How do you begin the process of making your running back projections? Most people will use last year’s statistics (or a three-year weighted average) as the starting point for their 2014 projections. From there, fantasy players modify those numbers up or down based on factors such as talent, key off-season changes, player development, risk of injury, etc. But in this article, I’m advocating that you use something besides last year’s numbers as your starting point.
Regular readers may remember that I introduced this concept last season. The math may get a bit complex, but the thinking is simple: When you base a player’s fantasy projections off of his fantasy stats from last year, you are implying that all fantasy points are created equally. But that’s not true: a player with 1100 yards and 5 touchdowns is different than a runner with 800 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Fantasy points come from rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Since some of those variables are more consistent year to year than others, your starting fantasy projections should reflect that fact. In last year's article, I derived the best-fit formulas to project each of those metrics:
1) Rushing Yards (R^2 = 0.47). The best-fit formula to predict rushing yards is:
-731 + 3.73 * Rush Attempts + 180 * Yards/Rush
2) Receptions (R^2 = 0.42). The best-fit formula to predict receptions is:
11.1 + 0.39 * Receptions + 0.032 * Receiving Yards
3) Receiving Yards (R^2 = 0.38). The best-fit formula to predict receiving yards is:
83.7 + 1.65 * Receptions + 0.46 * Receiving Yards
4) Rushing Touchdowns (R^2 = 0.29). The best-fit formula to predict rushing touchdowns is:
0.1 + 0.0037 * Rushing Yards + 0.35 * Rushing Touchdowns
5) Receiving Touchdowns (R^2 = 0.23). The best-fit formula to predict receiving touchdowns is:
0.1 + 0.0022 * Receiving Yards + 0.25 * Receiving Touchdowns
Using these formulas, we can come up with a good starting point for your 2014 running back projections.
2014 Starting Fantasy Running Back Projections
The table below shows the statistics for the top 40 fantasy running backs last year after pro-rating each players’ statistics to 16 games (minimum 8 games). The final column, which is how the table is sorted, displays the number of projected fantasy points for each running back in a 0.5 PPR league in 2014. Other than the final column, all other columns in the table show 2013 stats, pro-rated to 16 games. Remember, this formula doesn't know about any of the changes that happened after the 2013 season: it's based purely on regressing last year's data.
Remember, the 2013 columns are all projected to 16 games, as is the projected 2014 points column. The system does not attempt to tell you who will get injured; it just makes a guess as to how many points the running back will score if he's healthy all year.
Translating the Regression into English
Not that you need the help of this regression to know it, but it likes Adrian Peterson more than it does Knowshon Moreno. Last year, Moreno averaged more fantasy points per game than Peterson, but the results are projected to flip this year. Why? As a general rule, rushing yards are more sustainable than receiving yards. For Peterson, 88% of his yards from scrimmage came on the ground last year, compared to just 65% for Moreno. Of course, with the ex-Broncos back now in Miami, he'll have an even harder time picking up over 500 receiving yards again this year.
Arian Foster is another player this formula likes. Last year, he ranked just 18th out of this group of backs after pro-rating every player's numbers to 16 games, but that's because Foster had just two rushing touchdowns. Rushing touchdowns are much less sticky than yards: after all, Foster scored 17 touchdowns in 2012. The Houston star ranked 11th in yards from scrimmage in 2013 on a per-game basis, but was a fantasy bust because of injuries and a lack of touchdowns. There's reason to think things will be different in 2014.
C.J. Spiller is another player who might be undervalued. He gained just two touchdowns in 15 games last season and was generally viewed as a fantasy bust. It's hard to argue with that categorization, but Spiller still averaged 4.6 yards per rush in 2013. Joique Bell had about 45 more fantasy points than Spiller last year, but is projected by this metric to outpace Spiller by only 6 fantasy points this year. Of course, the regression doesn't know that Spiller is likely to be his team's #1 back and Bell his team's #2, but we can gain insight into the system by seeing why the gap between those two closes. Bell scored 8 touchdowns despite having just 650 rushing yards, while Spiller had 2 touchdowns and 995 (pro-rated) yards on the ground. Spiller also had a much better yards per carry average. And while Bell was better in the receiving game, he averaged over 10 yards per reception, which is an unsustainably-high average.
In general, this system is skeptical of receiving backs. Danny Woodhead caught 76 passes and scored 6 receiving touchdowns: that made him a top-20 back, but is that production repeatable? The regression is concerned about giving a high ranking to a player who rushed for just 429 yards and two touchdowns. Giovani Bernard, Pierre Thomas, and Darren Sproles are also dinged for the same reason. As the NFL shifts more toward the passing game every year, it's fair to wonder if these receiving backs can buck the trend and sustain those levels year after year. After all, there's a limit to what the regression (and well, all of us) can know about the future.
