Running backs don’t matter…or do they?

Author: Jair Oglivie (@JairOglivieFFA)

Youtube: Fantasy Football Advice

Welcome back to another season of articles from Fantasy Football Advice! We will be back this season with weekly articles on topics such as Weekly Underperformers/Overperformers, Must Starts, Lessons learned, and individual one-off articles like this one about topics we feel strongly about. Let’s jump in.

Image credit: insidethestar.com

Image credit: insidethestar.com

A lot has been made in NFL circles and from notable analytical minds like Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) and Evan Silva (@evansilva) that the running back position is decreasing in value as the league grows to be more and more pass-oriented. The numbers, I’ll get into some depth later in the article, back up this hypothesis. This realization is causing much change around the league as teams decide whether or not to pay up for their top backs coming to the end of their deals (Melvin Gordon, Zeke). You’ve seen the smart teams (Patriots, Eagles, etc) adopt more of a Running-back by committee approach and have great success.

The problem is that having Zeke on the field isn’t worth even half a win to the Cowboys. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus estimates that Zeke’s production in 2018 was worth just 0.2 of a win above a replacement player.
— Josh Hermsmeyer, 2019

            In general, the formula is to always think pass-first. Roster the running backs that are versatile backs who can be a factor in the passing game. This brings us to what matters to you, the reader, and us, the collective fantasy community. How does this trend affect us and the fantasy football meta? The answer is this: the decreasing value of a traditional bell-cow runner in today’s NFL makes their value increase exponentially from a fantasy perspective. As more teams catch on to this trend, there will be less of these kinds of running backs, or at least less teams using them in that fashion. This makes getting one on your fantasy even more important than ever before. There just aren’t a ton of Barkley’s, Elliott’s, or Gordon’s anymore. Smart teams are going to pivot away from that because analytically it isn’t smart and financially it isn’t smart. It’s already becoming a huge advantage to hammer running back early in fantasy drafts because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, after about the mid fourth round, the available quality at the position falls off a cliff.

            How does one explain the Chiefs cutting Kareem Hunt last season, one of the league’s young star running backs, and not missing a beat on offense? It helps when you have the prodigious Patrick Mahomes throwing passes, but the genius is in the coaching. Andy Reid’s system allows for the running back in place to be very successful almost regardless of who it is. Enter: Damien Williams. An afterthought a year ago, Williams is now going in the first and second round of drafts! Williams is talented sure, but it is without a doubt the position in the system that we are drafting in the second round rather than Williams the player himself. We know that the #1 back in Andy Reid’s system is going to have an unmatched opportunity to produce. It’s the same reason how CJ Anderson shocked everyone by being a key contributor to the Rams run to a Super Bowl appearance 6 months ago. It’s the same reason that Darrell Henderson, a rookie, is going in the mid-rounds of fantasy drafts even though he’s starting the year as a backup most likely. The lead back, Todd Gurley, has health concerns and we know that whoever the next man up in a Sean McVay offense is going to seriously produce.

The offensive gurus such as McVay and Reid mentioned above obviously know what they are doing. They can control how the defense lines up by choosing their offensive personnel creatively. As Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight shows us in a ground-breaking study, you can determine a stunning 96% of yards per carry totals just by knowing the offense’s field position and the number of men the defense has in the box. Playcallers can manipulate how many box defenders there are by changing offensive formations. For example, sending out 3 or 4 receiver sets will lighten the box as defenders have to go out and match the receivers. Less box defenders allows for more effective rushing plays or, more importantly, more effective pass plays to the running back.

From the PFF NFL Podcast, PFF Senior Analyst Sam Monson and PFF Data Scientist Eric Eager discuss Eric's most recent article about running back value in the NFL.

            These pass plays to the running back are what change the game in fantasy football these days. You might ask, if these running backs who don’t catch the ball are still getting the lionshare of touches (aka Leonard Fournette), why does it matter? Because, as Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) of PFF tells us, not all touches are created equal. A reception and a carry by a running back both count as one touch but the reception is so incredibly more valuable to fantasy players that the alternative is unthinkable. Barrett wrote in 2018 that over the previous ten seasons a target has been worth 2.74 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues. A target, not even a completed catch, just a pure target! This stat correlates to a target being 1.36 times as much as a carry even in standard leagues! To the left is a video from PFF that goes into more depth on my thesis here.

As August rolls in and more of you get your official drafts going, remember that hammering running back in the early rounds is one of the most effective strategies you can have. It’s tempting to double up on Hopkins and Juju if you can. But know that receiver is an incredibly deep group and once you get into the mid rounds, running back becomes quite desolate. Running backs DO matter…for fantasy that is.

Thanks for reading and until next time, happy drafting!

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Jair Oglivie