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Quality Starts: Running Back

Quality starts for 2016 for Running Backs using standard scoring

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 2016 season, I decided to take the #12 RB for the year (Frank Gore, 178.2 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 running back 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 8.3
Quality Start 8.4 to 13.9
Excellent Start 14.0+

Table 1: 2016 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 Excellent Quality Bad Total
David Johnson ARI 11 4 1 16
Le'Veon Bell PIT 7 4 1 12
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 10 5 0 15
LeSean McCoy BUF 9 3 3 15
Melvin Gordon SDC 6 5 2 13
DeMarco Murray TEN 6 7 3 16
Devonta Freeman ATL 7 3 6 16
LeGarrette Blount NEP 5 8 3 16
Jordan Howard CHI 4 7 4 15
Carlos Hyde SFO 4 5 4 13
Jay Ajayi MIA 4 2 9 15
Latavius Murray OAK 5 3 6 14
C.J. Anderson DEN 2 2 3 7
Mark Ingram NOS 6 1 8 15
Tevin Coleman ATL 4 4 5 13
Lamar Miller HOU 3 6 5 14
Spencer Ware KCC 4 2 8 14
Frank Gore IND 1 9 6 16
Matt Forte NYJ 4 2 8 14
Theo Riddick DET 3 0 7 10
Jonathan Stewart CAR 3 4 6 13
Isaiah Crowell CLE 3 5 8 16
DeAngelo Williams PIT 3 0 4 7
Jeremy Hill CIN 3 4 8 15
Ryan Mathews PHI 2 3 7 12
Todd Gurley RAM 1 6 9 16
Bilal Powell NYJ 3 2 11 16
Giovani Bernard CIN 1 4 5 10
Terrance West BAL 3 2 11 16
Rob Kelley WAS 1 4 9 14
Darren Sproles PHI 1 5 9 15
Mike Gillislee BUF 1 6 7 14
Rashad Jennings NYG 1 4 8 13
Jacquizz Rodgers TBB 1 3 5 9
Christine Michael GBP 2 3 10 15
Jerick McKinnon MIN 1 3 11 15
Devontae Booker DEN 1 4 10 15
Jalen Richard OAK 1 3 12 16
Chris Thompson WAS 1 4 11 16
Chris Ivory JAC 0 4 7 11
Tim Hightower NOS 3 2 11 16
James White NEP 1 2 13 16
Matt Asiata MIN 1 2 13 16
Duke Johnson CLE 0 2 14 16
Derrick Henry TEN 2 2 10 14
T.J. Yeldon JAC 0 3 12 15
Robert Turbin IND 1 0 14 15
Zach Zenner DET 2 1 7 10
Shaun Draughn SFO 1 2 11 14
Rex Burkhead CIN 1 0 13 14
    150 171 378  

Table 2: 2016 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 not quite as many Excellent Starts (150) as Quality Starts (171), but given some injuries and more committee backfields it does make sense that there would be fewer elite performances. In comparison to the last several seasons, the numbers are not too far apart with ranges from 150 to 204 Excellent Starts since 2009 and between 167 and 192 Quality Starts over the same period. That range for Excellent Starts gets even smaller (150-178) if you exclude 2015, which correlates to a very low Excellent Start threshold of just 12.6 fantasy points.  Last season there were a lot of Bad Starts (378), 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. Interesting enough, last year's relatively low number of Excellent Starts -only 150, the lowest over the last nine yeras - does not directly correlate to a high point total.  Most seasons in the study had a criteria of 14-16 points to reach Excellent Start status.  It appears that last year was more of a reduction in feature back usage and much more committee backfield approaches.  Table 3 summarizes a few of these trends:

Year Excellent Starts Quality Starts Excellent Starts Threshold
2016 150 171 14
2015 204 167 12.6
2014 178 167 13.4
2013 178 183 14.5
2012 153 192 15
2011 157 178 14.1
2010 154 176 16
2009 173 192 15.3

