Weighted Opportunity

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Weighted Opportunity

There are a lot of bad, worthless, noisy, and overused stats in fantasy football. “Touches,” for running backs, might not be at the top of the list but it’s close.

Why? Because not all touches are created equal. A running back can touch the ball as a runner (rushing attempt) or as a receiver (reception). Rushing attempts are far more common, but receptions are far more valuable. Over the past four seasons, rushing attempts have comprised 81% of all running back touches, though 45% of all running back fantasy points scored have come through the air. How can that be true? Because a reception is worth 3.40 times as much as a rushing attempt in PPR leagues.

Why is “touches” such a bad stat? Because I’ve come up with something much better.

Volume is far more important than efficiency for fantasy running backs, and far more important for running backs than for any other position in fantasy. But raw touches doesn’t do a good job of measuring volume. Raw touches is inferior to raw opportunities (carries + targets), and raw opportunities is inferior to our stat: weighted opportunity.

Weighted opportunity is what it sounds like. It measures a running back’s opportunity, weighted appropriately for the worth of each unit of opportunity (a carry or a target).

On average (over the past four seasons), a single rushing attempt has been worth about 0.60 fantasy points. A target has been worth roughly 1.64 fantasy points. So, broadly speaking, a target is worth 2.73 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues.

The methodology to calculate this was simple. In each year we totaled running back rushing fantasy points and then divided that number by total carries. For targets, we totaled all running back receiving fantasy points and then divided that number by total targets.

However, we can improve upon this further by incorporating red-zone usage. (For simplicity, we’re using PPR points in the next two charts.)

Broadly speaking, outside of the red-zone, a target is worth 3.25 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues.

With this knowledge at our disposal, we can better approximate the value of a player’s role than through raw touches. By multiplying a running back’s red-zone carries by 1.33, red-zone targets by 2.31, outside-the-red-zone carries by 0.48, and outside-the-red-zone targets by 1.54, we can sum up these numbers to create what I’ve been calling a running back’s “weighted opportunity.”

Using the methodology I outlined above, here are 2019’s top-35 running backs by weighted opportunity per game:

What does the differential represent?

What does the differential represent? Should we be avoiding players with a negative differential (assuming this represents a measure of efficiency) or should we be targeting these players (assuming this is a number that tends to regress to the mean)? This isn’t an easy question to answer, but it’s mostly the latter, while still being some of the former.

Last season, Christian McCaffrey averaged 25.1 weighted opportunity points per game. By scoring 29.3 fantasy points per game, he produced a +4.2-point differential. It’s not surprising McCaffrey scored more fantasy points than his weighted opportunity would suggest, just like it’s not surprising McCaffrey ranked highly in yards-per-carry and yards-per-target average – McCaffrey is really good. His weighted opportunity is based on the average of all running backs over the past four seasons, and McCaffrey is much better than an average running back.

This being said, a differential of +3.6 is very likely to regress to the mean. This doesn’t mean that he’ll necessarily regress in fantasy points per game or weighted opportunity points per game, only that the differential between those two numbers is very likely to be much closer to zero (though still likely well above average) next season. McCaffrey’s +3.6 in 2019 ranks as the 18th-most efficient season this past decade. Of the top 40 seasons this past decade (by positive differential), 38 regressed the following year. On average the fall was from a differential of +3.37 to +0.27. Of the bottom 40 seasons this past decade (Fournette and Bell would both qualify), 38 regressed in efficiency the following year. On average the climb was from -2.82 to -0.50.

Player Analysis

- In addition to becoming the only running back to play on over 1,000 snaps in a single season this past decade, McCaffrey’s 25.8 weighted opportunity points per game in 2019 was also an all-decade record.

- Without question, Leonard Fournette just posted one of the unluckiest fantasy seasons in recent memory. Last season, Fournette ranked second in Snap% (88.5%), second in snaps per game (60.1), second in weighted opportunity points per game (21.2), and fourth in red zone opportunities per game (3.5). By every measure, this should have resulted in a league-winning performance… or at least, more than just three measly touchdowns.

His 21.6 weighted opportunity points per game ranks 12th-most this past decade, and of the running backs in the top-15, he’s the only one to finish the season averaging fewer than 21.5 fantasy points per game. For perspective, he averaged just 17.4, and his differential (-4.4) ranks fifth-worst this past decade. Yikes! Yeah, Fournette drafters got hosed.

Although he’s bound to regress in the efficiency department – mainly, he’ll score touchdowns at a much higher rate – that doesn’t necessarily make him a buy-low candidate. Following the departure of John DeFilippo (who prefers a bell-cow running back and loves to pepper that running back with targets in the passing game) and the arrival of Jay Gruden (who prefers a committee backfield and peppering Chris Thompson with targets), expect a massive drop in weighted opportunity next season.

- Like Fournette, Bell’s differential (-3.1) was historically bad (21st-worst this past decade). This was partly on him (he played poorly) and partly on a poor environment (remember those Luke Falk games?), but still, this is a number that should regress closer to the mean next season. And besides, the volume was good. If he sees the same volume he saw last year, he’s a pretty glaring ADP value (RB21), after ranking seventh in weighted opportunity per game (17.4) and fifth in snaps per game (53.0) last year.

- On the opposite end of the spectrum (to Fournette and Bell), Derrick Henry is due for a massive regression to the mean in 2020. Remarkably, Henry finished fourth in fantasy points per game last year (14.6), though he ranked just 18th in weighted opportunity points per game (19.6). In other words, he just recorded the third-most efficient (+5.0) fantasy season this past decade, and all other running backs in the top-five saw a massive regression the following year (averaging a differential of just +0.65 the following season). Henry’s a liability as a pass catcher, and as such, is a liability in weighted opportunity (and in general – at least in PPR leagues). He’s yet to reach even 25 targets in a single season, which caps his upside, and also makes him highly gamescript-dependent. It’s no coincidence he averages 20.4 FPG in victories across the past two seasons, but only 10.0 in losses.

- Aaron Jones and Austin Ekeler also qualify as major regression candidates, though it’s worth noting we could have said that about each of them last year as well. Since 2017, Jones (posting differentials of +3.7, +3.6, +1.1) and Ekeler (+3.5, +2.1, +2.4) have been our two most-efficient running backs by weighted opportunity over this span.

- Prior to a season-ending hip fracture in Week 16, Chris Carson was averaging 50.3 snaps-per-game (seventh-most), 16.8 weighted opportunity points-per-game (eighth-most), and 16.1 FPG (11th-most). With his role unchanged heading into 2020, and as just the 20th-most expensive running back by ADP, he’s a pretty glaring value.

- Looking at this data on a season-long level can obscure things as well. For instance, Kenyan Drake first wore a Cardinals uniform in Week 9. From that point on, he ranked fourth in fantasy points per game (19.6) and 11th in weighted opportunity per game (16.0). Or, look at Nick Chubb, who finished the season eighth in weighted opportunity points per game (16.5). However, that number sat at 17.8 before Kareem Hunt returned from suspension, and only 14.4 after.

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and Lead DFS Writer.

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