Best-Ball Notebook: Running Backs

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Best-Ball Notebook: Running Backs

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So far this summer I’ve completed over 50 best-ball drafts. Am I a sick individual? Possibly. Have I just been bored? Most definitely. I’m mainly just a believer in having skin in the game to test which players I’m convicted on and how to build fantasy teams. But, one theme has been common in all of these drafts: Running backs are coming off the board earlier and faster than ever. The common strategy this year is to hammer running backs in the early rounds and it has reignited the Zero RB “debate” within the fantasy community.

This year, 15 running backs go in the first two rounds and 21 total are taken in the top-40 picks. In 2018, 12 RBs went in the first two rounds while 18 were taken in the first 40 picks. Three years ago, 12 RBs went in Round 1-2 again but just 14 RBs in total were taken in the top-40. That’s a huge shift in the market in just three years. Scarcity is pushing RBs up the board and it has simultaneously created a buying opportunity for wide receivers in the mid-rounds since more than half of the first 40 picks are all running backs. Adam Thielen, Calvin Ridley, both Rams WRs, and Tyler Lockett are all fourth-round picks.

The thing is, pushing RBs up the board is somewhat justified. Running backs are the most valuable asset in fantasy and have dominated recently. Over the last four years, 11 of the top-12 non-QB fantasy scorers over the course of each season were running backs. Additionally, 17-of-24 non-QBs in total fantasy points were RBs in this span (that’s 70.8%).

In season-long leagues with a weekly waiver wire, rolling with a zero RB strategy or just building your teams around WRs is a proven league-winning strategy -- but I argue that it’s a lot harder in best-ball. Fading running backs in the early rounds is all about profiting off of randomness and it requires many of the expensive, workhorse backs to fail or get injured. Opportunity is king at running back and ADP is fairly efficient, unlike quarterback. The first three to four rounds of drafts are generally filled with all of the running backs that are expected to lead the NFL in touches.

In an environment where the first 24 picks are dominated by running backs, I’ve found myself starting most of my drafts either RB-RB or RB-TE and then basically not touching the position again until Round 6 or later unless a player I’m targeting falls. numberFire’s JJ Zachariason wrote an article earlier this year and found that, on average, 50% of league-winners at running back go in the first two rounds while just 8.8% of league-winners are drafted in Round 4 and 5 combined. The mid-rounds are constantly filled with potential landmines at running back and this year is no different. If you’re going to go Zero RB or with a modified Zero RB approach, your best odds of finding value at the position is in Round 6 and beyond. It’s possible to find league-winners in the late rounds of best-ball, but that requires both good drafting and good luck. With finite roster spots and no waiver wire, Zero RB requires precision drafting and that isn’t always easy to do.

Knowing when to take your RBs is only a part of the equation, though. Roster construction -- how many players you should take at each position -- is also a massive edge you can have over your opponents.

How many RBs should you take?

In BestBall10 leagues, you have to fill 20 roster spots and start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 FLEX (RB/WR/TE), and 1 D/ST every week. RBs, WRs, and TEs all earn one point per reception. This year, 81% of teams drafted on Fanball have taken at least five or six running backs with 3% of teams only taking four RBs and 12% taking seven backs. SharpFootball’s Rich Hribar analyzed winning roster construction in best-ball leagues over the last three years and found that there wasn’t much of a difference in win rate between rosters with five (9.2% win rate) or six (8.5% win rate) running backs. Interestingly, going with just four RBs (8.1% win rate) was as nearly as optimal as taking 5-6 but taking seven RBs (7% win rate) was clearly detrimental.

On my teams, I have taken 5 or 6 running backs 86% of the time but have started to warm up to a robust 4 RB approach if the board falls just right. This approach allows you to ignore running back for the rest of your draft, you can easily take an extra WR or a 3rd QB like we previously discussed, and it especially works if the three RBs you take all have separate bye weeks. I wouldn’t go out of my way to have a bunch of 4 RB teams, but the data suggests it’s still optimal.

