One of the biggest pitfalls in fantasy analysis is using overall finishes to determine just how valuable a running back, or any player for that matter, actually was.
Take Josh Jacobs for example. Last year, Jacobs was the RB8 in overall fantasy points… which looks great! But the thing is, fantasy is a weekly game and when those points were scored and how they were distributed matters. While it may look like Jacobs finished as a RB1, he was more of a low-end RB2 from a weekly scoring perspective. Jacobs had just four total RB1 finishes in Weeks 1-16, meaning he finished inside of the top-12 weekly scorers. That’s not what you’re looking for from a top-15 overall pick, which is where Jacobs was drafted last season. For reference, Austin Ekeler went right after Jacobs in many drafts and managed the same amount of top-12 scoring weeks (4) despite missing seven games.
Especially at a position that is so reliant on staying healthy, looking at total fantasy points to determine who was the best running back is like trying to look at a room through a keyhole. You’re viewing it through the narrowest lens possible.
Whereas receiver and tight end scoring is fairly binary — you’re either earning targets and scoring points or you’re not — running back scoring is filled with shades of grey. These are the types of questions you have to ask yourself…
“Are they a bell cow?”
“Will they catch passes?”
“If not, why?”
“How good will their surrounding team be?”
“If their team isn’t good, can they overcome it? (By catching passes)”
“Who is the goal-line back?”
“How good is the offensive line?”
“Does that even matter? (Probably not if they catch passes)”
“How good is the run defense they’re facing?”
In fantasy, running back scoring is more nuanced than any other position. While quarterbacks and their pass catchers often fare better when their teams are trailing and have to throw to catch up, the opposite is true for most running backs.
By and large, runners that do not have a consistent pathway to snaps on passing downs are extremely sensitive to how their teams do overall. Without catching passes to help buoy their fantasy points in blowouts or losses, running backs that are only ball carriers and not receivers have a hard time overcoming their teams ebbs and flows.
So, how do we make this actionable? Who loses the most fantasy points when their team loses? Who fares better in wins?
Let’s take a look back at who are among the most and least gamescript-sensitive running backs in fantasy.
(Please note that I took some liberties here in this study like excluding Saquon Barkley’s 2020 season, only including Derrick Henry’s starts in 2018 and on, and taking out games when injuries caused them to miss significant time.)
Running Back Production in Wins vs. Losses
Running backs who lose the most fantasy points in losses
Unsurprisingly, Derrick Henry has massive splits in the Titans wins and losses. You know the reason why. Even dating back to college, Henry has never been involved in the passing game. But, whew, that scoring ceiling is incredible when the Titans do win. In the Titans wins in this span, Henry has put up 16 fantasy points in 20-of-24 games and gone over 25 points 11 times. In their losses, Henry has not gone over 18 fantasy points once.
We’ve been waiting for Joe Mixon to finally be used as a bell-cow and these splits highlight why it’s been so difficult for him to find a ceiling in our game. For reference, Mixon’s 25.2 FPG in wins would have tied him with Alvin Kamara as the RB2 in per game output last year but his 13.2 FPG in losses would have only been worth the RB24 finish. Ironically, Mixon is finally in the role everyone has hoped for and his hype is at an all-time low. HC Zac Taylor is adamant that Mixon is going to play way more on passing/third downs and I don’t believe it’s coach-speak, either. The Bengals don’t have anyone on their depth chart who can swallow up snaps like Gio Bernard did and we started to see Mixon become more involved in the passing game last year in the first place. Before he got hurt, Mixon ran 114 routes while Bernard ran 71 in Week 1-5. This has to be the year. Mixon is the running back I’m most excited to draft in the second round and he deserves to go off of the board after Stefon Diggs and Calvin Ridley, but he often doesn’t.
Remember that Josh Jacobs example at the top of the article? Well, here you have it. Jacobs is incredibly reliant on touchdowns because HC Jon Gruden stubbornly refuses to use him as a receiver. It’s infuriating. Over the last two combined years, Jacobs ranks 80th in routes run on third downs among RBs and he has one third-down target to show for it. One! An astounding 17 of Jacobs’ 19 career TDs have come in wins, so he goes as the Raiders go. Between his over-reliance on touchdowns to be reliable in fantasy, his team’s fairly low projected win total (7), and the addition of Kenyan Drake — Jacobs is not someone I’m considering in the 4th and 5th rounds of drafts at all.
