# A Starting Point for Running Back Projections

Which statistics from 2012 can help us avoid busts in 2013?

Most people will use last year’s statistics (or a three-year weighted average) as the starting point for their 2013 projections. From there, fantasy players modify those numbers up or down based on factors such as talent, key off-season changes, player development, risk of injury, etc. But in this article, I’m advocating that you use something besides last year’s numbers as your starting point.

There is a way to improve on last year’s numbers without introducing any subjective reasoning. When you base a player’s fantasy projections off of his fantasy stats from last year, you are implying that all fantasy points are created equally. But that’s not true: a player with 1100 yards and 5 touchdowns is different than a runner with 800 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Fantasy points come from rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Since some of those variables are more consistent year to year than others, your starting fantasy projections should reflect that fact.

The Fine Print: How to Calculate Future Projections

There is a method that allows you to take certain metrics (such as rush attempts and yards per carry) to predict a separate variable (like future rushing yards). It’s called multivariate linear regression. If you’re a regression pro, great. If not, don’t sweat it — I won’t bore you with any details. Here’s the short version: I looked at the 600 running backs to finish in the top 40 in each season from 1997 to 2011. I then eliminated all players who did not play for the same team in the following season. I chose to use per-game statistics (pro-rated to 16 games) instead of year-end results to avoid having injuries complicated the data set (but I have removed from the sample every player who played in fewer than 10 games).

So what did the regression tell us about the five statistics that yield fantasy points? A regression informs you about both the “stickiness” of the projection — i.e., how easy it is to predict the future variable using the statistics we fed into the formula — and the best formula to make those projections. Loosely speaking, the R^2 number below tells us how easy that metric is to predict, and a higher number means that statistic is easier to predict. Without further ado, in ascending order of randomness, from least to most random, here is how to predict 2013 performance for each running back based on his 2012 statistics:

1) Rushing Yards (R^2 = 0.47). The best-fit formula to predict rushing yards is:

-731 + 3.73 * Rush Attempts + 180 * Yards/Rush

2) Receptions (R^2 = 0.42). The best-fit formula to predict receptions is:

11.1 + 0.39 * Receptions + 0.032 * Receiving Yards

3) Receiving Yards (R^2 = 0.38). The best-fit formula to predict receiving yards is:

83.7 + 1.65 * Receptions + 0.46 * Receiving Yards

4) Rushing Touchdowns (R^2 = 0.29). The best-fit formula to predict rushing touchdowns is:

0.1 + 0.0037 * Rushing Yards + 0.35 * Rushing Touchdowns

5) Receiving Touchdowns (R^2 = 0.23). The best-fit formula to predict receiving touchdowns is:

0.1 + 0.0022 * Receiving Yards + 0.25 * receiving Touchdowns

Using this formula, we can then come up with our starting projections.

2013 Starting Fantasy Projections

The table below shows the statistics for the top 40 fantasy running backs last year, with all players’ statistics pro-rated to 16 games. The final column, which is how the table is sorted, displays the number of projected fantasy points for each running back in a 0.5 PPR league. For an example of how little knowledge of the actual football world this projection system has, consider that it projects Knowshon Moreno to score 195 fantasy points this year. Obviously, you know better. The point is that this formula makes an excellent starting point for your projections. Then you can use things that you know about the non-statistical issues affecting particular players and teams to modify it. In Moreno’s case, you’d want to modify it way down, but in most instances, just a minor amount of tinkering is necessary (as of now).

