THAT JUST HAPPENED: RUNNING BACKS, PART II March 13, 2017  |  Scott Cedar


 

In Part I, I laced the track with a macro-level look at the running back position. Now it’s time to lock the flow with the micro view.

First, a few ground rules:

  1. The goal is to contextualize 2016 performance. Briefly. What I highlight below is meant to be interesting, informative, and by no means comprehensive.
  2. I’m using a 12 team, 2 RB league as the default setting. That’s why you see references to top 12 weekly finishes (in theory, an RB1) and top 24 finishes (in theory, an RB2).

The Elite

Name PPG (Rank) Fantasy Points (Rank) Games Top 24 Finishes Top 12 Finishes Avg. Weekly Rank
David Johnson 20.5 (1) 327.80 (1) 16 15 12 10.1
Le’Veon Bell 20.2 (2) 242.40 (4) 12 12 9 9.25
Ezekiel Elliott 19.6 (3) 293.40 (2) 15 15 11 9
LeSean McCoy 16.6 (4) 248.30 (3) 15 13 10 16.3

 

David Johnson didn’t finish lower than RB21 all season, and was a top 6 running back 10 freaking times. His 20 TDs will be hard to repeat, but he’s not touchdown dependent: take away everybody’s touchdowns and Johnson still finishes as the top back.

Le’Veon Bell missed 4 games and still finished 4th among running backs in total points. He made up for lost time with an insane 28 touches per game, leading all running backs by quite a bit (Johnson was second with 23.3). That heavy workload, combined with his past injury history and off-field issues, are the only red flags heading into 2017.

Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing attempts and yards. He also led all running backs in average weekly rank, finished 3rd in points per game, and was an RB2 or better in every single game. Most have him behind Johnson and Bell due to receiving ability, but Elliott’s 9.31 yards per target was better than both of them, and 3rd overall among running backs (min. 30 targets). He has a much better situation than Johnson and none of the risks of Bell. Why isn’t he the top pick in 2017?

LeSean McCoy isn’t being grouped with the other elite running backs, but he should be. Take out Week 7 (when everyone but Rex Ryan knew he was too hurt to play) and Week 17 (5 carries in a meaningless game), and McCoy’s average weekly rank jumps to 9.2, behind only Elliott. McCoy will be 29, but showed no signs of slowing down against a very difficult schedule. 13 rushing touchdowns and 5.4 YPC are his highest marks since 2013, so some regression is coming, but he was as good as anyone in 2016.

RB1

Name PPG (Rank) Fantasy Points (Rank) Games Top 24 Finishes Top 12 Finishes Avg. Weekly Rank
Melvin Gordon 16.1 (5) 209.60 (8) 13 12 8 14.8
DeMarco Murray 15.0 (6) 240.80 (5) 16 14 11 14.7
Devonta Freeman 14.4 (7) 230.10 (6) 16 12 7 18.0
LeGarrette Blount 14.1 (8) 225.90 (7) 16 13 5 16.3
Jordan Howard 13.4 (9) 201.10 (9) 15 13 5 18.7


Melvin Gordon
’s rookie year was all kinds of unlucky, but it corrected bigly in 2016. Just remember that: (1) Danny Woodhead was out-snapping him before getting hurt in Week 2; (2) he scored 9 of his touchdowns on 17 attempts inside the 5; and (3) he finished under 4.0 YPC. Again.   In other words, he took advantage of massive opportunity and volume in 2016. Will those carry over into 2017?

Safe to say 2015 was the outlier for DeMarco Murray. He dominated Tennessee’s backfield, playing 81% of the Titans’ snaps and accounting for nearly 75% of their running back touches. Wonder if that continues in Derrick Henry’s 2nd year. You could make the case Murray belongs in the elite tier, but he was a little less efficient than other top backs (0.70 points per touch, lowest among top 10 running backs).

Devonta Freeman was really good overall, but 6 single-digit outings kept his average weekly rank lower than others in this tier. Tevin Coleman’s increased usage didn’t end up hurting him as much as it felt during the season—he actually had fewer carries and targets, and scored 3 fewer points per game, in the 3 games Coleman missed. Freeman’s 14.2 carries and 4.1 targets per game were down from 2015, but given his per-touch efficiency, more than enough for a second straight top-6 finish.