After doing this study, I was surprised just how bad Aaron Jones was in losses compared to wins. However, some of that is just a small sample bias. Over the last two seasons, the Packers have just five losses in Jones’ 30 starts. And it’s not like Jones is on the Henry/Jacobs tier and just isn’t involved as a receiver. In those five losses, Jones has averaged four targets per game, and that number should only rise with Jamaal Williams now over in Detroit. While Williams didn’t get a ton of targets in Green Bay, he did play a bunch on passing downs. Last year, Williams ran 15.4 routes per game which wasn’t too far behind Jones (18.6). Meanwhile, A.J. Dillon caught just 21 balls in 35 career games at Boston College and caught a whole 2 passes as a rookie. It would be a shock if Dillon turned into something he’s never been, which leaves Jones in line for a monster high-volume passing down role. Between the uptick in passing down snaps and the Packers lofty win total (10; eighth-highest), everything is set up for Jones to have his best season of his career. An Alvin Kamara 2020-type season is what I’m envisioning as his ceiling. I’m taking him as early as 6th overall.
Could Ezekiel Elliott have gotten more unlucky last year? Dak Prescott got hurt. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin played in two whole games together. La’El Collins missed the entire season. Oh, and Zeke got hurt! Before he landed on the injury report with hamstring/calf tightness in Week 9, Elliott was second (80%) to only Christian McCaffrey (81%) in snap rate among RBs, he got 20 or more touches in 7-of-8 games, and he paced the league in carries inside-the-five (16). While Zeke’s effectiveness was down last year because of all of the factors out of his control — he averaged a career-low 3.9 YPC and 6.4 YPR in Weeks 1-8 — that type of role is gold. On top of his team falling apart, Zeke got incredibly unlucky in the touchdown department last season. He converted just 19% of his inside-the-five carries into scores in 2020, which is half of his usual career average. From 2016-19, Zeke turned 40% of his inside-5 totes into touchdowns. So, that means that if Zeke just scored at his usual 40% clip, he should have scored between 9-10 TDs on his goal-line carries alone last season. Instead, he scored just 5 TDs on his inside-5 attempts. Zeke is primed for a massive bounceback this season and is much closer to the “Big Four” tier (of McCaffrey, Cook, Kamara, and Henry) than the public comes close to acknowledging. I’m drafting Zeke every chance I get at 5 overall and am going to have heavy exposure early in the year in DFS.
I’ve definitely been guilty of calling Nick Chubb gamescript dependent, and while some of that is obviously true, he’s not as near as reliant on his team winning games as Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs are. And for this season, everything is set up for Chubb to be the same productive runner — or even slightly better. Cleveland’s much-improved defense should let their offense hold leads and allow HC Kevin Stefanski to remain incredibly run-heavy. So, while Chubb isn’t close to a bell-cow, the surrounding factors are intact for him to remain a back-end RB1 for our game. Here comes the “but”, though. Maybe this is a blindspot, but I can’t bring myself to click his name over Stefon Diggs or Calvin Ridley near the Round 1/2 turn. Diggs and Ridley have 20-22 fantasy points per game and could finish as the WR1 well within their range of outcomes. Chubb doesn’t have a top-3 RB season in range unless Kareem Hunt gets hurt.
One big development last year was the Seahawks willingness to use Chris Carson more in the passing game, and that made him a little less gamescript reliant. Carson averaged 4 targets per game in his 11 full starts in 2020, which is a modest uptick from the previous two seasons (2.4 T/G). Oddsmakers are pretty high on the Seahawks offense, too. DK Sportsbook has Seattle with a 10.0 projected win total and they are tied with Cleveland, the LA Rams, and San Francisco for the seventh-best odds to lead the NFL in scoring (at 18/1). And, HC Pete Carroll absolutely loves Carson like a son and is thrilled to have him back. Carson strikes me as a great RB2 target and a significantly better bet than some of his ADP counterparts.