Table 3: Excellent and Quality Starts - 2009 to 2016 - Standard Scoring

Now, to dig deeper, let's look at the numbers distributed in two different ways. First, I need to define a valuable starting running back 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 Excellent Quality Bad Total NetVal
David Johnson ARI 11 4 1 16 10
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 10 5 0 15 10
Le'Veon Bell PIT 7 4 1 12 6
LeSean McCoy BUF 9 3 3 15 6
Melvin Gordon SDC 6 5 2 13 4
DeMarco Murray TEN 6 7 3 16 3
LeGarrette Blount NEP 5 8 3 16 2
Devonta Freeman ATL 7 3 6 16 1
Jordan Howard CHI 4 7 4 15 0
Carlos Hyde SFO 4 5 4 13 0
Latavius Murray OAK 5 3 6 14 -1
C.J. Anderson DEN 2 2 3 7 -1
Tevin Coleman ATL 4 4 5 13 -1
DeAngelo Williams PIT 3 0 4 7 -1
Mark Ingram NOS 6 1 8 15 -2
Lamar Miller HOU 3 6 5 14 -2
Jonathan Stewart CAR 3 4 6 13 -3
Spencer Ware KCC 4 2 8 14 -4
Matt Forte NYJ 4 2 8 14 -4
Theo Riddick DET 3 0 7 10 -4
Giovani Bernard CIN 1 4 5 10 -4
Jacquizz Rodgers TBB 1 3 5 9 -4
Jay Ajayi MIA 4 2 9 15 -5
Frank Gore IND 1 9 6 16 -5
Isaiah Crowell CLE 3 5 8 16 -5
Jeremy Hill CIN 3 4 8 15 -5
Ryan Mathews PHI 2 3 7 12 -5
Zach Zenner DET 2 1 7 10 -5
Mike Gillislee BUF 1 6 7 14 -6
Rashad Jennings NYG 1 4 8 13 -7
Chris Ivory JAC 0 4 7 11 -7
Todd Gurley RAM 1 6 9 16 -8
Bilal Powell NYJ 3 2 11 16 -8
Terrance West BAL 3 2 11 16 -8
Rob Kelley WAS 1 4 9 14 -8
Darren Sproles PHI 1 5 9 15 -8
Christine Michael GBP 2 3 10 15 -8
Tim Hightower NOS 3 2 11 16 -8
Derrick Henry TEN 2 2 10 14 -8
Devontae Booker DEN 1 4 10 15 -9
Jerick McKinnon MIN 1 3 11 15 -10
Chris Thompson WAS 1 4 11 16 -10
Shaun Draughn SFO 1 2 11 14 -10
Jalen Richard OAK 1 3 12 16 -11
James White NEP 1 2 13 16 -12
Matt Asiata MIN 1 2 13 16 -12
T.J. Yeldon JAC 0 3 12 15 -12
Rex Burkhead CIN 1 0 13 14 -12
Robert Turbin IND 1 0 14 15 -13
Duke Johnson CLE 0 2 14 16 -14

Table 4: 2016 RB Start Types Sorted By Value - Standard Scoring

This is a lot of information once again, but there are some important things to note here.  Back in 2014, elite running backs dominated the list, while last year was completely scattered at the top due to injuries and surprises at the position.  While last year's chart above looks like the NFL has reverted back to a feature back league once again, there is still a high chance of a lot of uncertainty and surprises at the running back position for this season.  Doing your homework this summer to know who is the lead back (and also who is the clear backup, if there is one) for all 32 teams could mean all the difference for your team this year.

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 2017 ADP list.

Running Back Team Excellent Quality Bad Total NetVal ADP
David Johnson ARI 11 4 1 16 10 1
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 10 5 0 15 10 3
Le'Veon Bell PIT 7 4 1 12 6 2
LeSean McCoy BUF 9 3 3 15 6 8
Melvin Gordon SDC 6 5 2 13 4 9
DeMarco Murray TEN 6 7 3 16 3 17
LeGarrette Blount NEP 5 8 3 16 2 87
Devonta Freeman ATL 7 3 6 16 1 11
Jordan Howard CHI 4 7 4 15 0 13
Carlos Hyde SFO 4 5 4 13 0 40
Tevin Coleman ATL 4 4 5 13 -1 55
C.J. Anderson DEN 2 2 3 7 -1 57
Lamar Miller HOU 3 6 5 14 -2 26
Mark Ingram NOS 6 1 8 15 -2 53
Spencer Ware KCC 4 2 8 14 -4 48
Theo Riddick DET 3 0 7 10 -4 96
Jay Ajayi MIA 4 2 9 15 -5 15
Isaiah Crowell CLE 3 5 8 16 -5 35
Frank Gore IND 1 9 6 16 -5 84
Mike Gillislee BUF 1 6 7 14 -6 73
Todd Gurley RAM 1 6 9 16 -8 21
Bilal Powell NYJ 3 2 11 16 -8 68
Derrick Henry TEN 2 2 10 14 -8 83
Leonard Fournette JAX rookie 23
Marshawn Lynch OAK un-retired 29
Christian McCaffrey CAR rookie 36
Joe Mixon CIN rookie 47
Ty Montgomery GBP   49
Dalvin Cook MIN rookie 58
Eddie Lacy GBP injured 59
Ameer Abdullah DET injured 64
Adrian Peterson NOS injured 67
Doug Martin TB injured/suspended 77
Paul Perkins NYG little usage as rookie 78
Danny Woodhead PHI injured 90
Samaje Perine WAS rookie 103

Table 5: 2016 Top Drafted RBs Sorted By 2017 Value - Standard Scoring

Remember how I said that there could be some uncertainty at running back?  Table 5 sure points to that, with so many players making the list that were either injured, retired or on a different team (or that fit several of these descriptions) less than a year ago.  Throw in that we have five rookies in our Top 36 based on current ADP and only one thing seems certain - getting an elite option early in a draft may make your team a lot more stable this season.  That will likely remain a hot debate all summer, as your options are either to take a running back early and cobble together depth later on, or to lock up stud receivers (and a tight end) and let the chips fall where they may by snapping up a lot of options later.  With so many viable choices at this time and so much change at the running back position across the league, you really need to know who is playing where and what the various depth charts will look like heading into September.  Just as an example, Adrian Peterson's move to New Orleans impacts not just himself but Mark Ingram's value and also the depth chart that remains behind in Minnesota.  A similar story plays out in Oakland, where Marshawn Lynch has returned to the league and has a shot to lead a backfield that has seen Latavius Murray move to - wait for it - Minnesota, Peterson's former club.  Be sure to read up on your depth charts.  So while 2016 data is nice to have, it may not be the best indication for 2017 value - preseason depth charts and following Footballguys news may be your best edge.   

With so much turmoil at tailback, it is important to point out that this value list is based solely on last year's results. There is no reason to believe in these numbers as indications of 2017 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.