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 Bears were perceived as one of the most committed to the run teams in the NFL, but they only had the 15th most running back carries, 14th best yards per carry and fantasy points per rush, and 10th best total running back running game fantasy points. That could be improved this year with Matt Nagy in charge of the offense this year. He presided over the hyperefficient (but low volume) Kansas City running game last year.
Chicago surprisingly had the eighth most running back targets and seventh most receptions last year, with Tarik Cohen accounting for more than half of both. The 26th best yards per reception (Jordan Howard’s 5.4 sinking them with Cohen’s below average 6.8 not helping) pulled the total non-PPR running back fantasy points in the passing game down to 12th (10th in PPR), and their fantasy points per running back reception down to a rough 23rd. Without Benny Cunningham’s two scores and 12 yards per reception, Chicago would have been near the basement in running back passing game efficiency.
For a losing team with a middling-volume and efficiency running back running game and high-volume, low-efficiency passing game to backs, the Bears still managed to be 11th in non-PPR running back fantasy points and 9th in PPR running back fantasy points. Some of that has to be due to the woeful collection of pass catchers and backward-looking game-planning, but Howard and Cohen deserve some credit, along with an offensive line that should improve this year.
Action Items: The Bears offense should be greatly improved in efficiency, but lose volume in the running game judging by Nagy’s work with Kansas City. While the team has been working with Jordan Howard to improve his presence in the passing game, Nagy’s strengths suit Tarik Cohen more than Howard. Look for this backfield to be closer to a committee this year. If it yields value, it will likely come from Cohen unless Howard’s ADP starts to drop on lower expectations.
The Packers backfield went through three starters and two quarterbacks in 2017, so it’s not a shock that they were tied for 29th in running back carries. What might not be widely expected or known is that they were 18th in total running back rushing fantasy points, 12th in yards per carry, and 6th in fantasy points per running back rush.
Green Bay often neglected their running backs in the passing game once Ty Montgomery got hurt. They were 25th in targets and 26th in receptions out of the backfield, even though Montgomery had 18 receptions and 23 targets in the first three games. In fact, the rate of running back receptions in the first three games would have put the Packers at #4 on the season if expanded out over 16 games. Aaron Rodgers also tied the top completion rate over the season (New Orleans) to backs in those three games, although the yards per reception would have been 30th - not all that much higher than the full season team finish of 27th. That pulled the fantasy points per reception down to 18th on the year, in line with the fantasy points per running back reception rate from the first three games, which was .98 compared 1.00 on the season. All in all, the running back passing game produced a paltry 27th most non-PPR fantasy points and 26th most PPR fantasy points, although their rate of production in the first three games would at 8th most non-PPR running back fantasy points in the passing game and tied for 5th in PPR running back passing game fantasy points. Expand back to the total non-PPR and PPR running back fantasy points on the season, the Packers finished 24th and 23rd. Even the first three games don’t show up well here, rating as the 22nd best in non-PPR fantasy points and 27th in PPR fantasy points if multiplied for 16 games.
Action Items: What do we make of all of this? The Packers were a highly productive backfield in the passing game until Ty Montgomery got hurt. They were a highly efficient running game after Montgomery got hurt, but stuck in a low volume. Green Bay has run the ball at a more typical clip before their backfield fell apart in recent years, although they have never been a team to lean heavily on running backs in the passing game. Add in a murky backfield picture where Ty Montgomery is the best receiver, Aaron Jones the best runner, and Jamaal Williams the best all-around back, and it’s difficult to project the possibly resurgent backfield production, although the team did show a penchant for leaning on one and only one back last year. Rational coaching would dictate going to a Patriots/Eagles style attack using all three backs, and even a best-case scenario for Packers backfield production would make that unpalatable in fantasy. The best angle here is probably to stay away in a redraft, but be willing to throw a dart or two in best ball.
The Lions 2017 backfield was a fantasy nightmare no matter how you cut it. They had the 27th most running back carries for the 31st most yards, thanks to a tie for the worst yards per carry. Ten rushing touchdowns from backs allowed them to at least salvage the 25th most rushing running back fantasy points and 21st ranked fantasy points per rush ratio.
Theo Riddick helped fuel the Lions to the 16th most targets and 19th most receptions, but those totals look weak in light of how little backs got their numbers called as runners. More mediocrity came in the form of the 20th-best yards per reception average and total PPR running back passing game points, 19th ranked fantasy points per reception, and 16th most total non-PPR running back fantasy points.
Overall, the Lions ranked 25th in non-PPR fantasy points by running backs and 24th in PPR fantasy points by running backs.
Action Items: This paltry backfield was split two ways for most of the season, and it will likely be split four ways this year unless Ameer Abdullah is traded or released. Rookie Kerryon Johnson has some best ball appeal because of the unknown rookie ceiling factor and his three-down skillset, but the reality is that even this running game improves by a significant amount with better offensive line and running back play, it’s unlikely to produce great fantasy profits.
The Vikings had a very successful year of backfield production and involvement, and this despite losing their newfound lead back one-quarter of the way into the season. The team had the 2nd most running back carries, but only the 20th best yards per carry. This was due to Dalvin Cook tearing his ACL in Week 4 and taking his 4.8 yards per carry with him. Neither of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon was able to top four yards per carry. The lack of efficiency knocked the Vikings backfield down to 4th in total running back rushing fantasy points, and 13th in fantasy points per running back rush.
Minnesota was only 19th in running back targets, 18th in receptions, and 16th in yards per reception, which yielded the 17th most non-PPR running back fantasy points in the passing game and 18th most PPR points. This didn’t change significantly whether Cook was in the lineup, and goes counter to the pass-happy approach Pat Shurmur took with the backs after he took over for Norv Turner in 2016.
Overall, this backfield was fifth in non-PPR fantasy points and seventh in PPR fantasy points, even though their efficiency per touch was middling.
Action Items: Obviously, this backfield will generate a massive opportunity, and if it can be this productive with McKinnon/Murray, a healthy Dalvin Cook might surge to the top of the tier after the big four backs going at the top of the draft. Cook probably won’t get more than 300 carries, so best ball drafters should note that last year’s strong backfield volume would give Murray about 150 carries because the Vikings have nothing of note at #3 back.