Since these projections do not include any non-statistical information, you want to use real-world knowledge to modify them. Fortunately, that’s where my Footballguys co-staffers are extremely valuable, and they’ll provide you with many articles this offseason explaining why players are under or over-rated. For example, you might want to upgrade or downgrade these computer projections because of factors such as:
- The player’s previous history (prior to last season)
- His risk of injury
- His risk of being benched
- His offensive line and other surrounding personnel
- A change of teams or a change in coaching staff
- His attitude and intangibles
- Your intuition
Allow me to run through the top running backs on each team according to our starting projections and tell you how I’d modify them (as of late May). Your mileage may vary greatly.
|1||Jamaal Charles||KAN||Until further notice, Charles is the fantasy king.|
|2||LeSean McCoy||PHI||The addition of Darren Sproles may prevent McCoy from catching Charles, but that's about it.|
|3||Matt Forte||CHI||Quietly had a dominant season in Chicago's suddenly-exciting offense.|
|4||Adrian Peterson||MIN||Still a dominant RB1; ahead of Forte in non-PPR leagues.|
|5||DeMarco Murray||DAL||My injury tolerance is higher than most: Murray is a top-five back when healthy.|
|6||Eddie Lacy||GNB||Moves from 10 to 6 because of expected improvement in year 2, and question marks about the players ahead of him.|
|7||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||Some regression from the Seattle defense and concerns about Christine Michael knock him behind Lacy.|
|8||Giovani Bernard||CIN||A clear RB1 in PPPR leagues, Bernard should shoulder a bigger load on the most talented offense (outside of QB) in the NFL.|
|9||Doug Martin||TAM||A healthy Martin should return to top-10 form.|
|10||Arian Foster||HOU||The offensive line is not as strong as it was a few years ago, but he doesn't need to have 2012 numbers to be an RB1.|
|11||Reggie Bush||DET||The regression puts him at 6, but concerns about losing touches to Joique Bell, the returns of Martin and Foster, and expected improvement from Bernard knocks him down here.|
|12||LeVeon Bell||PIT||An unimpressive yards per carry average and the addition of LeGarrette Blount could lead to fewer touches per game in 2014.|
|13||Montee Ball||DEN||The Denver RB1 spot is a fantasy goldmine, but Ball still needs to prove himself on the field.|
|14||Ryan Mathews||SDG||As always, the concern is injuries, not talent. Mathews is in an excellent situation, but will lose snaps in a talented San Diego backfield.|
|15||Chris Johnson||NYJ||The Jets aren't necessarily a downgrade in supporting cast, but Johnson may split carries now more than ever.|
|16||Zac Stacy||STL||Stacy should be set for another strong season: the Rams defense and offensive line should be better, although that's countered by the addition of Tre Mason.|
|17||Knowshon Moreno||MIA||Now in Miami, no longer an RB1.|
|18||Shane Vereen||NWE||Vereen was lights out on a per-game basis last season; he's not a traditional running back, but he'll be a PPR monster.|
|19||Alfred Morris||WAS||Morris quietly had another strong season in 2013, and should be expected to continue that success this year.|
|20||C.J. Spiller||BUF||With a bum ankle, Spiller still averaged 4.6 yards pre carry. He's clocking in here at 20, but has top-5 potential.|
|21||Ray Rice||BAL||This is just a reflection of Rice's career success: a projection based on last year's numbers would put him in the bottom five.|
|22||Andre Ellington||ARI||Ellington was electric as a rookie, and should get more touches this year.|
|23||Rashad Jennings||NYG||Jennings had four or fewer carries 6 times last year; he's more of a clear RB1 now in new York|
|24||Frank Gore||SFO||At some point, Gore has to show signs of age, right?|
|25||Maurice Jones-Drew||OAK||Goes from clear top running back to a committee with McFadden, until one of them gets hurt.|
|26||Trent Richardson||IND||While he had a disastrous 2013, Richardson should still get the vast majority of carries in Indianapolis this season.|
|27||Bishop Sankey||TEN||The new Titans running back has a clear path to touches, making him the highest-ranked rookie back.|
|28||Ben Tate||CLE||Tate is finally a RB1, but it's far from an ideal situation.|
|29||Steven Jackson||ATL||At 31 in July, Jackson is on his last legs in Atlanta.|
|30||Pierre Thomas||NOR||Thomas has never hit the 150-carry mark in his career. He's been a great player on a per-touch basis, but touches have always been the key concern.|
|31||Toby Gerhart||JAX||In Jacksonville, Gerhart finally gets a chance to prove himself after four years as Adrian Peterson's apprentice.|
|32||DeAngelo Williams||CAR||The oldest starting running back in the NFL, Williams is also in a permanent committee in Carolina.|