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 Cowboys had a rough stretch when Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games, but they were still fourth in running back carries, sixth in yards per running back carry and total running back rushing fantasy points, and solid ninth in fantasy points per running back rush despite not having Elliott for so long and watching the air go out of the offensive balloon.
Where the Cowboys were positively woeful was the volume of use of running backs in the passing game. They were 31st in running back targets and PPR running back passing game fantasy points, and 26th in non-PPR running back passing game fantasy points. Dallas was third in running back yards per catch and fourth in running back fantasy points per reception, but those totals were overly inflated by an 81-yard touchdown reception by Rod Smith against the Giants because the low volume made the sample size prone to being skewed by one big play. Dallas was still ninth in total running back fantasy points in PPR despite the paucity of passing game involvement.
Action Items: The Dallas backfield was still a robust producer of fantasy points in a season that saw Ezekiel Elliott miss six games and his yards per carry drop a full yard from 2016 levels. It can absolutely support Elliott’s top 4-5 ADP, and make Rod Smith valuable (again) if Elliott misses time. Will Scott Linehan remember the running back is an eligible receiver more often this year? Lance Dunbar was off to a scalding start in terms of volume and efficiency in 2015 before his catastrophic knee injury, and this offseason the team acquired “web back” Tavon Austin, who could fill a similar role. A spike in running back targets seems to be called for with the leading two targets from last year, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, gone from the passing game. Perhaps more believable than Austin catching 40-50 balls is the Cowboys embracing Elliott as a “do everything” back for this offense in the way that Arizona, Pittsburgh, and the Rams have with their lead backs, which would increase the value of a pick in the 3-5 range, given the probability of Elliott being there at each slot.
New York Giants
The Giants surprisingly ended up 17th in running back carries and yards per carry, but a lack of touchdowns (5) sunk them to 23rd in running back rushing fantasy points and 24th in fantasy points per running back carry. The team lost road grader D.J. Fluker in free agency but added Will Hernandez in the draft, and their game scripts should improve with the return of Odell Beckham, addition of Nate Solder to firm up the pass blocking, and #2 overall pick Saquon Barkley greatly upgrading the backfield, so both the volume and efficiency could go up.
The Giants amount of passing game involvement for running backs was also unexpectedly high, with the sixth highest number of targets to and receptions by backs. Shane Vereen only accounted for under forty percent of them, so it wasn’t strictly a function of him playing 16 games. On the flipside, the team had the lowest yards per reception for backs in the entire league and only one measly score from all of those receptions. This left them at 28th in total non-PPR fantasy points to running backs and 32nd in fantasy points per reception. Their total PPR points to running backs was only 15th on the sixth highest volume because of inefficiency. Overall, the Giants produced the 22nd most PPR fantasy points by running backs, which means their high volume of passes still didn’t increase the bottom line much from their decent running game production.
Action Items: The Giants running game was more efficient with a higher volume than their terrible record should have allowed, and they fed running backs in the passing game. This bodes well for Saquon Barkley’s chances of making good on his lofty ADP, assuming the team doesn’t lean too much on Jonathan Stewart. New head coach Pat Shurmur oversaw the very productive (even after the loss of Dalvin Cook) Minnesota backfield last year, which only helps the case for an aggressive draft position for Barkley.
The Eagles four-headed backfield was still heavily used and very efficient even though they didn’t have a true bell cow. The Eagles handed off to backs the eighth-most times in the league and had the third-highest yards per carry average. The backfield only produced nine rushing scores, so they were 9th in total running back rushing fantasy points and tied for 10th in fantasy points per rush - offsetting the sky-high yards per carry factor in their efficiency.
The loss of Darren Sproles was huge for the Eagles backfield in the passing game, as they neglected backs as targets after he went out for the season. They finished 30th in running back targets, receptions and total PPR running back passing game fantasy points, and 26th in total non-PPR running back passing fantasy points. Philadelphia did have four passing scores to backs on a very low volume and the sixth highest yards per reception, which jacked up their fantasy points per running back reception to third in the league.
The neglect of backs as receivers contributed to modest overall rankings for the Eagles backfield in fantasy production - only 12th in total non-PPR running back points and 20th in total PPR running back fantasy points.
Action Items: We know the Eagles backfield can productive and efficient, and their low passing game volume in 2017 was an aberration. While this helps make the case for Darren Sproles as a late-round pick, it’s still tough to get behind Jay Ajayi at ADP because this team hasn’t had anyone notch more than 173 carries in the Doug Pederson era. Rushing touchdowns fell sharply and ended up below average as Carson Wentz’s game evolved, and both Corey Clement and Darren Sproles can contribute in the red zone. If injuries depleted the backfield, the Eagles would probably sign one of the numerous backs they will cut before Week 1 or a similar veteran to preserve their RBBC approach.
When your two best backs go down and your rookie terribly underperforms, it’s not going to be a good year for your running game. Washington ended up 23rd in running back carries, 27th in yards per running back carry and total running back rushing fantasy points, and 28th in fantasy points per rush.
The loss of Chris Thompson seemed to deflate the running back role in the passing game, but receptions per game actually went up after he went out. They finished 17th on the season in running back targets and 16th in receptions but had the second highest yards per reception and fantasy points per reception, mostly on the back of Thompson’s WR-esque 13.1 yards per catch and four scores. Washington still had a respectable running back passing game efficiency, with the 15th best fantasy points per reception on catches that weren’t made by Thompson, so there was still decent quality in the backfield as receivers when Thompson wasn’t included in the mix. Washington finished with the third highest non-PPR running back fantasy points via the pass and sixth highest PPR running back fantasy points through the air, which is notable in light of the middling volume and Thompson only playing ten games.
Overall, Washington was 16th in both PPR and non-PPR total running back fantasy points, which is only because of the work of backs in the passing game.
Action Items: Washington’s running game plummeted in fantasy scoring and efficiency from 2016 to 2017, dropping from 13 to 6 rushing scores and a 4.67 yards per carry for backs (which would have been second behind New Orleans last year) to a woeful 3.63. Some of this can be chalked up to offensive line injuries and some to the non-dynamic duo of Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley. This year, the line should have better injury luck and second-round pick Derrius Guice will take over the backfield. There’s a lot more there in the running game for a back to harvest than 2017 indicated. Don’t fear spending a pick at ADP on Guice just because Chris Thompson has a strong passing down presence.