Throughout the summer, we’ve used this space to take a top-down view on scoring, plays and drives, sorting out what teams are due for some scoring recoil while finding a few others that should be due for a rebound in 2018. We also took a look at red zone performance on a league level while sorting out which players have relied on being fed scoring opportunities and those who have found a way to score without those chances.
After those two posts, we slid right into top-down outlooks on each position with a plethora of individual player nuggets tacked on. After touching on the tight end, quarterback and wide receiver positions, we’re bringing this summer series to a close with a look at the running back position.
Production from Top-12 Fantasy RBs Over the Past 10 Years
Production from Fantasy RB2s (RBs 13-24) Over the Past 10 Years
2017 has been referred to as the “return of the running back” in some circles and this summer’s ADP certainly reflects a resurgence in demand at the position. But as we’ve highlighted several times over the course of the series, the fact that the running back position as a whole was so critical for fantasy success a year ago had a lot to do with leaguewide passing production cratering than solely running backs returning to their dominance of yesteryear.
The very top of the position lost output from the 2016 season but managed to stay in line with scoring output that followed suit for the rest of the decade outside of the hideous 2015 campaign. The position itself got much worse the deeper we went on, with the RB2 group of fantasy producers posting their third-lowest scoring season over the past 10 years, with all three of those low-scoring seasons coming over the span of the past four seasons.
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Branching off for a moment, what makes the top of the position so valuable in terms of using up your highest draft capital in relation to a deeper and more linear position such as wide receiver is that the individual players making up the high-end fantasy running backs have a short supply and are in high demand. Over the past 10 seasons, the RB2 fantasy group on average has only produced 70.6 percent of the scoring output generated by the RB1 group. In each of the past two seasons, that number has been significantly lowered, with the secondary group producing just 65.9 percent of the RB1 scoring a year ago and 68.6 percent in 2016. Compare that to the wide receiver position, which has had the WR2 output average 77.7 percent of the WR1 output over that same timespan. Going even further, fantasy backs with an RB3 (RB25-36) seasonal finish have averaged just 54.5 percent of the RB1 output and 77.2 percent of the RB2 output while the WR3 grouping has averaged 63.9 percent of the WR1 output and 82.2 percent of the WR2 output over the past 10 years. These of course are arbitrary baseline cutoffs contingent on bulk numbers over weekly viability, but while there are individual conversations to be had for each player you’re considering selecting at a specific spot in your drafts, there are just more viable fantasy players in a given season at the wide receiver position than the running back one in relation to the performance of the top scorers of the position.
This is the lowest hanging branch of reasoning why the best running backs dominate early draft capital despite holding higher injury and flat-out bust rates than early round wide receivers. I’m on record saying we should expect passing games to rebound and wide receivers had 2015-running back like blip in production, but average play from wide receivers is more functional than average running back play for fantasy purposes from a seasonal level. That is also true on a weekly level if you recall the rates of weekly baseline scoring compared to the highest scoring player per position displayed in the quarterback portion of this series. In fact, even the weekly WR4 group is more viable in relation to the top of their respective position than the RB3 group. Those are the bodies who will be operating in your FLEX positions mor eoften than not in leagues that have them.
Circling back to the open, one thing you’ll notice is that the top of the running back position did things in an entirely different way last season. The top-24 of the position posted their second-lowest amount of rushing yardage outside of that down 2015 season over the previous 10 seasons but negated that depressed rushing output with a monstrous season catching the ball out of the backfield. Top-12 backs caught over 200 more passes than the season prior, with the group averaging 61 receptions per player. 47.7 percent of the scoring output from the RB1 group came from the receiving game alone after averaging 35.8 percent for the previous portion of that table. Lead fantasy backs averaged 51.1 percent of their team rushing attempts, the lowest rate of the past 10 years, with just one back (Le’Veon Bell) reaching 70 percent of his team’s rushing attempts.
A week ago, we mentioned that the wide receiver position had their lowest collective share of leaguewide targets (57.6 percent) in 017 over the past 10 seasons. Expanding the scope of running backs beyond just the players we cared about the most for fantasy purposes, we can easily spot where all those opportunities went.
