As we continue to lay the foundation for the fantasy football landscape for 2022, we are following up our look at league and team performance in the red zone last season, and spilling that over into individual player analysis.
In that top-down team post, 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 are created equal.
For example, over the past decade, a carry from the 1-yard line has been worth on average 3.3 fantasy points, but a carry from the 10-yard line dips to 0.77 fantasy points on average and down to 0.53 points from the 19-yard line.
With that, the next step is then diving into the red zone production versus expectation for fantasy skill players based on their actual opportunities in the red zone as opposed to just blanket red zone stats.
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
|Opportunity||Red Zone||In. 10-Yard Line||In. 5-Yard Line|
When it comes to red zone opportunity rollover, carries are the stickiest of the opportunity stats (spoiler alert for future posts). Rushing attempts remain more stable than targets in the red zone year-over-year. Both do decrease in rollover stability the closer you get to the goal line and leave a lot of variance on the table themselves.
Rushing attempts have more than triple the correlation to the following season that targets inside of the 10-yard line and nearly four times of targets inside of the 5-yard line.
This is a post we run back yearly since it easily shines a light down on regression candidates for the following season. In last year’s post, you have to go down to the 17th running back listed above expectation in 2020 to find a running back that increased their touchdown total in 2021. While six of the bottom 10 backs in points below expectations came back and scored more touchdowns.
So, with everything in place, let us jump into some of the output from a year ago in highlighting those who out-produced and fell short of expected output on their actual opportunities per yard line in the red zone, and highlight the major opportunity earners themselves. With that, these are the top-45 running backs (excluding rookies and players that missed all of 2021) in current ADP from a year ago.
2021 RB Red Zone Fantasy Points Vs. Expectation
|RB||RZ FF Pts||Exp. Pts||(+/-)|
|Ronald Jones II||28||22.2||5.8|
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Five of the top six touchdown scorers at the running position a year ago appear here in the top eight players above scoring expectations, which is not all that surprising.
That said, we have a massive front-runner here with Austin Ekeler more than doubling the next closest player in the points generated above expectation.
We have already highlighted how efficient the Chargers were at scoring touchdowns per drive in 2021 and then highlighted that they set a modern record in the rate of drives that reached the red zone a year ago.
No player in their offense benefited more from that production than Ekeler, who led all non-quarterbacks in fantasy points scored from inside of the red zone and trailed only Josh Allen overall among all positions. Ekeler produced 163.1 PPR points in the red zone, 39.1 more points than the next closest non-quarterback, which was Cooper Kupp.
Ekeler caught eight touchdown passes in the red zone (tied for eighth in the league), becoming just the second running back ever to catch eight or more touchdowns in multiple seasons, joining Marshall Faulk. He then also added another 12 rushing scores in the red zone, which was fourth in the league. Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that all 20 of his touchdowns came inside of the red zone after scoring 10 times from outside of the red zone over his first four years in the league.
32.3% of Ekeler’s red zone opportunities (carries plus targets) produced a touchdown in 2021 (third among backs) after he sported a 17.8% rate for his career prior. 61.5% of his opportunities inside of the 5-yard line went for touchdowns, which was fifth in the league among players with double-digit opportunities.
While Ekeler will be hard-pressed to replicate running this hot again near the paint with his scoring chances, he also still ranked second in the league in expected points scored here. As long as he holds onto that role in the offense, we are still anticipating the Chargers to be one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.
Ekeler has been adamant this offseason that he is willing to share touches, but when and where will those touches come from? In 2021, Ekeler handled 13 opportunities inside of the 5-yard line while other Charger backs handled six. Ekeler played 63 snaps inside of the 10-yard line while other backs on the roster combined for 25. Do we believe a rookie running back in Isaiah Spiller is coming to immediately take those opportunities in 2022 after Ekeler himself was so good with them a year ago and provides definitive matchup leverage as a pass catcher in those areas of the field?
James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
Conner is the next running back above expectation as he was third among all backs in fantasy points scored inside of the red zone despite ranking ninth in actual opportunity.
Conner scored a career-high 18 touchdowns in his first season in Arizona, converting 35.7% of his red zone opportunities into touchdowns, which led all running backs to receive 20 or more opportunities.
Conner really benefited from point-blank range as he led the league in fantasy points scored from the 1-yard line (48.1). 46.0% of all his red zone fantasy production came from the 1-yard line itself, scoring eight rushing touchdowns from just a yard out, which led the league.
Like Ekeler, however, Conner runs into a similar outlook from a top-down perspective heading into 2022. While we certainly should expect fewer touchdowns from Conner this season, we also still regard Arizona as a highly capable scoring offense while the depth chart is littered with question marks beyond Conner. Whereas we can maybe squint and see Ekeler losing some goal-to-go rushing opportunities to a bigger body, it is hard to see the Cardinals removing Conner from those situations for any of the options that they have behind him.
Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Harris finished the season sixth in the league in red zone fantasy points despite ranking 13th in expected points from that area of the field. 28.3% of his red zone opportunities produced a touchdown. That ranked fifth among backs. Harris did this all reliant on rushing, too. He received just two red zone targets the entire season while catching just one pass.
