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True Fantasy Points: 2017 Running Back Projections

A stats-based guide for separating skill from luck in running back projections.

Yesterday, we published the first installment in my True Fantasy Points (TFP) series, which evaluated quarterback projections. (Click here if you missed it.) In Part 2 today, I'm moving on to running backs. To calculate these TFP projections, we need a few things. First, we need each player's data for the following rate stats:

  • Yards per Carry (YPC)
  • Touchdowns per Carry (RuTD%)
  • Receptions per Route Run (RPRR)
  • Yards per Route Run (YPRR)
  • Touchdowns per Route Run (TDPRR)
Second, we need the league averages for these rate stats. Third, we need math, which allows us to properly regress each player's actual rates toward the league average rate. Finally, we need David Dodds' volume projections (i.e., attempts and routes run). Put all of this together and apply Footballguys' standard scoring system, and we've got a system to evaluate how close or far away Dodds' point projection for a player is from that player's TFP, which represents what he should score based on his "true" yardage-gaining and touchdown-scoring skill. (If you'd like to read more about the method, click here or here.)
 

Alright, let's dive into this sea of numbers.
 

TRUE STATS THROUGH 2016

Below are the actual stat rates and the "true" stat rates for the 60 running backs who are a) playing for the same team as last season, and b) projected for more than 100 "opportunities" this season -- defined as rushing attempts plus routes run (sorted by True YPC ranking; Top 3 of each category in bold; Bottom 3 in italics):

