Upgrade Your Fantasy Football Approach: 8 Stats to Predict Running Back Success
One of the most simple yet underutilized statistics in fantasy football is a running back’s yards per carry. Fantasy owners are often so occupied with results—that is, raw yards and touchdowns—that they forget to look elsewhere for predictors of future performance.
Without getting into premium-priced—and/or subjective—metrics like good blocking yards per attempt or yards after contact, fantasy football owners can employ a little arithmetic to get ahead of the game.
What they have in common extends beyond their name recognition: All five of them broke off a 60-plus-yard run in 2012. Eleven other players (including two quarterbacks) did so.
Single big plays like that don’t offer much specific predictive value; you have to be far away from the end zone for a long run to be a possibility in the first place.
There’s a reason LenDale White has had exactly one run of longer than 60 yards in his 628-carry career, though. What sprints do offer is an opportunity to explore whether a back’s box score-breaking runs are likely to resurface.
Look at this run. Remember that the Kansas City Chiefs run defense was absolutely terrible that year (they allowed five yards per carry). And listen to the announcers: “There’s just nobody there, Gus.”
That’s a defensive breakdown.
This Spiller sprint is an example of a defensive breakdown for different reasons, but it’s the type of play that appears to be—and has since proved to be—more repeatable than White’s run.
Big Run Rate
Adrian Peterson’s historic 2012-13 season was marked not only by his return from ACL surgery but also by his 2,000-yard performance and sixth consecutive campaign with double-digit rushing touchdowns.
Peterson also recorded 27 rushes of 20 yards or more. He’s the only guy to average more than one big run per game, and he more than doubled up the second-place rusher (C.J. Spiller, 12).
More importantly, the top seven running backs (Peterson, Spiller, Jamaal Charles, Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris) in that department last year were all consensus first-rounders in 12-team drafts this preseason.
Fantasy owners in keeper leagues might want to keep an eye on this stat.
Darren McFadden already has a head start on the rest of the NFL with four big runs on just 36 carries (11.1 percent). Prior to Week 3’s Sunday games, LeSean McCoy—who has already played three games—is the only other running back with three such runs (4.8 percent).
He has 62 carries to his credit on the year.
Touches Per Fumble
The immense level of talent that New York Giants sophomore David Wilson has is unfortunately not enough to sustain excitement in his fantasy football value.
He’s the only running back in the league who has already coughed the ball up twice, and he’s done so on 14 total carries.
If a rusher can’t keep the ball secure, he’s not going to stay on the field long, which is why the relative frequency that he fumbles the rock compared to his touches is important.
Adrian Peterson fumbled four times in 2012, but he touched the ball 388 times. The Minnesota Vikings will live with a 99 percent security rate. Bryce Brown fumbled four times on 128 touches. As productive as he was his rookie year, 96.9 percent ball security is not going to cut it going forward.
A running back can’t be trustworthy on your fantasy team if his coach can’t count on him to keep control of the football. Peterson (nine fumbles on 384 touches in 2008, 97.7 percent security) learned the same lesson early in his career.
Touchdowns Per Rush
Touchdown vultures have strong reputations based on volume of scores, but their reputations don’t tell you the whole story. If it did, Arian Foster would be viewed as last year’s biggest “vulture” because he led the NFL with 15 rushing touchdowns.
He also led the league with 351 carries...so from whom would he be vulturing?
If you’re interested in deciphering who’s got the best chance of making reservations for six in a given week on limited touches, look at the ratio of carries to touchdowns. Foster scored once for every 23.4 rushing attempts he took in 2012.
Mike Tolbert scored once per 7.7 times he ran the rock.
Ryan Mathews is a stark contrast, having scored one rushing TD on 184 carries last year.
Average Touchdown Distance
Is your favorite kind of fantasy running back the guy who gets goal-line carries, or the guy who busts out for touchdowns without being in goal-to-go situations?
