Running backs are dead. Long live running backs.
Fantasy footballers have long sought an indictment against the position. The grand jury convened after 2015 and came back with one.
Last season the running back position was an unmitigated disaster from a fantasy football perspective, running teams everywhere with a devastating combination of injury and underperformance. Few top-tier backs were left standing atop the fantasy rankings after 2015 got done with them. We are witnessing the aftermath of the carnage as the first round has become a wide receiver free-for-all.
But the position isn't dead. It was just knocked unconscious. It'll be back with a vengeance, and the fear permeating fantasy football circles will create plenty of values if you are looking in the right places.
So what are those places? You may recall the Fantasy Index series from a couple of season ago. Well, it's back, bringing you insights about player usage, effeciency and fantasy value this year. We can take a look back at last season to see what the numbers yielded us.
For the purposes of this article, all fantasy scoring is in points-per-reception (PPR) format.
- Att%/16: The percentage of rushing attempts prorated over 16 games.
- Tgt%/16: The percentage of targets prorated over 16 games.
- OvTD%: The overall touchdown rate for a player combining rushing attempts and targets.
- PPR: Points per reception
- PPG: PPR points per game
- PPO: Points per opportunity
- FPS/16: Fantasy points shares prorated over 16 games intended to show the amount of fantasy scoring a player garners compared to the rest of his team
- eFPS/16: A metric of FPS efficiecny based on the combined rushing and receiving averages for a player
Broadly speaking, the numbers above tell us two things: how efficient a player was with his touches (PPO), and how much he was involved in the offense from a fantasy perspective (FPS/16). Prorating to 16 games levels the playing field, so to speak--we can see how much a player was involved in his team's fantasy output over a full season even if he only played 13 games.
There is a bit of a mirage factor here in the numbers, too. A low PPO coupled with a high FPS/16 would indicate a player that relied on volume to score fantasy points, whereas a high PPO with a low FPS/16 could show a player performed well--perhaps overperformed--on relatively limited touches.
Now let's take a closer look at some standouts from the list.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Not that we really needed to highlight just how good Jamaal Charles is, but his advanced stats pretty much tell the story. Another torn ACL has put a drag on his fantasy stock, and owners are rightfully wary of taking him too early. But a healthy Charles is one of the best PPR running backs in the league based on both volume and efficiency.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
From a bird’s eye view, Todd Gurley was the best fantasy back in the land last season. He missed out on top billing in terms of raw production after missing the first three games of the year while still making his way back from a torn ACL, but he managed to score the fifth-most points and tie for the second-most points per game (PPG) in the league. He managed that in spite of catching just 21 passes by averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns.
True, Gurley’s production came on the wings of several huge plays, but can we really hold that against a guy who has been favorably compared to Adrian Peterson since coming out of college? Gurley was second in the league in FPS/16 last season. His Rams were dead last in fantasy-points-generated (FPG), too—there is only one direction to go from there. Even if Jeff Fisher’s team is a brutal disappointment in 2016 yet again, Gurley is going to have a massive share of the fantasy scoring in Los Angeles.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
How is Devonta Freeman routinely going in the middle of the second round in PPR formats? Yes, he left us all with a sour taste in our mouths after averaging an appalling 3.07 YPC over after Week 8, but he was still the top fantasy scorer on the year. More importantly, Freeman was targeted 97 times last season.
Freeman was a workhorse last season, and there is little reason to think that will change in 2016. He got the bulk of the work with or without Tevin Coleman in the lineup thanks to his pass-catching ability. The Falcons have a potent-enough passing game to keep defenses honest, and Freeman takes opposing linebackers’ lunch money in coverage.
Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
The entire San Francisco offense was a dumpster fire last season, so it might be a little unfair to pick on Carlos Hyde. He was simply awful, though, and there was nothing pretty to unearth in a deeper look at his season.
Chip Kelly has been a boon for perceived fantasy value, though, and Hyde’s ADP has been on the rise as a result.
Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
For years Danny Woodhead has been an underrated PPR asset. His pass-catching prowess gives him a high floor to begin with, and the inability of anyone around him to take the reigns as a feature back in San Diego has given him far more volume than anyone expected. But just how good has he been with all those targets?
Yes, he led the league last season, the only running back to crack triple digits in the target category. Yes, he caught 81 of those, six of which wound up in the end zone. In spite of all this, however, Woodhead managed to rank just 12th in standard fantasy scoring last season. When you factor in all the injuries at the position, his finish is even less impressive. He was third in PPR scoring, though, but you all should know by know he is more valuable in that format.
Woodhead ranked 14th at his position in FPS/16, and it’s easy to argue last season was the peak of his usage with Melvin Gordon presumably taking on a bigger role as a sophomore. The trouble with Woodhead is his opportunity percentage--at just 18.5 percent over 16 games, he was easily the least-used running back in the top five scorers in PPR formats. If Gordon takes off, Woodhead's value will plummet.
Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens
Like in San Francisco, there was nothing to like in the Baltimore offense last season. That includes Justin Forsett, who was disappointing for much of the season and missed six games with injury. He ranked just ahead of Hyde with 0.17 FPS/16, not a good look for a guy who should have had the backfield to himself. Of course, scoring just two touchdowns on 181 touches didn’t help matters.
