As we continue to dive into the fantasy football landscape for 2021 we are staying on course in diving into players that ran hot or cold in scoring opportunities last season.
Yesterday we dove into red zone production versus expectation for fantasy wide receivers. Today, we are looking at the running backs.
I will not hit you with the full intro as the first post, but when diving into what we can take away from team production in the red zone, we covered that the crux of touchdowns scored in the NFL come from inside of the red zone and that not all red zone touches carry equal weight for fantasy. This is especially true for the running back position. A carry from the 1-yard line is 18 times more likely to produce a touchdown than a carry from the 19-yard line, yet often they are condensed down as equals.
As is the case as always, we always like to take a peek at just how sticky any of these stats can be.
Year-Over-Year Red Zone Rush Attempt and Target Correlation
|FIELD POSITION||TGT||Rush ATT|
|Inside 10-Yard Line||0.0935||0.3512|
|Inside 5-Yard Line||0.0481||0.2358|
Just like passing attempts, targets and rushing attempts decrease in rollover stability the closer you get to the goal line. Rushing attempts remain more stable than targets the closer you get, however, but leave a lot of variance on the table themselves. Those attempts have more than triple the correlation to targets inside of the 10-yard line and nearly four times of targets inside of the 5-yard line. When it comes to red zone rollover, carries are the stickiest stat we have looked at.
So with everything in place, let us jump into some of the output from a year ago to highlight those who out-produced and fell short of expected output on their actual opportunities per yard line in the red zone. Since the running backfield is denser than quarterbacks, I took the top-60 non-rookies from current fantasy ADP.
2020 RB Red Zone Fantasy Points Vs. Expectation
|RB||RZ FF Pts||Exp. Pts||(+/-)|
|Ronald Jones II||46.1||51.2||-5.1|
|Benny Snell Jr.||26||55.2||-29.2|
RED ZONE OVERACHIEVERS
We have a lot more variance here at the running back position, when just about every quarterback rode the wave in the league’s best passing season ever.
Starting at the top, Alvin Kamara has run hot in the red zone in every season he has played outside of 2019 when he was a positive regression in this department, but his 2020 campaign was through the roof even for his career output. Everyone remembers the six touchdown Christmas gift (or coal if you faced him) on his way to a career-high 21 touchdowns last year.
Kamara was fifth in expected red zone fantasy points, but shattered those expectations to lead the league in overall red zone points scored. His 145.7 fantasy points from the red zone alone would have made him the RB31 on the season and were 41.9 more points scored than the next highest back in the red zone in Dalvin Cook. He also led all backs in expected red zone points from receiving targets alone at 30.7.
Kamara had a league-high 15 touchdowns from inside of the 10-yard line. He converted 14-of-27 carries (51.9%) inside of the 10-yard line for scores. The league average rate last season was 32.4% and prior to last season, Kamara had a 35.3% conversion rate on those carries. Getting closer, he led all backs in fantasy points inside of the 5-yard line, where he had 10 total touchdowns. In that area of the field, he converted 9-of-12 carries (75%) for scores. Prior to last season, he had converted 50% (12-of-24) of those carries for touchdowns.
We did highlight the New Orleans splits in reduced play volume in the red zone without Drew Brees. Their play calling naturally did skew more run-heavy under Taysom Hill near the red zone to provide some outs if Hill does start over Jameis Winston, but historically the Saints have scored at a moderately lower rate without Brees (as expected) in the lineup to add on to Kamara naturally coming back down to the pack in touchdown production in 2021.
There is a sizable gap from Kamara to the next back in points over expectation, who was rookie breakout James Robinson. Robinson was sixth in fantasy points scored in the red zone, but was 27th in expected points scored in that area of the field. Robinson converted all five of his carries inside of the 5-yard line for touchdowns. Being perfect on his bunnies, Robinson really beat the field from 10-19 yards out, where the odds for carries and receptions are significantly lowered for backs. In that area of the field, Robinson converted 6-of-20 (30%) touches for touchdowns when the rate for running backs as a group was 5.4%. Robinson’s size and rookie-season conversion rate on goal line carries should keep him in the mix in that area in year two, despite the selection of Travis Etienne, but his touchdown production from further out should be in for regression.
We have a trio of rookies who ran hot near the end zone last season as J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, and Antonio Gibson each ranked in the top-seven in points over expectation.
Dobbins scored a touchdown in seven of his final eight games last season on his way to 10 total rushing scores on the season. Nine of those 10 touchdowns came from five yards or closer. In the regular season, Dobbins converted 7-of-8 attempts inside of the 5-yard line for scores. The league average rate was 45.2%. Interestingly enough, teammate Gus Edwards has struggled in this area of the field. Not only did Edwards convert just 3-of-9 carries for scores inside of the five last season, but he is also a combined 3-for-15 on those carries for his career.
Swift scored 10 times as a rookie. Nine of those came inside of the 10-yard line with an added 15-yard touchdown reception. His longest rushing score came from six yards out while Swift converted 6-of-8 carries from 1-3 yards for touchdowns. League rate on those carries was 49.8%. Both Dobbins and Swift have the athleticism and ability to add more long-range touchdowns to their profiles moving forward, but in Swift’s case more so than Dobbins, relying on shorter touchdowns can easily revert while attached to a team that may not get their nearly as much as last season.
In our post on team red zone production, we highlighted how conservative Washington was near the end zone and Gibson was the beneficiary. Gibson matched Jonathan Taylor with 11 rushing scores last season, which led all rookie backs. Those two found the end zone in different manners as Gibson scored seven times from five yards and in on 13 carries (league rate was 42.8%). He also converted 5-of-7 carries from 1-2 yards out (league rate of 54.5%).