No running back had a higher percentage of his points come from touchdowns than LeGarrette Blount, whose 27 carries from inside the 5 (accounting for 13 of his 18 touchdowns) was by far the most in the league. Blount’s 18.7 rushing attempts per game were way up from last year (and any other point in his career). Hard to imagine he gets the same volume, from in close or elsewhere, in 2017.

Jordan Howard assumed starting duties in Week 3, and from then on averaged 14.3 points per game, falling below 8 points just once in that span. Stuck with bad quarterback and line play, Howard needed to make yards for himself. And he did: his 5.2 YPC was 4th in the league, backed by an impressive ability to make others miss, and he tied with Elliott and McCoy for most 100-yard rushing games (7).

RB2

Name PPG (Rank) Fantasy Points (Rank) Games Top 24 Finishes Top 12 Finishes Avg. Weekly Rank
Carlos Hyde 12.7 (10) 165.10 (15) 13 9 5 21.1
Jay Ajayi 12.6 (11) 188.30 (11) 15 8 4 22.5
Latavius Murray 12.5 (12) 175.20 (13) 14 8 6 23.1
C.J. Anderson 12.4 (13) 86.50 (43) 7 4 3 20.3
Mark Ingram 12.3 (14) 196.20 (10) 16 7 6 25.8
Tevin Coleman 12.3 (15) 160.10 (17) 12 7 4 23.6
Spencer Ware 11.5 (16) 160.90 (16) 14 6 4 22.3
Lamar Miller 11.4 (17) 160.10 (17) 14 10 4 22.0
Frank Gore 11.0 (18) 176.30 (12) 16 12 2 21.6
Matt Forte 11.0 (19) 153.60 (21) 14 7 6 27.1
Theo Riddick 10.9 (20) 108.80 (31) 10 4 3 23.1
Jonathan Stewart 10.6 (21) 138.40 (23) 13 7 3 27.2
Jeremy Hill 10.4 (22) 155.30 (19) 15 8 3 26.5
Isaiah Crowell 10.3 (23) 165.10 (14) 16 8 4 24.3
DeAngelo Williams 9.1 (24) 82.10 (46) 7 3 3 32.0
Ryan Mathews 10.1 (26) 131.60 (25) 12 6 3 23.3
Todd Gurley 9.7 (27) 155.20 (20) 16 9 3 24.2
Terrance West 8.6 (32) 137.00 (24) 16 7 3 31.9
Giovani Bernard 8.3(33) 83.30 (44) 10 5 1 29.3
Robert Kelley 8.0 (34) 120.60 (26) 14 5 3 34.5
Eddie Lacy 7.8 (38) 38.80 (71) 5 2 0 28.4
Ty Montgomery 6.4 (50) 96.50 (38) 15 4 2 23.8


Carlos Hyde
gets an unfair rap. 9 RB2 finishes—including 5 RB1 weeks—in 13 games is pretty good, especially when playing for a team averaging 25 yards per drive (31st in the league). A few more touchdowns last year and we’d be talking about a solid 2nd round pick.

Jay Ajayi felt like the Dolphins’ greatest discovery since finding out Finkle was Einhorn. Was it though? Sure, Ajayi averaged 20.25 carries and 14.4 ppg after assuming full-time duties in Week 5, and per Pro Football Focus, forced a league-high 58 missed tackles. But he posted only 4 RB1 weeks, which accounted for 56% of his points, and two of those came against Buffalo (30th in run defense DVOA). Of course, the other two came against Pittsburgh (11th) and the Jets (1st). One other reason to be skeptical: Ajayi also lead the league in runs of 40+ yards. 2015’s leaders in that category (Todd Gurley and Doug Martin) combined for 0 such runs in 2016.

Latavius Murray was a full on Monet. From far away… 12th in ppg, nice season. Up close, you see a running back who averaged only 52% of his team’s snaps, with his 4.0 YPC well behind both Jalen Richard (5.9) and Deandre Washington (5.4) (albeit on much higher volume). Murray also benefitted from 77.3 % of the Raiders’ carries from inside the 5 yard line, leading to 10 of his 12 touchdowns and 34% of his total scoring.