Forsett’s touchdown rate should regress positively, but will his usage fall in the process? Javorious Allen figures to make some noise in his second year, and Kenneth Dixon has plenty of promise as a rookie. Forsett, meanwhile, is going on 31 and has a checkered injury past. It will take an oracle to accurately predict the Ravens background, but it doesn’t seem Forsett is a good bet based on the data.
Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles
DeMarco Murray got all the headlines last season--most of them not the good kind--but Ryan Mathews stole the fantasy show. Now he has a clear shot at the lead role after scoring seven touchdowns in a timeshare. He should be golden in 2016, right?
Not so fast.
For as much as Mathews shined in comparison to his more expensive running mate, the former Charger ranked an abysmal 51st in FPS/16 last season. His 5.1 overall touchdown percentage was among the highest in the league at running back to boot. In other words, not only was Mathews a less efficient fantasy scorer than he seemed, but his output was more touchdown-dependent than most.
Matt Forte, New York Jets
Changing teams and stepping into a timeshare has done a number on Matt Forte’s fantasy stock. Being on the wrong side of 30 hasn’t helped matters, either.
He may have lost some tread on his tires over the years, but his ability to pump out fantasy points didn’t seem to decline last season. The trouble won’t be in his per-touch production, though--his new team could dramatically reduce his opportunity shares.
Charcandrick West, Kansas City Chiefs
If you are looking to hedge your Jamaal Charles bet or simply trying to find some late-round potential in a Zero RB strategy, Spencer Ware is a favorite among fantasy analysts. But what if there was a better option lurking in the Kansas City backfield?
Ware has gotten more hype in his NFL career, but Charcandrick West has proven better from a fantasy production standpoint. West ranked 26th in FPS/16 as opposed to 45th for Ware. While Ware did sport a gaudy 1.10 PPO to West’s 0.74, a disparity in touchdown rates was to blame. That is to say regression will bring those numbers closer together or even flip them, assuming both running backs get similar workloads.
Matt Jones, Washington
One of the more polarizing backs in the preseason is deservedly getting flak from one side of the fantasy football community.
Matt Jones is the de facto workhorse in Washington, and he is being drafted on the promise of volume and that One Big PlayTM he had in 2015. But his numbers were atrocious last season, and gaining a share of the workload only worsened his efficiency. Jones averaged an abysmal 3.4 YPC last season, the worst in the league among backs with at least 100 carries. He ranked 48th in FPS/16 and scored just 0.80 PPO in spite of a halfway decent 2.4 percent touchdown rate. Hist 2.89 eFPS/16 seems good when comparing it with some of the others on this list, but it's inflated by a high receiving average due largely to that aforementioned 78-yard screen pass he caught against the Saints.
In other words, don't be fooled. Goal line work seems to be Jones’ best hope to produce good fantasy numbers.
Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts
Fun fact: Frank Gore was 11th in fantasy scoring last season. Surprised to hear that? Of course you are, because Gore had the most depressing top-12 fantasy finish in recent memory. He was helped, of course, by the slew of injuries and suspensions that hit the running back position hard last season.
Underscoring the underwhelming nature of his 2015 campaign was the fact Gore averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per reception--he was one of the least efficient all-around backs in the league. The former Hurricane was 25th in FPS/16 last season, an admirable figure for a 30-year-old with thinning tread on his tires. He has been one of the most durable backs in the league over the past 12 years, but declining efficiency while approaching 33 years of age is just not conducive to fantasy success going forward.
Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys
The Ezekiel Elliott train is running on full steam power. But do you remember that guy who rushed for 1,086 yards while averaging 4.6 YPC last season? The man who was listed as the starting running back before a broken elbow sidelined him this offseason? That would be Darren McFadden, also known as Destroyer of Fantasy Teams.
Whoever drafted McFadden last season got some prgetty good production. He ranked 13th in fantasy scoring despite scoring just three touchdowns. Of course, Elliott is the running back of the future in Dallas, and we can’t reasonably expect McFadden to hold on to the starting gig for long even if he does regain it upon return from his elbow injury.
Much like the general election, this isn’t necessarily an endorsement of McFadden. It is merely a warning that drafting Elliott in the first round could bring about fantasy disaster by way of McFadden interference. Incidentally, the latter is an intriguing late-round option.
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
What does this say about Ingram’s fantasy value going forward? Was he a product of the system in New Orleans, or was Hightower resurgent in ways nobody dared expect? The answer lies in FPS/16.
Ingram ranked ninth there, while Hightower was way down at 25th. Moreover, the latter’s fantasy output was touchdown-dependent--Hightower scored four touchdowns in six games while Ingram scored six in 12. Given Ingram’s participation increase in the passing game, it seems we shouldn’t be terribly concerned someone will swipe a significant share of fantasy opportunities. Of course, Ingram has only played a full season once thus far in his career, but few running backs can boast durability these days.
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
The instant he signed with the Houston Texans, Lamar Miller's fantasy stock went through the roof. He was coming off a year in which he ranked fifth in PPR scoring as it stood, and he went from a team that had a bizarre distaste for utilizing him more often to one that practically worked Arian Foster into the ground. The Texans also sport a better offensive line.
Naturally, fantasy analysts everywhere pegged Miller for a big year. His advanced numbers tell a similar story.