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

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 22, 2019

Based on where his carries/targets took place in 2018, Melvin Gordon was the best running back in the league

How many times have you heard that a player’s yards per carry was low just because he had so many carries inside the five-yard line? Or how about that a player is only good because he gets all the work inside the red zone? It’s true, where running backs get their touches matter. However, there’s a misconception about some players and where they get their production.

You may hear some reference that a carry is worth 0.64 fantasy points. That’s true, but there’s more to it than that. For instance, did you know that a carry from in-between the 10- and five-yard line is worth 1.10 fantasy points? Moving that to inside the five-yard line turns that carry into an average of 2.09 fantasy points. Receptions vary as well, as you would expect them to. But where those touches/targets took place matters quite a bit for expected fantasy output.

So, based on where their touches took place, which running backs did the most with the opportunity they were given? I’ll separate it by how the players did inside the red zone, as well as outside the red zone, then combine them at the end. The scoring used for this study was half-PPR.

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?

There isn’t one statistic or metric that’ll tell you the whole story, but when you see the best-of-the-best players in a certain category, it’s usually pretty telling. The bigger sample size, the more we can see just how useful the statistic is. For instance, 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. With smaller sample sizes, you’ll see guys like Devontae Booker at 5.4 yards per carry in 2018, which makes you scratch your head. Does that mean he’s one of the best all-time? No, but you’ll often see the most talented backs atop that particular statistic.

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.

The Top-24 Rushing (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Rush Diff
1  Saquon Barkley 41.46
2  Phillip Lindsay 32.13
3  Nick Chubb 29.73
4  Tevin Coleman 19.85
5  Aaron Jones 19.08
6  Matt Breida 16.85
7  Derrick Henry 15.96
8  James White 15.37
9  Isaiah Crowell 13.34
10  Melvin Gordon 12.75
11  Christian McCaffrey 10.77
12  James Conner 10.71
13  Todd Gurley 9.66
14  Lamar Miller 9.10
15  Kerryon Johnson 8.31
16  Ezekiel Elliott 7.82
17  CJ Anderson 7.37
18  Joe Mixon 7.13
19  Dalvin Cook 6.89
20  Austin Ekeler 6.45
21  Latavius Murray 6.39
22  Sony Michel 6.14
23  Alvin Kamara 6.12
24  Kenneth Dixon 4.88

 

For these guys, a carry outside the red zone was worth more than it would’ve been for the average running back. A lot of times, long touchdown runs will vault you to the top of this list, though the larger the sample size, there more things even out. Knowing that Saquon Barkley had 211 non-red zone carries is a big sample size. Had he not scored those 41.46 fantasy points over expectation, it would have dropped him from the No. 1 running back to the No. 5 running back last year. There were just four running backs who made a return from this top-24 list of 2017: Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, and Ezekiel Elliott.

The Bottom-24 Rushing (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Rush Diff
59  Jacquizz Rodgers -5.06
60  Nyheim Hines -5.19
61  Jeffery Wilson -5.43
62  Corey Clement -5.54
63  Wayne Gallman -5.72
64  Ronald Jones -5.81
65  Ito Smith -8.46
66  TJ Yeldon -8.54
67  Royce Freeman -8.74
68  Jamaal Williams -9.06
69  Rex Burkhead -9.13
70  Kalen Ballage -9.56
71  Elijah McGuire -13.02
72  Chris Ivory -14.18
73  Alex Collins -14.34
74  Leonard Fournette -15.05
75  LeSean McCoy -16.01
76  Dion Lewis -17.74
77  Peyton Barber -18.72
78  Alfred Blue -19.02
79  Carlos Hyde -20.56
80  Jordan Howard -23.63
81  LeGarrette Blount -24.26
82  David Johnson -27.16

 

This hurts a bit as someone who’s talked about David Johnson in the first-round and Leonard Fournette in the third-round, though things have changed rather significantly for Johnson, while Fournette gets a new coordinator. There are a lot of guys on here who are considered plodders and ones who don’t break long runs, which will ultimately hurt their average over replacement, 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 most interesting thing about this list is that we have multiple teammates who did different things. For instance, Phillip Lindsay was much better than average, while Royce Freeman was below average. That trend was the same with Nick Chubb/Carlos Hyde, Aaron Jones/Jamaal Williams, Derrick Henry/Dion Lewis, and others. It makes sense that they all ended up taking over the lead role in their offense, though it took much longer than it should’ve with some of them. The only players who were on this bottom-24 list in each of the last two seasons include: Carlos Hyde, Jordan Howard, and Wayne Gallman.