CJ Anderson is the Putin to my Trump. I defend this dude no matter what. But for the 2nd year in a row, I think he’s getting a bad rap. Anderson was the 13th running back drafted and finished… 13th in ppg! Health is an issue, but when he played, he put up RB1 numbers in 3 of 7 games and vastly outperformed Devontae Booker. Of course, it wasn’t all roses for CJA. His 4.0 YPC was the lowest of his career, and his 39% success rate beat only T.J. Yeldon among players with at least 100 carries, per Football Outsiders.

Mark Ingram was an RB1 in 6 of the 11 games where he reached double-digit carries. Ingram also finished 6th in YPC, overcoming saboteur Sean Payton to finish with his first 1,000 yard rushing season. Whether he can repeat 10 touchdowns will be interesting. Inside the 10, he had only 15 carries (fewer than Tim Hightower) and 3 touchdowns. He made up for it with a number of long scores and 4 receiving touchdowns.

Tevin Coleman finished 3rd in points per touch among running backs (min. 50 carries), but his 149 touches was by far the fewest among top 24 running backs. He got by largely on the strength of 11 touchdowns, accounting for over 40% of his scoring. Only Mike Gillislee took a higher percentage of touches to the end zone. Maybe he can sustain this homerun hitting ability, but I see major regression coming.

Spencer Ware scored 25.9 points in Week 1. He reached double digits only 3 times the rest of the season. Still, he wasn’t bad as a rusher (4.3 YPC, and slowed by offensive line injuries) and his 10.64 yards per target led all running backs. Ware’s biggest problem was touchdowns. After sscoring 6 touchdowns as a part-timer in 2015, Ware scored only 3 rushing touchdowns (converting just 3 of 10 attempts from inside the 5). Positive regression coming.

Lamar Miller got by on pure volume, ranking 6th in carries but just 23rd in YPC and putting up only 4 RB1 weeks. That’s actually been a trend under Bill O’Brien, whose teams have now finished 1st, 5th and 6th in rushing attempts but just 23rd, 28th, and 19th in YPC. Anyway, Miller surpassed his prior career high by over 50 carries despite missing 2 games, and by December injuries had taken a toll. Still love the talent, but hard to see him as a workhorse back in 2017.

Frank Gore finished 12th in overall running back scoring, but he had just 2 top 12 weeks and finished 49th in points per touch among running backs. He topped 75 rushing yards in just 4 games (maxing out at 106 yards), requiring 20+ carries each time. Season-long numbers were there, but Gore didn’t help you win weeks.

The 5 games Matt Forte received at least 20 carries, he averaged 20.5 fantasy points and finished no worse than RB11. The other 9 games he averaged just 5.7 fantasy points. At just 3.7 YPC and only 30 receptions (by far a career low), he needed that volume to stay relevant. Is he getting that volume next year, at age 32, as the 2nd best running back on his team?

Theo Riddick’s 9.2 attempts/game may end up as his career high, and touchdowns will always be hard to come by. But Riddick showed 2015 was no fluke, finishing 21st in ppg and 8th in PPR ppg. He did it on the strength of 5.3 receptions/game, 2nd most among running backs and his 2nd consecutive year with 5+ receptions/game. No one ever wants to draft Riddick, but he’s viable.

Jeremy Hill finished below 4.0 YPC for the 2nd year in a row… that 5.1 YPC from his rookie season sure looks like an outlier. 43% of his output came in three monster games against Cleveland and Denver, 27th and 21st in run defense, respectively. He also plays less than you think. He’s just not good, and even if you think he can keep putting up massive touchdown numbers, it makes him impossible to trust week to week.

Isaiah Crowell had a nice, solid RB2 season, but his 8 rushes of 20+ yards feels flukish, and it’s hard to stay relevant when you rarely play over 60% of your (crappy) team’s snaps. Still, with RB2 or better finishes in half of his starts, he’s a decent, albeit boring, mid-round pick.