  ACTUAL RATESTRUE RATES
PLAYERTMYPCRKTD%RKRPRRRKYPRRRKTDPRRRKYPCRKTD%RKRPRRRKYPRRRKTDPRRRK
LeSean McCoy BUF 4.95 9 3.66% 16 16.2% 22 1.28 28 0.59% 22 4.50 1 3.20% 10 16.2% 22 1.29 30 0.59% 22
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 5.07 8 4.66% 7 12.1% 50 1.37 23 0.38% 34 4.49 2 3.47% 4 13.6% 52 1.35 22 0.55% 37
Jordan Howard CHI 5.21 7 2.38% 35 9.7% 58 1.00 47 0.33% 39 4.49 3 2.75% 37 12.0% 59 1.16 48 0.53% 41
Ty Montgomery GB 6.26 1 4.17% 11 16.9% 20 1.24 30 0.00% 45 4.46 4 3.02% 18 16.5% 20 1.29 31 0.50% 51
Jalen Richard OAK 5.92 2 1.20% 52 23.2% 3 1.55 17 1.60% 4 4.46 5 2.70% 40 19.1% 6 1.39 20 0.70% 10
Chris Thompson WAS 5.51 4 2.83% 31 18.3% 16 1.25 29 1.01% 10 4.45 6 2.88% 30 17.7% 15 1.28 33 0.72% 6
Jay Ajayi MIA 4.72 10 2.91% 28 11.9% 51 0.85 54 0.00% 45 4.44 7 2.90% 28 13.5% 53 1.09 56 0.47% 56
DeAndre Washington OAK 5.37 6 2.30% 36 14.8% 33 1.00 45 0.00% 45 4.44 8 2.82% 34 15.6% 32 1.24 40 0.53% 43
C.J. Anderson DEN 4.56 15 3.79% 14 12.3% 48 1.04 44 0.49% 27 4.43 9 3.25% 8 13.1% 56 1.14 52 0.55% 33
Spencer Ware KC 4.63 12 3.15% 24 13.1% 44 1.52 18 0.67% 17 4.43 10 2.97% 22 14.2% 44 1.42 17 0.61% 17
Darren Sproles PHI 4.63 11 4.70% 6 18.3% 15 1.50 19 0.37% 35 4.42 11 3.36% 6 17.9% 14 1.45 16 0.50% 50
Thomas Rawls SEA 4.61 13 2.73% 32 11.2% 55 0.88 53 0.51% 26 4.42 12 2.85% 32 13.5% 54 1.15 49 0.58% 27
C.J. Prosise SEA 5.73 3 3.33% 21 21.0% 5 2.57 1 0.00% 45 4.42 13 2.91% 27 17.7% 16 1.58 7 0.55% 35
Le'Veon Bell PIT 4.45 18 2.87% 29 16.9% 21 1.49 20 0.37% 36 4.41 14 2.88% 31 16.8% 19 1.46 15 0.47% 54
Kenyan Drake MIA 5.42 5 6.06% 2 15.5% 29 0.90 52 0.00% 45 4.41 15 3.04% 15 15.9% 26 1.26 36 0.56% 31
Mark Ingram II NO 4.45 20 3.36% 20 17.2% 19 1.17 37 0.46% 29 4.41 16 3.17% 12 17.0% 18 1.21 42 0.53% 42
Jonathan Stewart CAR 4.43 22 3.00% 27 11.4% 53 0.92 50 0.45% 31 4.41 17 2.97% 23 11.9% 60 1.00 59 0.51% 48
Dion Lewis NE 4.58 14 1.77% 45 19.7% 9 1.79 10 0.74% 15 4.41 18 2.73% 38 18.3% 8 1.54 11 0.62% 15
Darren McFadden DAL 4.47 16 1.14% 53 15.3% 31 1.22 33 0.00% 45 4.41 19 2.40% 56 15.6% 31 1.28 34 0.47% 55
Tevin Coleman ATL 4.45 19 4.39% 9 13.4% 41 1.80 9 1.22% 5 4.40 20 3.24% 9 14.5% 40 1.53 12 0.71% 8
Derrick Henry TEN 4.45 17 4.55% 8 15.9% 25 1.67 12 0.00% 45 4.40 21 3.13% 14 16.0% 24 1.40 18 0.55% 36
Shane Vereen NYG 4.45 21 1.06% 55 19.2% 11 1.61 15 1.10% 7 4.40 22 2.67% 43 18.2% 11 1.48 14 0.72% 7
DeMarco Murray TEN 4.39 23 3.07% 26 15.1% 32 1.07 42 0.85% 13 4.40 23 2.95% 25 15.4% 34 1.19 45 0.66% 13
Jacquizz Rodgers TB 4.34 26 1.55% 47 9.6% 59 0.72 58 0.00% 45 4.39 24 2.67% 42 13.2% 55 1.14 51 0.52% 45
Ameer Abdullah DET 4.34 27 1.24% 49 15.4% 30 1.23 32 1.03% 8 4.39 25 2.57% 49 15.7% 30 1.29 32 0.66% 12
Bilal Powell NYJ 4.37 24 1.88% 43 15.8% 26 1.19 34 0.28% 41 4.39 26 2.44% 54 15.9% 27 1.22 41 0.43% 58
David Johnson ARI 4.36 25 5.74% 3 15.9% 24 1.84 8 1.10% 6 4.39 27 3.99% 1 15.9% 25 1.68 4 0.80% 4
Jonathan Williams BUF 3.48 57 3.70% 15 3.3% 60 0.00 60 0.00% 45 4.38 28 2.92% 26 14.2% 45 1.21 43 0.57% 28
Wendell Smallwood PHI 4.05 39 1.30% 48 9.8% 57 0.90 51 0.00% 45 4.38 29 2.73% 39 14.4% 41 1.25 37 0.56% 32