Last season, the running back position established new highs across the board in terms of targets share, receptions, receiving yardage and touchdowns in relation to the leaguewide passing output.
The tricky part here is just how sticky can or will this be moving forward? Was the dependency on running back usage in the passing game a byproduct of the injuries at the quarterback position and subpar offensive play we discussed when hashing out the quarterback production from a year ago or will this be the beginning of a new trend in how team’s use the short passing game?
Warren Sharp has highlighted that teams throwing to running backs out of the backfield on early downs gain a significant advantage in terms of play success rate. If those numbers are coming to the forefront of team analysis, last season’s usage of backs out of the backfield may not just be a fluke. On the other end of the spectrum, in this thread of tweets, Josh Hermsmeyer has shown that teams gain a far greater overall advantage not only in upside, but also in terms of staying on schedule by throwing consistently pushing the ball downfield as often as possible. What wins out in the immediate future remains to be seen, but the top of the position for fantasy purposes will need their receiving usage to remain spiked if they are going to produce a similar output on the ground.
Snaps, Routes, Targets and Touches
With running backs dominating the early portion of drafts once again, you’d believe the position was packed once again with an overabundance of high-usage players, but teams are still incorporating more players per game at the position than ever. Just 13 backs averaged at least 15 rushing attempts per game, the second-lowest total of the past 10 years while just 20 backs averaged 15 or more total touches per game, the lowest number of backs over the same span. On the high end, eight different backs averaged at least 20 touches per game, the most in a season since 2013. Usage is the name of the game at the position since so many touches by backs are inefficient ones, which places a fantasy premium on those high-workload, bellcow backs that carry offenses, even when those backs aren’t hyper-efficient or even in a desirable offensive climate.
The Elite from 2017
The five backs above are the only ones in the league that ranked in the top-12 in all of snaps played, routes run, targets, rushing attempts and overall touches.
Bell led the league in snaps by a mile, trumping Todd Gurley by 155 total plays on the season, which was nearly three full games worth of Gurley’s average snap count per week. Bell has ranked first or second in yards from scrimmage per game in each of the past four seasons because he just doesn’t come off the field. That’s how he could sustain a dip in efficiency, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch – his second-lowest career marks in each category – but made up for the losses per touch with shear volume, leading the league in touches with 406. Including the postseason, Bell amassed 427 touches, the second consecutive season in which he surpassed the 400-touch mark. That workload may inevitably run its toll on Bell, but the only thing keeping a healthy Bell from having an all-time great fantasy season is his consistent lack of high-end scoring opportunities.
Todd Gurley largely benefited from being used as the all-encompassing weapon in a modern offense in his first season under Sean McVay. After catching 64 passes for 515 yards and zero touchdowns through his first two seasons, Gurley had 64 receptions for 788 yards and six scores through the air a year ago. The Rams ran the ball with three or more wide receivers on the field the most in the league last season (332 times and 71.4 percent of their total team rushing attempts) after they ranked 22nd in the league in that category in 2016. With that personnel versatility inherently creating more natural space, Gurley averaged 1.9 yards prior to contact in 2017 as opposed to .09 and .31 yards before contact over his first two seasons in the league.
Melvin Gordon has increased his rushing attempts, yardage, targets, receptions and receiving yardage each year in the league. Maintaining his receiving output is something that Gordon is going to need to rollover, because he did hit a bit a dry patch in 2017 when his receiving role was compromised by an undrafted Austin Ekeler. From Weeks 1-6, Gordon played 75 percent of the snaps per week and tallied 28 catches for 222 yards and four receiving scores. The next seven games -prior to Ekeler breaking his hand – Gordon caught just 15 passes for 85 yards and 0 touchdowns while playing 65 percent of the snaps per game. Ekeler and potentially Justin Jackson can needle their way into Gordon’s overall target share again in 2018, but they are both smaller backs suited for ancillary passing game roles and neither are much of an overall threat to Gordon’s rushing or scoring opportunity workload. We may see Gordon’s targets and receptions finally cease to rise, but with the Chargers have a much-improved interior offensive line while still projecting to be one of the better offenses in the league. That leaves plenty of room for Gordon to keep stacking rushing and scoring production.
