Running Back Targets and Their Fantasy Value for 2021

Breaking down the value of running back targets vs carries and how it will apply to the 2021 season.

If you've ever listened to just about any fantasy football podcast, you've almost certainly heard the phrase "A target is more valuable than a carry." It is a fact that has been widely accepted in fantasy football for a long time at this point, especially in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues. Not even a catch, just a target is more valuable for a fantasy running back. Just having the football thrown towards a running back holds more value than him carrying the football. It sounds crazy, but it is far from it.

Back in 2016, our friend J.J. Zachariason dug into this very topic and gave us a wonderful overview of the value of RB targets at the time. It was clear then that targets in the passing game were gaining value for running backs. Now feels like a good time to see how that value has grown over the last six years and how it might affect fantasy running backs in 2021.

The Current Value of a Target

To determine the value of a target, some data needed to be broken down. Starting with the top-50 running backs over the last two seasons, the first step was to separate the fantasy points they scored from running the ball versus the points they scored for catching the ball. The process was easy enough:

  • For per-carry stats: 1 fantasy point for every 10 rushing yards + 6 fantasy points for every rushing touchdown divided by their total carries.
  • For per-catch or per-target stats: 1 fantasy point for every 10 receiving yards + 6 points for every rushing touchdown + 1 point per catch (if PPR) divided by catches or targets.

To start, here is the value in a PPR league:

Season
Fantasy Points per Carry
Fantasy Points per Catch
Fantasy Points per Target
2019
0.63
2.04
1.57
2020
0.68
1.99
1.52
Average
0.66
2.02
1.56

Over the last two seasons, the top-50 fantasy running backs averaged 4.35 yards-per-carry, 7.79 yards-per-catch, and have caught about 77% of the balls thrown their way. When you include the average amount of touchdowns scored, the average single carry for a running back will earn you .66 fantasy points, while a catch is worth 2.02, and simply being targeted is worth 1.56 fantasy points. While a target has no inherent value, the fact that the average running back catches 77% of their targets gives it an expected fantasy value.

Now, before you think this data will only matter in PPR leagues, here is the standard league data:

Season
Fantasy Points per Carry
Fantasy Points per Catch
Fantasy Points per Target
2019
0.63
1.04
0.81
2020
0.68
0.99
0.76
Average
0.66
1.02
0.79

Even in standard scoring, the yards and touchdowns a running back will attain in the passing game still outweigh his carries. The difference shrinks, but it is still noteworthy.

Overall, running backs make better use of the balls thrown to them and the gap in scoring could make the difference between a fantasy championship and an offseason of shame. Before you get the wrong idea, this is not necessarily an article advocating the Zero-RB draft strategy, where you avoid running backs early in your draft and load up on late-round backs. While late-round running backs due tend to be pass-catchers, the top-tier running backs also tend to score a lot more points than the next tier, as highlighted by Dave Kluge in his recent article for Footballguys. The point you should take from this is that when comparing two similar running backs, the one that sees more targets is likely to score you more fantasy points. To determine how many more, we’ll use this multiplication table:

PPR Scoring
Carries vs Catch
Carries vs Target
2019
3.24
2.52
2020
2.93
2.24
Average
3.08
2.37
Non-PPR Scoring
Carries vs Catch
Carries vs Target
2019
1.65
1.29
2020
1.46
1.12
Average
1.55
1.20

Each value here represents how many more rushing attempts a player would need to match one catch or target. For example: In PPR scoring, a running back would need 2.37 carries to achieve the fantasy points of one target. This also means that a running back targeted just three times per game, 51 times in a season, will score the same amount of fantasy points as another back with 118 carries. Breaking it down further, a 50-target back will score about 78 fantasy points while a 50-carry back will score just 33 fantasy points.

There are exceptions to every rule: Derrick Henry is rarely used in the passing game but makes up for it with an abundance of carries and touchdowns...but there is only one Derrick Henry, and even he was targeted twice per game on average. Last season, 37 of the top-50 running backs in PPR scoring were targeted more than 30 times and 23 of the Top 25 hit the 30-target mark. Seven of those top-25 fantasy backs last season did not see even 150 carries and three never crossed 100 carries. The value is in the targets.

Team Running Back Targets

Hopefully to this point, it is clear that running backs being used in the passing game are usually going to have more value than those who are not, but what can you do with this info? Usually, the teams, or rather the play-callers that target the running back remain pretty stable from season to season. Here is a breakdown of each team’s running back targets over the last two seasons. Please note: an “*” denotes that there was a play-caller change in at least one of the two seasons so the data pulled may have been from their previous job:

Team
2019
2020
Team
2019
2020
Arizona
104
100
Las Vegas
117
112
*Atlanta
62
58
*LA Chargers
154
143
Baltimore
62
62
LA Rams
61
71
Buffalo
80
77
Miami
120
132
*Carolina
154
114
Minnesota
126
94
Chicago
147
88
New England
166
122
Cincinnati
88
102
New Orleans
154
143
*Cleveland
126
79
*NY Giants
93
83
Dallas
93
111
*NY Jets
103
136
Denver
112
72
*Philadephia
91
135
*Detroit
154
143
Pittsburgh
110
81
Green Bay
133
115
San Francisco
103
136
*Houston
62
62
*Seattle
61
71
Indianapolis
91
135
Tampa Bay
113
119
*Jacksonville
101
106
Tennessee
62
58
Kansas City
111
111
*Washington
154
161

This table highlights a few obvious players: Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas, Aaron Jones in Green Bay, Austin Ekeler in Los Angeles, and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans. These guys will be gobbled up in the first two rounds of almost any fantasy draft anyway. It also shows a few teams worth monitoring,

The Detroit Lions will run a similar system to New Orleans and both D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams are great ball-catchers. It seems likely that Nyheim Hines will remain fantasy-relevant while he is in Indianapolis. If the Miami Dolphins make one running back their primary pass-catcher --and last season that was Myles Gaskin -- that player would have great fantasy value. Both the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football team have starting backs that are great receivers but also enough targets to make their backups relevant, J.D. McKissic was a top-15 fantasy back last year for Washington.

The most interesting team listed might be the New York Jets. They will likely run a system similar to San Francisco, where backs were targeted more than 130 times last season, and they should need to throw the ball a lot. No running back on this team has earned any role yet, so keep an eye on Tevin Coleman, La'Mical Perine, and rookie Michael Carter. If one of them takes the pass-catching role, they could shock the fantasy world in 2021.


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