Talent has never been the issue with Ryan Mathews. He averaged 13.3 ppg when given at least 10 carries, which would’ve ranked 10th among running backs. He only hit that mark in 7 games, unfortunately, and usage remains a question heading into 2017.

Todd Gurley grinded out RB2 weeks on pure volume. His 3.2 YPC was 3rd worst in the league. He had only one 20+ yard run all season. Are we sure he’s good? Since averaging 6.4 YPC in his first 4 full games, Gurley has just 3.4 YPC and one 100 yard game in 24 tries.

Rob Kelley surpassed Matt Jones in Week 8, and from then on, averaged 16.7 carries and 66.8 yards per game (4.0 YPC). Not bad for a former fat kid. What was bad was his splits as the starter: 16.1 ppg in 4 Washington wins, 6.3 ppg in 4 losses.

Eddie Lacy was disappointing on the surface, never finishing higher than RB21 in 5 games before landing on IR. In reality, he averaged 5.1 YPC on 14.2 carries per game while fighting a bum ankle, and was only held down by a lack of touchdowns. Buy low.

Ty Montgomery finished 11th among running backs in points per touch. That metric skews toward pass-catching backs like Montgomery because receptions are more efficient than carries, but his 5.9 YPC was also 2nd best among running backs (min. 60 attempts). His usage ebbed and flowed, but Mike McCarthy seemed to finally figure it out by the end of the year, as Montgomery averaged 14 opportunities (carries+targets) per game over Green Bay’s last 7 games (counting playoffs).

Am I Really Starting This Guy?

Name PPG (Rank) Fantasy Points (Rank) Games Top 24 Finishes Top 12 Finishes Avg. Weekly Rank
Matt Jones 9.6 (29) 67.30 (55) 7 2 1 31.6
Doug Martin 9.0 (31) 71.50 (52) 8 4 1 27.3
Bilal Powell 8.7 (34) 139.00 (22) 15 5 5 34.5
Rashad Jennings 7.9 (38) 103.40 (34) 13 5 2 30.2
Mike Gillislee 7.8 (39) 116.60 (27) 15 7 2 34.1
Jacquizz Rodgers 7.8 (40) 77.80 (48) 9 4 1 31.9
Christine Michael 7.7 (42) 115.00 (28) 14 4 2 38.8
Darren Sproles 7.4 (43) 110.50 (30) 15 7 1 32.5
C.J. Prosise 7.3 (44) 44.00 (65) 6 3 2 35.2
Jerick McKinnon 7.1 (45) 105.40 (32) 15 4 2 36.9
Devontae Booker 7.0 (46) 111.70 (29) 16 6 1 37.0
Thomas Rawls 7.0 (46) 62.50 (57) 9 1 1 42.1
Tim Hightower 6.9 (48)

(nice)

104.80 (33) 15 4 4 40.6
Chris Ivory 6.8 (49) 74.50 (50) 11 4 0 33.3
James White 6.4 (50) 101.70 (35) 16 4 1 38.0
Matt Asiata 6.3 (52) 100.50 (36) 16 3 1 37.6
Chris Thompson 6.3 (52) 98.50 (37) 16 4 1 37.6
Charles Sims 6.3 (52) 43.90 (66) 7 2 0 44.7
Derrick Henry 6.2 (55) 92.70 (39) 15 4 3 41.3
Kenneth Dixon 6.0 (56) 72.20 (51) 11 4 0 35.6
T.J. Yeldon 5.9 (57) 87.70 (41) 15 4 0 37.9
Duke Johnson 5.7 (58) 91.20 (40) 16 2 1 38.8
Robert Turbin 5.5 (59) 82.30 (45) 15 1 1 40.5
Jalen Richard 5.4 (60) 86.60 (42) 15 5 1 40.7
Dion Lewis 5.4 (60) 37.70 (73) 7 1 1 40.3
Shane Vereen 5.4 (60) 27.20 (84) 5 1 1 46.0
Zach Zenner 5.4 (60) 75.00 (49) 10 2 2 35.1


Doug Martin
averaged 2.9 YPC (worst in the league), surpassed 66 yards just once (a 23 carry, 87 yard “opus”), and ended the year on the bench. Then he got suspended. He’ll need to be really cheap to justify a roster spot in 2017.

