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?
The Falcons backfield was ultra-productive in 2016, accounting for 19 rushing scores and six receiving scores, over 1750 rushing yards, 93 receptions, and 946 receiving yards. Those numbers were down across the board in a year when the entire offense receded under Steve Sarkisian after Kyle Shanahan left to become the head coach in San Francisco. The rushing losses were not because of a drop in value, as the team actually had five more rushing attempts by backs than they had in 2016. The total of 384 was good enough for 11th in the league. Their 4.25 yards per carry on running back rushes was still good enough for seventh in the league, but it was down .39 from 2016. Their total running back rushing fantasy points was still eighth despite the drop in efficiency and scoring. Production at 2016 levels would have put them at #2 ahead of Jacksonville and behind New Orleans. Likewise, Atlanta’s fantasy points per running back rush ended up eighth last year, where their 2016 numbers would have been second behind New Orleans.
Atlanta backs were drastically underused in the passing game, ranking 26th in targets and 27th in receptions. This put them in the range of limited backfield passing games such as Tampa, Indianapolis, and Houston. It wasn’t because the running backs were inefficient as receivers. Falcons backs were fourth in the league in yards per reception, and sixth in fantasy points per reception. In fact, the Falcons were still responsible for the 13th most non-PPR fantasy points on running back receptions despite the loss in volume, yards per reception, and scoring rate on receptions from 2016. The lack of volume dropped them to 24th in PPR fantasy points on running back receptions.
Overall, the Falcons ranked eighth in total running back non-PPR fantasy points and 11th in total PPR fantasy points in a down year.
Action Items: With good health and better utilization, both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should have more value this year. This backfield was still very efficient and productive by league standards despite significant drops in scoring, yards per carry, targets, and receptions, which unfortunately translated to drops in ADP that are smaller than the drops in production, giving less room to profit from taking a Falcons back. Unless Freeman starts to fall to the third round and Coleman to the sixth or seventh, they represent swinging for singles at ADP.
The running back running game for the Panthers was feeble, which seems to undercut the idea that Cam Newton’s running ability helps make the backs’ jobs easier. Carolina was 22nd in running back rush attempts in 2017, with only six fewer than 2016 even though Newton had 49 more rushing attempts. They were 28th in running back yards per carry, 24th in total running back rushing fantasy points, and 20th in running back fantasy points per carry.
While the running back running game productivity, volume, and efficiency didn’t greatly change with the addition of Christian McCaffrey, the passing game involvement spiked. They were 7th in running back targets and tenth in receptions. Newton only had a 70% completion rate on passes to backs, which put the Panthers at 30th in the league, ahead of only a David Johnson-less Arizona, and San Francisco. That likely denied the backs a few receptions. Carolina still posted the seventh best fantasy points per running back reception, thanks to five scores by McCaffrey and two more scores on the other 14 running back receptions. The running back passing game ended up producing the sixth most non-PPR fantasy points and fifth most PPR fantasy points, a great sign for McCaffrey’s fantasy foundation.
Overall, the Panthers were 15th in total running back non-PPR fantasy points and 12th in PPR fantasy points, which reflects the middle ground between a very poorly producing running back running game and robustly producing running back passing game.
Action Items: CJ Anderson might represent a small upgrade from Jonathan Stewart, but it won’t change the bottom line in this backfield. McCaffrey will have a solid floor in PPR leagues, but his running game role isn’t likely to grow. Anderson might produce more from his touches than Stewart did, but it is unlikely to be enough to be consistently relevant in fantasy leagues. This is probably a backfield to avoid at ADP.
The Saints backfield profile almost reads like a straight-A report card. They were ninth in running back carries, but first in yards per carry, rushing yards, running back rushing scores, and fantasy points per running back carry. Saints backs averaged an astounding .44 more yards per carry than the #2 team, had five more rushing scores than the #2 team, about 2.4 rushing fantasy points per game more than the #2 team, and .12 fantasy points more per rush than the #2 team.
