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Quality Starts: Running Backs - Footballguys

Quality starts for 2017 for Running Backs using Standard Scoring

There are some fantasy football players that believe that the lineup you pick can lose you a game just as much as it can win a contest. Having a player give you a consistent performance week after week can be considered more valuable than a player who goes off every third week and then takes two weeks off between those fantastic performances. Consistency has a value, and it does not take much of a leap to understand that players that you can rely on for solid games when you need them (such as in your postseason) are a huge advantage.

Baseball has a term called "Quality Starts" for pitchers, which is a statistic that represents how often a starting pitcher will put up a good (not great, just good) performance in a given game. The bar is set neither high nor low (six innings pitched, three earned runs or fewer) so as to gauge a decent performance. The theory behind it is that if your pitcher gives you a Quality Start, your team has a fighting chance to win a given game.

So now we need to translate this to football. What is "quality" for each position? How do we define a "Quality Start" for quarterbacks or running backs or any other position? Looking back at the 2017 season, I decided first to take the No. 12 running back for the year (Jordan Howard, 176.7 fantasy points) and take that fantasy total and divide it by 16 for a per game average. My next step, however, was to take all of the top-50 running backs from 2017 and sort them on a per game average. That method allows me to account for missed games or a per-start performance metric, which is how most fantasy team owners would decide their roster for the week. The RB12 on a per-game average basis last season was Devonta Freeman, with 166.2 fantasy points in 14 games, or an 11.9 points-per-game average - nearly a point higher than Howard's 11.0 average. Now I also acknowledge that taking RB12 seems a bit arbitrary, but if you are looking for a bare minimum of quality, the 12th running back should be the "worst starter" in your fantasy league as an RB1 and a great RB2.

Next, we move on to the more meaningful question - one of quantifying the quality. At what point do we decide whether or not a running back has given us a quality performance? Here is where it gets a bit murky, but looking at the distribution of running back performances by starters over the season and it becomes evident that the using the 12th running back average and adding or subtracting a percentage gives us a good range for an RB Quality Start.

Using the RB Quality Start range, we can also define a bad performance or an excellent performance as either falling below or exceeding the Quality Start range. Table 1 gives us the fantasy points that it takes to fall in each of the three areas:

RB Start Type
Fantasy Points
Bad Start
0 to 8.7
Quality Start
8.8 to 14.6
Excellent Start
14.7+

Table 1: 2017 RB Quality Start and Fantasy Point Ranges - Standard Scoring

Table 2 shows us the breakdown of all the Top 50 running backs and how many of each type of start resulted for each:

Running Back
Team
Excellent Starts
Quality Starts
Bad Starts
Total Starts
LAR
10
4
1
15
DAL
5
4
1
10
Le'Veon Bell
PIT
9
5
1
15
NOS
8
4
4
16
KCC
6
5
5
16
JAC
5
6
2
13
LAC
5
8
3
16
MIN
1
2
1
4
NOS
6
3
7
16
BUF
7
3
6
16
ATL
5
4
5
14
WAS
2
5
3
10
NEP
5
4
7
16
SFO
4
6
6
16
CHI
5
3
8
16
NEP
3
3
4
10
CAR
3
5
8
16
BAL
3
3
9
15
HOU
2
6
8
16
OAK
3
6
6
15
ATL
2
7
6
15
DEN
3
4
9
16
CLE
1
9
6
16
IND
0
7
9
16
MIN
4
3
9
16
TEN
3
2
10
15
GBP
2
1
5
8
MIN
3
2
11
16
NYJ
2
4
9
15
CIN
1
5
8
14
CHI
2
4
10
16
PHI
0
6
8
14
NYG
2
4
9
15
BAL
3
1
12
16
TEN
4
2
10
16
GBP
3
3
9
15
NEP
1
2
6
9
DET
1
4
9
14
CLE
2
2
12
16
MIA
4
2
10
16
CAR
1
4
9
14
NYJ
2
1
9
12
ARI
2
1
7
10
CIN
1
5
9
15
DET
1
2
13
16
PHI
1
3
11
15
LAC
1
4
9
14
TBB
0
3
7
10
IND
1
3
10
14
GBP
2
1
6
9
Totals
152
190
362

Table 2: 2017 RB Start Types Sorted By Top 50 RBs - Standard Scoring

That's a lot of info to digest, so let me help. First, we see that there are not quite as many Excellent Starts (152) as Quality Starts (190), but given some injuries and more committee backfields it does make sense that there would be fewer elite performances. In comparison to the last several seasons, the numbers are not too far apart with ranges from 150 to 204 Excellent Starts since 2009 and between 167 and 195 Quality Starts over the same period. That range for Excellent Starts gets even smaller (150-178) if you exclude 2015, which correlates to a very low Excellent Start threshold of just 12.6 fantasy points. Last season there were a lot of Bad Starts (362), but we are only looking for the best here, plus a "start" is not as definitive for a positional player that may just see partial playing time. Interesting enough, last year's relatively low number of Excellent Starts - only 152, similar to last year's 150, are the lowest numbers since I started tracking these stats since 2009 - does not directly correlate to a high point total. Most seasons in the study had criteria of 14-16 points to reach Excellent Start status. It appears that last year was more of a reduction in feature back usage and much more committee backfield approaches. Table 3 summarizes a few of these trends:

Year
Excellent Starts
Quality Starts
Excellent Start Threshold
2017
152
190
14.7
2016
150
171
14.0
2015
204
167
12.6
2014
178
167
13.4
2013
178
183
14.5
2012
153
192
15.0
2011
157
178
14.1
2010
154
176
16.0
2009
173
192
15.3

Table 3: Excellent and Quality Starts - 2009 to 2017 - Standard Scoring

Now, to dig deeper, let's look at the numbers distributed in two different ways. First, I need to define a valuable starting running back in this system. We want a running back that will win more fantasy games than lose them, so we want either "Quality" or "Excellent" starts. Using a simple formula of scoring each type of start, we can define the value of a given NFL running back. Here is the formula:

STARTING FANTASY RB VALUE = EXCELLENT STARTS - BAD STARTS

We neglect to look at Quality Starts because they neither win games nor lose them on average - they are just average RB performances. We only really care about how often he helps our team vs. how often he hurts it. Giving a "-1" value to bad starts and "+1" to excellent ones does this for us.