201220122012201220122012201220122013
RkRunning BackTmRshYdYPCTDRecYdTDFPFP (Proj)
1 Adrian Peterson MIN 348 2097 6 12 40 217 1 329 285
2 Doug Martin TB 319 1454 4.6 11 49 472 1 289 254
3 Arian Foster HOU 351 1424 4.1 15 40 217 2 286 243
4 Marshawn Lynch SEA 315 1590 5 11 23 196 1 262 234
5 Alfred Morris WAS 335 1613 4.8 13 11 77 0 253 227
6 Ray Rice BAL 257 1143 4.4 9 61 478 1 253 222
7 C.J. Spiller BUF 207 1244 6 6 43 459 2 240 221
8 Jamaal Charles KC 285 1509 5.3 5 35 236 1 228 220
9 LeSean McCoy PHI 267 1120 4.2 3 72 497 4 238 217
10 Trent Richardson CLE 285 1013 3.6 12 54 391 1 244 211
11 Matt Forte CHI 265 1167 4.4 5 47 363 1 215 203
12 Willis McGahee DEN 267 1170 4.4 6 42 354 0 212 202
13 DeMarco Murray DAL 258 1061 4.1 6 54 395 0 211 199
14 Chris Johnson TEN 276 1243 4.5 6 36 232 0 202 197
15 Frank Gore SF 258 1214 4.7 8 28 234 1 213 196
16 Knowshon Moreno DEN 278 1050 3.8 8 42 334 0 207 195
17 Ahmad Bradshaw NYG 253 1160 4.6 7 26 280 0 198 190
18 Stevan Ridley NE 290 1263 4.4 12 6 51 0 206 188
19 Darren McFadden OAK 288 943 3.3 3 56 344 1 181 183
20 Steven Jackson STL 257 1042 4.1 4 38 321 0 179 181
21 Reggie Bush MIA 227 986 4.3 6 35 292 2 193 177
22 Mikel Leshoure DET 246 912 3.7 10 39 245 0 197 175
23 Darren Sproles NO 59 300 5.1 1 92 821 9 217 173
24 Shonn Greene NYJ 276 1063 3.9 8 19 151 0 179 173
25 Ryan Mathews SD 245 943 3.8 1 52 336 0 162 171
26 BenJarvus Green-Ellis CIN 278 1094 3.9 6 22 104 0 167 170
27 Fred Jackson BUF 184 699 3.8 5 54 347 2 170 153
28 Michael Turner ATL 222 800 3.6 10 19 128 1 168 147
29 Andre Brown NYG 117 616 5.3 13 19 138 0 162 139
30 Joique Bell DET 82 414 5 3 52 485 0 134 135
31 DeAngelo Williams CAR 173 737 4.3 5 13 187 2 141 132
32 Vick Ballard IND 211 814 3.9 2 17 152 1 123 132
33 Jonathan Dwyer PIT 192 767 4 2 22 130 0 116 126
34 Pierre Thomas NO 112 505 4.5 1 42 378 1 122 124
35 Danny Woodhead NE 76 301 4 4 40 446 3 137 110
36 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 94 362 3.9 1 53 402 1 115 108
37 Bryce Brown PHI 115 564 4.9 4 13 56 0 93 103
38 Mark Ingram NO 156 602 3.9 5 6 29 0 96 98
39 Felix Jones DAL 111 402 3.6 3 26 266 2 110 97
40 Mike Tolbert CAR 54 183 3.4 7 27 268 0 101 72

Remember, the 2012 columns are all projected to 16 games, as is the projected 2013 points column. The system does not attempt to tell you who will get injured; it just makes a guess as to how many points the running back will score if he’s healthy all year.

Translating the Regression into English

This system loves Jamaal Charles, jumping him up to nearly the levels of Alfred Morris, Ray Rice, and C.J. Spiller. Why is that? Charles ran for only 5 touchdowns last year, an abnormally low number for a player with 1500 rushing yards. (Of the 84 running backs to rush for 1,500 yards in a season, only four rushed for five or fewer scores that season.) Meanwhile, Morris ran for 13 touchdowns with 1600 yards, so the regression expects fewer touchdowns for Morris and more for Charles. With respect to Ray Rice, he only scored more fantasy points than Charles because he had more receptions and more rushing touchdowns, but Charles’ edge in rushing yards is more sustainable. As for Spiller, the regression thinks his absurd yards per rush and yards per reception averages are less likely to hold up; historically speaking, players with more touches tend to hold their value best.

Meanwhile, Trent Richardson is a player that formula is bearish on. Much of his fantasy value was due to touchdowns and receptions, not rushing yards, making him a riskier pick. On the other hand, more is expected from Chris Johnson in 2013. He caught 36 passes, but they only resulted in 232 receiving yards and 0 touchdowns: if he catches 36 passes in 2013, he’d probably end up with closer to 300 yards and a score or two. In addition, history suggests a player with 1200 rushing yards is likely to rush for more than six touchdowns.

One player you might be surprised to see projected so optimistically is Darren McFadden. After all, he sure felt like a bust last year, and averaged a pitiful 3.3 yards per carry. But the regression tells us that rush attempts are extremely important, and last year McFadden had three games with over 25 carries and four more with 17 or more rushes (in only 12 games). He also caught 42 passes in 12 games, so this formula is impressed with a player so heavily involved with the offense. Throw in the fact that he ran for just 2 touchdowns, and he’s likely to be undervalued.

Adding the Human Element

These projections do not include any non-statistical information. At all. So you would want to use real-world knowledge to modify them. Fortunately, that’s where my Footballguys co-staffers are extremely valuable, and they’ll provide you with many articles this offseason explaining why players are under or overrated. For example, you might want to upgrade or downgrade these computer projections because of factors such as:

• The player’s previous history (prior to last season)
• His risk of injury
• His risk of being benched
• His offensive line and other surrounding personnel
• A change of teams or a change in coaching staff
• His attitude and intangibles

With Charles, he has never been used as a goal line option, so he may continue to have a very low rushing-yards-to-rushing-touchdowns ratio. The computer might be down on Trent Richardson, but he was a rookie dealing with injuries last year; we should project improvement to counter some of the expected regression in his touchdown numbers. As for McFadden, the Raiders are moving away from the zone-blocking scheme that hampered him in 2012, providing even more reason for optimism there. On the other hand, with McFadden, assuming 16 games played is also a very optimistic projection. Allow me to run through the top 32 running backs according to our starting projections and tell you how I’d modify them (as of April 29). Your mileage may vary greatly.

