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Which Running Backs Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2017? (Fantasy Football 2018)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 25, 2018

Despite finishing as the No. 11 running back, Carlos Hyde left a lot of fantasy points on the table in 2017

Earlier this week, we released an article talking about which wide receivers were better/worse than expected in 2017, based on where their targets were at on the field, as a target inside the 10-yard line shouldn’t have the same expectation as a target on the 40-yard line. If you missed that article, you can find it right here.

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Today, we’ll be looking at the running back position, highlighting which running backs may have benefited from where their carries took place on the field, as a goal-line carry is certainly worth more than a carry on 3rd and 2 from the 45-yard line. Not just that, but the targets have been divided up as well, as a target inside the 10-yard line was worth 2.40 fantasy points to running backs last season, while a non-red-zone target was worth just 0.69 standard points.

By doing this, we’ll see who was better than they were supposed to be in 2017, as well as who left fantasy points on the table based on where they received the target/carry on the field. While this doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be used the same way in 2018, they should have a much better chance at retaining that role if they excelled in it.

Outside the Red-Zone

Running backs are a lot different than wide receivers, as a piddly 0.50 yards per carry can make a world of difference, whereas if a wide receiver’s yards per reception is 0.5 yards higher, it doesn’t mean too much. You’ve often heard the phrase “volume is key” for running backs, and if that’s the case, this study should show that. Everyone is on equal playing fields outside the 20’s, though offensive line and scheme make a difference. Still, just how much difference can an offense make when running backs are outside the red-zone?

Similar to how I did with the wide receivers, I’ll tell you there isn’t one statistic that will tell you the whole story of a player, nor is there one metric. What I will say, however, is that the cream of the crop typically rise-up with the bigger the sample size you have. I mean, how many times have you heard someone say yards per carry is useless? When Jamaal Charles, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Gale Sayers are the all-time leaders, it’s fair to say that it means something. But every now and then, you’ll see someone like Austin Ekeler average 5.5 yards per carry and be near the league-leader in that category, making you scratch your head. Does that mean he’s as good as the all-time greats? No, but often, a good yard per carry average will gravitate towards the more talented backs.

Just like the players near the top of every list, most bad players end up towards the bottom of lists. If you’re an elite or semi-decent player, you shouldn’t be popping up at the bottom of any list, including the one below. On the chart below, you’ll see a player’s non-red-zone points they scored, as well as how many they would’ve scored if they’d simply been average, and the difference between the two numbers. I’ve narrowed it down to those who saw at least 40 or more touches, which was a total of 91 running backs.

The Top-24 (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Exp-Rush NonRZ Pts Non RZ Diff
1 Todd Gurley 153.3 206.1 52.8
2 Alvin Kamara 101.3 152.8 51.5
3 Kareem Hunt 146.0 190.8 44.8
4 Chris Thompson 58.2 92.8 34.6
5 Austin Ekeler 39.7 74.3 34.6
6 Mark Ingram 131.6 162.9 31.3
7 Derrick Henry 78.3 95.9 17.6
8 Duke Johnson 93.3 108.4 15.1
9 Jalen Richard 48.9 63.9 15.0
10 Matt Breida 64.5 77.0 12.5
11 Rod Smith 31.4 43.4 12.0
12 Marshawn Lynch 104.3 116.2 11.9
13 Bilal Powell 91.4 103.2 11.8
14 Kenyan Drake 86.0 94.7 8.7
15 Marlon Mack 56.0 64.7 8.7
16 D’Onta Foreman 35.7 43.3 7.6
17 Orleans Darkwa 87.3 94.6 7.3
18 TJ Yeldon 45.9 53.0 7.1
19 LeGarrette Blount 68.6 75.6 7.0
20 Ezekiel Elliott 117.2 123.6 6.4
21 LeSean McCoy 158.5 164.6 6.1
22 Charcandrick West 26.3 31.9 5.6
23 Jamaal Williams 82.2 87.7 5.5
24 Alfred Morris 49.5 54.9 5.4

 

