Over the last few years, NFL teams have started to use more and more split RBs in their offenses. This process devalues the RB position on many NFL teams. The most valuable RBs in this format will be the players that can score in all three areas – rushing, receiving and TDs. The players with this opportunity are insufficient. Here’s a look at the top 12 RB options in each of the last four years:
RB1: Last year the top 12 running backs averaged 1,581 combined yards, 61.1 catches, and 111.6 TDs, which works out to be about 275.34 Fantasy points in full-point PPR leagues or 17.2 Fantasy points per week. The RB success came after setting the lowest total in the recent Fantasy football history by the top 12 RBs in 2015 (232.34 or 14.52 per week). Last year’s success was in line with 2013 (277.35), 2014 (275.66), and 2016 (277.28).
The top four running backs averaged only 336.13 Fantasy points in this format carried by the top three backs (Todd Gurley – 387.30, Le’Veon Ball – 345.60, and Alvin Kamara – 314.4). This edge at RB could have been even higher if a full season of Ezekiel Elliott was added to the equation along with more snaps by Kamara early in the season. The top four RBs averaged about 1,844 total yards, 70.25 catches, and 13.5 TDs.
Gurley had an edge between 140 and 181 Fantasy point in PPR leagues over the 7th through 12th ranked RBs last year.
Typically in each Fantasy football season, there will be about 20 to 24 RBs that will score more than 180 points in full point PPR leagues. Last year 19 RBs scored over 180 Fantasy points compared to 21 in 2016.
Observation: As I mentioned earlier, we all play in different types of Fantasy leagues. I’ve been playing in the high stake’s market in Fantasy football since 2004. If you want to win an overall competition, it is critical that you own two elite running backs. You don’t necessarily have to draft them in the first two rounds, but you will need to find a difference maker somewhere later in the draft. A lot of the top players in the country will tend to cheat the RB2 position. This philosophy will work the best when a Fantasy owner has an early draft position in most seasons. The decline in scoring at the RB position in 2015 was partly due to injuries while rebounding in 2016 and 2017. This season the RB position looks exceptional at the front end while adding more talent in the 2018 draft.
The regression at the RB in 2015 led to many Fantasy owners fading the RB position on draft day in 2016, which ended up being a grave mistake as Johnson, Elliott, Bell, and McCoy were the key components to winning Fantasy championships in 2016 with most overall winners having some combination of these backs.
2017 brought value back to the RB position as most winning teams added Todd Gurley in the second round plus Alvin Kamara in round nine in the live drafts in Vegas. Kareem Hunt went from a value pick all summer to a top-five pick for the Fantasy owners that drafted after the opening game on Thursday night vs. the Patriots.
The best backs in the league should have a higher opportunity to score Fantasy points than the top WRs in the game as long as they are active in the running and passing game with scoring ability. The foundation running back reemerged in 2016 with follow through in 2017. The WR position had a setback in production last year due to the need for the new developing class of elite WRs.
Here’s a look at the RB2 scoring over the last four years:
RB2: The next 12 RBs averaged 181.16 Fantasy points in full point PPR leagues or 11.32 Fantasy points per week. These running backs averaged 1,090 yards, 32.5 catches, and 6.6 TDs. The top four backs in this group averaged 199.73 Fantasy points per game. The backs in the first group were worth about 93 Fantasy points per season more than the second group compared to 54 in 2015. If a team waited for two second-tier RBs and missed out on the breakout seasons by Alvina Kamara and Kareem Hunt, they most likely would have scored fewer than 410 Fantasy points at RB1 and RB2.
Observation: In the early days of the high stake’s market, running backs were the focus of most Fantasy owners in the first couple of rounds. I remember sitting at the draft table in Las Vegas in 2004. There were 26 running backs taken in the first 32 picks. It caught me completely off guard as I selected Dante Culpepper and Marvin Harrison with my first two selections from pick 14 in a 14-team league. I gained an edge at two positions, but the aggressive play by the other players hurt my chances of having success because of the two holes I created by waiting at the running back position. Twelve years later the game has changed a lot in the Fantasy market and on the playing field in the NFL. Running backs lost value as more and more teams were throwing the ball and splitting time at RB. Therefore, it is a lot easier to find a serviceable running back in the mid-rounds. The running back position has the highest percentage of injuries each season.
The best Fantasy owners like to have one stud RB with a strong receiving core. By doing this, they eliminate the decision making at the WR position, which creates the widest variance of results. When they draft this way, they are looking to find a value at RB2 plus add as many possible upside passing catching backs as possible. It is tough for many Fantasy owners to understand this thought process. A running back with pass-catching ability can rack up much more points per touch. When I look at a player with a skill set like LeGarrette Blount of the Lions, I see a pure grinder with no upside in catches and minimal TDs. He’ll need maybe 20 rushes to gain 80+ yards in most games or eight Fantasy points (0.4 points per touch). In comparison, a player like Theo Riddick won’t look sexy at the RB position, but he may average 4+ catches per week. The average RB catch in the NFL goes for about 8.6 yards, which gives Theo about 1.86 Fantasy points for each touch in the passing game. He only needs 25 percent of the touches to match a one-dimensional rusher. This theory holds more value when you look at the weak replacement value at the backend of the RB pool.
The growth in strength in the top RB pool looks exciting in 2018, but all top options won’t have great seasons in all areas. A Fantasy owner needs to identify the best RBs with the opportunities plus the high output in TDs.
I view the running back position similar to closers in baseball. Each running back will have an opportunity to score points in that team’s offense. We don’t know how many chances he really will have until the season starts. Last year the top 20 teams in the NFL rushed the ball between 377 and 465 times from the RB position.
A player that plays on a team with less rushing attempts may get a higher percentage of the offense. A back up running back is exactly like a closer in waiting in baseball. They have absolutely no value to your team until they get a job. If a running back is a free agent and he earns a starting job due to an injury, he will cost you plenty of free agent dollars to pick him up.
The best Fantasy owners in the high stake’s market typically favor the WR position. It’s a fine line as you cannot win without strong running backs, but it is easier to fail when you select running backs early, and they underperform or have injuries. It is essential for every team to own at least one frontline running back, but you have to understand the drop downs, so you can take advantage of an edge at another position when it is presented to you. If a running back scores 230 Fantasy points and he is an early second round pick, how much better is he than a fifth-round running back that scores 190 points? Were there better options at other positions to gain an edge in the second round? Each decision is tough in any draft in any season as we deal with players whose values that can change on a dime.
Based on our early projections, here are the expected gains or losses in Fantasy points for the top RB in 2017:
The top five RBs have a definite edge over the field thanks to their three-down ability and upside in scoring. The goal is 2018 is finding the next RB to make a step forward while being overlooked on draft day. There are multiple rookie RBs capable of making an impact if they can get the full load at some point in the season.
If you would like to see the full offensive projections, they can be found here.
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