Opportunity Fuels RB Scoring

It’s widely understood that the more touches a running back gets, the more likely he is to score fantasy points. But how well do touches actually correlate to points? Does efficiency matter? To find out, here is how some of the most important RB stats correspond to PPR fantasy points:

StatsCorrelation
Snaps0.93
Routes0.91
Rushing Yards0.91
Carries0.89
Targets0.88
Receptions0.87
Receiving Yards0.87
Rushing TD0.85
Goal-line carries (inside the 5)0.78
Receiving TD0.69
Yards per Route Run0.29
Yards per Carry0.22
Yards after Contact0.08
FP/Touch0.02

The numbers are clear here. Snaps, routes, and touches are, by far, the most important stats you should be projecting at running back followed by scoring opportunities (inside-the-5 carries). YPC and yards after contact are nearly 3 times less influential on fantasy points than any opportunity stat. An efficiency stat like fantasy points per touch is essentially worthless and using it as a key point in your projections will actively make them worse and noisier.

Of course, things like how good the surrounding team is and offensive line play also matter, but the two things you should be basing your picks around are simple. Snaps and touches. Also, note that targets essentially have the same correlational value to fantasy points as carries. That’s because, as Scott found a few years ago, targets are 2.75 times more valuable than a single carry in terms of expected PPR fantasy points. All touches are not created equal. A running back that gets 180 carries and 60 targets on one of the best offenses in the league is not getting equal opportunity to a running back getting 230 carries and 20 targets on a bottom-5 offense. Finding the backs that not only run a lot of pass routes but actually earn targets on those snaps are the true league-winners. Unless your name is Derrick Henry.

RB Tiers

Tier 1
Tier 2
Tier 3
Tier 4
Tier 5
Tier 6
Tier 7
Tier 8
Tier 9
Tier 10

RBs to target

Miles Sanders (Late-Round 1) -- HC Doug Pederson had to roll with a running back by committee for the first few years of his tenure in Philadelphia not because he wanted to but because he had to. Any coach would run a committee if their RBs were all replacement-level guys like LeGarrette Blount, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement. Pederson finally has a featured back in Sanders and he knows it. Jordan Howard missed the back half of last season which cleared the way for Sanders to ball out. In Weeks 11-17 without Howard, Sanders averaged 18.7 touches and 17.2 fantasy points per game. Those figures would have ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, over the full season. And, in this span, only three running backs ran more pass routes than Sanders. Honestly, I hope that the Eagles do add a veteran like Devonta Freeman or Lamar Miller. It’ll only make Sanders cheaper. His rookie year was genuinely one of the best we’ve seen in NFL history as only 16 RBs have produced over 1,200 scrimmage yards on fewer than 250 touches in their first season all-time. This list includes names like Kamara, Todd Gurley, Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew, Herschel Walker, and Tony Dorsett. Fantasy is all about predicting future points and Sanders’ ceiling is top-5 while his floor is, at worst, RB15 because of his involvement in the passing game.

Austin Ekeler (Round 2) -- Ekeler will be hard-pressed to repeat his 93/993/8 receiving line from a year ago now that Philip Rivers is gone, but his role is just so valuable. Ekeler routinely falls out of the top-10 running backs overall in best-ball drafts but he is the exact type of back we want to target. Last year when Melvin Gordon sat out in Weeks 1-4, Ekeler was the RB2 in PPR points behind Christian McCaffrey as he played on a bell cow-like 71% of Chargers snaps. Even once Gordon returned in Week 5, Ekeler ranked 8th among all running backs in routes run and was 2nd in targets. Now, Gordon is gone and Ekeler’s only competition for touches is Justin Jackson -- who only earned 6.8 touches per game in Week 1-4 last year -- and fourth-round rookie Joshua Kelley.

James Conner (Round 3) -- I’ve really come around on Conner over the last month after I wrote this article. Even though it sounds like Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow is healthy, Conner’s ADP really hasn’t changed much. In June, Conner’s ADP was RB18. It’s now RB16. I’m trying to make up for my mistake of not drafting Conner enough now. Despite not having a healthy Big Ben last year, Conner still got a near workhorse role -- he played on 65% of Steelers snaps -- and was the RB8 in fantasy points per game. Dating back to 2018, Conner has finished as a weekly RB1 (top-12) in 43% of his games, which is more often than Chris Carson (34%) who goes off of the board in a similar ADP range. Anthony McFarland is having a quiet camp and it sounds like Benny Snell will just be a change-of-pace runner. (Added 8/31)