Top-24 Receiving (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Rec Diff
1  Kareem Hunt 37.98
2  Kenyan Drake 22.96
3  Tarik Cohen 16.74
4  Melvin Gordon 14.77
5  Austin Ekeler 14.64
6  Todd Gurley 13.43
7  Kyle Juszczyk 12.84
8  Christian McCaffrey 12.16
9  Spencer Ware 8.55
10  Alvin Kamara 7.75
11  Jalen Richard 7.04
12  Darren Sproles 6.83
13  Wendell Smallwood 6.00
14  Malcolm Brown 4.84
15  Mark Ingram 4.48
16  Matt Breida 4.39
17  Chris Ivory 4.05
18  CJ Anderson 3.75
19  Dalvin Cook 3.62
20  Tevin Coleman 3.34
21  David Johnson 3.26
22  Adrian Peterson 3.16
23  Damien Williams 3.02
24  Ezekiel Elliott 2.95

 

It’s fair to say that Kareem Hunt added a ton of points per target, as he missed the final five games, and would have likely added to this mark. We also see why Kenyan Drake is a true three-down back, as he posted nearly 23 half-PPR points more than the average running back would’ve on 66 non-red zone targets. One thing you’ll notice that there are a lot of players on similar teams, like Hunt/Ware/Williams, Gordon/Ekeler, Kamara/Ingram, Sproles/Smallwood. But one duo that caught my eye was Juszczyk/Breida, as Jerick McKinnon will be walking into that role, so his targets should be considered more valuable than the average running back in that system.

Bottom-24 Receiving (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Rec Diff
59  Doug Martin -4.55
60  Saquon Barkley -4.66
61  LeGarrette Blount -4.70
62  Wayne Gallman -4.87
63  Josh Adams -4.91
64  Elijah McGuire -5.40
65  Ito Smith -5.50
66  Devontae Booker -6.10
67  Joe Mixon -6.37
68  Mike Davis -7.21
69  Nick Chubb -7.23
70  Royce Freeman -7.66
71  Carlos Hyde -8.10
72  Lamar Miller -8.17
73  Theo Riddick -8.95
74  Peyton Barber -9.23
75  Jamaal Williams -9.23
76  LeSean McCoy -9.49
77  Javorius Allen -9.94
78  James White -11.49
79  Marcus Murphy -11.98
80  Chris Thompson -12.34
81  Giovani Bernard -12.88
82  Nyheim Hines -13.00

 

There are definitely some surprises in here, particularly at the bottom of the list. Both James White and Nyheim Hines are considered players who’ve excelled in their roles, but outside the red zone, they totaled more than 11 points fewer than the average running back would’ve. It also appears that many of Saquon Barkley‘s long touchdowns came on pass plays, as he scored 4.66 fewer points than the average running back, though that is on a rather large amount of touches.

Inside the Red Zone

Now that we know what players have done outside the red zone, how about when it matters most? This is the area where those defending short-yardage and goal-line backs need to step-up and outperform the average running backs. While touchdowns can be volatile, there’s guys that show up in the top-tier of this list nearly every year.

Top-24 Red Zone Rushing (Above Expected)

Rank Player Rush RZ Diff
1  Melvin Gordon 32.90
2  Todd Gurley 30.99
3  Alvin Kamara 22.86
4  Aaron Jones 21.86
5  Alex Collins 21.16
6  Derrick Henry 14.63
7  Royce Freeman 12.66
8  Isaiah Crowell 12.57
9  Jordan Howard 12.50
10  Mike Davis 11.89
11  Kenyan Drake 11.15
12  Marlon Mack 10.30
13  Rashaad Penny 10.14
14  Phillip Lindsay 9.29
15  James Conner 9.07
16  Ito Smith 8.39
17  Zach Zenner 7.83
18  Justin Jackson 7.11
19  David Johnson 6.98
20  Kalen Ballage 6.61
21  Giovani Bernard 6.52
22  Wendell Smallwood 6.46
23  Kerryon Johnson 5.17
24  Latavius Murray 5.09

 

Why is Melvin Gordon continually atop the running back rankings? Because he’s been money over the last three years in the red zone, and 2018 was his best season yet. On just 25 red zone carries, Gordon piled up 32.9 more points than the average running back would’ve last year. By comparison, Alvin Kamara hit 34.8 points over expected in 2017. Speaking of Kamara, he’s straight-up ridiculous. After hitting that 34.8 mark in 2017, he posted 22.9 in 2018, the third-highest mark in the league.

One name that stood out here was Aaron Jones, who despite totaling just 18 red zone carries (40th in the league), posted the fourth-highest mark over replacement. While Jordan Howard and David Johnson were towards the absolute bottom in non-red zone rushing, they were well above average inside the red zone. You can also see why the Saints decided to go after Latavius Murray, who’s been great inside the red zone. The players who made this list in each of the last two years include: Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Jordan Howard, Alex Collins, Aaron Jones, Giovani Bernard, and Melvin Gordon.

