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 later, 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 Ravens lost their best offensive lineman two weeks into the season, didn’t have the services of Kenneth Dixon, ended up relying on a running back released by the Seahawks and still had one of the most productive backfields in the league. Some of this could be due to the lackluster wide receiver and tight end groups, but the team will be breaking in new players at both positions and most likely force Joe Flacco to mostly rely on players that weren’t on the roster last year.
The Ravens were third in running back carries and yards, and a strong eighth in yards per carry and tenth in fantasy points per rush even though Javorius Allen and Terrance West took 192 of their handoffs. Alex Collins is the reason these numbers were so good last year, and he should be an even bigger part of the backfield this year.
Baltimore was also fourth in running back targets and completions, although they weren’t very productive with those targets. Only the Giants had a lower running back yards per reception than the Ravens 6.22 and a lower nonPPR fantasy points per reception at .73. The high volume in running back targets came in spite of Danny Woodhead missing half of the season, which bodes well for Collins’ role as a receiver, which grew in the second half of the season, and should add value to the return of Kenneth Dixon. The Ravens were still fifth in total running back PPR fantasy points and seventh in nonPPR fantasy points, so the passing game inefficiency didn’t hurt too much, in part because it was offset by volume.
Action Items: This offense should improve and remain heavily reliant on the backfield. Alex Collins produced like an RB1 after the bye last year but is available for RB2 prices. If drafting him early feels risky, Kenneth Dixon is free at the end of drafts and he is clearly the more talented of the two backs behind Collins. This backfield is very cheap to invest in despite the high volume and good rushing efficiency.
The Bengals running game was barren soil for running back fantasy production last year. They were 24th in running back carries and fantasy points per running back carry, 25th in running back rushing yards and yards per carry, and 26th in total rushing running back fantasy points. Those numbers would have been even worse without Giovani Bernard and his 4.36 yards per carry on 105 attempts.
The passing game to running backs was a little brighter. The Bengals were only 23rd in running back targets and 22nd in running back receptions, but they were 5th in running back target completion percentage and 7th in running back yards per reception. That yardage boosted them to 13th in nonPPR fantasy points per reception, despite running backs only scoring twice through the air, and to 14th in total nonPPR fantasy points to running backs in the passing game.
The overall picture was still bleak, at 28th in nonPPR running back fantasy points and 26th in PPR running back fantasy points. The good news is that the team added Cordy Glenn at left tackle and first-round pick Billy Price (Ohio State) at center, 2017 first-round pick John Ross is healthy and should provide field-stretching speed to keep safeties on their heels, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has a whole offseason to install his scheme after at least getting a pulse out of a flatlining offense two games into the season.
Action Items: With an uptick in running game volume and efficiency and first half of 2017 usage, Joe Mixon could become an RB1, and he’s available at an RB2 price in the third round. The more exciting play here is Bernard going once we are starting to fill out our benches, but that demands an assumption of rational coaching - ie the Bengals will use Bernard more after his strong performance when Mixon was hurt late last year.
The Browns were a bizarre team last year - the rare 0-16 squad that stopped the run and ran the ball efficiently. Not that they ran the ball a lot - they were 32nd in running back rush attempts and 30th in total running back fantasy points in the running game - but Cleveland was 10th in the league in running back yards per carry. Because they only had six running rushing scores, they were only 18th in fantasy points per running back carry. There is a foundation there for a much more productive running back running game if the team is more competitive this year.
The running back passing game was at the opposite end of the spectrum, in part due to game scripts, but mostly due to the quality of Duke Johnson Jr. The Browns were tied for fourth in running back targets and receptions and third in running back receiving yards. They were seventh in total nonPPR running back fantasy points through the passing game, and third in PPR running back fantasy points via the pass. DeShone Kizer was terrible in many ways, but with him at the helm most of the time, the Browns were 16th in running back target completion percentage and fantasy points per running back target and 13th in running back yards per reception. Perhaps this will change a bit with Josh Gordon on board for the entire season and the addition of Jarvis Landry. Whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield, the downfield passing game should at least improve slightly. It’s possible the Browns have an uptick in carries but slight downtick in running back receptions due to upgrades across the offense.
Action Items: Cleveland’s overall running back fantasy point finish of 21st may go up and PPR running back fantasy point ranking of 14th may do down, but the more important question for us is whether that is an attractive situation with three good running backs to split up the production? Duke Johnson Jr isn’t going anywhere as one of the top three targets in the passing game, and Carlos Hyde is better than Latavius Murray, so Nick Chubb is unlikely to vanquish him to the bench the way Dalvin Cook did to Murray last year. This exercise revealed some positive conclusions about the Browns running back fantasy production on the whole, but the situation is too uncertain and crowded to pursue in drafts.
The Steelers aren’t as interesting to analyze as a backfield because we’re mostly just analyzing Le'Veon Bell. They were 10th in running back carries and 11th in running back rushing yards and running back running game fantasy points, but only 16th in yards per carry and fantasy points per carry. Three of the four other running backs to get a carry other than Bell had a better yards per carry than Bell, but that is unlikely to change the team approach to divvying up carries in the backfield this year.
Pittsburgh was middle of the road in the running back passing game involvement, ranking 18th in targets, 21st in yards per running back reception, and 15th in receptions. With only two scores to backs through the air, the Steelers were a poor 25th in fantasy points per running back reception.
With finishes of 14th in total running back fantasy points, 13th in total running back PPR fantasy points, and 22nd in running back nonPPR fantasy points in the passing game, the Steelers aren’t exactly a fantasy wonderland for running back production, but that is overshadowed by the value of Le'Veon Bell because he gets over 80% of the running game running back production and over 95% of running back passing game production.
Action Items: Nothing really, keep Bell in your top four. Jaylen Samuels was added in the draft as a receiving specialist out of the backfield, so we can’t even pursue a clear handcuff to Bell to capitalize on the Steelers penchant for feeding just one back in the Bell era - even when Bell was out (thanks DeAngelo!).
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