With his surrounding talent steadily deteriorating since he’s joined the Bills, LeSean McCoy has been needed more and more every year in Buffalo. McCoy totaled 346 touches in 2017, the second-highest total of his career. In the passing game, McCoy’s 77 targets and 59 receptions where the most he’s had in a season since 2010. That overall volume was necessary considering that McCoy’s 4.0 yards per carry were the lowest of his career and his 71.1 rushing yards per game were his lowest total since 2012. There are an abundance of negatives surrounding McCoy that have many people removing him from their draft boards entirely. McCoy enters 2018 at age 30, the Bills have lost Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Eric Wood from their offensive line this offseason, the Buffalo offense a whole has potential to struggle and McCoy now has a potential domestic dispute hanging over his head in which nobody knows the ramifications. If you can get past all of that, there’s plenty of room for him to still be an advantageous third-round pick if he’s your RB2 -and not solely leaned on for carrying your roster- a spot where he’s frequently hitting in recent drafts. Even if Buffalo is bad once again, McCoy has proven to be the best back in the league at creating his own touchdown production regardless of climate and projects to once again have one of the highest usage rates in the league. He’s had at least 1,100 yards from scrimmage in eight consecutive seasons.
Largest Increase in 2017 Snaps Per Game from To Date Career Numbers
Leading the top of the list of players who had the highest snap-per-game spike over their career usage a year ago was the last of the players we had listed in the opening usage department. Carlos Hyde was hardly efficient, as his rushing use per game (15.0 carries) and yards per carry (3.9) fell in 2017 after rising for three straight seasons. But Hyde saw a significant spike in the receiving department (especially in games that C.J. Beathard played), catching 59 passes in 2017 after catching 50 over his first three years. Unfortunately, he left San Francisco for potentially one of the worst situations he could have found on the open market in terms of maintaining the type of usage that can float any type of per touch production. The receptions are fully compromised for Hyde playing alongside Duke Johnson. Johnson accounted for 16 percent of the Cleveland targets a year ago and will cut into Hyde’s chances of repeating his receiving success. To top that off, the Browns also selected Nick Chubb with the 35th pick overall to thwart Hyde’s rushing ceiling. His overall usage balloon from a year ago is surely going to pop and I’ve yet to draft Hyde even once this offseason, but he is a target for those foregoing all early-round capital on the position while looking to pluck a potential value out of an ambiguous situation.
Not even a part-time player through four seasons in Cincinnati, Burkhead finally got his opportunity to play extended snaps last season in New England surrounding ankle, rib and knee injuries that caused him to miss six games of the season. That missed time overall masked his productivity. After returning in Week 7, Burkhead established himself a fixture in the Patriot offense up until his knee injury in Week 15.
New England RB Usage Weeks 7-15
If you’re looking for a proxy of how we may see this New England backfield in 2018, this could be the closest we get. First-round pick Sony Michel may not garner as much work rushing as Dion Lewis did, but even so, if Burkhead is deployed in a similar way as a part-time player as he was over this stretch when he averaged just 11 touches per game, then he stands to be a value all summer long. Burkhead was tied for third in the league in touches inside of the 5-yard line over that span and handled seven of the 10 backfield carries in that area of the field for the Patriots. He was also highly effective with those touches, converting five for touchdowns. Burkhead is going to pop up shortly once again in a moment, as he wasn’t solely a short-yardage grinder like players such as LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley have been in this offense. Rather, Burkhead ran a pass route on 55.4 percent of his snaps, which ranked as the 10th highest rate at his position and he was targeted on 33.3 percent his routes, which ranked tied for third behind Tarik Cohen and Alvin Kamara.
