Fantasy Equity Scores: The Un-Sexy Running Back Tier
August 15, 2016 | C.D. Carter
They sport all sorts of fantasy warts: inefficiency, injury history, blown opportunities in recent seasons, potential timeshare backfields, new coaches and schemes, and many are trapped on bad teams sure to face a steady tide of negative game script — poison for most running backs.
But this tier of backs could very well hold immense value. With uncommon uncertainty in the fantasy equity scores of the first dozen running backs off the board, these runners could prove central for anyone who goes all in on wide receivers in the opening rounds of their August drafts.
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A quick reminder of how I derive fantasy equity scores: using the Rotoviz similarity score app and the projection machine app, I create conservative scenarios (median equity scores) and best-case scenarios (high equity scores). It’s a subjective process, to be sure, but it’s one that I’ve used for years to get a grasp of a player’s range of outcomes.
If a player’s median equity score is in the negative, it means he lacks a safe floor, whereas a high median score shows that a player is a safe pick at his average draft position. High equity scores that are close to a guy’s median score tell us the player is safe, but lacks upside. Many players with gaudy high equity scores will have low median scores — the prototypical boom/bust fantasy producer.
Perhaps no player today has benefited from a single carry — a 90-yard scamper against the Chiefs in 2014 — than Latavius Murray. His 2015 peripheral numbers were certainly on the ugly side, he lost out on his every-down back duties last season, and he’s on what was in 2015 one of the NFL’s pass heaviest offenses. Murray was, along with Frank Gore, the least efficient high-volume runner in the league last season, per numberFire’s JJ Zachariason. Here’s the thing: I don’t care. Oakland, by all accounts, went out and made their offensive line much better — maybe one of the league’s best — this offseason, beat writer reports from Raiders’ training camp say that Murray is the unquestioned starter and potential workhorse in the Silver and Black backfield, and rookie running DeAndre Washington has struggled with pass protection throughout the summer. Rookie running backs who can’t keep their quarterback from being lit up by blitzing linebackers have a special place on the bench. Almost half of Murray’s 2016 comps (per the sim score app) are positive, which we don’t see all that often. His top-end comps for this season include Matt Forte in 2013, when the then-Bears runner piled up more than 1,900 total yards an 12 touchdowns. The upshot for those who go in on Latavius: he saw a whopping 72.2 percent of the Raiders’ carries in 2015, and nothing indicates that number will fluctuate all that much in 2016. Opportunity is king in fantasy football. Sometimes it’s best to kiss the king’s ring.
Jonathan Stewart, a fantasy equity score all-star in 2015, looks to have all sorts of opportunity once again in 2016, though it might be the worst kind of opportunity. Stewart, who notched a respectable 13.3 fantasy points per game in 2015 (RB7 pace), will certainly continue to have goal line looks poached because, well, Cam Newton is scary good at punching it in from inside the ten yard line. Stewart’s ADP of RB27 means you’re not paying a premium for the Carolina runner, so it’s hard to dismiss him out of hand. I think he’s a serviceable running back option in an offense that should see plenty of positive, rush-friendly game script in 2016. Not every player can be a league winner. Stewart provides a nice floor, and becomes more than a little appealing if/when he drops into the seventh or eighth round of drafts that are (very) wide receiver heavy, thereby skewing running back ADP.
Gio Bernard finished as RB17 in PPR last season with a grand total of two touchdowns, splitting the backfield with the plodder, Jeremy Hill. Bernard, for one thing, has several eyebrow-raising 2016 comps, including CJ Spiller 2012 (RB6 with just 207 carries) and LeSean McCoy 2010 (RB4 with, you guessed it, a meager 207 carries). I know that Bernard had 154 carries in 2015, so I’m not projecting him to eclipse 200 totes in 2016. He doesn’t need anything close to that to prove a draft day value though, as 23 running backs are going ahead of him, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Regression analysis shows that Bernard, given his 2015 workload, should have scored a little north of five touchdowns. Tack on three scores to his 2015 totals and Bernard would’ve been fantasy’s 13th highest scoring runner. That’s why I think Bernard’s high equity score may be a touch on the conservative side. No matter, he will be a top-20 PPR back barring total and complete disaster. numberFire scribe Anthony Amico noted this summer that Bernard is “top seven in targets, receptions, and receiving yards by running backs since he came into the league in 2013.” He’s broken the 1,000 total yard mark every year of his pro career. And he’s one Jeremy Hill injury away from morphing into an elite fantasy option, as is Hill if Gio succumbs to injury.
I see drafting DeAngelo Williams at today’s ADP as one of the more shortsighted moves in fantasy football. Sure, Williams was a machine while Le’Veon Bell was out for most of 2015. Sure, he’s set to see a massive workload in a potent offense. But he’s not going to eat into Bell’s pie when the superstar returns to the Steelers’ starting lineup unless the team takes an entirely new approach to the backfield this year. I have on interest in Williams at his mid-sixth round ADP.
Duke Johnson’s high equity score may seem somewhere between optimistic and delusional. I’m here to tell you that his best-case scenario hardly required any psychotropic drugs, but rather a little tweaking of the Rotoviz projection machine. The Browns are projected by Vegas oddsmakers to be bad — really bad. This would mean, in theory, that Cleveland will face plenty of throw-first situations in which Johnson would be featured. Give Johnson a reasonable 12 percent of the team’s targets, plug in his average yards per target and catch rate, and the Browns throw the ball more than 630 times. That gives Johnson 65 receptions for more than 600 yards. That’s where his high equity score comes from. His negative median score comes from projections that involve Johnson sharing backfield duties with Isaiah Crowell, and not seeing nearly as much passing game action. Johnson’s median prospects strike me as overly pessimistic.
I’m not entirely sure Matt Forte is draftable at this ADP. The veteran back reportedly has a significant hamstring injury that could keep him out for most — or all — of the preseason. Meanwhile, Bilal Powell has shown he can be an efficient, pass-catching back when given the chance. Powell can fill the Forte role in the Gang Green offense. That could make Forte somewhat dispensable, and his median equity score involves a pretty even timeshare between the two New York runners. Perhaps it’s no surprise, but the 30-year-old Forte has several sim score comps that missed significant numbers of games. There’s very little uncertainty baked into Forte’s fourth round ADP, and there just so happens to be uncertainty everywhere you look at his 2016 situation.