Advice

Visualizing the Ascendance of Pass-Catching Backs

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to test my belief that pass-catching backs are significantly more important to fantasy football today than just a few years ago.

Back in January, I examined the specifics of the trend we are all pretty aware of – the league’s continued shift toward more and more passing. I followed that up examining the actionability of said trend, though the data I was using – and my approach – led to a somewhat confusing conclusion about the rise of pass-catching backs.

Still, I’ve been confident in that conclusion, despite not really knowing the best way to present it.

When I saw a popular chart from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective floating around Twitter recently, it gave me an idea. I did a little digging through the numbers, and the visuals I came up with tell the story of the rise of the type of backs whose usage is best defined by what our Eternally Guiding Light1 recently dubbed the Sproles Line. Here, now, is a story told in three visuals.

To make these visuals, I looked at the ratio between rushing attempts and receptions for the top 30 PPR RBs of each season over the last decade. Here is the first, detailing the number of receptions per rushing attempt for each of those 300 backs.

Receptions per Carry

The top and bottom 10 percentiles are shaded the same color – green and red, respectively – but if you look column by column you should notice a trend of decidedly more green to the right of the visual. In particular, 2013, 2014, and 2015 saw much more fantasy relevancy from RBs with higher reception-to-rush-attempt ratios. Here are the average ratios of these top 30 backs, by year.

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
0.16 0.17 0.20 0.19 0.17 0.21 0.23 0.26 0.21 0.33

Of course, averaging out ratios has significant problems. For instance, RB18 in 2015 was Theo Riddick, with his 1.86 ratio. That skews the results.

Let’s assign a percent rank to each of these ratios and reexamine this visual.

Pct Rank - Rec per Carry

This visual looks at all 300 ratios relative to one another. Riddick’s season is the highest ratio, therefore he is assigned the 1.00 value. It’s worth noting that this method neutralizes the more extreme high ratios somewhat. For example, the 70 percent rank is a ratio of just 0.23 receptions per carry, which is of course a lot closer to the low-end ratios than some of higher-end ones.

While averaging these out doesn’t give proper weight to ratios closer to – or above – one, it’s still worth examining whether they come out close to 50 percent per year, or whether there is noticeable trend.

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
0.41 0.46 0.49 0.49 0.48 0.48 0.46 0.60 0.52 0.61

Despite some major injuries to top backs in 2013 and 2015, a few quick statistical tests2 show it isn’t simply random chance causing that type of inflation over the last three years.

Whereas my prior discussions on the matter required a little blind faith, these visuals prove backs that receive a higher percentage of touches through the air than on the ground have been more viable in fantasy football over the last three seasons than ever before.

So what’s the third visual? Further evidence of the decline of the feature back in the form of raw attempt totals for each of the top 30 backs over the last decade.

RB Carries

As you can see, this is the clearest trend yet. Over the six seasons prior to 2012, only three backs finished among the top 30 PPR RBs with fewer than 100 carries. There are 12 examples over the four seasons since.

Just about every fantasy scoring slot among the top 30 backs has required fewer and fewer rush attempts over the last decade, but ADP will continue to favor expected feature backs. Even RB analyses will do the same – I saw one recently that used a rush attempt cutoff to establish which backs were worth including, and it struck me as laughably rigid to analyze only traditional backs and ignore the newest trend in the sport.

Though there will only be a handful or 10 feature backs in the entire league, ADP has not yet caught up and continues to favor the back expected to get more carries across nearly all 32 backfields. You can exploit that by using your high-leverage picks at other positions and investing in a stable of pass-catching backs at lower opportunity costs.

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  1. You thought our sentient leader was human?  (back)
  2. Hat tip RotoDoc.  (back)
By Ben Gretch | @YardsPerGretch | Archive

Comments   Add comment

  1. Really enjoyed this article Ben, Thanks!

    I could definitely see going after pass catching backs (almost exclusively) in later rounds as a viable way to employ Zero RB, even if others use Zero RB or know its coming.

    Can we expect to see more on the "value of the pass catching back" idea?

  2. Thanks, I appreciate that! Definitely expect more on this as the offseason goes on, from myself or others. Seems too obvious to not get more discussion.

    One thing I'd love to see is injury rates for RBs with a higher ratio of receptions to carries. Have often wondered about the legitimacy of the old narrative about being tackled by DBs more than D-Linemen leading to fewer injuries. Is that something you've ever looked at?

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