One name absent from the open of uber-usage backs was Ezekiel Elliott despite his snap rates increasing as a sophomore back. That’s because through two seasons, Zeke just hasn’t been used in the passing game despite being on the field as much as any of these other backs. Elliott ran 26.9 pass routes per game last year -which trailed only Le’Veon Bell and Christian McCaffrey – but was targeted on just 14.1 percent of them, ahead of only Lamar Miller (13.4 percent) for all 45 backs to run at least 150 pass routes on the season. A more than capable receiver as a prospect, Elliott will be looking to make a Gurley-like turnaround in his passing game usage and may be set up to do that with so much uncertainty at the wide receiver and tight end positions in Dallas entering the year. If he does, Elliott could be the best fantasy running back by a long shot as he’s already rushed for over 100-yards onthe ground in 12 of his 25 games played with 80 or more yards rushing in 23 of those games. Both of those marks are the most in the league over the past two seasons despite him missing seven weeks. He’s also among the elite touchdown machines at the position, averaging a touchdown per game over the past two seasons.
Even though he was conceding playing time over the final three weeks of 2017 to the mighty Alfred Blue, Lamar Miller trumped his career-high in snaps played in a season by 98 snaps a year ago. We talked a bit how Miller has lacked explosive touchdown appeal since joining the Texans, but Miller enters 2018 still just 27-years old and is coming off four consecutive seasons of at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Miller’s yards per carry have sagged for three straight seasons, but he did flash upside playing along Deshaun Watson. Over those six weeks, Miller was the RB14 in overall points, finishing as an RB2 or better in five f those six games with two top-5 scoring weeks. With D’Onta Foreman still likely to behind the eight ball to start the season as he recovers from an Achilles injury and the Texans have the best schedule layout in the league, Miller should start the season as a volume-based RB2 with the upside to be better.
Jerick McKinnon has set a new career-high in snaps played in each of the past two seasons and should do so for a third straight year now finally with the opportunity to lead a backfield in San Francisco. Despite sharing touches per game with Latavius Murray a year ago, McKinnon was the RB9 in PPR formats Weeks 5-16 after the loss of Dalvin Cook. His 43 receptions ranked sixth at the running back position over that time span while his 881 yards from scrimmage checked in at 10th over those weeks. McKinnon handled 15.3 touches per game over that timeframe just mentioned -a more than palatable expectation on his new team – and he should easily best the 201 and 202 total touches he’s tallied in each of the past two seasons.
With both players aided by end of season injuries to pieces of their backfield, both Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis saw the field for the most amount of time they had in a season to date. Henry was used on just 31.9 percent of the Tennessee passing plays a year ago, something that doesn’t factor to increase much with the addition of a player like Lewis. Even though Lewis is going to pop up at the end of this post as one of the players that lost the most receiving production a year ago, he still fits in to at minimum handle the majority of the Tennessee receiving work from the backfield and has the chops, leading all running backs in targets per game back in 2015. Lewis played 16 games in 2017 for the first time in his career on his way to ringing up 180 rushing attempts, besting his career mark of 64 carries set in 2016. Lewis was also effective with those carries, as he ranked third of all back with at least 100 rushing attempts in rate of runs to go for 10 or more yards (13.4 percent). He’s a better rusher than most satellite backs and good on the interior as a runner, but given that NFL coaches have a hard time seeing past player archetypes molded from their physical frame paired with Lewis’ injury history, I’d still anticipate this backfield to be a combination that compartmentalizes Lewis more than his rushing acumen should suggest. In relaity, the Titans should use these backs the same way and run their offense the same when either is in the game, but we’d also need rational coaching to win out for that to happen. Lewis should keep Henry’s receptions totals in a position where it will be hard for Henry to find a stable fantasy floor, making him dependent on finding the end zone while both are active, but Lewis will have a hard time replicating the nine touchdowns he scored in 2017 while sharing a backfield with a greater individual talent than he ever did while in New England.