Orleans Darkwa NYG 4.01 40 5.63% 4 13.5% 39 1.15 39 0.00% 45 4.38 30 3.16% 13 15.5% 33 1.30 28 0.56% 30
Carlos Hyde SF 4.32 28 3.13% 25 11.4% 54 0.65 59 0.68% 16 4.38 31 2.98% 20 12.7% 58 0.93 60 0.62% 16
Rob Kelley WAS 4.19 33 3.57% 18 11.2% 56 0.77 57 0.93% 11 4.38 32 3.03% 16 14.2% 43 1.18 46 0.62% 14
Paul Perkins NYG 4.07 38 0.00% 59 11.5% 52 1.24 31 0.00% 45 4.38 33 2.48% 52 14.1% 47 1.30 29 0.53% 44
Duke Johnson Jr CLE 4.16 35 0.56% 58 18.5% 14 1.70 11 0.33% 40 4.38 34 2.40% 55 18.0% 13 1.58 8 0.49% 52
Malcolm Brown LAR 2.55 60 0.00% 59 18.2% 17 2.00 3 0.00% 45 4.38 35 2.80% 35 16.3% 21 1.37 21 0.58% 26
Andre Ellington ARI 4.27 30 2.26% 40 17.6% 18 1.57 16 0.47% 28 4.38 36 2.66% 45 17.3% 17 1.49 13 0.55% 38
Robert Turbin IND 3.49 56 14.89% 1 15.7% 27 1.08 41 0.60% 20 4.38 37 3.68% 2 15.9% 28 1.24 38 0.59% 21
Devonta Freeman ATL 4.29 29 4.13% 12 20.2% 7 1.63 14 0.77% 14 4.37 38 3.45% 5 19.5% 5 1.54 10 0.67% 11
James White NE 3.71 51 2.86% 30 20.9% 6 1.96 6 1.79% 1 4.37 39 2.89% 29 19.7% 4 1.72 2 0.98% 2
Isaiah Crowell CLE 4.27 31 3.58% 17 12.1% 49 1.04 43 0.18% 44 4.37 40 3.20% 11 13.0% 57 1.14 50 0.45% 57
Zach Zenner DET 3.75 47 3.81% 13 13.3% 42 1.38 22 0.00% 45 4.36 41 3.02% 17 14.8% 39 1.34 23 0.52% 47
Jerick McKinnon MIN 4.16 36 1.23% 50 19.1% 12 1.18 36 0.63% 18 4.36 42 2.35% 58 18.3% 9 1.24 39 0.60% 18
Chris Ivory JAX 3.75 48 2.56% 33 14.4% 35 1.34 26 0.00% 45 4.36 43 2.84% 33 15.3% 35 1.33 26 0.52% 46
Damien Williams MIA 3.40 59 3.45% 19 22.7% 4 2.01 2 1.74% 2 4.36 44 2.96% 24 20.2% 3 1.66 5 0.84% 3
Terrance West BAL 3.99 42 2.09% 41 19.8% 8 1.34 25 0.52% 23 4.35 45 2.68% 41 18.1% 12 1.33 25 0.58% 23
Giovani Bernard CIN 4.20 32 2.40% 34 18.6% 13 1.66 13 0.60% 21 4.35 46 2.66% 44 18.2% 10 1.58 6 0.59% 20
Lamar Miller HOU 4.00 41 1.87% 44 12.4% 47 0.79 55 0.40% 33 4.35 47 2.60% 48 13.9% 50 1.09 57 0.55% 34
Charles Sims TB 3.89 44 0.90% 57 19.5% 10 1.92 7 1.02% 9 4.35 48 2.39% 57 18.6% 7 1.69 3 0.73% 5
Matt Forte NYJ 3.73 50 3.21% 22 15.5% 28 1.36 24 0.52% 24 4.33 49 2.97% 21 15.8% 29 1.34 24 0.58% 24
Jeremy Hill CIN 4.13 37 4.35% 10 13.1% 43 0.98 49 0.21% 43 4.33 50 3.62% 3 13.9% 49 1.11 53 0.47% 53
Branden Oliver LAC 3.63 53 1.58% 46 25.3% 1 1.97 5 0.52% 25 4.33 51 2.60% 47 21.0% 2 1.58 9 0.58% 25
Devontae Booker DEN 3.52 54 2.30% 36 13.8% 38 1.18 35 0.45% 30 4.33 52 2.77% 36 14.8% 38 1.26 35 0.57% 29
Doug Martin TB 4.19 34 2.27% 39 13.8% 37 1.16 38 0.23% 42 4.33 53 2.52% 51 14.2% 42 1.21 44 0.43% 59
Theo Riddick DET 3.45 58 1.22% 51 24.2% 2 1.99 4 1.70% 3 4.32 54 2.56% 50 22.6% 1 1.79 1 1.03% 1
T.J. Yeldon JAX 3.86 45 0.96% 56 14.5% 34 1.00 46 0.34% 38 4.32 55 2.28% 59 14.9% 37 1.11 54 0.50% 49
Jeremy Langford CHI 3.51 55 4.76% 5 14.3% 36 1.47 21 0.35% 37 4.31 56 3.34% 7 15.0% 36 1.39 19 0.54% 40
Todd Gurley LAR 3.93 43 3.16% 23 13.4% 40 1.08 40 0.00% 45 4.30 57 3.01% 19 14.1% 46 1.18 47 0.41% 60
Melvin Gordon III LAC 3.74 49 2.28% 38 16.1% 23 1.33 27 0.44% 32 4.28 58 2.65% 46 16.1% 23 1.33 27 0.54% 39
Frank Gore IND 3.81 46 1.91% 42 13.0% 45 0.98 48 0.90% 12 4.27 59 2.46% 53 13.7% 51 1.10 55 0.70% 9
Alfred Blue HOU 3.64 52 1.11% 54 12.8% 46 0.79 56 0.62% 19 4.26 60 2.17% 60 13.9% 48 1.05 58 0.60% 19

