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 Texans had a rough season, but really it was a tale of two seasons, one with Deshaun Watson starting and one without. Even while limping to one of the worst records in the league, they had 396 running back carries, good for seventh in the league. They averaged two more running back carries per game in Watson’s starts than in Savage/Yates starts, and 31 running back carries per game in Watson’s wins. The running back running game didn’t produce touchdowns at a greater rate (four in ten games vs. two in six) or have a higher yards per carry (3.8 vs. 3.72) with Watson in the lineup. The overall lack of efficiency in the running back running game meant that the Texans were only 15th in running back rushing yards, 24th in yards per carry, and 29th in fantasy points per running back carry in 2017. The offensive line is being overhauled, and Watson didn’t have an appreciable effect on their running game efficiency last year. The best hope for improvement comes in the form of D’Onta Foreman, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored twice on only 78 carries, but he is coming back from an Achilles tear.
The running back passing game is almost the opposite of the running game, low volume, but high efficiency. The average running back receptions per game didn’t go up with Watson, but the efficiency went through the roof. In Watson’s six starts, running backs averaged over 11 yards per reception and scored two of the three receiving scores from the backfield on the year (the majority of this production went to Lamar Miller). When Watson didn’t start, backs averaged only 7.6 yards per reception. Houston backs yards per reception and nonPPR fantasy points per reception in games that Watson started would have been good for #1 in the league, even better than the Todd Gurley-led Rams running back passing game, which is astounding when you consider the difference in talent between Gurley and Lamar Miller.
Overall, this was not a productive backfield for fantasy, ranking 23rd in nonPPR fantasy points and 25th in PPR fantasy points, but it is notable how much volume they created while being a losing team, with spikes in Watson-led wins, and how much value Watson added to the running back passing game.
Action Items: This isn’t going to turn into a strong running game overnight, but the prospect of Deshaun Watson starting 16 games would greatly increase the volume of the running game. The hyper-efficiency of the running back passing game with Watson could mean that Lamar Miller is a PPR RB2 value in the fifth. Foreman could become a target in the 9th round if he looks good in training camp. Watch Tyler Ervin’s recovery from a torn patellar because he could become the receiving specialist out of the backfield that the team envisioned when they took him in the fourth round in 2016.
First and foremost, there’s not a lot to take away from 2017 as it impacts the 2018 backfield outlook for the Colts. Frank Gore is gone, Andrew Luck will hopefully be back, the coaching staff has had complete turnover, including a head coach who employed a four-headed RBBC last year as an offensive coordinator. There are still a few interesting takeaways from the Colts' lost season.
The Colts were a losing team, but they still ranked 13th in running back carries. They were 26th in yards per carry and 27th in fantasy points per rush, exposing the inefficiency created by a subpar passing game and offensive line. Indianapolis’s running back passing offense was in the bottom four in targets and receptions, but they were in the top half of the league in yards per reception and fantasy points per reception, fueled by Marlon Mack, although Frank Gore was also above league averages in both categories.
Action Items: There’s going to be little in common between last year’s Colts offense and this year’s, but the team’s ability to stay competitive enough to be in the top half of the league in running back rush attempts and Jacoby Brissett’s ability to be in the top half of the league in production per running back reception gives some reason for optimism. Fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines could play the Danny Woodhead/Darren Sproles role in Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni’s offense and build on the running back receiving efficiency, which should add a lot of volume with a weak wide receiver group.
No one will be shocked to learn that the Jaguars were first in running back carries, although they were second to the Saints in running back rushing yards and rushing scores. Considering their extreme volume by 2017 standards, the Jaguars ability to finish ninth in yards per carry and fifth in fantasy points per rush should be commended. These numbers did not drop significantly when Leonard Fournette was out of the lineup, suggesting greatly that they were a product of the game scripts and offensive line more than Fournette’s talent.
What might surprise some of you is that the Jaguars were ninth in running back targets and eighth in running back receptions. They were middle of the road in running back passing game efficiency, ranking 16th in fantasy points per reception and 15th in yards per reception. The reliance on running backs in the passing game shouldn’t change in 2018, and it could increase with the departure of Chris Ivory, as TJ Yeldon had his highest volume receiving games when Fournette was in the lineup and Ivory was marginalized. The team should get Corey Grant more involved this year, and his speed threatens more chunk plays in the passing game on running back targets.
Action Items: You’ll have to pay a first to get Fournette, but the steady passing game involvement, volume, and efficiency of this running game justify it after the top five backs and top three receivers are gone in PPR leagues. The biggest potential profit proposition in the Jaguars running game is taking TJ Yeldon, who is basically free as a late-round pick. The running game reliance and production didn’t wane when Fournette was out, and he missed three games last year and also nursed an injury through his final year at LSU. Even Grant with his big-play ability could register on the fantasy radar if Fournette or Yeldon miss time. The worthy investment and value generator here is the Jaguars backfield, not Fournette.
For a team built around “exotic smashmouth” ie a strong running game, the Titans fell well short of the mark in 2017. They weren’t even in the top half of the league in running back rush attempts (18th), and they were an embarrassing 23rd in yards per carry. Some of that can be chalked up to Demarco Murray and his 3.6 yards per carry, but outside of his pair of 70+ yard game-clinching touchdown runs with less than a minute left, Henry also failed to have sustained success.
The Titans were also dead last in running back receptions and targets, although they did manage to finish 16th in fantasy points per running back reception, thanks mostly to a 66-yard reception for a touchdown by Henry against the Jaguars in Week 17. This should change in 2018 thanks to a new offensive staff led by Matt LaFleur, who was part of massive successes in Atlanta and Los Angeles in 2016 and 2017. The signing of Dion Lewis is proof an intention to increase running back targets, as he should be more skilled and explosive as a receiver than any back the Titans have had recently.
Action Items: Derrick Henry is going ahead of Dion Lewis in drafts, and if the Titans running back targets remain the same as 2017, that will be correct. However, it’s reasonable to expect that they won’t and instead will employ something closer to a 50-50 split in the backfield with more emphasis on running back receptions. If the entire offensive pie (they were only 22nd in running back fantasy points) gets larger, that split might not be an inhibitor of value for Lewis and Henry. We’ll have to watch the buzz out of Tennessee closely to see if a Rams-esque turnaround is in the cards this year to know whether either or both of the Titans backs are worth draft picks at ADP.