- What stats matter the most for Running Backs?
- What Running Backs truly Do-it-all?
- How each type of Running Back scores their fantasy points
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Earlier in the week, we explored the running back position from a top-down view for fantasy purposes. In a similar layout to what we did with the tight end position the week prior, the second post in this positional series is going to focus on the stats that matter for correlating the most to fantasy points and how dependent individual running backs are in the sub-category for generating their own fantasy scoring.
Highest Correlation to Points Per Game for Running Backs
|Cat.||PPR Pts||St. Pts|
As a refresher, we’re looking at every game played over the past five seasons to generate these totals. Opportunity with the football is the name of the game for the running back position for fantasy since overall touches rank first in scoring correlation per game in PPR formats while coming in second in standard-scoring formats. Leading the way in standard formats is rushing yardage, which inherently makes sense as the bulk of the position generates their yardage totals through rushing over receiving. The discrepancy between the two scoring formats is highlighted above.
In standard leagues, you can just about ignore all of the satellite or primary receiving backs with little to no rushing opportunity because targets, catches, and receiving yards all just get chopped down in those scoring formats. It’s not a revelation to tell you that someone such as Derrick Henry is a better option in standard leagues while Tarik Cohen is better in PPR, but here is the measured difference in the relationship of what each of those players does best as it correlates to fantasy production given your league’s scoring settings.
Year-Over-Year Correlation Categories for Running Backs
Running backs have the largest avenue to fantasy production given the various ways they can accrue points, so this list runs the largest of all the positions. As was the case with the tight end position, you want to focus on per-game output in terms of production rollover as opposed to final season stats. This is where you can land your injury discounts from the season prior while they are potentially undervalued.
Looking at per game stats, targets and receptions per game hold higher yearly rollover than rushing attempts but rushing yardage per game and over the entire season carry more stability than receiving yardage can be counted on.
Everything touchdown related for running backs holds a lot of yearly variance which makes sense since the position is more reliant on the offense as a whole setting up the crux of their true scoring opportunities. Rate stats such as yards per carry and touchdown rate carry a ton of oscillation yearly, so don’t take stock in any of those as being reasons to fall in or out of love with a back. Focus on opportunities first before looking under the hood because those rates stats can carry a ton of potential for variance.
In the opening post, we talked about how much of an edge having a top fantasy back provided. With committees and compartmentalization expanding in backfield usage across the league, true lead backs that do everything on the football field are becoming scarce resources. Going back to last season, there were just 10 running backs who ranked in the top-24 at the position in each of snaps, touches, routes run, targets, and rushing attempts per game.
There’s no surprise that is almost a direct reflection of players that make up the top-10 in terms of ADP. You could also include Le’Veon Bell here based on his 2017 rankings and 2019 expectancy and you would have the complete RB1 group you have to pay up for.
To say Todd Gurley’s situation in 2019 is complex and hard to truly project is a massive understatement. He’d be the consensus top pick based on pure per game ability paired with usage and scoring opportunities, but a late-season knee injury in 2018 and the subsequent handling of that injury has placed an ominous cloud over Gurley’s locked-in RB1 certainty. The Rams limited Gurley to close the 2018 season and then the organization questioned whether or not they wanted him to sustain the workload they had given him per game over the past two seasons. Here’s a direct quote from Les Snead last February…
“…are we going to give him the amount of load we have in the past? Or are we going to lessen that load to keep him fresher for the season and for seasons beyond? If you go that route, you have to have a good Batman and Robin combination. We’re in the process of figuring that out.”
Well, in April the Rams traded up in the draft to select Darrell Henderson while matching a restricted offer sheet to bring back Malcolm Brown. Gurley is hardly the first running back to have an arthritic condition and while it’s still entirely plausible that Gurley will be able to play effectively in the short term, even if his touches are reduced, we have no clue as to what the actual touch restrictions will be, how consistently they’ll be reduced per game, and how much of his overall immense volume he will in fact lose. It’s also highly doubtful we get any true clarity on that over the summer. There’s a discount available for the 25-year old that has been the best fantasy back of the past two seasons, but one that comes with a lot of red tape and the risk that he’s no longer among the group above next season.
As mentioned, everyone here is relatively expensive in fantasy, but one player here who keeps moving up on my board is Dalvin Cook. From a team perspective, the Vikings popped early on for us as a team that was a strong bet to have more rushing touchdowns in 2019 and then we doubled down on that when highlighting that Minnesota was first in the league in passing touchdown percentage inside of the 10-yard line last season. Tack on that the Vikings have inexperienced running back depth behind him. Cook has managed to stay on the field for just 13 full games through two seasons, but when he’s been on the field, his volume and fantasy production have been strong. When active through a bulky hamstring a year ago, Cook handled 61 percent of the team handoffs and received 14 percent of the team targets. When he was finally fully healthy and the Vikings went with a more run-centric offensive approach late in 2018, Cook was a fantasy asset. The final five weeks of the season, Cook played 78 percent of the offensive snaps and was the RB7 over that span, averaging 104 total yards on 17.8 touches per game. Durability is a concern, but Cook is set up as a feature back while healthy.
Relying on Rushing
|Player||RuPt St%||2018||RuPt PPR%||2018|
These are the running backs who have needed rushing output the most to carry their career fantasy production. More specifically, backs who have had 80 percent or more of their career standard scoring output and 70 percent of their PPR output come solely from rushing stats. These are your guys who get a boost in standard-scoring formats over PPR leagues.
Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, and Marlon Mack are all currently top-20 backs off the board in PPR formats. All four of those backs have limited resumes as starting running backs, but this is why they are being selected among the RB2 group of the position and not the top, despite the upside that each has flashed over their small starting samples.