For those that say “a carry is a carry outside the 20-yard line,” these players say different, as Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara each scored a whopping 50-plus fantasy points over what the average running back would’ve with the same exact carries/targets outside the red-zone. It’s fair to say that we saw Kamara’s absolute ceiling last year with the touches he was given, as he scored 51.5 more points than expected on just 178 non-red-zone carries/targets, which is a massive +0.29 points per carry/target. Gurley had 52.8 more points than expected, but he also had 294 non-red-zone carries/targets, which is a slightly less-impressive +0.18 points per carry/target, though it’s still elite. It’s fair to expect some regression for him in this category, but his volume helps make room for regression, where Kamara would need an increase in volume to cover his regression.

Kareem Hunt led the NFL in runs over 15 yards with 19 of them, which helped contribute to his score outside the red-zone, as they accounted for 521 yards, or 39.3 percent of his yearly total. Austin Ekeler is the most surprising one on this list, especially when you consider he had just 71 carries/targets outside the red-zone. With such a small sample size, it’s fair to wonder how sticky it is for him to keep it up, though you should expect regression to the mean. It’s also surprising to see Jamaal Williams on this list, as he was considered pretty boring last year, but actually scored more than the average running back would’ve despite tallying just one run of more than 15 yards.

The Bottom-24 (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Exp-Rush NonRZ Pts Non RZ Diff
68 Matt Forte 70.1 62.4 -7.7
69 Joe Mixon 92.6 84.2 -8.4
70 Kerwynn Williams 56.2 47.5 -8.7
71 Chris Johnson 24.9 15.7 -9.2
72 Eddie Lacy 32.0 22.4 -9.6
73 Branden Oliver 22.1 11.2 -10.9
74 Theo Riddick 77.5 66.5 -11.0
75 Paul Perkins 24.0 12.9 -11.1
76 Christian McCaffrey 116.3 105.2 -11.1
77 Melvin Gordon 158.8 147.2 -11.6
78 Adrian Peterson 74.1 62.3 -11.8
79 Samaje Perine 85.4 72.8 -12.6
80 Shane Vereen 53.8 40.0 -13.8
81 DeMarco Murray 106.7 92.5 -14.2
82 Tarik Cohen 78.2 64.0 -14.2
83 Wayne Gallman 76.5 61.4 -15.1
84 Lamar Miller 127.6 112.3 -15.3
85 Jordan Howard 133.1 115.5 -17.6
86 Javorius Allen 93.1 73.8 -19.3
87 Ameer Abdullah 84.7 64.1 -20.6
88 Deandre Washington 53.3 31.8 -21.5
89 Doug Martin 64.7 43.0 -21.7
90 Frank Gore 133.3 111.3 -22.0
91 Carlos Hyde 145.0 116.6 -28.4

 

So, when someone tells you that Carlos Hyde was really good last year, make sure you let them know that he left 28.4 fantasy points on the board, and that’s just outside the red-zone. We all know that Frank Gore has been plodding his way along, so it’s no surprise to see him near the bottom. His new teammate, Kenyan Drake, made it into the top-15 (above) last year. Lamar Miller and Jordan Howard simply coasted by on volume last year, which explains why they’re falling further than they did in last year’s drafts.

If a running back didn’t break off long runs, it’s likely that they’re on this list, simply because that’s how you get ahead of the average on carries in-between the 20’s, because touchdowns aren’t a big part of the equation. When they’re struggling to do more than what’s considered average, their role could be at risk. The surprising names to see on here include Christian McCaffrey and Melvin Gordon, who both finished as top-15 fantasy running backs despite finishing in the bottom-15 outside the red-zone.

Inside the Red-Zone

There are a lot of times where you’ll hear someone say, “He’s only good because he gets the goal-line touches.” It’s time to put your money where your mouth is, because if that running back received tons of goal-line work, it’ll show here. The benchmark was 2.58 fantasy points per carry on carries inside the five-yard line to be considered average. Meanwhile targets inside the 10-yard line were worth 2.40 fantasy points on average.