Melvin Gordon (Round 4) -- No disrespect to Phillip Lindsay who is a good player in his own right, but I think Gordon is the Broncos bell-cow. In this RB economy, you don’t give a free agent a nearly completely fully guaranteed deal unless you’re going to use him as a featured back. About 85% of Gordon’s two-year pact with Denver is guaranteed and he’ll be making $8M/year on average (7th-most among RBs). Our guy Adam Caplan has suggested that Denver views Gordon as their No. 1 and Lindsay as the change-of-pace. That makes a ton of sense. Last year, the Broncos tried to make Royce Freeman a thing but ended up having to roll with as Lindsay their featured back again and it didn’t result in anything special for fantasy. Keep in mind, Lindsay is only 180lbs and doesn’t have the frame to be a workhorse back. Gordon does. Over the last four seasons, Gordon ranks 9th among all backs in Scott’s weighted opportunities (attempts plus targets) per game metric that adjusts for the value of passing targets. Gordon is also a significantly better receiver than Lindsay. In arguably his worst season as a pro since his rookie year, Gordon averaged 1.4 yards per route run and earned 4.6 targets per game. Meanwhile, Lindsay averaged 0.9 YPRR and earned 3.0 targets per contest.

Cam Akers (Round 5-6) -- Akers is one of my most-drafted running backs over the last month. And now that Darrell Henderson (hamstring) has missed a bunch of practice time, he’s on track for a big Week 1 role. Akers has massive upside in the Rams outside-zone scheme if he does indeed get the lead role over Malcolm Brown. Akers created 8.2 yards per carry on his off-tackle attempts last season at FSU -- which led the class over J.K. Dobbins (6.9 YC/A). If Sean McVay wants to go back to a one featured back system, Akers is his best bet. (Added 8/31)

David Montgomery (Round 5-6) -- This is all about cheap volume and buying into positive TD regression. Last year, Montgomery was 14th among all RBs in snaps played, 18th in touches per game, and tied for 3rd with Joe Mixon in inside-the-5 goal-line carries. Last year, Montgomery scored two or more touchdowns below expectations based on his volume. 12 running backs saw 12 or more inside-the-5 carries and averaged 7.1 TDs on those attempts. Montgomery scored just five times on his 18 inside-the-5 carries. If you’re drafting for volume, there is zero reason for Montgomery to go 25+ picks later than Leonard Fournette (whose average draft position is 24 overall) and a round or two later than David Johnson (whose ADP is 43 overall).

Kareem Hunt (Round 6) -- Once he joined the team last year, Hunt ranked 3rd in receiving yards, 4th in receptions, 6th in targets, and 9th in routes run among RBs in Week 10-17. All of Hunt’s passing game usage made him nearly as valuable as Chubb on a weekly basis despite seeing significantly less work on the ground. Over the Browns final eight games, Hunt averaged 12.7 fantasy points per game while Chubb put up 13.0 FPG. Hunt has the floor of a low-end weekly RB2 and would be a league-winner if Chubb misses time.

James White (Round 7-8) -- Over the last two seasons, White has finished as a weekly RB2 (top-24) or better in PPR leagues in 71% of his games. For reference, Tarik Cohen is a very similar back in terms of usage -- but has only finished top-24 in 50% of his games over the last two years. Combining the 2018-19 seasons, White is 5th in routes run and 2nd in targets among running backs. White is a strong weekly RB2 in PPR leagues and is being drafted as RB35. That’s amazing value. Adding Cam Newton is just icing on the cake.

Tevin Coleman (Round 8-9) -- Coleman’s efficiency was brutal last year -- he ranked dead last in yards after contact per attempt -- but many have completely forgotten that he suffered an ankle injury in Week 1. You won’t want Coleman in most 10- or 12-team season-long redraft leagues because of how unpredictable the 49ers RB usage is, but Coleman is way too cheap in the game he’s perfectly suited for. As 4for4’s TJ Hernadez noted, there were 341 instances of a RB accounting for at least 60% of his team's backfield touches in a game last season. Only three of those instances came from the 49ers backfield, which was the fewest of any team in the league.