Regardless of which you choose, it may be difficult to see the other side’s logic. Frequently, NFL starters who get goal-line work are more consistent—but starters who could take it to the house at any time are volatile enough to win you weeks.
It helps to know who’s who when constructing your roster: As a risk-averse DeSean Jackson fan, for example, you may not want to trust in Chris Johnson. The Tennessee Titans star averaged 48.7 yards per touchdown run in 2012; half of his six scores came from 80 or more yards away.
Only one came from fewer than 15 yards out.
Cincinnati Bengals rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis also scored six touchdowns last season. Four of those were one-yard plunges. His longest touchdown run was six yards.
Green-Ellis’ average touchdown distance was two yards.
Johnson scored more fantasy points on the year than did Green-Ellis, but there were substantially more complaints about the former’s year than that of the latter. That has a lot to do with their respective draft statuses—Johnson was a first-rounder in many leagues, while Green-Ellis wasn’t. Johnson’s inconsistency also factored in, despite having by far the most productive single game between the two.
Targets Per Rush
Teams trust some running backs to catch the ball out of the backfield more than they do others. Fantasy football owners in PPR leagues are well aware of this, but diving into some stats—and doing a little math—can tip you off to some future PPR studs before they become major players.
How often a running back is targeted in the passing game is obviously important in PPR leagues, but how often is he on the field? Trent Richardson’s 70 targets last year are different than Joique Bell’s 68.
Well, Richardson was looked at 70 times, but he rushed the ball 267 times. That means 20.8 percent of his total opportunities (70 of 337) were targets.
Bell only took 82 carries, meaning 45.3 percent of his opportunities (68 of 150) were targets.
Bell also averaged 5.1 carries per game, which leaves a lot of room for him to get more attention. Reggie Bush’s presence hasn’t curtailed that upside so far; Bell has taken seven carries and seven targets per game.
A more established version of the targets-per-rush factor resulting in a fantasy star is the four-week stretch by Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece. Before Week 9, Reece had one rushing attempt and 18 catches. Due to injuries, Reece caught 28 passes and was suddenly a PPR factor over the next five weeks.
He took 54 carries in that time.
If Carson Palmer weren’t already chucking passes in Reece’s direction, that five-game streak of four or more catches would have been less foreseeable.
They don't award points for rushing attempts in PPR leagues.
Opponent Yards Per Carry Allowed
A rushing touchdown can conceivably happen at any time. Because they’re worth 60 yards in standard fantasy leagues, they’re awarded an awful lot of weight for something that’s relatively unpredictable.
Making decisions on who to start or sit based on his upcoming opponent’s fantasy points allowed to running backs can, therefore, be a really bad move.
Through three weeks, allowing that to determine your decision would mean expecting Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to shatter records against the Denver Broncos simply because Denver has allowed an NFL-high six total touchdowns on the year to running backs.
And, of course, McCoy's a baller.
Even if the Eagles weren’t starting a highly touted guy like Shady—and, because of his talent, you should, too—whoever was starting would still be worth flex consideration against a “top-six matchup” for running backs in the Broncos.
Anyone who’s seen those boys play would know that’s just not true; 68.9 percent of their (ESPN standard league) fantasy points allowed to running backs came in the form of three rushing touchdowns, three receiving scores and a Darren McFadden passing strike.
This example underscores the fallacy of extrapolating three weeks’ worth of stats for the purpose of 17, but it also emphasizes running backs’ more consistent means of scoring fantasy points: rushing yards. Namely, their opponents’ rushing yards allowed per carry.
Denver allowed 3.7 yards per rush to backs last season, and is surrendering just 1.7 yards per carry to RBs this year. The New Orleans Saints allowed 5.2 in 2012, and it comes as no surprise that they also surrendered 16 rushing touchdowns to running backs.
The Broncos let up four.
Jamal Collier graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is now a law student who covers fantasy football in his spare time. His work also appears on Yahoo!. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @JCollierD