Last summer’s deep dive into backfield stats focused on Top 10 PPR running back weeks produced by backfields, ranked by team. This made the Saints stand out, tied for third with only Pittsburgh (Le'Veon Bell) and Arizona (David Johnson) ahead of them despite not having a Bell/Johnson talent and an RBBC approach. While we may revisit that exercise this year, I decided to take a different angle this year, spurred by the realization that ranking running games by rushing statistics that include quarterbacks doesn’t give a clear picture of the potential of the backfield to produce fantasy points. So I stripped away quarterback statistics from aggregate running game totals and also totaled passing game statistics produced by running backs to give a clearer picture of how effective and efficient backfields were at producing fantasy points in 2017. What did this exercise reveal? I’ll share what I found division-by-division.
The Buffalo running game isn’t as impressive when Tyrod Taylor’s stats are removed. They fall from 6th in total rushing yards to 13th in running back rushing yards and 14th in yards per carry to 21st in running back yards per carry. Tyrod Taylor did not help LeSean McCoy, in fact, McCoy averaged over six yards per carry in the games Taylor’s partial or missed games. This picture gets even bleaker when the change at quarterback from Taylor to Josh Allen or AJ McCarron, the paucity of quality wide receivers with oft-injured Kelvin Benjamin as the only proven target, and the loss of three starting offensive linemen. The team had 384 running back rush attempts, good for 12th in the league, but with more losing on the horizon, that number should take a dip. The Bills only ranked 20th in backfield non-PPR points and 22nd in backfield fantasy points per rush despite the good volume.
The Bills were in the top half of the league in running back targets (12th), receptions (8th), completion percentage on running back targets (8th), but were 30th in running back yards per catch. McCoy should get a lot of volume as a receiver once again, but he isn’t making many big plays or scoring often on those receptions. The Bills were 30th in nonPPR fantasy points per reception last year, and there’s no reason that number should go up this year, especially if rookie Josh Allen takes over because he occasionally struggles with short throws.
Only six backfields produced fewer than the nine total touchdowns Buffalo created for their backs, and again, the offense should be less effective and efficient across the board. McCoy only scored in one Bills loss, and it was the embarrassing blowout loss at the Chargers. Three of his four games with 60 or fewer total yards came in losses. The Bills are highly unlikely to go 9-7 this year, so more scoreless and low output games are likely.
Action Items: Unless McCoy starts falling to the mid-late third, he shouldn’t be part of any draft plan. Chris Ivory is looking like one of the least essential handcuffs despite a lack of competition for backup touches and McCoy going into his age-30 season with a lot of mileage because this offense is not going to be efficient or productive.
The Dolphins were not a high volume running back running game, ranking 28th in attempts, but they were tied with Chicago for 14th in running back yards per carry (4.06), although that was almost all due to Kenyan Drake’s 4.88 yards per carry in his five starts. Their running back yards per carry on the rest of their attempts was 3.75, which would have been good for 25th in the league. The offense added Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage to improve the running back depth, swapped out Mike Pouncey for Josh Sitton as the best interior offensive lineman, and will get Ryan Tannehill back to usher in the end of Jay Cutler’s career, so Drake should be able to have a similar level of effectiveness this year, albeit likely on less per game volume.
Even with the boost that Drake gave the running game in the first third of the season, the Dolphins only mustered three running back rushing scores on the season. The good news is that two came from Drake during his five-game starting stretch. The Dolphins only produced .46 fantasy points per carry on the season, which was 30th in the league, but Drake produced .62 fantasy points per carry in his five starts, which would have been tied for 5th in the league, equal to the Jaguars.
In the running back passing game, the Dolphins were 24th in targets and receptions and tied for 27th in completion percentage. They were 29th in yards per completion and 31st in receiving yards, with two scores, one by Drake and one by Damien Williams. Drake’s yards per reception did spike to 8.8 in his five starts, compared to 5.93 in the other 11 contests. Miami was more efficient and productive in the running back passing game in 2016, but they were still near the league bottom in volume, so don’t expect this number to go up significantly, although there may be high percentage targets freed up after Jarvis Landry was replaced with Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson.
Action Items: Drake is falling to the fourth round of early drafts, which might be an overreaction to the signing of Gore, drafting of Ballage, and Dolphins inclination to not work Drake the way they did down the stretch last year. His efficiency as a runner and receiver and likelihood that he still leads this backfield in touches should give him a base to be a solid RB2 with playmaker RB1 weekly upside. They should create a lot more than 2017’s five total running back touchdowns, although Gore could gobble up the gains if they come in short yardage running situations. The addition of Ballage and overall lackluster performance by Dolphins backs not named Drake in 2017 makes Gore a non-essential handcuff.
Prepare to be impressed. The Patriots were sixth in running back carries and fourth in running back rushing yards, even though their leading rusher had only 180 carries. They weren’t just a volume-based running game, either. New England finished fifth in running back yards per carry, and on the back of 16 running back rushing scores (tied with Jacksonville for second in the league), they were third in fantasy points per running back rush.
In the passing game, the Patriots were third in running back targets, second in running back receptions and receiving yards, and first in running back receiving touchdowns, with three different backs putting up at least 30 receptions and three scores. Replacing LeGarrette Blount with Rex Burkhead (and Mike Gillislee, who went by the wayside by midseason) caused the passing numbers to backs to spike in 2017, and with Burkhead back and first-round pick Sony Michel replacing Dion Lewis, there should be ample opportunity for running backs in the passing game to go around.
Only New Orleans produced more running back nonPPR and PPR fantasy points than New England last year, and only eight other backfields produced even 75 percent of the total nonPPR running back fantasy point pie.
Action Items: With Michel and Burkhead falling to the sixth round and later in early drafts and James White basically left for dead, coming away with at least one Patriots back in your draft seems imperative. Even if injuries don’t create the league-winner opportunity that Dion Lewis had in Week 16 last year, the huge running back fantasy point pie to divide means that 40 percent of the Patriots running back points is more than 60 percent of the running back points in half of NFL backfields. You want shares of this backfield.
NEW YORK JETS
Despite their committee backfield approach and 5-11 record, the Jets actually ranked 16th in running back rush attempts. Their running back rushing yardage (17th), yards per carry (19th), and fantasy points per rush (19th) aligned with their middling volume. That volume could go up this year based on reports that offensive coordinator John Morton was fired over his lack of ability and unwillingness to establish the running game, although the team will have to cooperate with close/winning game scripts for that to happen.
Likewise, the Jets were 20th in nonPPR fantasy points per running back reception, targets and completions to running backs, 14th in yards per reception, and 15th in completion percentage on targets to running backs. Replacing Matt Forte with Isaiah Crowell could result in more targets and receptions for Bilal Powell and/or Elijah McGuire, but Crowell is a functional pass catcher and should be more durable than Forte was over the last two seasons. Seven of the Jets 10 running back touchdowns came in their five wins, and it’s difficult to forecast that win number to increase this year. The Jets may aspire to run more often like so many other teams, but it is unlikely that the desire becomes reality this year.
Action Items: Bilal Powell is going in the “fill out your bench” portion of drafts and he has demonstrated a weekly RB1 upside, but only when the other primary back in his backfield is injured - and Isaiah Crowell hasn’t missed a game in his career. Crowell is going close to where Powell was going last year, but he doesn’t have Powell’s pass-catching upside and would need Powell to miss time to be a reliable play - and Powell has missed one game in the last two years. Without injury to clarify this limited ceiling backfield, there won’t be a consistent play except as a possible matchup flex. Stay away.