2017 Highest Rate of Routes Run per Snap
*Route Data Per Pro Football Focus
Not all running backs snaps are created equal with how teams are using their personnel in today’s game and these are the backs that ran a pass route on the highest rate of their snaps on the field a year ago. Not many of the names above are a huge surprise given how we know they score their fantasy points. This group is largely made up of primary backs that get a boost in formats that reward receptions, but are dinged in leagues where those bonuses aren’t available.
Only Le’Veon Bell ran more pass routes than Christian McCaffrey and McCaffrey led all running backs with 113 targets in his rookie season. He and LeSean McCoy were the only two backs to lead their team in targets. McCaffrey hardly lit it up on the ground as a rookie with 435 yards on 117 carries, but he did improve as the season wore on, rushing 68 times for 318 yards (4.7 YPC) over his final eight games after rushing 49 times for 117 yards (2.4 YPC) over the front half as the season. While the extent of how much McCaffrey can build upon his 117 carries as a rookie playing with C.J. Anderson and Cam Newton– no matter what Ron Rivera says this summer about him getting 25-30 touches per game – McCaffrey’s lofty receiving totals could be compromised with Carolina potentially having the deepest team-receiving unit they’ve had since drafting Newton.
There’s no doubt that McCaffrey was aided by the Panthers having a limited passing tree, with Olsen injured early in the season and Carolina trading Kelvin Benjamin in season, but even with a shell of Olsen present, McCaffrey’s opportunities and scoring took a hit a year ago. McCaffrey was a PPR RB2 or better in just two of the seven games that Olsen was active. His usage near the end zone also suffered, receiving just two of eight team targets inside of the 10-yard line with Olsen active as opposed to 5-of-12 with him out. This is just a one-year sample as a rookie and McCaffrey was strong in Carolina’s playoff loss playing alongside Olsen, but with Olsen returning presumably healthy and the addition of D.J. Moore, there’s no reason that the Panthers should funnel their passing attack through McCaffrey to the extent they did in 2017.
Nine running backs ran more pass routes than Alvin Kamara a year ago, but only two bested his 100 targets and only one caught more than the 80 passes he did during his rookie season. Used primarily in the passing game as a rookie, we still can’t mistake Kamara as a true satellite back given his 215-pouind frame and he had already begun taking a larger role in the rushing game when the season hit its final stretches a year ago. Over the final five games of 2017 into the postseason, Kamara had rushed 54 times to 57 for Mark Ingram and out-carried Ingram 7-to-1 inside of the 10-yard line over that span. We touched on Kamara’s inevitable regression on relying to score from distance, but he’s the archetype of every-down back you want to pursue for fantasy purposes while playing in the most stable fantasy offense year-over-year of the past decade. We shouldn’t overthink this one.
Devontae Booker is set to compete with rookie third-round pick Royce Freeman for the starting running back duties in Denver. While you have potential to a net a lead back with a low-leverage pick, even if he loses that battle, Booker has cheap FLEX appeal as at worst he should be an ancillary passing option. Case Keenum targeted running backs 90 times a year ago in Minnesota on 18.9 percent of his passes.
Giovani Bernard has finished as a PPR RB3 or better in four of his five NFL seasons, but last season was immensely aided by a late-season surge after Joe Mixon suffered a concussion in Week 13. In the 11 games prior to Mixon’s injury, Bernard averaged a lowly 4.8 touches for 30.9 yards from scrimmage per game, reaching five touches in just five of those games. Bernard was coming off a torn ACL, so he may have been preserved to that stage, but it is troubling that he was only used by sheer necessity and the Bengals have drafted his heir in Mark Walton this offseason.
Chris Thompson appeared in the table before this one -playing a career-best 33.8 snaps per game- and only James White ran more pass routes per snap than Thompson did a year ago. Thompson averaged a whopping 13.1 yards per reception while netting career- highs in receptions (3.9) and rushing attempts (6.4) per game. He was the RB10 overall before his season ended with a leg injury in Week 11. In his 26 games played over the past two seasons, non-Thompson running backs have totaled just 43 targets in the passing game. While Thompson certainly still maintains FLEX appeal, the rub is that Thompson has already declared he won’t be fully healed to start the season and Washington has more viable targets entering this season than they did through an injury-riddled 2017. On top of that, Derrius Guice is a much better talent than who Thompson has split roles with. To tack on to matters further, four of Thompson’s six scores a year ago coming from 22-yards out and further, something that is unlikely to remain stable. He’s a player I’m avoiding with all of those swirling negatives.
