Running Backs Most Affected by Game Script

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Running Backs Most Affected by Game Script

(This is a follow up to how game script affects fantasy in terms of play-calling).

After diving deep into game scripts at the team level, I wanted to come back down to the player level and find out which running backs fantasy points are most affected when their team wins or loses. Simple as that. Since we know teams throw to keep up -- and run more to salt wins away -- it makes sense that fantasy output is impacted by whether or not a player’s team wins or loses.

Runners are more likely to lose fantasy points when their teams are trailing and end up losing the game. But just how big of a difference is it? Which backs are affected most by their team winning or losing?

I took a look at how wins and losses affect the most relevant RBs:

Running backs negatively impacted by losses

Running BackPPR - LossesPPR - WinsDifference
James Conner11.925.1-13.2
Josh Jacobs9.820.8-11
Derrick Henry13.424.3-10.9
Aaron Jones11.621.4-9.8
Ezekiel Elliott16.723.9-7.2
Chris Carson10.217-6.8
Marlon Mack8.315.1-6.8
Dalvin Cook14.220.3-6.1
Todd Gurley18.324.1-5.8
Melvin Gordon16.321.5-5.2
Joe Mixon12.417.3-4.9
Saquon Barkley20.425.1-4.7
Alvin Kamara17.321.4-4.1
Le’Veon Bell16.420.3-3.9
Nick Chubb12.616.3-3.7
Miles Sanders12.215-2.8
David Johnson16.617.3-0.7
David Montgomery10.711-0.3

Notes

  • James Conner is the running back that is most negatively impacted when his team loses, by far. Over the last two years, Conner has averaged a whopping 13.2 fewer PPR points per game in Steelers’ losses compared to their wins. This isn’t that small of a sample that we’re dealing with either. Conner has played in 11 losses and 12 wins over the last two years. Conner’s usage is closely tethered to the scoreboard because Pittsburgh completely abandons the run when they lose. In wins, Conner averages 18.3 carries per game but drops all the way down to just 10.2 carries per game in losses. However, with Big Ben back and apparently healthy by all accounts in camp, Conner is looking like a fantastic buy as an RB2 in the third round of drafts. I’ve really come around on him. The Steelers win total is currently set at 9 -- which should lead to a bunch of positive game scripts -- and Conner is set to face the second-easiest slate of opposing run defenses according to Warren Sharp’s efficiency metrics. Pittsburgh graded out with the third-best schedule for RBs according to Scott’s strength of schedule metrics.

  • Josh Jacobs had a scary low floor in the Raiders’ 7 losses last year, averaging just 9.8 PPR points per game when his team fell behind. All seven of Jacobs’ rushing scores came in Raiders’ victories. Granted, Jacobs’ rushing volume wasn’t too severely impacted by his team losing -- he averaged 15.6 carries per game in losses and 22 carries per game in wins -- but his lack of a receiving role really hurts his fantasy output. Last year, Jacobs was 43rd in routes run per game among running backs and had zero (0!) targets on third down. With Jalen Richard re-signing, the addition of Lynn Bowden, and whatever role Devontae Booker/Theo Riddick receive -- no one should be overly confident that Jacobs’ role on passing downs ticks up in a big way. GM Mike Mayock can say they want to increase Jacobs’ role and give him more work because his shoulder his healthier, but actions speak louder than words.

  • On the surface, Derrick Henry was heavily impacted in the Titans losses last year. But it wasn’t as bad as you think. Including the playoffs, Henry still had six touchdowns in the Titans 7 losses -- completely unlike Josh Jacobs. Henry was still scoring when Tennessee lost and his 13.4 fantasy points per game in those losses still made him a low-end RB2. The problem was Henry’s yardage dipped by quite a bit when the Titans lost. Henry failed to eclipse 90 yards in all seven of the Titans losses last season but went for over 90 yards in 9-of-11 wins. That’s incredible. Because Henry’s rushing role is so secure -- especially near the goal line -- he has one of the safest floors in fantasy football. And, if the rumors are true and Henry is going to be slightly more involved in the passing game with only Darrynton Evans and Jeremy McNichols behind him on the depth chart, his ceiling is top-3. And to boot, the Titans are going to face the easiest slate of opposing run defenses according to Warren Sharp’s metrics. I’m taking Henry at 5 overall ahead of Cook and Clyde Edwards-Helaire after the big four backs are off of the board.

  • Not only is Aaron Jones due for touchdown regression, he could be severely impacted if the Packers lose a few more games after winning 13 a year ago. Jones is an incredible player, but there are a lot of things working against him at his mid-second round average draft position. Not only can he not sustain that scoring rate -- he had 19 touches on just 285 touches last year -- the Packers are favored to win at least four fewer games in 2020. Green Bay’s win total on DraftKings Sportsbook is 8.5.

  • After being Thanos’d by Jonathan Taylor in the draft, Marlon Mack’s upside is tied directly to injuries in fantasy this year. For him to provide RB2 value, he’d need Taylor to get hurt or be totally ineffective. The latter won’t happen. That said, his game script splits do give us some insight for Taylor this year. Mack was unusable in Colts’ losses over the last three years, averaging just 8.3 PPR points per game. Mack only saw 1.7 targets per game in Colts’ losses in this span, which could be a scary sign for Taylor unless Philip Rivers keeps checking the ball down at a league-high clip. Last year, Rivers targeted Chargers RBs on 32% of his passes (most in the NFL). In wins, Mack averaged a strong 15.1 fantasy points per game which would have been 15th-most among RBs last year. I’m not drafting Taylor over the likes of Conner, Adam Thielen or Allen Robinson in the third-round -- but his ceiling is worth it in the fourth. The Colts are slight favorites to win their division, with a win total of 9 at DraftKings Sportsbook over the Titans (8.5) and Texans (7.5). If Taylor earns the lead role in this offense early in the year, he easily has top-15 upside.

Running backs positively impacted by losses

Running BackPPR - LossesPPR - WinsDifference
Christian McCaffrey27.724.9+2.8
Tarik Cohen11.910.8+1.1
Austin Ekeler16.615.7+0.9
Leonard Fournette17.316.6+0.7
James White13.613.60

Notes

  • Christian McCaffrey has the highest floor in fantasy and it’s not even remotely close. He’s literally bullet-proof for our game. And his game script splits are just another reason he’s the clear 1.01 over Saquon Barkey. Over the last two years, McCaffrey has out-scored Barkley by a whopping 7.3 PPR points per game in Panthers’ losses. Barkley (25.1 FPG) and CMC (24.9) are basically even in wins.

  • This data is just another reason why I think Austin Ekeler is an incredibly safe second-round pick. Like McCaffrey, these high-volume receiving backs are impervious to game script because of all the targets they receive. Over the last two years, McCaffrey has averaged a ridiculous 10 targets per contest in Panthers losses while Ekler has averaged 6.7 targets per game in losses. Now with Melvin Gordon in Denver, the path for Ekeler to earn a full-time role is there. When Gordon sat out in Week 1-4 last year, Ekeler played on 71% of Chargers snaps -- which was the same exact snap rate that Alvin Kamara received in Week 1-15 (71%).

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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