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A Starting Point for 2014 Running Back Projections

Which statistics from 2013 can help us avoid busts in 2014?

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.

RkNameTmRshRshYdYPCRshTDRecRecYDRecTDFP2014
1 Jamaal Charles KAN 276 1373 5 13 75 739 7 370.1 285.5
2 LeSean McCoy PHI 314 1607 5.1 9 52 539 2 306.6 268.1
3 Matt Forte CHI 289 1339 4.6 9 74 594 3 302.3 257.6
4 DeMarco Murray DAL 248 1281 5.2 10 61 400 1 267 231.2
5 Adrian Peterson MIN 319 1447 4.5 11 33 195 1 256.2 227.1
6 Reggie Bush DET 255 1150 4.5 5 62 578 3 251.7 224.3
7 Marshawn Lynch SEA 301 1257 4.2 12 36 316 2 259.3 222.3
8 Knowshon Moreno DEN 241 1038 4.3 10 60 548 3 266.6 220.8
9 LeVeon Bell PIT 300 1058 3.5 10 55 491 0 241.7 218.5
10 Eddie Lacy GNB 303 1257 4.1 12 37 274 0 242.1 216.3
11 Chris Johnson TEN 279 1077 3.9 6 42 345 4 223.2 199.1
12 Ryan Mathews SDG 285 1255 4.4 6 26 189 1 199.4 193.1
13 Arian Foster HOU 242 1084 4.5 2 44 366 2 191 187.5
14 Zac Stacy STL 286 1112 3.9 8 30 161 1 197 184.7
15 Fred Jackson BUF 206 890 4.3 9 47 387 1 211.2 182.8
16 Shane Vereen NWE 88 416 4.7 2 94 854 6 222 180.4
17 Alfred Morris WAS 276 1275 4.6 7 9 78 0 181.8 180.2
18 Frank Gore SFO 276 1128 4.1 9 16 141 0 188.9 178.8
19 Andre Brown NYG 278 984 3.5 6 40 206 0 175 173.8
20 Maurice Jones-Drew JAX 250 857 3.4 5 46 335 0 174.1 168.8
21 Giovani Bernard CIN 170 695 4.1 5 56 514 3 196.9 168.3
22 Joique Bell DET 166 650 3.9 8 53 547 0 194.2 165.9
23 DeAngelo Williams CAR 214 899 4.2 3 28 355 1 164.9 162.5
24 C.J. Spiller BUF 215 995 4.6 2 35 197 0 149.7 159.6
25 Andre Ellington ARI 126 695 5.5 3 42 396 1 155.5 156.9
26 Rashad Jennings OAK 174 782 4.5 6 38 311 0 166.9 155.9
27 Ray Rice BAL 228 704 3.1 4 62 342 0 161.2 155.3
28 Steven Jackson ATL 209 724 3.5 8 44 255 1 175.9 152.2
29 Pierre Thomas NOR 147 549 3.7 2 77 513 3 174.7 151.3
30 Ben Tate HOU 207 881 4.3 5 39 160 0 151 151
31 Danny Woodhead SDG 106 429 4 2 76 605 6 189.4 150
32 Stevan Ridley NWE 203 883 4.3 8 11 71 0 149.1 141.9
33 Rashard Mendenhall ARI 231 733 3.2 9 19 143 0 148.4 137.2
34 Donald Brown IND 102 537 5.3 6 27 214 2 136.6 128.2
35 Darren Sproles NOR 57 235 4.2 2 76 644 2 151.4 126.4
36 LeGarrette Blount NWE 153 772 5 7 2 38 0 124 125.3
37 Darren McFadden OAK 182 606 3.3 8 27 173 0 139.5 122.9
38 Trent Richardson 2TM 188 563 3 3 35 316 1 129.4 122.7
39 BenJarvus Green-Ellis CIN 220 756 3.4 7 4 22 0 121.8 120.5
40 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 102 354 3.5 2 55 364 2 125.1 105.3

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.

RkNameTmComment
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.

More from Chase Stuart:

Running Back Workload Part II - July 18
Running Back Workload - July 11
Running Back Fantasy Production in Wins and Losses - July 7
Quarterback By Committee 2014 - June 19
Rearview QB - June 5
How to Project Receiving Yards In 2014 - May 14
Cross-Team Running Back Handcuffs - August 28
Search our Stats: A Guide to the Data Dominator, Historical Data Dominator, and Game Log Dominator - August 14
Running Back Production By Quarter - August 14
Quarterback By Committee - August 12