We can use this table to identify the best "true" all-around running backs, the best runners at the position, and the best receivers at the position. With respect to the all-around profile, there are only two running backs that rank in the Top 30 (or better) across all "true" stat categories: LeSean McCoy and David Johnson. That said, McCoy and Johnson differ in their "true" strengths within said profile, as the former seems most adept at running for yardage, while the latter seems most adept at scoring touchdowns.

Given that McCoy and Johnson are two of the Top 3 running backs off the board in fantasy drafts this season, you might be wondering, "Where's Le'Veon Bell in this all-around talk?" Although simply opening your eyes while a Steelers game is on makes it obvious how great of an all-around skill set Bell possesses, from a "true" stat perspective, his bugaboo is scoring touchdowns, especially as a receiver. To wit, his 1,350 routes run in Pittsburgh is beyond the stabilization point for TDPRR (i.e., 1,063 routes), and yet he's only scored 5 receiving touchdowns.

Moving onto specific skill sets, Ezekiel Elliott and C.J Anderson are the only two running backs -- besides the aforementioned McCoy -- to rank among the Top 10 in both True YPC and True TD%. Anderson, especially, is a surprise in this regard, as Denver has brought in running back after running back the last two of offseasons to (what sure seems like) replace him.

As far as the best receiving back goes, Theo Riddick is the undisputed champion heading into 2017, ranking No. 1 in all three "true" stat categories. The scuttlebutt of late has surrounded Ameer Abdullah's ascension to bellcow status, but one has to imagine that a competent offensive coaching staff wouldn't leave Riddick's receiving acumen to rot away on the bench.

In addition to Riddick, only James White and Damien Williams also rank in the Top 5 of all three "true" receiving stat categories. After his performance in Super Bowl LI, no one -- especially no one playing fantasy football -- should be surprised by White's inclusion here; which is why he's currently being drafted in the 11th round despite having next-to-no value as a runner in New England's crowded, situation-dependent backfield. Williams, on the other hand, is basically free right now in PPR redrafts and has a much clearer, shorter path to a three-down gig.

TRUE PROJECTIONS FOR 2017

The table below displays David Dodds' projections, my TFP projections, and the difference between the two. In reading it, you should pay primary attention to the "DIFF" column, as that's what tells you which running backs are most overrated, most underrated, or somewhere in between.