To put this perspective:
- .4 yards per carry separated the #10 (Cleveland/Oakland - 4.14) and #25 (Cincinnati - 3.74) backfields, .46 yards per carry separated the #2 (Kansas City 4.66) and #8 (Baltimore - 4.2) backfields.
- Five rushing touchdowns separated the #10 (KC/OAK/GB/CHI - 11) and #25 (CLE/HOU/DEN/CIN/WAS/ARI) backfields, five rushing scores separated the #2 (New England/Jacksonville - 16) and #10 (KC/OAK/GB/CHI) backfields.
- 2.35 rushing fantasy points per game separated the #10 (Chicago - 13.675) and #22 (Indianapolis - 11.319) backfields,
- .12 fantasy points per rush separated the #5 (Jacksonville/Green Bay - .62) and #22 (Buffalo - .5) backfields, .12 fantasy points per rush separated the #2 (Los Angeles Rams - .71) and #10 (BAL/PHI/TEN - .59) backfields.
The Saints backfield productivity and efficiency as runners basically lapped the field.
The story doesn’t stop there. No team had more running back targets, receptions, or yards than New Orleans. Even though they had the heaviest volume by a good margin, the Saints were still 12th in yards per running back receptions and 11th in running back fantasy points per reception. They were also the #1 team in both non-PPR and PPR running back fantasy points in the passing game, but New England was closer as the #2 team in receiving production than Jacksonville was in rushing production.
Overall, obviously, the Saints were the #1 backfield in both PPR and non-PPR fantasy points. As impressive as their gaps were in many key volume, efficiency, and productivity stats, their overall gap between the Saints total production and the #2 Patriots backfield was less than the gap between the Patriots non-PPR backfield fantasy points and the #5 backfield (Minnesota) and the gap between the Patriots PPR backfield fantasy points and the #4 backfield (Los Angeles Rams).
Action Items: Before you say historical outlier and regression to the mean, think a bit more about the Patriots production. The more likely explanation is that Sean Payton had the personnel to achieve peak backfield productivity and with the exception of Mark Ingram II’s four-game suspension that personnel is back. Alvin Kamara is not a stretch as a mid-first round pick. Remember, he was worked in slowly before Adrian Peterson was traded and left one game early with a concussion. Ingram is still worth a look if he falls too far because of his suspension, and the candidates to replace him (sixth-round pick Boston Scott, Jonathan Williams, 2017 third-stringer Trey Edmunds, and Daniel Lasco) should stay on your late-round radar.
2017 was a forgettable year in the Bucs backfield. They had the 25th most running back carries, 29th best running back yards per carry, 28th ranked total running back rushing fantasy points, and 26th best fantasy points per running back attempt. Most of the blood is on Doug Martin’s hands after he didn’t even crack three yards per carry, but Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers were under four yards per carry, too.
The picture doesn’t get any brighter when we shine the spotlight on the running back passing game involvement. Tampa had the 27th most running back targets, 25th most running back receptions, 24th ranked running back yards per reception, and 29th ranked fantasy points per reception. All of this culminated in the 31st ranked total running back passing game non-PPR fantasy points (ahead of only Tennessee) and 29th ranked total running back passing game PPR fantasy points (with volume to edge ahead of Philadelphia and Dallas).
Overall, the Bucs were 30th in both PPR and non-PPR backfield fantasy points, looking down at only Miami and Seattle.
Action Items: On one hand, this feels like barren soil to grow, but on the other, they’ve added Ryan Jensen at center, Jameis Winston probably won’t be hurt for 5-6 games, and Ronald Jones gives them the most dynamic back they’ve had since Doug Martin’s brief resurgence in 2015. The passing game involvement probably won’t go up with four viable wide receivers and two strong tight ends, but the rushing efficiency is bound to improve with Martin gone. The question is whether Jones can seize control of enough of the carries to justify his ADP. This will be something to watch during training camp.