Proj RkRunning BackProj FPModification
1 Adrian Peterson 285 None. Peterson was at his best when Percy Harvin was out last year and his superhuman numbers are already regressed by the formula.
2 Doug Martin 254 None.
3 Arian Foster 243 Down slightly. Much of Foster’s value is tied up in Houston being a good team, and I have my concerns about how good the Texans will be in 2013.
4 Marshawn Lynch 234 Up slightly. Seattle looks to be outstanding on offense and defense.
5 Alfred Morris 227 Down slightly. Concerns about the health of Robert Griffin III plus last year felt slightly fluky to me.
6 Ray Rice 222 None.
7 C.J. Spiller 221 Up slightly, as rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel could force defenders to account for another player in the running game.
8 Jamaal Charles 220 Up slightly. Andy Reid and Alex Smith should make the Chiefs a higher-scoring team.
9 LeSean McCoy 217 Up slightly. Last year everything went wrong for the Eagles. Fewer turnovers on offense will help.
10 Trent Richardson 211 Up slightly. Battled with injuries and should improve in year two. I approve of Rob Chudzinski over Pat Shurmur.
11 Matt Forte 203 None. Improvements on the offensive line offset by addition of Marcellus Bennett.
12 Willis McGahee 202 Down. Wes Welker means fewer runs, and Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are threats to steal touches.
13 DeMarco Murray 199 Down slightly due to injury concerns.
14 Chris Johnson 197 While Shonn Greene is a threat to steal carries (and especially touchdowns), the addition of guards Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre will solidify the offensive line.
15 Frank Gore 196 Down due to age and the threats of LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter.
16 Knowshon Moreno 195 Down, obviously. Most of his production (which has been prorated) came when McGahee was out.
17 Ahmad Bradshaw 190 Down until we see where he signs.
18 Stevan Ridley 188 Up slightly. Without Wes Welker he could become much more involved, but the Patriots pace (an incredible 1,191 plays last year) and production may decrease, too. LeGarrette Blount is unlikely to be a threat.
19 Darren McFadden 183 Up slightly. Moving away from zone-blocking scheme and Raiders may run more in 2013. Only up slightly because McFadden’s unlikely to stay healthy.
20 Steven Jackson 181 Up slightly. In Atlanta now, which features a much better offense, but his role is likely to be smaller and age makes it necessary to cap my enthusiasm.
21 Reggie Bush 177 Up. If Detroit can get the production out of Bush that the Lions received from a healthy Jahvid Best, he will be a top-12 back.
22 Mikel Leshoure 175 Down, obviously, with the Bush signing.
23 Darren Sproles 173 None. Return of Sean Payton should help but age and the presence Mark Ingram offset an improved offense.
24 Shonn Greene 173 Down as he is now the backup running back in Tennessee.
25 Ryan Mathews 171 Up slightly. New head coach Mike McCoy could revive a struggling San Diego offense. No real threat of another running back stealing touches.
26 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 170 Down as the Bengals selecteded North Carolina's Giovani Bernard as the first running back in the NFL Draft.
27 Fred Jackson 153 Down due to age, injury concerns, and Spiller.
28 Michael Turner 147 Down significantly, as he is unlikely to see many carries in 2013. Still a free agent.
29 Andre Brown 139 Down, as he is the backup running back in New York.
30 Joique Bell 135 Down significantly.
31 DeAngelo Williams 132 Down significantly due to age, injury, and committee concerns.
32 Vick Ballard 132 Up slightly as the Colts should run more frequently and Ballard is likely to improve in his second season.

Add Maurice Jones-Drew, David Wilson, Lamar Miller, Jonathan Stewart, and running backs for the Packers, Rams, Cardinals, Jets, and Steelers, and I come up with a top 32 for 0.5 PPR leagues that looks like this:

2. Doug Martin
3. Marshawn Lynch
4. Arian Foster
5. Jamaal Charles
6. LeSean McCoy
7. C.J. Spiller
8. Ray Rice
9. Alfred Morris
10. Trent Richardson
11. Matt Forte
12. Stevan Ridley
13. Chris Johnson
14. Reggie Bush
15. DeMarco Murray
16. Maurice Jones-Drew
18. Steven Jackson
18. David Wilson
20. Frank Gore
21. Willis McGahee
22. Lamar Miller
23. Ryan Mathews
24. Darren Sproles
25. Vick Ballard
26. Jonathan Stewart
27. BenJarvus Green-Ellis
28. Eddie Lacy/Johnathan Franklin
29. Isaiah Pead/Zac Stacy
30. Rashard Mendenhall/Stepfan Taylor/Andre Ellington
31. Mike Goodson/Chris Ivory
32. Le'Veon Bell/Jonathan Dwyer