ryan Torain
WAS
3
3
4
10
-1
76
Joseph Addai
IND
2
2
4
8
-2
75
LeGarrette Blount
TBB
5
0
8
13
-3
35
Cedric Benson
CIN
5
1
10
16
-5
53
Ryan Mathews
SDC
1
4
7
12
-6
36
Fred Jackson
BUF
3
2
11
16
-8
70
Jahvid Best
DET
1
4
10
15
-9
48
Jonathan Stewart
CAR
0
5
9
14
-9
38
Felix Jones
DAL
1
4
11
16
-10
64
Marshawn Lynch
SEA
1
3
12
16
-11
72
Shonn Greene
NYJ
0
3
12
15
-12
46
C.J. Spiller
BUF
1
0
13
14
-12
83

Table 4: 2011 Top Drafted RBs Sorted By 2010 Value - Standard Scoring

Note that several rookies in the Top 36 ADP list (Mark Ingram, Daniel Thomas, Ryan Williams) are absent for the simple reason that they did not start any games last year, while Ryan Grant, DeAngelo Williams and Pierre Thomas are missing due to injuries last season. James Starks (Green Bay) is currently in the Top 36 but he finished well outside of the Top 50 RBs last year (RB117) since he was only active in three Packers games, all in the last month of the regular season.

Judging from 2010, it seems that BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ryan Torain and Knowshon Moreno would appear be great values, but odds are that they will lose their lead back jobs for this coming season. If Darren McFadden can keep up his pace from last year, he could be a great choice for those with a later first round pick. Peyton Hillis also looks good, but I personally fear not just Montario Hardesty's return to action but also a move towards more of a passing game, lowering Hillis' touches. Both Matt Forte and Ahmad Bradshaw could also be steals with owners falsely believing that most of their values come in PPR leagues. If both contribute as they did last year, Forte and Bradshaw will push for consecutive RB1 seasons. That brings up an important point, which is that all of this is based solely on last year's results. There is no reason to believe in these numbers as indications of 2011 performance, but having this information available should give you more to think about when deciding who you will have leading your fantasy team this year.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.

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