Bottom-24 Red Zone Rushing (Below Expected)

Rank Player Rush RZ Diff
59  Lamar Miller -6.18
60  Marcus Murphy -6.27
61  Chris Thompson -6.40
62  Devonta Freeman -6.50
63  Alfred Blue -6.56
64  Malcolm Brown -6.97
65  Jaylen Samuels -8.18
66  Carlos Hyde -8.36
67  Frank Gore -8.75
68  Dalvin Cook -8.84
69  Christian McCaffrey -9.86
70  LeSean McCoy -9.92
71  Josh Adams -10.45
72  LeGarrette Blount -12.04
73  Matt Breida -13.43
74  Ezekiel Elliott -13.48
75  James White -14.05
76  Tevin Coleman -14.95
77  Peyton Barber -18.30
78  Dion Lewis -18.92
79  Doug Martin -21.12
80  Sony Michel -21.38
81  Alfred Morris -22.62
82  Saquon Barkley -24.86

 

I’m not going to tell you that just because a player is in this part of the list that it means they can’t get it done around the goal line, but what it could mean is that they have room for positive regression in 2019. While Saquon Barkley dominated outside the red zone with 41.5 points more than the average player, he scored nearly 25 fewer points than they would’ve in the red zone. He is going to lose some of those crazy long plays, but he’s also going to gain some touchdown equity if all remains the same in 2019. Everyone gave Sony Michel credit for his rookie season, but truth be told, he left a lot on the table. Ezekiel Elliott is another one who left some meat on the bone last year, scoring 13.5 points less than the average running back would’ve in the red zone. During the 2017 season, he scored 8.1 more points than the average player in the red zone. The players who showed up on the bad end of red zone rushing production in each of the last two years include: LeSean McCoy, LeGarrette Blount, Carlos Hyde, Alfred Morris, Matt Breida, James White, Peyton Barber, and Alfred Blue.

Top-24 Receiving Red Zone (Above Expected)

Rank Player RecRZ Diff
1  James White 20.60
2  Christian McCaffrey 16.48
3  Tevin Coleman 14.48
4  Jaylen Samuels 12.42
5  TJ Yeldon 11.61
6  Matt Breida 10.66
7  Duke Johnson 10.54
8  Tarik Cohen 10.07
9  Nick Chubb 9.28
10  Kareem Hunt 8.68
11  Javorius Allen 7.70
12  Elijah McGuire 5.32
13  Damien Williams 4.73
14  Mike Davis 4.53
15  Frank Gore 4.25
16  Leonard Fournette 3.75
17  Saquon Barkley 3.16
18  Chris Thompson 2.86
19  Austin Ekeler 2.86
20  Nyheim Hines 2.78
21  Dalvin Cook 2.47
22  Adrian Peterson 2.37
23  Lamar Miller 2.35
24  Malcolm Brown 0.71

 

This is the area the pass-catchers get it done, as evidenced by the top-two players in this category. There were just eight players who posted at least 10 half-PPR points over the average running back and it’s hard to say any of the names listed are surprising. Some surprising names who weren’t a detriment as pass-catchers to their team in the red zone include Adrian Peterson and Leonard Fournette, as most tie them to bad pass-catchers.

Bottom-24 Receiving Red Zone (Below Expected)

Rank Player RecRZ Diff
59  Jamaal Williams -3.25
60  Joe Mixon -3.34
61  Justin Jackson -3.86
62  Kenyan Drake -4.07
63  Ito Smith -4.12
64  Jalen Richard -4.22
65  Jacquizz Rodgers -4.23
66  Marlon Mack -4.33
67  Carlos Hyde -4.55
68  Phillip Lindsay -5.01
69  Todd Gurley -5.35
70  Ty Montgomery -5.45
71  Wayne Gallman -5.45
72  Alvin Kamara -5.47
73  Jeffery Wilson -5.51
74  Ezekiel Elliott -6.11
75  Jordan Wilkins -6.48
76  Alfred Blue -6.61
77  Jordan Howard -7.21
78  Kyle Juszczyk -7.50
79  Marshawn Lynch -8.18
80  Theo Riddick -8.67
81  Devontae Booker -9.16
82  David Johnson -9.16

 

None of these running backs hurt their team as much as James White or Christian McCaffrey helped their teams, but seeing David Johnson at the bottom of this list is somewhat shocking. It’s also odd to see both Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, and Ezekiel Elliott towards the bottom of the league, though just like Barkley running in the red zone, they could be in for positive regression in this area of the field.