Largest Receiving Point Rate Drop in 2017 from To Date Career Numbers
Bringing us home, these are the backs that had the largest decline in fantasy output that stemmed from receiving production in comparison to their career output prior to 2017. We already touched on Dion Lewis earlier and how his role shifted last year but should be expected to take the chunk of targets going to the Tennessee backfield, but we’ll highlight a few other players above as we close this out.
The receiving candle for Devonta Freeman has steadily been losing wax since his 73/578/3 receiving line in 2015. After ranking fifth that season in receiving points per game (9.9) for all running backs, Freeman dipped to 10th (7.0) in 2016 and all the way to 28th (5.3) a year ago. Over the past three seasons, his targets per game have gone from 6.5 to 4.1 to 3.4 while his receptions per game have gone from 4.9 to 3.4 to 2.6. Freeman had two or fewer receptions in 9-of-14 games a year ago. He is a player who is still valuable, but this leaking reception balloon is what has moved Freeman to the fringe-RB1 status he currently holds.
Jordan Howard was far from an asset in the passing game as a rookie, but the addition of Tarik Cohen made him a next to zero in that area in his second season. Howard lost -7.5 snaps per game from his rookie season pace a year ago, which directly tied into him playing 115 fewer passing snaps in 2017 than he did as a rookie. Howard went from tacking on 4.3 receiving points per game as a rookie to just 2.2 a year ago. No running back was targeted a higher rate per route last season than Cohen was last year, and many would argue that he was still underused. Cohen began his rookie season averaging 13.5 touches for 82.8 total yards per game over the opening four weeks, but then saw just 7.2 touches for 33.1 yards per game over the final 12 weeks. Showing what kind of offensive weapon he can be, Cohen should benefit the most in the Chicago backfield from the Bears moving to a modern offense and could be this year’s version of Duke Johnson for fantasy purposes. The new offensive system also has benefits for Howard – he’s rushed 128 times for 831 yards and 6.5 YPC out of the shotgun through two seasons – but Howard is a player that gets a much larger boost in standard formats than those that aid backs who catch the ball out of the backfield.
Bilal Powell gets back on our radar as a deeper supplemental option with the news that Elijah McGuire will be out indefinitely with a fractured foot. No player has a larger drop-off in the receiving game than Powell suffered a year ago. After catching 47 and 58 passes over the two prior seasons, Powell caught just 23 passes on 33 targets in 2017. We’re unlikely to get the career-high 178 rushing attempts from him again sharing the backfield with Isaiah Crowell and the ghost of Thomas Rawls, but Powell should easily dispatch either as the passing-game back while McGuire is sidelined.
Bringing up the bottom of the list here is a pair of veteran backs that will be sharing a backfield in Oakland. It’s arguable that Doug Martin has been the worst running back with tangible volume in football over the past two seasons and he’s already been one of the least productive receiving backs. Since catching 49 passes as a rookie, Martin has 81 catches total over his past five seasons, with 14 or fewer in four of those years. Lynch was never mistaken as a strong receiving option, but his 1.3 receptions per game a year ago was the lowest mark for his career. Over his first nine games of the season, Lynch saw just 11.2 touches for 49.3 yards from scrimmage per game, ranking as the RB38 over that span. Then, over the final six weeks of the season, Lynch had 22.5 touches and 99.8 total yards per game and was third in the league in rushing (501 yards). Entering 2018 at age 32, Lynch will still be a risky bet to blow past the 233 touches or the 20 receptions he had a year ago as the ineffectiveness of both Lynch and Martin in the passing game leaves the door open for DeAndre Washington– who led the Raiders backfield with 34 catches a year ago- or Jalen Richard to still find the field in some capacity in 2018.
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