Top-24 (Above Expected)

Rank Player RZ Car/Tgt RZ Exp RZ Pts RZ Diff
1 Alvin Kamara 42 45.8 80.6 34.8
2 Dion Lewis 43 43.6 74.3 30.8
3 Tevin Coleman 27 33.2 58.5 25.3
4 Corey Clement 16 20.1 44.4 24.3
5 Todd Gurley 72 93.4 117.2 23.8
6 Jordan Howard 34 40.7 63.2 22.5
7 Rex Burkhead 22 32.7 54.9 22.2
8 Alex Collins 29 28.0 47.0 19.0
9 Duke Johnson 17 21.4 37.7 16.4
10 Leonard Fournette 31 40.9 55.4 14.5
11 Frank Gore 27 19.8 33.3 13.5
12 Lamar Miller 26 31.8 45.2 13.4
13 DeMarco Murray 22 29.1 42.0 13.0
14 Deandre Washington 7 9.6 21.2 11.6
15 Theo Riddick 18 25.2 36.5 11.3
16 Aaron Jones 13 14.8 25.1 10.3
17 Giovani Bernard 15 14.4 23.5 9.1
18 Ezekiel Elliott 43 47.5 55.6 8.1
19 Christian McCaffrey 28 37.8 45.4 7.6
20 Terrance West 5 7.6 14.4 6.8
21 Le’Veon Bell 77 77.5 83.6 6.1
22 Rod Smith 19 24.2 30.0 5.8
23 Chris Thompson 16 17.9 23.6 5.7
24 Melvin Gordon 59 77.8 82.9 5.1

 

Remember, depending on where their carries or targets took place inside the red-zone, it affected their “expected” red-zone points, which is why it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. So when you look at Kamara’s 42 carries/targets amounting to 34.8 more fantasy points than the average player, it’s quite ridiculous. There wasn’t just one area of the field that Kamara dominated – he dominated all of it. And just because Dion Lewis played in the Patriots high-scoring offense, it didn’t stop him from exceeding expectations. Both Corey Clement and Tevin Coleman may have had small sample sizes, but they made the most of their touches inside the 20 and you can make the argument that their roles will grow in 2018.

Some of the players who struggled in-between the 20’s but made up for it in the red-zone include Jordan Howard, Frank Gore, Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Deandre Washington, Theo Riddick, Christian McCaffrey, and Melvin Gordon.

Meanwhile, the players who popped-up on both top-24 lists include: Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Chris Thompson, Duke Johnson, Rod Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott. As a takeaway, you should view this as your opportunity to get one of the best backups in fantasy football on your dynasty roster, and that is Rod Smith, who’s being severely undervalued.

Bottom-24 (Below Expected)

Rank Player RZ Touch RZ Exp RZ Pts RZ Diff
68 Alfred Blue 9 13.8 7.5 -6.3
69 Kerwynn Williams 20 16.7 10.4 -6.3
70 Peyton Barber 22 30.8 24.5 -6.3
71 Jay Ajayi 24 17.5 10.6 -6.9
72 Jacquizz Rodgers 13 16.3 9.1 -7.2
73 Andre Ellington 8 13.1 5.9 -7.2
74 Samaje Perine 25 24.9 17.7 -7.2
75 Danny Woodhead 11 11.7 3.9 -7.8
76 Mike Tolbert 10 15.9 7.9 -8.0
77 James White 26 32.1 23.4 -8.7
78 Matt Breida 17 15.0 5.5 -9.5
79 Alfred Morris 21 20.8 10.3 -10.5
80 Eddie Lacy 8 11.4 0.2 -11.2
81 Rob Kelley 12 19.3 7.3 -12.0
82 Adrian Peterson 22 23.0 9.6 -13.4
83 Carlos Hyde 52 74.0 60.4 -13.6
84 CJ Anderson 32 41.9 27.6 -14.3
85 LeGarrette Blount 35 43.8 24.0 -19.8
86 Jonathan Stewart 29 43.2 22.6 -20.6
87 Bilal Powell 26 42.5 21.0 -21.5
88 Isaiah Crowell 25 33.2 11.4 -21.8
89 Thomas Rawls 15 24.4 -0.5 -24.9
90 Chris Ivory 26 37.3 11.8 -25.5
91 LeSean McCoy 51 71.2 42.0 -29.2