Overall (All Targets/Carries Combined)

Now that we know how everyone performed in the individual areas of the field, both rushing and receiving, let’s add them all up and see who did the most with their combined carries/targets during the 2018 season.

Top-24 Overall (Above Expected)

Rank Player Rec Diff Rush Diff Total Diff
1  Melvin Gordon 13.95 45.65 59.59
2  Todd Gurley 8.08 40.65 48.74
3  Kareem Hunt 46.67 0.73 47.39
4  Aaron Jones -0.14 40.94 40.80
5  Phillip Lindsay -7.62 41.42 33.80
6  Tarik Cohen 26.81 5.18 31.99
7  Alvin Kamara 2.29 28.97 31.26
8  Kenyan Drake 18.89 12.29 31.18
9  Nick Chubb 2.04 27.51 29.55
10  Christian McCaffrey 28.64 0.91 29.54
11  Derrick Henry -3.26 30.59 27.32
12  Austin Ekeler 17.50 8.10 25.60
13  Tevin Coleman 17.82 4.90 22.72
14  Isaiah Crowell -5.40 25.90 20.50
15  James Conner 0.08 19.78 19.85
16  Matt Breida 15.05 3.42 18.48
17  Damien Williams 7.75 7.41 15.16
18  Saquon Barkley -1.50 16.60 15.09
19  James White 9.11 1.32 10.42
20  Duke Johnson 10.62 -0.70 9.92
21  Kerryon Johnson -3.67 13.47 9.81
22  CJ Anderson 1.09 8.31 9.40
23  Wendell Smallwood 6.41 2.72 9.13
24  Darren Sproles 6.33 1.84 8.17

 

Sure, we’re going to look at the top few names on this list and think, “duh, they were the fantasy MVPs,” but what about the names that nobody would expect there? I’m talking about Aaron Jones, Phillip Lindsay, Tarik Cohen, and even Derrick Henry. If their roles grow in 2019, they could ascend to stardom in fantasy football circles.

Bottom-24 Overall (Below Expected)

Rank Player Rec Diff Rush Diff Total Diff
59  Marshawn Lynch -11.18 -0.57 -11.75
60  Giovani Bernard -14.15 1.76 -12.40
61  Josh Adams -4.91 -8.14 -13.05
62  Elijah McGuire -0.07 -13.37 -13.44
63  Jeffery Wilson -4.44 -9.07 -13.51
64  Leonard Fournette 4.91 -20.00 -15.09
65  Chris Ivory 4.05 -20.04 -15.99
66  Jamaal Williams -12.48 -4.31 -16.79
67  Chris Thompson -9.48 -8.50 -17.98
68  Marcus Murphy -13.66 -4.55 -18.20
69  Wayne Gallman -10.32 -8.26 -18.57
70  Sony Michel -4.02 -15.24 -19.26
71  Jordan Howard -8.86 -11.13 -19.98
72  Nyheim Hines -10.22 -10.90 -21.12
73  Theo Riddick -17.62 -5.70 -23.32
74  David Johnson -5.90 -20.17 -26.07
75  Doug Martin -7.31 -21.71 -29.02
76  Alfred Morris -4.00 -25.40 -29.40
77  Alfred Blue -7.96 -25.58 -33.53
78  LeSean McCoy -10.47 -25.93 -36.39
79  Dion Lewis -3.06 -36.66 -39.72
80  LeGarrette Blount -4.70 -36.30 -41.00
81  Carlos Hyde -12.64 -28.91 -41.55
82  Peyton Barber -9.66 -37.01 -46.67

 

This chart doesn’t look good for a career resurgence out of Carlos Hyde, LeSean McCoy, or Dion Lewis, as they all have teammates who looked much better last year. They all scored at least 35 points less than the average running back would’ve with their exact touches. As for Hyde, he’s now totaled 83.6 fewer fantasy points than he should’ve over the last two years, by far the most in the league. LeSean McCoy is next on that list, scoring 59.5 fewer points than an average player would’ve. It’s not good to see David Johnson and Leonard Fournette on this list, either, though they aren’t quite as low.

If there’s one thing to understand, it’s that coaching can change this dramatically. As an example, Tarik Cohen scored 11.4 fewer points than the average running back in 2017 under John Fox, but vaulted up to the No. 6 running back, totaling 32.0 more points than the average running back in 2018 under Matt Nagy. Meanwhile, Dion Lewis went from No. 5 overall with the Patriots in 2017, to No. 79 overall with the Titans in 2018. Those in static situations, however, there’s concern about a bad finish once again in 2019. The players who were on the bottom-24 overall list in each of the last two years include: Peyton Barber, Carlos Hyde, LeGarrette Blount, LeSean McCoy, Doug Martin, Wayne Gallman, and Chris Ivory.


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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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