Jordan Howard (Round 8-9) -- Cheap, boring volume is still valuable volume. We have Howard projected for 210 carries, which is tied for 18th-most among RBs, but his ADP is RB41! Since entering the league in 2016, Howard ranks 10th in rushing yards per game (68.3) despite playing for two different teams. Still only 25-years-old, Howard has plenty of good football left and should be the Dolphins clear No. 1 over Matt Breida. In his career, Breida has handled 15 or more carries five times in 46 career games.

Zack Moss (Round 8-9) -- Wrote my full thoughts on Moss and his short- and long-term outlook back in April. I am lukewarm on Moss’ ability as a runner but he is undoubtedly a better receiver than Singletary. I still don’t know why Moss has remained 4-5 rounds cheaper than Singletary in best-ball leagues throughout the summer.

Chase Edmonds (Round 11-13) -- My favorite late-round dart throw at RB. Edmonds is way cheaper (ADP: RB51) than more popular “handcuff” type players like Alexander Mattison (RB44), Latavius Murray (RB45), and Tony Pollard (RB47) -- but I’m not sure he should be. Like we saw last year, Edmonds can handle a full workload if Kenyan Drake should miss any time and his only competition for touches as the Cardinals No. 2 back is seventh-rounder Eno Benjamin, who finished last in this class in yards created per attempt. Plus, Drake can’t play every snap. There is a path for Edmonds to have a decent floor on 8-10 touches per game.

Gio Bernard (Round 16 or later) -- Bernard has averaged 19.8 PPR points on 17.5 touches per game in Mixon's four missed starts over the last three seasons. If Mixon misses time, Bernard is a locked-in top-15 RB.

Carlos Hyde (Round 16 or later) -- It’s so boring, but Hyde is a nice value at his 184 overall ADP in BB10s. Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny are both coming off of injuries and if they miss time during the season, Hyde is a perfect fit in Seattle’s scheme and is more than capable of having a few nice games for fantasy. Hyde is about to be 30-years-old but got a good one-year deal ($2.8M; $750k guaranteed), which likely means he’ll be involved in a small weekly role even if Carson (hip) and Penny (ACL) are both healthy. Despite playing for four different teams over the last four years, Hyde has remained effective.

RBs to fade

Nick Chubb -- I love Chubb as a player. I just hate his price. Last year, I was all-in on Chubb when he was a late-2nd or early-3rd round pick because he had the backfield all to himself for the first half of the season. Chubb was subsequently the RB5 in fantasy points per game (19.7) in Week 1-9. However, once Hunt joined the team off of suspension in Week 10, Chubb’s production dropped drastically. From that point on, Chubb was the RB23 in fantasy points per game (13.0), his target share dipped from 12% to 5%, and Hunt out-scored him in 6-of-8 games. Chubb’s ADP (13 overall) for a player that likely won’t be involved in the passing game is incredibly pricey.

Aaron Jones -- Even though no one should expect Jones to repeat his absurd 2019 season where he scored 19 times on 285 touches, his ADP (17 overall) is a few spots higher than both Josh Jacobs (20 overall) and Austin Ekeler (21 overall). The Packers could get Jones more involved in the passing game -- his targets have increased every year he’s been in the league (18 > 35 > 68) -- but touchdown regression will hit Jones hard, especially if Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon are heavily involved. Even without the second-rounder Dillon on the team last year, Jones averaged significantly fewer snaps per game (41.4) than Chris Carson (48.2). Carson goes in Round 4 of best-ball drafts. (Side note: If you play in a dynasty or keeper league, you should be buying Jones. His cost in startups has plummeted to the 3rd or 4th round despite most people being extremely confident in him in seasonal leagues. He’s only 25 and is so much more talented than Williams and Dillon.)