Chubb totaled just 20 receptions in his 10 starts with more than three catches in only one of those games. If Duke Johnson were to be traded prior to the season, that would open a major door for more opportunity, but with the addition of Odell Beckham, we just can’t assume that Chubb takes over more target opportunity with Johnson still on the roster in addition to the mid-season arrival of Kareem Hunt.
Mack posted more than two receptions in just one game while he averaged just 6.1 yards per reception during his breakout season. Henry has caught 15 or fewer passes in each of his first three NFL seasons. Jones took a step forward in his second season as a receiver but still banked on his rushing output to carry his fantasy line. Of that group, Jones has the most potential to break from this archetype given how new head coach Matt Lafleur has expressed that the backfield will be a part of the passing game this season.
If we’re extending things out to other backs being selected in the opening six rounds with limited resumes, Sony Michel had two or fewer receptions in every game he played in 2018 with zero catches in eight of his games played. Chris Carson ranked third in the league in rushing attempts per game (17.6) but ranked 60th at the position in targets per game (1.7).
The other thing to note from this group is that they are the group of running backs most tethered to their teams winning games and maintaining a positive game script. Looking at the top-10 running backs in terms of percentage of fantasy points scored in the fourth quarter while their team was leading, we get an almost name-by-name carryover.
|Player||PPR 4QL%||St 4QL%|
Michel, Chubb, Jones and Mack all play for teams that we have in the top-10 teams in projected wins this season, but players such as Carson and Henry fall more into the middle of the pack and beyond while players such as Royce Freeman, Adrian Peterson, and Peyton Barber are on clubs we have near the bottom of the league. If you’re taking a run-centric runner for fantasy, you need him to be attached to a winning offensive climate to reach his ceiling.
Relying on Receiving
|Player||RePt PPR%||2018||RePt St%||2018|
This is the group of backs that had over half of their career PPR points and over a third of their standard-scoring points come through the air. The table is largely filled with names you’d expect. Players who only play in passing situations and are the names we associate with getting a true boost in PPR formats.
Both Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara pop up here despite registering as “Do-it-all” backs. Both very well could be the template for what the best backs in the modern NFL will be like as the game progresses. The best dual-purpose back in fantasy for 2018, McCaffrey’s 14.4 receiving points per game were the most in a season for a running back since Marshall Faulk in 2001. To go along with that, he saw his rushing points per game as a rookie (3.5) jump all the way up to 9.5 per game a year ago. To top it all off, the Panthers even transitioned away from using Cam Newton as a battering ram near the goal line in favor of McCaffrey. He tallied 12 carries inside the 5-yard line as opposed to just three for Newton last season.
Since entering the league in 2017, no running back has paced the position in PPR scoring on a weekly level more times than Kamara’s total of seven times. The next closest player over that span (Todd Gurley) has done it five times while no other back has more than two such games. Kamara is the first back to reach 1,500-plus total yards in each of his first two seasons since Adrian Peterson. The Saints have been reluctant to unleash Kamara for a full-season of high-end usage, but he’s already been a true RB1 while sharing reps and being one of the best running backs at distance scoring combined with short-scoring opportunities provided by his offense.
An ancillary option through four years in Miami and half of the 2018 season in Kansas City, Damien Williams was solely used as a pass-catcher for his career prior to getting his first true opportunity once the Chiefs released Kareem Hunt last season and Spencer Ware suffered multiple injuries. His sample was minuscule, but over that time, Williams looked a lot like McCaffrey and Kamara in terms of usage, point production, and distribution of that production. Including the postseason, Williams made just five starts to close the season with the Chiefs, but in those games, Williams averaged 114.4 yards from scrimmage with nine total touchdowns and averaged 25.4 PPR fantasy points per game. He did all that while averaging just 18.6 touches per game over that span, with 15 or fewer touches in three of those five games. In the receiving game, Williams had at least five receptions in four of those five games, and the only game with fewer than five catches was in Week 17 when the Chiefs’ starters didn’t play a full game.
With Melvin Gordon’s planned holdout potentially lingering throughout the preseason and into the regular season, Austin Ekeler is another back who could very well fit into that mold as the players we just discussed, but there are some layers to explore. In totality, Ekeler has been extremely efficient over his first two NFL seasons. Of all players with at least 100 rushing attempts and 50 receptions over the past two seasons, Ekeler is the only one to average at least 5.0 yards per carry and 10.0 yards per reception. Ekeler also had 17, 18, and, 17 touches in the three games he was active that Gordon missed in 2018, while Justin Jackson tallied three, nine, and nine touches in those games. The downside is that Ekeler was not the same player in his extended role, turning his 52 touches in those games into just 205 yards from scrimmage (3.9 yards per touch). He averaged 8.1 yards per touch otherwise. That sample size is small, but it wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve seen a hyper-efficient satellite back lose efficiency with increased volume. The Chargers’ coaching staff may be more willing to give Jackson more work in that split in his second season while keeping Ekeler in more of the role he has thrived in, so we’ll have to monitor the situation and preseason usage for the remainder of the summer while Gordon is still holding out.
One last player I want to slightly circle around here is James White. We already highlighted how White was a prime target for touchdown regression this season, and he scored nine times in the nine games that either Sony Michel or Rex Burkhead were inactive while scoring just three times over his 10 games played with both active. Outside of that true touchdown production, White also had some drastic splits overall that were impacted by who was active alongside him in the Patriots backfield. White’s role as the primary pass-catching back is secure, but with another addition to the backfield in Damien Harris and the expected touchdown reduction, White’s high-ceiling fantasy moments are set up to be far more fleeting than they were a year ago.