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?
In some ways, an examination of the Arizona backfield’s 2017 is not worth much of our time. David Johnson immediately got hurt and Carson Palmer went out in Week 7. The team also has a new head coach who has expressed his commitment to running as an integral part of winning. There might not be much to take away that can help 2018 analysis. With that said…
The Cardinals were 20th in running back carries, but 30th in yards per carry, looking down at only Seattle and Detroit. They were 29th in total running back rushing fantasy points and 31st in fantasy points per rush. For comparison sake, in 2016 (with a mostly healthy Palmer), the Johnson-heavy backfield would have ranked sixth among 2017 backfields in yards per carry, fourth in running back rushing fantasy points, and second in fantasy points per rush.
Arizona was actually 11th in running back targets, but only 17th in running back receptions because of a league-worst 64.6 completion percentage on passes to backs (San Francisco was 31st at 68.1). They did manage the ninth-best yards per reception on the passes they did complete but were the only team in the league to have zero passing touchdowns to backs. So on the 11th-most targets to backs and 9th-best yards per reception, the Cardinals could still only manage the 24th-best non-PPR running back passing game fantasy points, 23rd-best PPR fantasy points, and 25th-best fantasy points per reception. Their 2016 1.30 fantasy points per reception would have ranked them seventh in 2017. Their 2016 total of 121 non-PPR fantasy points and 214 PPR fantasy points to backs via the passing game would have both been fifth in 2017.
The Cardinals were 29th in total non-PPR backfield fantasy points last year and 28th in PPR backfield fantasy points last year, but their 2016 total would have ranked third in both categories.
Action Items: There’s a case to be made for taking David Johnson second or third overall, and he’s a layup at No. 4. The only potential drag on his stats this year is if Sam Bradford goes down and Mike Glennon/Josh Rosen put them back behind the 8-ball at quarterback, but that risk is more than worth the reward of getting an elite (even potentially No. 1 overall) fantasy running back.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams joined the Chiefs as a low volume, but high productivity and efficiency backfield. The quality of their starting running back had to be a big part of that, but so was the quality of the play calling and execution. They were only 21st in running back carries but still ranked fifth in total running back rushing fantasy points. The third-best yards per carry and fourth-most rushing touchdowns vaulted the productivity of the running back rushing game and created the No. 2 fantasy points per running back rush average.
Likewise, in the passing game, the Rams had only the 22nd-most running back targets and 23rd-most running back receptions. Their No. 1 ranking in yards per running back reception (by over one yard!) and their tie for No. 3 in running back receiving scores gave the Rams the No. 1 fantasy points per running back reception average and No. 5 non-PPR/No. 8 PPR fantasy points by backs in the passing game.
Overall, the Rams ranked fourth in total PPR and non-PPR backfield fantasy points, another sign of being a hyperefficient fantasy backfield on a per touch basis.
Action Items: If you believe the efficiency of the Rams backfield is not reproducible, then you might shy away from Todd Gurley at No. 1, except that Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott all have their own concerns that would keep them from matching Gurley even if Gurley regresses by a good amount. Keep him at that top spot.
The 49ers had a terrible year on the field until Jimmy Garoppolo took over, so they were predictably low in running back rush attempts (19th), but their yards per carry (13th), total running back rushing fantasy points (15th), and fantasy points per rush (15th) were more than respectable. When we break out Garoppolo’s five starts, things change greatly. The team averaged 10 more running back carries, 23 more rushing yards, and 5.6 more running back rushing fantasy points in the last five games of the season, although a weak 3.68 yards per carry made the fantasy points per running carry virtually identical. If the 49ers produced in the running game over 16 games at the rate they did in the last five games, they would have had the fourth-most running back rushing game fantasy points in the league, just ahead of Minnesota.
The passing game numbers also require some massaging. The 49ers were 2nd in the league in running back targets, 3rd in receptions, but 25th in yards per reception and 28th in fantasy points per reception. Some of this volume was due to a limited quarterback (CJ Beathard) starting five games. While the volume dropped with Garoppolo, the team still would have ranked tied for eighth in running back receptions at his rate over a 16 game season. Their running back yards per reception in Garoppolo games was good enough for third, and the fantasy points per reception tied for 16th.
Overall, this backfield was 13th in non-PPR fantasy points and 8th in PPR fantasy points, but in Garoppolo games, their rate of production would have made them fifth in a 16-game season in non-PPR and fourth in PPR, while in non-Garoppolo games, they would have been 19th in non-PPR and 11th in PPR.
Action Items: The 49ers upgraded at center, will get back Pierre Garcon, and have had an entire offseason to get Jimmy Garoppolo up to speed in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Unless you think Jerick McKinnon is a big downgrade from Carlos Hyde, this is going to be one of the most productive backfields in the league. Hyde was a borderline RB1 last year, and that’s McKinnon’s rough ADP cost. He could be a value and a solid RB1. Matt Breida is an obvious late round target on McKinnon injury upside and decent desperation play value when McKinnon is healthy. All aboard!
The Seahawks probably want to change the subject when these numbers come up for discussion. They were 31st in running back carries (Hello Cleveland), tied for 31st in yards per carry (Hello Detroit), and a distant last place in running back rushing fantasy points and points per running back rush last year. To give you an idea of how bad this is, Orleans Darkwa produced 105.1 fantasy points on 171 rushes last year and Jonathan Stewart produced 104 on 198 attempts. The Seahawks backfield produced 105.4. On 301 attempts.
At least Seattle was 21st in running back targets and receptions, with the fifth-best yards per reception and ninth-best fantasy points per reception. That combination was good enough for the 11th-best non-PPR backfield fantasy points in the passing game and 14th-best PPR total.
Alas, even with the solid running back receiving numbers, the Seahawks backfield was still last in total non-PPR and PPR fantasy points.
Action Items: These numbers make me want to get out my 10-foot pole in redraft and dynasty when Rashaad Penny’s name comes up. The team is putting a lot of time and resources into rehabilitating the running game, but Chris Carson is still a good enough back to hold onto part of this backfield, and Penny is not a transformative talent.