Leonard Fournette -- Few players got as unlucky as Fournette did in the touchdown department last year. It’s really, really hard to only score just three times on 341 touches. The thing is, Fournette wasn’t that unlucky. Remember that David Montgomery stat from earlier? The one about Montgomery only scoring five times on 18 carries inside-the-5? Well, Fournette only got 8 carries from inside-the-5 last year because the Jaguars were rarely in scoring position. All three of his TDs came on those goal-line carries. So, before you think that Fournette is going to dramatically increase his touchdown total in 2020, understand that he rarely actually got the opportunity to score last year. Will that improve this season? I don’t think so. The Jags’ have the NFL’s lowest win total (5) and are coming off of a season in which they ranked 12th in red-zone plays (inside the 10 yard line) and 9th-worst in drives ending in a score. Fournette’s receiving totals are also projected to dip dramatically after he turned his 76 receptions into just 522 yards last season. New HC Jay Gruden loved playing free agent addition Chris Thompson in passing situations in Washington and rookie WR Laviska Shenault is basically a running back playing wide receiver. We have projected to catch just 45 balls this year, which is reasonable considering he caught 2.8 balls per game in his first two seasons. His late-2nd, early-3rd round ADP screams avoid.

Todd Gurley -- I could not imagine looking at Gurley’s name in the third round and thinking “oh, this is a good pick.” Gurley looked like a shell of his former self and earned just 49 targets last year after seeing 80+ targets in 2017 and 2018. I think a large part of the reason Sean McVay didn’t use him normally in the passing game was that his burst and agility looked totally shot last year. Talent at running back fades quickly and Gurley’s RB16 finish (in fantasy points per game) last year was completely buoyed by his 12 rushing TDs. Atlanta was the most pass-heavy team when leading (58%) and the third-most pass-heavy team in the league when the game was within a score (63%) and when trailing (75%) last year, so at the very least, we should expect Gurley’s carries to go down some. Plus, this passing offense centers around Julio and Ridley as no team has targeted their WRs more often over the last two years than Atlanta. Gurley’s lack of involvement in the passing game and a two-year downward trend in performance makes him the easiest player to fade on the board.

David Johnson -- Imagine clicking Johnson’s name over Tyler Lockett. Or Robert Woods. Or Adam Thielen. Or Calvin Ridley. Or Mark Andrews. Because that’s what you’re doing when you take him. Honestly, I thought D.J. had way more juice left in the tank than Gurley after re-watching Arizona’s first 4-5 games last year before he got hurt, but his fourth-round ADP has me completely off of him. Plus, D.J. is a bad fit with a quarterback who doesn’t check the ball down. And, it’s not like Duke Johnson is going to disappear and not earn targets himself. Deshaun Watson only targeted his running backs on 14.7% of his throws last year. That was the third-lowest rate in the NFL behind only Jared Goff (10%) and Ryan Tannehill (12.6%).

Raheem Mostert -- Over his final eight games (including postseason) last year, Mostert averaged 19.8 fantasy points per game but a whopping 46% of those points came from TDs. Additionally, 31% of his total output in this span came in that one monster playoff game against Green Bay. Anyone that is drafting Mostert in Round 4 or 5 of best-ball leagues simply isn’t paying attention to usage. During his hot-streak to close out last year, Mostert was playing on just 57% of 49ers snaps and only saw 11 targets in those eight games. Also, see the Tevin Coleman blurb. (8/30 update: Mostert’s ADP has fallen from Round 4 into Round 6. I’m still not targeting him, but he’s not an outright fade when you can draft him as your RB3.)

D’Andre Swift -- Discussed my concerns over Swift in-depth here. Swift has the same exact ADP as David Montgomery (52 overall) and I trust Montgomery’s volume way more. If you’re going to take a rookie RB in this ADP range, make it Akers.

Sony Michel -- Best-ball is a game of opportunity cost and there really isn’t a price that would make me want to draft Michel this season. Where is his upside? He doesn’t see targets in the passing game and has, at best, been a replacement-level runner since entering the league. We only have 20 roster spots to fill in BB10s and at least six of those are going to be used on QB/TE/Defense. If I’m taking a Patriots back, it’s White in the mid-rounds or Harris super late.

TL;DR

  • RBs are flying off of the board. This year, 21 RBs are taken in the first 40 picks. Just three years ago, only 14 RBs came off of the board in the top-40.

  • Draft 5-6 RBs in most best-ball leagues.

  • Snaps, routes, and touches are, by far, the most important stats you should be projecting at running back followed by scoring opportunities (inside-the-5 carries). YPC and yards after contact are nearly 3 times less influential on fantasy points than any opportunity stat.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.

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