 DODDS STATSTRUE STATSPOINTS
PLAYERTMRUYDSRUTDREYDSRETDRUYDSRUTDREYDSRETDDODDSTFPDIFF
Ty Montgomery GB 803 6 332 2 750 5 313 1 161.5 143.9 +17.6
Devonta Freeman ATL 932 8 467 3 919 7 451 2 205.9 192.2 +13.7
LeSean McCoy BUF 1095 9 372 2 1057 8 391 2 212.7 200.6 +12.1
C.J. Prosise SEA 206 2 371 2 203 1 350 1 81.7 70.6 +11.1
Duke Johnson Jr CLE 369 2 507 3 363 2 499 2 117.6 107.6 +10.0
Melvin Gordon III LAC 1040 8 442 2 1112 7 396 2 208.2 201.9 +6.3
Jay Ajayi MIA 1178 8 255 2 1168 8 276 1 203.3 197.2 +6.1
Tevin Coleman ATL 571 5 399 2 572 4 402 2 139.0 133.9 +5.1
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 960 7 216 1 898 7 237 1 165.6 160.9 +4.7
Mark Ingram II NO 738 5 288 2 728 5 284 1 144.6 140.1 +4.5
Jalen Richard OAK 389 2 166 1 348 2 167 1 73.5 69.2 +4.3
Ameer Abdullah DET 649 4 251 2 672 4 254 1 126.0 124.0 +2.0
Darren McFadden DAL 534 5 155 0 573 3 172 1 98.9 97.0 +1.9
Bilal Powell NYJ 748 4 380 2 747 4 399 1 148.8 148.0 +0.8
Spencer Ware KC 878 8 258 1 930 6 290 1 167.6 166.9 +0.7
Theo Riddick DET 250 2 484 3 298 2 467 3 103.4 103.3 +0.1
Derrick Henry TEN 632 4 155 1 634 5 148 1 108.7 108.7 0.0
Darren Sproles PHI 345 2 352 2 349 3 356 1 93.7 93.8 -0.1
Chris Thompson WAS 230 1 353 2 223 1 339 2 76.3 76.4 -0.1
DeMarco Murray TEN 987 7 308 2 1011 7 317 2 183.5 183.9 -0.4
Le'Veon Bell PIT 1215 8 607 2 1192 8 645 2 242.2 242.7 -0.5
Jordan Howard CHI 1238 7 298 1 1190 7 310 1 201.6 202.3 -0.7
Isaiah Crowell CLE 1015 7 300 1 974 7 325 1 179.5 180.4 -0.9
DeAndre Washington OAK 394 2 180 1 373 2 199 1 75.4 76.5 -1.1
Dion Lewis NE 361 2 149 1 375 2 152 1 69.0 70.2 -1.2
James White NE 217 1 299 2 227 2 297 2 69.6 71.5 -1.9
Jerick McKinnon MIN 242 1 145 1 262 1 142 1 50.7 53.0 -2.3
Andre Ellington ARI 147 1 126 0 153 1 121 0 33.3 35.6 -2.3
Chris Ivory JAX 222 2 70 0 244 2 78 0 41.2 43.6 -2.4
Shane Vereen NYG 280 1 304 2 286 2 309 2 76.4 78.9 -2.5
Doug Martin TB 663 5 175 1 735 4 195 1 119.8 122.9 -3.1
Charles Sims TB 173 1 187 1 196 1 200 1 48.0 51.2 -3.2
Terrance West BAL 754 6 252 1 827 5 265 1 142.6 146.7 -4.1
Damien Williams MIA 86 0 149 1 105 1 148 1 29.5 33.9 -4.4
Jonathan Williams BUF 337 3 83 0 373 2 102 0 60.0 65.3 -5.3
Zach Zenner DET 220 2 82 0 258 2 91 0 42.2 47.6 -5.4
Giovani Bernard CIN 451 2 332 2 479 3 347 1 102.3 108.0 -5.7
Paul Perkins NYG 629 4 164 1 679 4 194 1 109.3 115.0 -5.7
Alfred Blue HOU 174 1 62 0 196 1 75 0 29.6 35.7 -6.1
Thomas Rawls SEA 480 4 109 0 531 3 120 1 82.9 89.1 -6.2
Robert Turbin IND 351 3 170 1 394 3 179 1 76.1 82.4 -6.3
Kenyan Drake MIA 299 1 61 0 287 2 63 0 42.0 48.5 -6.5
Lamar Miller HOU 1085 7 241 2 1166 7 267 1 186.6 193.2 -6.6
Malcolm Brown LAR 148 1 90 0 175 1 101 0 29.8 36.8 -7.0
Jacquizz Rodgers TB 527 4 130 0 571 3 156 1 89.7 97.8 -8.1
Jeremy Langford CHI 145 1 69 0 172 1 84 0 27.4 35.6 -8.2
T.J. Yeldon JAX 251 1 234 1 285 2 246 1 60.5 68.8 -8.3
Carlos Hyde SF 888 6 190 1 920 6 204 1 149.8 158.2 -8.4
Rob Kelley WAS 729 6 148 0 789 5 158 1 123.7 132.4 -8.7
C.J. Anderson DEN 698 5 221 1 731 5 243 1 127.9 136.7 -8.8
Orleans Darkwa NYG 288 2 87 0 329 2 92 0 49.5 58.7 -9.2
Wendell Smallwood PHI 240 1 77 0 263 2 87 0 37.7 47.1 -9.4
Frank Gore IND 694 5 225 1 791 5 241 2 127.9 139.6 -11.7
Branden Oliver LAC 304 1 89 0 346 2 83 0 45.3 57.2 -11.9
Jeremy Hill CIN 430 3 61 0 476 4 64 0 67.1 79.6 -12.5
David Johnson ARI 1113 11 675 4 1164 11 792 4 268.8 281.5 -12.7
Devontae Booker DEN 274 1 120 0 303 2 128 1 45.4 58.2 -12.8
Jonathan Stewart CAR 668 5 85 0 750 5 100 1 105.3 118.3 -13.0
Todd Gurley LAR 1053 8 277 1 1161 8 292 1 187.0 200.0 -13.0
Matt Forte NYJ 647 4 240 1 715 5 254 1 118.7 132.9 -14.2