Running backs who aren’t affected much by gamescript
You’ll notice that most of these backs are the high-volume PPR cheat codes…
ChristIan McCaffrey is the gold standard. Over the last three seasons, CMC has a top-3 floor and ceiling in both wins and losses. He eats when the Panthers do well and he eats when they lose. It’s just another notch in his belt as the unquestioned RB1.
Alvin Kamara is essentially perfectly neutral in wins (21.8) vs. losses (21.2) and his high-volume passing role gives him the edge over Derrick Henry as the No. 3 running back in PPR leagues. (I think it’s a toss-up between those two in Half PPR, though). Regardless of the QB change, Kamara is going to be the focal point of the Saints offense for as long as Michael Thomas (ankle) is sidelined. In the eight games that Thomas missed last year, Kamara averaged a whopping 30.9 fantasy points per game on the back of WR1-esque volume. Without Thomas on the field, Kamara saw 8.6 targets per contest and turned that into a 7-catch, 70.3-yard per game receiving line.
The problem with Austin Ekeler clearly isn’t his involvement as a receiver. He was phenomenal in that department last season as he averaged more receiving fantasy points per game (13.0) than Alvin Kamara (12.6). Ekeler has a TD problem. In his career, Ekeler has received just 17 carries inside of the 5-yard line and turned those totes into just 5 TDs. Yikes. For perspective, Ezekiel Elliott got 16 inside-5 carries last year in his first 9 games. Ekeler is an amazing high-floor RB1, but he’s got to get more scoring opportunities for him to really hit a big ceiling this season.
This data is another feather in the cap of David Montgomery as a safer pick in Rounds 3-4 than the public might think. Montgomery’s late season production (25.2 FPG in Weeks 12-16) was a product of Tarik Cohen’s injury and a Charmin soft schedule, but both of those factors are already baked into his price. If Justin Fields comes in and rises the tide of this offense, Montgomery is going to pay off his ADP. The only problem is… can you take him over Amari Cooper, Robert Woods, or Adam Thielen? I often find myself siding with the receivers.
Final notes, quick hits and takeaways
While Saquon Barkley isn’t quite the gold standard like CMC, he’s at least on that spectrum. In his first two seasons, Barkley has averaged a robust 20.4 FPG in losses on the back of a Kamara-esque receiving role. Barkley made up for bad game script with a monster 7.5 targets per game in 21 career losses. Simply put, taking Barkley this year comes down to a philosophy question. Back in May, he was a consensus top-8 pick. Now, you’ll see him routinely slide to the back-half of the first round while the Hive Mind on Twitter suggests that he’s radioactive on a daily basis. Sure, the Giants might suck. Their offensive line isn’t very good. But does that matter? Barkley has already been medically cleared to practice, he’s a generational talent and is set up better than 99.99% of humans to return to form, and we don’t need him to be the same 20-25 FPG player early in the year anyway. It’s a long 17-game season and I’m betting on Barkley returning to his 2018-19 production by the end of it. A Barkley/Calvin Ridley start from the 10-12 hole is the dream.
For what it’s worth, I’m leery of putting much into these splits for the sophomore running back class of Jonathan Taylor Antonio Gibson, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It’s just too small of a sample. Edwards-Helaire played in just one loss last year, Swift barely played early in the year, Dobbins and Taylor weren’t unleashed until mid-season, and we know that Gibson was blocked by J.D. McKissic.
Finally, I want to give a special note on James White here. He obviously fits the archetype of backs who aren’t as nearly affected by wins and losses, but there is some extra juice in his fantasy profile that is going completely missed by the market. White tied with Alvin Kamara for the league lead in targets per route among RBs (0.30) last season and now gets the added benefit of being the sole passing-down back in New England. Rex Burkhead is gone, which is sneakily massive for White’s projection. In the 17 games that Burkhead missed over the previous three seasons, White has averaged 15.2 fantasy points per game. For reference, that 15.2 FPG would have been good for an RB16 finish last year. With a playing time boost coming because of Burkhead’s departure, White has the scoring floor of a low-end RB2 but he’s priced like an RB5. He’s the perfect stop-gap RB2 to start early in the year while you wait on guys like Trey Sermon to pan out.