On with the results, sorted by value:

Running Back
Team
Excellent Starts
Quality Starts
Bad Starts
Total Starts
NetVal
LAR
10
4
1
15
9
Le'Veon Bell
PIT
9
5
1
15
8
DAL
5
4
1
10
4
NOS
8
4
4
16
4
JAC
5
6
2
13
3
LAC
5
8
3
16
2
KCC
6
5
5
16
1
BUF
7
3
6
16
1
MIN
1
2
1
4
0
ATL
5
4
5
14
0
NOS
6
3
7
16
-1
WAS
2
5
3
10
-1
NEP
3
3
4
10
-1
NEP
5
4
7
16
-2
SFO
4
6
6
16
-2
CHI
5
3
8
16
-3
OAK
3
6
6
15
-3
GBP
2
1
5
8
-3
ATL
2
7
6
15
-4
GBP
2
1
6
9
-4
CAR
3
5
8
16
-5
CLE
1
9
6
16
-5
MIN
4
3
9
16
-5
NEP
1
2
6
9
-5
ARI
2
1
7
10
-5
BAL
3
3
9
15
-6
HOU
2
6
8
16
-6
DEN
3
4
9
16
-6
TEN
4
2
10
16
-6
GBP
3
3
9
15
-6
MIA
4
2
10
16
-6
TEN
3
2
10
15
-7
NYJ
2
4
9
15
-7
CIN
1
5
8
14
-7
NYG
2
4
9
15
-7
NYJ
2
1
9
12
-7
TBB
0
3
7
10
-7
MIN
3
2
11
16
-8
CHI
2
4
10
16
-8
PHI
0
6
8
14
-8
DET
1
4
9
14
-8
CAR
1
4
9
14
-8
CIN
1
5
9
15
-8
LAC
1
4
9
14
-8
IND
0
7
9
16
-9
BAL
3
1
12
16
-9
IND
1
3
10
14
-9
CLE
2
2
12
16
-10
PHI
1
3
11
15
-10
DET
1
2
13
16
-12

Table 4: 2017 RB Start Types Sorted By Value - Standard Scoring

This is a lot of information once again, but there are some important things to note here. Back in 2014, elite running backs dominated the list, while the last two seasons were completely scattered at the top due to injuries and surprises at the position. This points strongly towards the high level of uncertainty, injury risk and surprises at the running back position in recent history, so it is very likely that occurs once again this season. Doing your homework this summer to know who is the lead back (and also who is the clear backup, if there is one) for all 32 teams could mean all the difference for your team this year.

Lastly, I will sift through it for you and get right to the heart of the matter with our final table. Here we have the results sorted by value for the Top 36 running backs on the 2018 ADP list.

Running Back
Team
Excellent Starts
Quality Starts
Bad Starts
Total Starts
NetVal
LAR
10
4
1
15
9
Le'Veon Bell
PIT
9
5
1
15
8
NOS
8
4
4
16
4
DAL
5
4
1
10
4
JAC
5
6
2
13
3
LAC
5
8
3
16
2
BUF
7
3
6
16
1
KCC
6
5
5
16
1
ATL
5
4
5
14
0
MIN
1
2
1
4
0
WAS
2
5
3
10
-1
NEP
3
3
4
10
-1
NOS
6
3
7
16
-1
SFO
4
6
6
16
-2
NEP
5
4
7
16
-2
OAK
3
6
6
15
-3
CHI
5
3
8
16
-3
ATL
2
7
6
15
-4
CLE
1
9
6
16
-5
CAR
3
5
8
16
-5
HOU
2
6
8
16
-6
BAL
3
3
9
15
-6
MIA
4
2
10
16
-6
TEN
4
2
10
16
-6
CIN
1
5
8
14
-7
CHI
2
4
10
16
-8
PHI
0
6
8
14
-8
MIN
3
2
11
16
-8

Table 5: 2018 Top Drafted RBs Sorted By 2017 Value - Standard Scoring

Remember how I said that there could be some uncertainty at running back? Table 5 sure points to that, with so many players making the list that were either injured, listed as a new starter or on a different team (or that fit several of these descriptions) less than a year ago. Throw in that we have six rookies in our Top 36 based on current ADP and only one thing seems certain - getting an elite option early in a draft may make your team a lot more stable this season. That will likely remain a hot debate all summer, as your options are either to take a running back early and cobble together depth later on or to lock up stud receivers (and a tight end) and let the chips fall where they may by snapping up a lot of options later. With so many viable choices at this time and so much change at the running back position across the league, you really need to know who is playing where and what the various depth charts will look like heading into September. Be sure to read up on your depth charts. So while 2017 data is nice to have, it may not be the best indication for 2018 value - preseason depth charts and following Footballguys news may be your best edge.

With so much turmoil at tailback, it is important to point out that this value list is based solely on last year's results. There is no reason to believe in these numbers as indications of 2018 performance, but having this information available should give you more to think about when deciding who you will have leading your fantasy team this year.

Questions, suggestions, and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.