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Running Back Quality Starts

Jan 26, 2016


Adrian Peterson was as steady as ever in 2015 for fantasy teams

Quality starts for quarterbacks can be pretty cut and dry. Any given week, 24 to 32 quarterbacks take the field as the starter, and more often than not, they are the only ones that will get points for a team at that position. Injury and poor performance aside, there is very little variance to who the top scorers at that position would end up being. In most leagues, you are only starting the one player at that position and your entire production at that position is tied to the one player’s performance.

Running backs and quality starts are a different animal. In most leagues, an owner is starting two, sometimes three running backs depending on their flex spot situation. Now you’re tying yourself to two or three players that are not even on the field all of the time, let alone getting the ball in their hands even if they are on the field. Game flow, snap counts, performance and injury can all get in the way of who ends up at the top of the points leaderboard every week. After an entire series on RB snap counts during 2015, the quantity of quality is tied to a lot more than being angry at your RB1’s 2.0 yards per carry average.

Nevertheless, someone still has to finish at the top every week. If we quantified a quality start for a quarterback as a QB10 or better, we will double that for running backs given the amount of backs that are out there per week, per team. All in all, 83 different runners finished as RB20 or better over 16 weeks (321 occurrences), with 63 of the 83 finishing with multiple appearances on the list. Let’s take a look at some of the top performances and trends below.

Full list of anyone with seven or more quality starts:

Player Quality Starts Playoff QS Rank
Devonta Freeman 11 2 RB1
Adrian Peterson 11 2 RB2
Mark Ingram 11 0 RB8
DeAngelo Williams 9 3 RB4
Todd Gurley 9 3 RB7
Danny Woodhead 8 2 RB3
Latavius Murray 8 1 RB12
Matt Forte 8 2 RB10
Doug Martin 7 1 RB6
Frank Gore 7 1 RB13
Lamar Miller 7 2 RB5
LeSean McCoy 7 1 RB14
Theo Riddick 7 2 RB18
  • Nine of the top-10 running backs finished with seven or more quality starts. Only David Johnson (RB6) finished out of that group, with six, but was not a starter all season. Chris Ivory finished as RB11, but was not one of the top-13 in quality starts.
  • Only Johnson, Williams and Gurley gave fantasy owners three quality starts during the fantasy playoffs. Ingram, sidelined with an injury was the only one not to register a QS in the playoffs.
  • Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram led the league with 11 quality starts each. Freeman and Peterson each had two quality starts during the playoff weeks. They finished as RB1, RB2 and RB8. DeAngelo Williams (RB4) and Todd Gurley (RB7) finished with nine.

Full list of running backs with multiple quality starts during playoff weeks (14-16):

Player Playoff QS Quality Starts
DeAngelo Williams 3 9
Todd Gurley 3 9
David Johnson 3 6
Devonta Freeman 2 11
Adrian Peterson 2 11
Danny Woodhead 2 8
Matt Forte 2 8
Lamar Miller 2 7
Theo Riddick 2 7
Bilal Powell 2 5
Charles Sims 2 5
Eddie Lacy 2 5
James White 2 4
Rashad Jennings 2 3
Denard Robinson 2 2
Jerick McKinnon 2 2
Mike Gillislee 2 2
Tim Hightower 2 2

 *21 others had one quality start during this time period* 

You’ll notice a lot of handcuffs on that list as Hightower stepped in for Ingram, Robinson stepped in for TJ Yeldon, and Mike Gillislee (and Karlos Williams) stepped in for LeSean McCoy. You’ll also notice that the pass-catching back (the new vulture) took points away from the lead back on a few occasions with Riddick, Powell and Sims being the more productive back over Bell (debatable who the RB1 was in Detroit this year), Chris Ivory and Doug Martin, respectively.

Speaking of Hightower, and the Saints, New Orleans runners were the most reliable in terms of quality starts for their fantasy owners, leading the league with 17 of them spread out over five guys. New England had 15 with four different players finishing in the top 20, while Buffalo and Philadelphia tied for third with 14 each, between three different players. Tennessee, all the way at the bottom of this list chipped in with two all season, one of which came in Week 1.