Regression to the mean can go overboard and that happened with Nick Chubb last season. Chubb was second to last in points below expectation in the red zone in 2019 and then oscillated back with fury last year. After converting just 2-of-15 carries inside of the 5-yard line for touchdowns in 2019, Chubb converted 5-of-11 in 2020 while scoring five times from exactly one yard out on seven tries.
RED ZONE UNDERACHIEVERS
Getting to the bottom feeders in 2020, almost no running back ran further below expectation in the red zone than Ezekiel Elliott. On top of COVID, a calf injury, three star offensive lineman missing significant time, and the loss of Dak Prescott, add this to the list of things that went wrong for Elliott in 2020.
Elliott was first in expected points in the red zone, but finished 13th in actual points scored. Elliott matched Dalvin Cook with a league-high 22 touches inside of the 5-yard line, but converted just five for touchdowns. Those were all rushing attempts. Converting just 22.7% for touchdowns, Elliott had converted 22-of-41 (53.7%) such carries for scores prior to last season. He ran extremely cold from point-blank range. Elliott converted just 5-of-12 carries from 1-yard out last season after converting 12-of-14 of those 1-yard carries for scores 2016-2019.
It is almost impressive that Kenyan Drake was actually below expectation to the degree he was because no player scored more fantasy points in the NFL last season from the 1-yard line than Drake did. Drake led the NFL with 13 carries from the 1-yard line and converted seven of them. Pretty par compared to the league, but when tasked to score from further than a yard out, Drake scored on just two of his other 44 red zone touches. New teammate Josh Jacobs was fourth in the league in usage in the red zone last season while more effective, limiting Drake’s involvement in that department moving forward.
We have touched on a few other underachievers from last season that may have their roles near the end zone siphoned in 2021. The first is Myles Gaskin. A 200-pound back, Gaskin converted just 3-of-9 carries inside of the 5-yard line during his breakout campaign. That role still could go to a bigger body in 2021 despite Gaskin being the favorite for touches in the Miami backfield. The team added Gerrid Doaks (228 pounds) late and veteran Malcolm Brown (222 pounds) this offseason. Brown has been effective in this department as he has converted 8-of-15 carries inside of the 5-yard line for touchdowns. Brian Flores talked up Brown after the draft as a candidate to work in short-yardage and on passing downs.
We also see Clyde Edwards-Helaire pop up here, who had no shortage of documentation falling short in the red zone as a rookie. Inside of the 5-yard line, Edwards-Helaire converted just 2-of-10 carries for touchdowns while the league rate was 45.2%. In the first game of the year, he had six of those opportunities, failing to cash any of them in. Nearly all of those were no true fault of his own and just entirely blown up, but the Chiefs decidedly changed their approach in that area of the field moving forward.
For the remainder of the season, the Chiefs threw the ball 54.5% of the time inside of the five (the fourth-highest rate in the league) while increasing their use of motion and gadget plays in that area of the field. For the remainder of the season, Edwards-Helaire received just six of the 22 team opportunities in that area of the field in his games played. The good news for Edwards-Helaire is the Chiefs did not add bangers this season. They added Jerick McKinnon, leaving Darrel Williams as the sole threat for vulture work on the ground. Williams did not even have a carry inside of the 5-yard line last season and has just five over his career (converting two) while the offensive line in Kansas City has been upgraded.
Another rookie here at the bottom is Cam Akers. Akers was 40th in red zone production despite ranking 25th in expected points in that area of the field while sharing a backfield for the majority of his rookie season. Akers converted just 3-of-33 red zone touches for scores as a rookie while converting just 1-of-8 carries inside of the 5-yard line. Malcolm Brown converted 4-of-7, but left the team via free agency while Darrell Henderson converted 4-of-9 of those carries for scores in 2020. Akers had seven of the eight team backfield touches in the red zone during the postseason and scored on two of them.
One interesting player that underachieved is another rookie in Joshua Kelley. Not so much for Kelley himself, but the potential door it could open for Austin Ekeler receiving carries near the end zone. Ekeler only managed three RB1 scoring weeks last season despite the largest workload of his career. The bugaboo for Ekeler preventing him from joining the top of the dual-usage backs is that he has consistently been removed from the goal line. Last season, Ekeler only had two total carries inside of the 5-yard line, giving away those carries to the likes of Kelley and Kalen Ballage. For his career, Ekeler has just 15 total carries in that area of the field, converting just four for scores.
While in Detroit, Joe Lombardi favored removing similar backs of Ekeler’s archetype in that area of the field in Reggie Bush and Ameer Abdullah, but those teams had a productive banger in Joique Bell to call on. The big backs on this Chargers roster are only Kelley and sixth-round rookie Larry Rountree. It takes a step of faith in believing Ekeler can get those touches, but the surrounding depth chart is not overly talented. The offensive line has been upgraded for Kelley to have potential to rebound if afforded another opportunity, but if Ekeler does get those carries then the runway for a top-five season and potentially even the RB1 overall are attainable.
The last player I will touch on here closing things out is actually the player on the very bottom in Benny Snell. Snell was 16th among all running backs last season in expected points scored in the red zone. He was 10th in touches inside of the 5-yard line (13) and tied for third in the NFL with 10 carries from the 1-yard line (converting four). James Conner was 19th among backs in expected points here. Conner tacked on another nine touches inside of the 5-yard line and four carries from the 1-yard line (converting three).
This is not so much about Snell and Conner themselves, but their combination of usage and expected output near the end zone and the potential that could mean for rookie Najee Harris. We are aware the Pittsburgh offensive line is subpar, but asking them to be better than the 2020 unit is also not a high bar to clear. For as light as the Steelers used their backs overall, their usage in the red zone is undersold.