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 Broncos season was so bad that they ended up picking fifth in the draft and yet they still finished fifth in running back carries. They were only 17th in total running back rushing fantasy points, 18th in yards per carry and 23rd in fantasy points per carry, so this was one of the less efficient running games even though it was among the highest volumes. CJ Anderson handled 245 of 406 running back rushing attempts, so there is a big hole to be filled in the backfield.
Denver didn’t lean on their backs as much in the passing game, ranking 15th in running back targets and 14th in running back receptions. The running back passing game wasn’t highly efficient, ranking 18th in yards per reception and 22nd in nonPPR fantasy points per reception. While Devontae Booker was the least efficient runner of the top three backs, he had the best yards per reception (similar to his numbers in 2016), which should keep him involved in the passing game even if third-round pick Royce Freeman overtakes him in the running game.
Overall, this was a middling backfield despite the commitment to the run. The Broncos were 17th in total backfield nonPPR fantasy points and 18th in total backfield PPR fantasy points. Case Keenum should improve the passing game, which has the potential to create more scoring drives and longer drives in general. The defense gained #5 pick Bradley Chubb, with the hopes of restoring the no fly zone.
Action Items: It feels like this backfield will be a mix of Devontae Booker and Royce Freeman. Neither is talented enough to add a lot of value to touches that didn’t have a strong base of value in the Broncos offense last year. The Broncos did like to pour on the rushing attempts in wins, which could give one or both good matchup value, but there’s not a lot of draft appeal in shares of an inefficient split backfield with middling production.
The Chiefs backfield showed us last year that size isn’t everything - that is, size of the running back carry volume. They were 29th in running back carries despite being a division winner. Rushing champion Kareem Hunt helped them have the 2nd highest yards per carry, 13th highest total running back rushing fantasy points and 4th highest fantasy points per rush. What’s difficult to discern is how much of this was Hunt and how much was the Kansas City running game, as Spencer Ware had an even higher yards per carry and similar fantasy points per rush efficiency in 2016 before he was concussed.
Kansas City gave running backs the 14th most targets and 12th most receptions, boosted by the fourth-best completion percentage on passes to backs. They were only 23rd in running back yards per reception, but it should be pointed out that Charcandrick West’s 5.6 yards per catch would have been worse than the 32nd ranked Giants running back yards per reception, while Kareem Hunt’s average of 8.6 would have ranked 14th. The Chiefs were eighth in total nonPPR running back fantasy points on receptions, thanks mostly to the five scores to backs through the air.
Overall, the Chiefs finished tenth in total running back fantasy points whether you count by PPR or nonPPR. This has a productive and highly efficient backfield through the last three starters, with the one hitch of the West/Ware committee splitting the productivity after Jamaal Charles went down in 2015. In an RBBC, the Chiefs lower volume running game made playing either back a riskier week-to-week proposition.
Action Items: While this exercise revealed just how efficient the Chiefs running game was at producing fantasy points, it shouldn’t change Kareem Hunt’s ranking as a low first-round pick. The Chiefs moves at running back this offseason indicate that they aren’t sure how much they’ll get from Spencer Ware, so the specter of anything approaching a committee is faint right now. The numerous veteran backs on the roster behind Hunt also make it difficult to pick a handcuff to try to catch the wave of this backfield’s production if Hunt were to go down.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers had yet another underachieving season and their running back running game fell in line with that. They were 14th in running back carries, but only 22nd in yards per carry. Their ten running back rushing scores helped establish the 14th most running back fantasy points in the running game and a respectable 17th in fantasy points per rush. The hope is that the firming up of the offensive line with good health from the interior trio of Mike Pouncey, Forrest Lamp, and Dan Feeney will improve the running game.
The Chargers got running backs involved as receivers more than they did in 2016, when Danny Woodhead went down early in the season, but less than 2015, when they had 172 running back targets. 2017’s 132 targets to backs was good for tenth in the league, and they were also tenth in yards per catch, with help from Austin Ekeler’s 10.3 yards per reception on 27 catches. Their backs combined for seven scores through the air, which fueled them to the fourth-highest total running back passing game fantasy points, whether we count by PPR or nonPPR scoring, and fifth-highest fantasy points per reception.
Overall this backfield was sixth in total running back fantasy points in both PPR and nonPPR scoring, which is especially impressive when you factor in that they were tenth in targets and 14th in carries. They lost Hunter Henry, which could actually result in more red zone opportunities for backs, but perhaps fewer trips to the red zone. The running game shouldn’t suffer too much from the loss of Henry since top blocking tight end Virgil Green was signed in the offseason.
Action Items: Gordon’s efficiency numbers as a runner are still subpar, but his continued development as a receiver helped keep him in the RB1 mix. The Chargers ability to create high-end running back fantasy points with middling running back volume helps firm up his first-round value, but also means we shouldn’t overlook Austin Ekeler and seventh-round pick Justin Jackson as waiver wire speed dial backs, or deep league bench stashes.
Before we even delve into the Raiders 2017 backfield numbers, we must qualify this with the caveat that Jon Gruden is looking to go “old school”. The Raiders were 26th in running back carries, but 11th in yards per carry, 16th in total rushing running back fantasy points, and an astonishing 7th in fantasy points per rush. Take out DeAndre Washington’s weak 2.7 yards per carry on 27 carries and the Raiders would have had elite rushing efficiency. It appears that they should have been running the ball more often.
They stressed throwing to backs more than handing off, finishing 13th in running back targets and receptions, but again there’s Washington dragging down the average with his poor 5.8 yards per catch on 34 receptions. The running back passing game was inefficient, finishing tied for 26th in fantasy points per reception, and that sunk their total running back fantasy points in the passing game to 23rd in nonPPR points and 21st in PPR fantasy points.
Despite the lack of commitment on the ground and DeAndre Washington performing poorly, the Raiders backfield was still 18th in total running back fantasy points in nonPPR and 19th in running back fantasy points in PPR. One would think that will more emphasis on the running game, there is a solid foundation for growth in Raiders backfield fantasy value.
Action Items: Marshawn Lynch is the cheapest clear-cut starting running back in fantasy drafts, and that might be a mistake by the hive mind. The Raiders clearly have been more effective running the ball than the underuse of their inside running game would lead you to believe. Read Matt Waldman for more positivity on the Raiders running game.