Fantasy Equity Scores: Top Running Backs And Arbitrage Options
August 3, 2016 | C.D. Carter
Widespread Zero RB indoctrination, propelled by the NFL’s steady gravitation toward a pass-heavy league, could lead one to look directly past the game’s elite running backs — the ones that used to fly off the draft in fantasy football’s Stone Age.
Bust rates for early-round running back options have been in flux over the past couple years, going from negligible to concerning. The game’s most productive receivers, meanwhile, have become much more reliable in meeting and exceeding their average draft positions in recent seasons.
It’s the very first running backs off the board that have been of particular concern for fantasy footballers who can’t quite force themselves to tip back the cup and drink the Zero RB Kool-Aid. My Living The Stream co-host and budding Periscope star, the handsome JJ Zachariason, summarized the problem with first round running back bust rates when he advised us to “look more towards the second round for your first running back.”
The below fantasy equity scores amplify that succinct — and potentially league winning — message to the masses. There seem to be more than a couple arbitrage plays among the latter half of the below running backs — guys who could match or exceed the production of the first six or seven backs off the board if you put stock in the process by which we create equity scores (using the Rotoviz sim score app and projection machine to create somewhat conservative projections and high-end projections that attempt to show a player’s fantasy floor and ceiling).
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Let’s get into running backs.
All of the top four backs have median equity scores that would make them something of a miss for those who take them at their respective ADPs. Translation: They’re priced at their absolute ceilings. That’s not entirely unprecedented in equity score analysis, but it’s certainly on the curious side. I believe — though I’m not certain — that Gurley and Peterson have fairly low median scores based in large part of on their win/loss splits. Gurley’s splits are of particular concern since the Rams are projected by Vegas to notch 7.5 wins.
Trusting that Gurley, in his second pro season, can overcome the downside of these splits requires confidence that the Rams will deploy him as a pass catching back — not just an early down workhorse. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this will happen in 2016, but I’m not completely discounting the possibility (yet). We know that Gurley is a beast of a runner: he was among the league leaders in yards after contact, somehow averaging 4.8 yards per carry when opponents knew the football was going nowhere but firmly into Gurley’s arms. He saw almost 66 percent of the Ram’s rushing attempts from Week 4-17. That’s borderline stunning. Would I consider Gurley at the very end of the first round, after the first five or six receivers have flown off the board? Yes, I would.
Of the 25 closest comps for Adrian Peterson in 2016, the Rotoviz RB sim score app gives us exactly one that outperformed his 2015 numbers: Marshawn Lynch in 2014. Fourteen of those comps fell way below Peterson’s production. This is fine, you might say as you sip your delicious coffee in a room engulfed in flames. It doesn’t matter that Peterson is 31 years old and has almost 2,700 NFL touches. He’s different, you say. He’s not subject to the frailty of the human condition. Maybe you’re right. But I don’t want to find out if he’s once again the exception to the rule at his re-draft price point. There’s also this: Peterson, in five 2015 Minnesota losses, averaged a measly 48.7 rushing yards and 0.6 touchdowns (11.3 fantasy points). The Vikings are projected to win 9.5 games in 2016. If they underperform and Peterson remains frozen out of the game plan when game script goes sideways, he won’t meet his draft day cost. The good news for those who take Peterson in the first: Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is as determined as ever to fight the forward pass.
Here are Doug Martin’s fantasy finishes when he plays a 16-game season: RB4 in 2015 and RB2 in 2012. He’s good. He might even be really good. I can almost feel the desire in fantasy circles for Martin to cede his gig to Charles Sims, who was more than solid last season in a pass-catching role. But fantasy footballers should recognize that when things are clicking in Tampa’s offense, Martin gets massive opportunity and — when healthy — has always made the most of it. He notched 23 rushing attempts per game in six Bucs wins last season. Martin, quite incredibly, averaged 18.7 fantasy points in those contests despite just three touchdowns (as Jameis Winston stumbled and bumbled around the goal line and somehow found pay dirt time and again). Martin is due for touchdown regression (the good kind) too. I’m as encouraged by his median equity score as his high-end prospects. If/when he slips into the first couple picks of the third round, I find him to be an ideal grab for those who start out with two top receivers. An OBJ-Alshon-Martin start isn’t hateful.
Devonta Freeman’s sim scores made me go into convulsions for close to an hour. My wife was frightened. The app has a special kind of love for pass catching running backs, so you can imagine that the machine was head over heels for Freeman, who caught 73 passes on 92 targets in 2015’s breakout campaign. Using only the RB sim score app, Freeman’s median and high equity scores put him at RB1. Alas, Tevin Coleman is a thing and the Falcons’ coaching staff seems bound and determined to shoehorn him into a timeshare of sorts with Freeman. All the talk of Coleman’s involvement in both the running and passing attack has led to a slight dip in Freeman’s ADP. I’d imagine that’ll continue as we edge closer to Opening Day. Detractors will point to Freeman’s ground struggles in the latter half of 2015 (3.2 yards per carry over the final nine weeks), but what they might forget to point out is that Freeman, over that not-so-great stretch, was fantasy’s eighth highest scoring running back. I’m just OK with Freeman’s price point today. He might be unavoidable if he eventually drops to the RB11-12 range.
I am conscious, so I know that Jamaal Charles is on the PUP list, and that some in the Chiefs organization are a tad concerned with the health of their franchise player and the greatest running back to ever grace the gridiron. This is your weekly reminder that equity scores are based on 16-game seasons. Don’t draft Charles at his ADP if you have reason to believe that he will miss the start of the season or have to share the workload with Spencer Ware or Charcandrick West. Charles, unlike Gurley and Peterson, can (and has) produced at high levels when his team faces negative game script and can’t hammer opponents with the run. Here’s how he’s fared in Andy Reid’s offensive system. The in-split column is Charles’ production in losses. That per-game average would have been good for RB2 last season. I would fade the first four runners off the board in favor of Charles every day of the week, barring injury news.