The "DIFF" column may speak for itself, but here are two underrated running backs and two overrated running backs that I think are worthy of some extra statistical detail and discussion:

Underrated: Todd Gurley

Almost all of the discrepancy between Dodds' projection for Gurley and that of TFP's is due to YPC. Last season, Gurley ran for 3.18 YPC after posting 4.83 YPC in 2015. There's only one way to go after that precipitous of a drop. And indeed, both systems believe something resembling a return to rookie Gurley is in the offing. The difference is in how much of a return. At 1,053 yards over 270 projected carries, Gurley has an implied YPC of 3.90 according to Dodds. As we saw in the earlier table, however, Gurley's True YPC is even higher (4.30), which means those same 270 carries should produce over 100 more rushing yards than Dodds projects.

Underrated: David Johnson

Yesterday, I listed Aaron Rodgers as underrated despite him being projected as the No. 1 quarterback. Well, Johnson is the Rodgers of running backs. And as was the case with Rodgers, the biggest statistical reason is due to yardage in the passing game. Specifically, Johnson's 1.68 True YPRR ranked 4th in the earlier table, but Dodds' projection implies a 16th-ranked YPRR of 1.43. Over the course of 470 projected routes, that quarter-yard discrepancy translates to a discrepancy of over 100 receiving yards.

A big reason why the larger YPRR is more likely to be correct is because Johnson has the highest True Average Depth of Target (aDOT) of any running back in the league by far: His is 3.97, which is over a full yard higher than second-place Andre Ellington. The fact that Johnson's teammate ranks that high as well is no coincidence, as aDOT is an indicator of a receiver's usage pattern within their offensive scheme. Bruce Arians digs the long ball, so much so that even running backs are targeted farther downfield than most of the league. Put this all together, and one realizes that Johnson's YPRR is somewhat inoculated against a value as low as Dodds projects.

Overrated: Ty Montgomery

Although Dodds projects better totals than all four of Montgomery's underlying "true" stats suggest, the main culprit is YPC. Through two years in Green Bay, Montgomery has a completely unsustainable 5.89 YPC. Dodds regresses that down to a more reasonable 4.78. TFP regresses it further down to 4.46 because Montgomery's only carried the ball 80 times, while YPC takes nearly 2,000 carries to stabilize as a reliable indicator of "true" skill.

There's an elephant in the room, of course: Montgomery has a nebulous role in a hybrid position. It could be that he really is a 5.00-YPC runner. It could be that defenses catch up to him, and he ends up even worse than a 4.50-YPC runner. It could be that he's only keeping a seat warm for Jamaal Williams and will be back in more of a wide receiver role sooner than later. Thankfully, this is exactly the kind of situation TFP was built for. When there's maximum uncertainty, just regress everything to the mean to be safe. And with a costly ADP of 42 right now, I think it's best to play this one safe.

Overrated: Devonta Freeman

Last year, I listed Freeman as overrated. Got that one wrong, so fool me twice, shame on me, right? Wrong. It turns out that Freeman outscored both Dodds' and TFP's projections because of one thing: Instead of regressing towards the mean, his TD% jumped from 3.64% through 2015 to an otherworldly 4.85% in 2016. As seen earlier, this was enough to raise his actual TD% with the Falcons to 4.13% and raise his True TD% to 3.45%. Same as last year, both Dodds and I have regressed Freeman's TD% downward toward the league average (his down to 3.81%), and once again Dodds projects 8 rushing touchdowns while TFP projects 7. If Freeman bucks the touchdown math again, I guess it will be shame on me.