Draft Strategy

The Underdiscussed RB-Pocalypse of 2016

In 2015, the running back position cratered in fantasy football. Seemingly fell off the face of Kyrie Irving’s Earth. Devonta Freeman came from the mid-rounds to finish as the RB1 in what was dubbed the RB-Pocalypse.

In 2016, it happened again… sort of.

Wait, what? Early RBs won fantasy leagues last season. The top draft picks at the position were injured at one of the lowest rates imaginable.

And yet, major RB injuries in 2016 have created a massive exploitable opportunity for fantasy football drafts in 2017.

Passing-Down Backs

I spilled a ton of words last offseason about the increased utility of passing-down backs in the modern NFL. Targeting this class of players was a strategy I built drafts around.

One of the major reasons was the shifting number of carries required to finish as a top 30 PPR running back.

top-30-ppr-rb-carries-2

(Note: Each square in the heatmap indicates the number of carries a specific top 30 RB totaled in a specific year.)

As you’ll notice, the heaviest workloads have disappeared over the past decade. Meanwhile, in the five seasons prior to last season, there were five RB1 performances where the back got 125 carries or fewer. These are pass-catching backs.

Across the five seasons prior to Darren Sproles’ RB5 season in 2011, no back with fewer than 125 carries finished better than RB19.

I recently wrote about the macro-level shift we’ve seen in offensive philosophy in recent seasons, as more shotgun formations and three-WR sets have changed the way offenses accumulate statistics.

One of the subsets of players most dramatically impacted are passing-down backs, who were increasingly viable in fantasy football leading into 2016. For fantasy football purposes, these backs are almost universally cheaper to acquire than the presumed “lead” back in their offense, so they make great draft targets.

But in 2016, we didn’t see any big performances from this group of players.

What Happened?

Theo Riddick, Danny Woodhead, Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen. What do all these backs have in common?

Each of them led their respective backfields in snap count in 2015.

According to FFToday, in PPR leagues they finished RB3 (Woodhead), RB17 (Bernard), RB18 (Riddick), and RB26 (Vereen) that season. Heading into 2016, they were four of the top performers in an increasingly-viable subset of players.

They also each suffered catastrophic season-ending injuries in 2016. None played more than 10 games.

On a points-per-game basis, three of these backs would have slotted into the top-30 PPR backs last season — without adjustments for the games they were injured in — led by Riddick’s RB8 point average.

Vereen doesn’t hit this mark. He was injured in Week 3, was placed on IR with the designation to return, and came back for Weeks 13 and 14 to finish with five games played on the season. Prior to the injury, he led his team in snaps in two of the season’s first three weeks and was averaging just over 12 PPR points per game, which also would have slotted him into the top 30.1

The Upside

The snap counts might seem ludicrous, but that’s how offenses are designed in the modern NFL. These backs are increasingly viable simply because offensive scheme (i.e. shotgun formations) dictates they play a ton of snaps. Three from the above group (Woodhead, Riddick, Vereen) saw more targets than rush attempts in 2015.

And that’s good! Kevin Cole has shown each reception for a RB is worth approximately 3.5 rush attempts in PPR formats. This is why we target feature backs who catch passes.

Interestingly, some of the biggest breakout RBs over the past few years would have probably been considered passing-down backs to start. David Johnson got just 125 carries compared to 57 targets in his rookie season in 2015. Devonta Freeman entered 2015 looking like the passing-down back working off Week 1 starter Tevin Coleman.

Backs who see a high volume of rush attempts but few targets aren’t really in position to benefit from teammate injuries the way passing-down backs are. When a receiving back goes down, teams can shift those targets toward WRs and TEs, and their between-the-tackles RB might not see much of a shift in touch count. When a between-the-tackles RB goes down, teams often shift those rush attempts to the back they are already playing on passing downs, creating workhorse potential.

In 2016, Bilal Powell was a perfect example. In the first 12 games of 2016, Powell racked up 51 targets but only 49 rush attempts, just over four per game of both. Over the final four games, with Matt Forte banged up, Powell was a fantasy monster, averaging over 20 carries and five targets.

Granted, not every passing back has workhorse potential. Riddick, who in 2015 averaged just 2.7 carries compared to 6.2 targets while Ameer Abdullah played a healthy rookie season, saw a more moderate increase in rushing work when Abdullah was injured. In his 10 games in 2016, he averaged 9.2 carries and 6.7 targets.

To figure out the best candidates for this season, be sure to visit Shawn Siegele’s rundown of the top 15 Zero RB candidates. C.J. Prosise is a favorite of mine and is another player who went down last season.2

Conclusion

I probably don’t need to emphasize what a sweeping decimation of the top options for a certain type of player does to the perception of the viability of that player type. We know the average fantasy player places outsized weight on recent trends, and we know 2016 was catastrophic for passing-down backs.

Many of the top options that did stay healthy in 2016 — Duke Johnson, Chris Thompson, James White, the aging Darren Sproles — weren’t the best examples of projected upside, even before the season. Powell was really the only one who paid big dividends, a minuscule hit rate of the upside of passing backs in the recent memory of drafters.

So we enter 2017 with a discounted and underappreciated group of players ready to make noise. The knock on backs like these — and a big reason they seem to fall out of favor with drafters — is they are boring assets without elite ceilings or top touchdown potential. It’s a fair criticism in a lot of the cases, but it does undersell the upside.  

Meanwhile, the inverse is when their cost dips as low as it has in 2017. They turn from boring assets to cheap, reliable ones. And if you get lucky, you might still catch upside lightning in a pint-sized bottle.

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  1. Small sample size, yeah, got it. But also – these guys have all been top 30 two years in a row so maybe pay attention to that size of sample.  (back)
  2. Right as he was starting to turn things on, too. He followed up a 24-touch, 7-catch, 153-total-yard performance at New England with a 72-yard TD run in the first quarter against Philadelphia, before going down in that game.  (back)
By Ben Gretch | @YardsPerGretch | Archive

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