Fantasy Equity Scores: The Upside Running Back Flier Tier
August 25, 2016 | C.D. Carter
Fantasy equity scores for running backs get shakier as we move past the guys with solid, knowable roles in their respective offenses.
Some of the running backs outside the first 30 going off the draft board have defined roles, but for most of the below runners, median equity scores could simply be “apocalyptic” and you would believe it. So would I.
That hardly means any of these backs should be ignored. This tier, in fact, could be a key — the key — for those who employ the Zero RB approach, or some version of it. Stashing two or three of these running backs could create a team stocked with top-end receivers and running backs who fall into opportunity after being available for the low, low price of a seventh, eighth, or even ninth round pick.
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I’m almost as interested in this tier of runners as I am in the un-sexy tier that includes a few backs with high equity scores that might activate your salivary glands.
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.
Equity score analysis charged in 2015 that Frank Gore’s top-end prospects were just inside the top-12 running backs. That’s precisely where he finished, as RB11 in a forgetful campaign for the Luck-less Colts. Gore, who turned 77 in May, has seen his re-draft price plummet on the heels of 2015. He was the 25th runner of the board a year ago — now he’s the 31st. These projections assume a 16-game season for everyone, including Andrew Luck. While Gore wouldn’t be an every-week starter if his median equity score came to pass, he would be a solid — if uninspiring — option in his best case scenario, or something close to it. Indy has no one behind Gore, so I think there’s a chance we’ll see the veteran get more passing game action in 2016. The Colts deployed Gore as a part of the aerial attack in three games a year ago. Remember that Ahmad Bradshaw saw a hearty 4.8 targets per game in his 10-game campaign with the Colts in 2014. I find that Gore piques my interest most when I start a draft with five receivers (in leagues where I can start up to four wideouts).
Rashad Jennings, another elderly runner with noteworthy equity scores, was last year’s RB22 with a horrifically low 1.5 percent touchdown rate and less than 200 carries. His high equity score relies on a much higher touchdown rate, which might be a stretch since Ben McAdoo’s offense passed more inside the 10-yard line than any team not called the Jaguars. Jennings averaged 0.75 fantasy points per touch in 2015, slightly less than LeSean McCoy (0.76) and slightly more than Adrian Peterson (0.73). Jennings, thanks to an uptick in targets and receiving yardage, averaged more fantasy points in Big Blue losses (11.3) than when the Giants won (9.4), meaning his production does not hinge on the Giants being better than the 8-8 team Vegas projects them to be in 2016. If your fantasy team is set at wide receiver heading into the middle rounds, I don’t see anyone in Jennings’ range that jumps out as a far superior option. When the Giants finally decided to make Jennings their featured runner in the final four weeks of 2015, he collected 432 yards on on 87 touches and was fantasy’s fifth highest scoring running back over that span.
New England’s running back situation, always the maddening phenomenon for fantasy footballers who want cheap parts of the league’s best offense, might not be as complex as we think. LaGarrette Blount is unusable for fantasy purposes when the Patriots lose (3.4 fantasy points per game), and a solid contributor when they win (10.4 points). He manages 13.1 fantasy points when the Patriots win by more than nine points, which makes him something of a plug-and-play option when New England enters Sunday favored by a touchdown, or thereabouts. Rich Hill, writer for Pats Pulpit and someone who has proven adept at projecting the Patriots’ various offensive approaches, wrote this week that Blount could see something close to a featured role for the first month of the season, as the team awaits the return of Very Angry And Unhappy Tom Brady. I miss the days (a month ago) when you could get Blount in the middle of the tenth round, but I’m fine with him at his current early-eighth round ADP. He’s been efficient when given a decent workload, posting a 4.7 yards per carry average as a Patriot. Just know that you’re going to swing and miss with Blount if you have him throughout 2016.
And then there’s James White, who (presumably) takes over the Dion Lewis role as Lewis drafters realize that this is fine while they sip coffee in a room filled with flames. Long story (very) short: you want Tom Brady’s pass-catching back if you can get him at a reasonable cost — and you usually can. Combine Lewis’ and White’s 2015 fantasy production and you come up with 243 points, which would’ve been good for RB5 last season. Shane Vereen finished as RB19 in 2014, which would have looked a whole lot better had he not been the 18th runner off the draft board that season. Vereen in 2013 averaged 16.75 fantasy points per game in eight contests. Danny Woodhead somehow finished as a low-end RB2 with 105 touches in 2013, occupying the passing down role for New England. White caught five balls per game once he seized the team’s pass-catching back role — a stat very much helped by his nuclear 10-catch performance against the Eagles in Week 13. White’s ADP has jumped by two rounds since Lewis was declared out for 8-10 weeks. He now costs a mid-10th rounder. I can’t badmouth someone with equity scores so sky high, but White might try the patience of his drafters if the Patriots indeed skew run heavy in Brady’s absence. I could see White cast off to the waiver wire in many leagues by early October. I would hold tight, if possible.
Theo Riddick had a measly 43 carries in 2015 — was horrific with that rushing opportunity — and managed a top-18 fantasy campaign. Riddick hardly needs to approach his fantasy ceiling to be worth a pick at his late eighth round ADP. His high equity score involved a slight uptick in carries, which might be overly optimistic. But it doesn’t matter. Riddick won’t win leagues, but I want him in PPR formats.
I don’t know what to make of the Miami backfield. All I (we) know is that the Dolphins coaching staff has been downright effusive in their praise of Arian Foster. But then there’s this pesky little fact available on the various internets: Jay Ajayi is still listed as the team’s starter. Probably it’s wildly optimistic to think that Ajayi will get anything close to a starter’s workload as long as Foster is upright. I’m not sure I can stomach drafting a guy (Ajayi) who has no ceiling of which to speak unless/until Foster’s aged legs give way and leave Miami no other option but to give the ball to the back they clearly don’t want to give the ball.
I like Henry as a Zero RB play when he drops into the ninth or tenth rounds. But I think he’s pricey in the early eighth round. Tennessee is projected to be one of the NFL’s worst teams (again) in 2016, leaving the offense to face plenty of bad game script. It’s not welcomed news for a two-down banger like Henry. Backfield mate DeMarco Murray, meanwhile, has notched 52 receptions per season over this last three years. Henry caught a grand total of 17 passes during his collegiate career. There’s no universe in which Murray loses that passing down involvement. That’s in large part why Henry’s median equity score is so depressed, and depressing.