Quality starts by team:

Team QS
NO 17
NE 15
BUF 14
PHI 14
MIN 13
ATL 13
PIT 13
CHI 12
TB 12
DET 11
NYJ 11
GB 11
CIN 11
BAL 11
KC 11
STL 10
SD 10
OAK 10
SF 7
TEN 2 
  • While New Orleans led with 17 quality starts, they also led with five different runners gracing the top 20, as Ingram (11), Hightower (2), joined C.J. Spiller (2), Khiry Robinson (1), and Travaris Cadet (1) on this list. New England was second again, tied with Baltimore and Kansas City with four each. Don’t call them products of the system, but all four lost their starting running back to a season-ending injury, and if you were lucky enough to have their handcuff, you did not skip a beat. Miami was the only team with just one representative, as Lamar Miller was responsible for all seven of the Dolphins’ quality starts.
  • Both Pittsburgh and Minnesota had the most quality starts by the least amount of players as each team got to 13 with just two. The Steelers did it with Williams during the Le’Veon Bell suspension, then with Bell until the MCL tear, and Williams the rest of the way. Jerrick McKinnon added two to Peterson’s 11 for the Vikings; one during Week 15 when Peterson went down with an ankle injury and Week 16, as they both finished in the top 20 against the Giants.

Most players with quality starts, by team:

Team RBs QS
NO 5 17
NE 4 15
BAL 4 11
KC 4 11
WAS 4 5
BUF 3 14
PHI 3 14
ATL 3 13
DET 3 11
SD 3 10
DAL 3 9
ARI 3 9
HOU 3 8
SF 3 7
MIN 2 13
PIT 2 13
CHI 2 12
TB 2 12
NYJ 2 11
GB 2 11
CIN 2 11
STL 2 10
OAK 2 10
IND 2 8
CAR 2 8
DEN 2 8
JAX 2 8
NYG 2 8
CLE 2 7
SEA 2 7
TEN 2 2
MIA 1 7

Quality of Quality

Looking at the other side of the value of finishing in the top 20, the chart below depicts what the average RB1 score was over 16 games, all the way to RB20:

Rank Avg.
RB1 35.54
RB2 29.71
RB3 25.87
RB4 24.00
RB5 22.56
RB6 21.45
RB7 20.41
RB8 19.65
RB9 19.02
RB10 18.25
RB11 17.61
RB12 17.14
RB13 16.54
RB14 15.82
RB15 15.13
RB16 14.53
RB17 13.98
RB18 13.81
RB19 13.43
RB20 13.01

Finishing as RB20 week to week may not be a game changer for a lineup, but in a league with such attrition and variance at the running back position, that 13.01 average from the 20th ranked runner actually has some value. Take Riddick’s 10.8 score in Week 6. Taking it at face value, you’re kicking yourself for starting him. Looking at the entire picture, however, it means that 72 other running backs did worse than him. That 10.8 is pedestrian, but it’s gold in a head-to-head matchup. Looking at the other end of that, the RB1 low was 23.6 by the Rams’ Gurley in Week 8. That would have made him RB6 on two different occasions.

While those are the exceptions, for the most part, the top scorers week in and week out put up some must more lofty numbers that would be beneficial in all formats. We break down the highest scorers below, by how much they put up. Note that there are 321 quality starts, and not 320, because of a tie at RB20 in Week 7.:

Quality starts by points:

Value Occ.
40+ 3
30-39.9 21
20-29.9 92
>20 205
  • Johnson (44.9), Freeman (42.3), and Thomas Rawls (40.5) were the only members of the 40 point club for running backs this year.
  • Freeman and Williams led with three games of 30 to 39.9 points. Miller and Woodhead each had two. Eleven others shared the remaining eleven.
  • Forte and Ingram led with four games of 20 to 29.9 points. Martin, Freeman, Peterson, Ivory, Foster, DeMarco Murray, Dion Lewis, James Starks, Shane Vereen, Le’Veon Bell each had three. The remaining 54 occurrences were distributed a variety of others.
  • On the less productive side of the list, Peterson leads the way with seven low-end quality starts under 20 points, ranging from 12.1 to 19.4. Latavius Murray, Ronnie Hillman Gurley and Ingram each had six, between 12.7 and 19.9. Darren McFadden, Jeremy Hill, Frank Gore, Darren Sproles, LeSean McCoy, TJ Yeldon all had five each.

One hit wonders:

Last but not least, 20 players appeared on this list once; maybe by accident or by luck. Chances are you probably did not start them:

*Bold and italic signifies a playoff game

Ahmad Bradshaw
Alfred Morris
Andre Ellington
Antonio Andrews
Benny Cunningham
Bishop Sankey
Branden Oliver
Bruce Miller
Chris Polk
Chris Thompson
De’Anthony Thomas
Joseph Randle
Khiry Robinson
Kyle Juszczyk
Lorenzo Taliaferro
Melvin Gordon
Patrick DiMarco
Pierre Thomas
Terron Ward
Travaris Cadet

That’s it for now, as we next dig deep into the wild trends and consistency of quality starts for wide receivers. I will make a bold prediction and say that at least one receiver finished in the top 20 for all of their team’s games this year.

Michael Vincent is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @MVtweetshere.

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