Bilal Powell never really had a bad game. He didn’t get more than 6 carries in a game until Week 14, at which point he racked up 3 RB1 weeks on the strength of 5.0 YPC and 552 total yards. It was very much not a murderers row (coming against 3 bottom 10 defenses), but it’s Powell’s 2nd consecutive year impressing as a late-season dual threat. His 34.4% first down percentage was 2nd best in league (min. 50 attempts), something an anemic Jets offense might want to utilize more next year.

Mike GIllislee scored 46% of his points on touchdowns and had 7 runs of 20+ yards on just 101 attempts. We’ve seen backup running backs rack up stats (say that 5 times fast), without being able to translate that to lead back work. With the caveat that I always fall for those guys, I think Gillislee’s better than that. In the 4 games he had 10+ carries, Gillislee averaged 5.5 YPC and 10.7 ppg. He also earned a 1st down on 38% of his carries, best among running backs (min. 50 attempts).

Darren Sproles never finished higher than RB12, and while he put up 7 “starter” weeks, it was a lot of RB23/24 finishes. No reason to spend draft capital on that kind of production.

C.J. Prosise popped mid-season with 3 top-24 finishes in 6 games, including 2 RB1 performances. Don’t be fooled…he had only one game with a meaningful workload, a 17 carry, 66 yard performance propped up by a 38-yard run. Prosise certainly showed big play ability, but fantasy folks need to take into account how little we actually saw him play.

Devontae Booker never ran for more than 83 yards in a game, and it wasn’t for lack of opportunity. After CJ Anderson went on IR, Booker averaged 13.7 attempts/game but just 3.0 YPC, prompting the Broncos to bring in Justin Forsett. Who then outplayed him. Booker’s lone RB1 week was a meaningless Week 17 contest in which he ran 14 times for 57 yards, but managed 2 touchdowns.

Chris Ivory had 3 games where he received double-digit carries. He finished as RB13, 17, and 21 in those games. He’s never made it through a full season healthy, but he’ll have some value for at least a stretch of 2017.

Derrick Henry’s 490 yards and 5 touchdowns on just 110 carries makes for a pretty nice rookie year. Unfortunately, the Titans showed no interest in a split backfield, giving DeMarco Murray one of the heaviest workloads in the league. Henry’s probably overdrafted in 2017.

Kenneth Dixon was slow to get started after an MCL injury, but once he did, he made everyone miss. It was easy to miss how good he was, but John Harbaugh didn’t. Huge upside in 2017.

T.J. Yeldon scored 3.5 ppg more when Chris Ivory missed time. I remember him being the lead back most of the year, but he actually had fewer attempts/game than Ivory. In the 4 games he hit double digit carries, he finished no worse than RB25. Yeldon also has sneaky PPR upside, finishing 7th among running backs with 68 targets.

Duke Johnson didn’t come particularly close to living up to lofty expectations heading into 2016, but did do what we expected: 5th in yards per reception (9.7), 8th in targets/game. Johnson was actually pretty good as a runner too: his 4.9 YPC would have ranked 7th if he had enough carries to qualify. It wasn’t just 12-yard draws on 3rd and 15; Johnson averaged 4.5 YPC with 1-3 yards to go, and 6.0 YPC with 4-6 yards to go.

Jalen Richard scored one rushing touchdown all season, and never reached double-digit carries in a game. And yet, he still finished with 5 RB2 weeks, making the most of limited opportunities with 5.9 YPC (highest among running backs, min. 60 attempts). That’s both very impressive efficiency, and certainly due to regress. Still, I liked what I saw from him, and running behind Oakland’s line significantly lowers the degree of difficulty. I look forward to owning Richard on all my MFL10 teams, only for him to blow out his knee in Week 1.

Dion Lewis didn’t do much, but he averaged 14.7 touches/game over New England’s last 6 games (including playoffs). Encouraging for 2017.

In the 5 games where Zach Zenner received at least 9 carries, he averaged 4.1 YPC, scored 4 touchdowns, and was a top 30 running back 4 times. In other words, when given any hint of opportunity he was a legitimate RB2.

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