 

The next time LeSean McCoy is pulled on the goal-line, you shouldn’t wonder why, as he was the worst red-zone running back in the NFL. The funny thing is that the Bills brought in Chris Ivory this offseason, who was the second-worst red-zone running back in 2017. Seriously, what are the odds? But maybe the most shocking thing on this list is the fact that Thomas Rawls had 15 red-zone carries/targets, yet scored -0.5 points. How is that possible? Well, he had 14 carries for -5 yards and one target that went incomplete. Whew. The next ironic bit… The Jets now have Rawls, Isaiah Crowell, and Bilal Powell, who were the 3rd, 4th, and 5th-worst red-zone running backs. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.

There were a few players who underperformed everywhere on the field, red-zone or not, and that list includes: Carlos Hyde, Samaje Perine, Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, and Kerwynn Williams. The only one who currently has a starting job is Hyde, but they drafted Nick Chubb at the top of the second-round, so it’s possible he doesn’t have it for very long.

Overall (All Carries/Targets Combined)

Here’s the combined list of all the carries and targets the running backs received, as well as what their total differences were in comparison to the average player with the same exact number of carries/targets in the same locations.

Top-24 (Above Expected)

Rank Player Touches Total Diff
1 Alvin Kamara 220 86.3
2 Todd Gurley 366 76.7
3 Kareem Hunt 335 47.9
4 Chris Thompson 118 40.3
5 Dion Lewis 216 35.3
6 Duke Johnson 175 31.5
7 Mark Ingram 301 31.0
8 Austin Ekeler 82 30.2
9 Rex Burkhead 100 24.2
10 Corey Clement 89 23.9
11 Tevin Coleman 195 22.1
12 Rod Smith 78 17.8
13 Alex Collins 248 15.3
14 Ezekiel Elliott 280 14.5
15 Jalen Richard 92 14.0
16 Aaron Jones 99 13.1
17 Giovani Bernard 165 12.4
18 Derrick Henry 193 12.4
19 Leonard Fournette 316 11.4
20 Charcandrick West 52 8.9
21 Marshawn Lynch 238 8.4
22 Kenyan Drake 181 5.7
23 Tion Green 44 5.5
24 D’Onta Foreman 86 5.4

 

Bottom-24 (Below Expected)

Rank Player Touches Total Diff
68 Tarik Cohen 158 -11.4
69 Joe Mixon 212 -11.6
70 Peyton Barber 127 -11.7
71 Danny Woodhead 53 -12.6
72 LeGarrette Blount 181 -12.8
73 Paul Perkins 51 -13.0
74 Mike Tolbert 83 -14.5
75 Kerwynn Williams 135 -14.9
76 Branden Oliver 46 -15.1
77 Ameer Abdullah 200 -16.0
78 Jonathan Stewart 213 -16.1
79 Shane Vereen 98 -16.9
80 CJ Anderson 285 -18.9
81 Javorius Allen 213 -18.9
82 Samaje Perine 199 -19.8
83 Eddie Lacy 75 -20.8
84 Doug Martin 156 -20.8
85 Wayne Gallman 159 -21.3
86 LeSean McCoy 364 -23.1
87 Adrian Peterson 175 -25.2
88 Chris Ivory 140 -27.6
89 Thomas Rawls 71 -27.8
90 Isaiah Crowell 248 -29.4
91 Carlos Hyde 328 -42.0

 

What this shows is that if Carlos Hyde would have been simply average with the carries/targets that he received (based on where they were located), he would have finished as the No. 7 running back last year, ahead of both LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette. Isaiah Crowell would have finished as the No. 19 running back instead of the No. 30 running back that he did. Meanwhile, an average running back would have finished as the No. 18 running back with Alvin Kamara‘s touches, but he milked every last point he could, finishing No. 4 at the end of the season.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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