Only Jonathan Taylor and James Conner scored more fantasy points inside of the 5-yard line than Harris did a year ago. Harris converted 64.3% (9-of-14) of his carries inside of the five for touchdowns, which was third among backs behind Boston Scott and James Robinson. The league rate was 45.9%.
If looking for some silver lining here, the Patriots are a team that top-down was unlucky in producing touchdowns a year ago despite their effectiveness overall. Harris could shed efficiency near the end zone while the Patriots provide more opportunities as a team. Second, despite Rhamondre Stevenson’s effectiveness as a rookie, he never threatened Harris in this area of the field. Harris out-snapped Stevenson 37-to-15 inside of the 10-yard line and 18-to-7 inside of the five.
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
I would assume many thought that Taylor would be near the top of the list in points above expectation simply based on the number of touchdowns he scored, especially since all of the other touchdown leaders at the position are there.
But Taylor was right in line with his opportunities. Taylor was second at the position in red zone fantasy points while leading the way in expected points scored. Now, that doesn’t make him completely regression-proof on an opportunity level.
Taylor racked up a girthy 87 red zone opportunities in 2021, 25 more than the next closest player. Those opportunities were the most in the red zone for a running back since LaDainian Tomlinson accrued 88 red zone looks back in 2004.
Here is where Taylor’s usage ranks among backs since 2010 and how many opportunities those backs seen the following season.
Top-10 Red Zone Usage Seasons Since 2010
|Player||Year||RZ Opp.||N+||In. 10||N+||In. 5||N+|
A lot of natural regression across the board here as well as a few players in Arian Foster and Christian McCaffrey who struggled to stay healthy. Michael Turner over 2010-2011 was the only back here to tally over 60 red zone opportunities in back-to-back seasons while only Turner and Ezekiel Elliott had seasons in which they were able to match their usage inside of the 5-yard line the following year.
While Taylor did not run hot in the efficiency department as an outlier (something that can still happen moving forward), rolling over this amount of volume near the end zone is lofty, meaning we will need that efficiency to spike. The most concerning part is that just two of those opportunities for Taylor were targets as his 85 red zone carries were the most in a season in the 2000s.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Looking at players near the bottom of the list here, many gamers felt the regression sting of drafting Cook in 2021 as he carried an average draft position of No. 2 overall off the board.
After scoring 13 and 17 touchdowns the two seasons prior to last, Cook made just six trips to the paint in 2021.
Cook also ranked just 17th in expected red zone points after leading the position in that department in 2020. Cook saw his red zone opportunities dip from 60 in 2020 to 46 a year ago, while his looks inside of the 10 went from 35-to-25, and 22-to-12 inside of the five. He managed just one target inside of the red zone last season.
Not just a volume loss, but what Cook did with those opportunities was the real thorn in sinking his output relative to expectations. Cook converted just 10.9% of his red zone touches into scores after a career rate of 21.3% prior. Cook converted just 25% of his carries (3-of-12) inside of the 5-yard line for scores (lowest rate among all 18 backs with double-digit carries) after converting 43.9% (18-of-41) prior. Cook felt a dramatic swing in regression across the board a year ago but is a good bet to oscillate back towards his career conversion rates in 2022.
Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Another top back in terms of draft investment this summer that actually ran below expectations in the scoring department was Fournette.
Fournette was third among all backs in expected points but was 10th in total output. Only Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler racked up more opportunities in the red zone than Fournette did while only Taylor had more opportunities inside of the 10-yard line.
Fournette accrued those opportunities while still having a smattering of games involved in a committee earlier in the season and while missing multiple games once again in-season.
The latter remains a thorn, but Fournette could start the season out as the focal point of this backfield. Perhaps even the offense with the amount of turnover the Tampa Bay receiving corps has.
- Miles Sanders was the poster boy for performance below expectation as he did not score a single touchdown all of 2021. Both Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott far out-kicked their expectations in the red zone, something we should expect to regress. Scott also converted 7-of-10 carries inside of the 5-yard line for touchdowns, leading the league. But Sanders also ranked 32nd at the position in expected points while the Eagles are a team we can bet against having as much rushing touchdown reliance in 2022 as a year ago.
- Cordarrelle Patterson was fourth among all backs in points over expectation. Patterson ranked seventh in total red zone production despite ranking 14th in expected points.
- Joe Mixon was fifth at the position in expected points in the red zone despite playing for a team that ranked 26th in red zone plays and 24th in plays run inside of the 10.
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire was fifth in points over expectation in the red zone due to the leading all running backs in scoring on 40% of his red zone opportunities. You have probably noticed how highly Darrel Williams ranked in expected points (seventh overall), leaving a massive opportunity in this offense for either Edwards-Helaire or Ronald Jones.
- Ezekiel Elliott was fourth among all running backs in expected points while Tony Pollard was 36th. Elliott tallied 21 opportunities inside of the 10-yard line compared to just three for Pollard. Elliott out-snapped Pollard 124-to-45 in the red zone and 51-ot-10 inside of the 10. Pollard still needs an Elliott injury to tap into a strong fantasy ceiling.