Running Back Consistency (2019 Fantasy Football)

Aug 13, 2019

Should fantasy owners worry about the possibility of James Conner losing some touches this year?

In fantasy football, the running back position is arguably the toughest to find consistent, high-end production. Everyone has different strategies in choosing how to draft running backs. Whether it’s drafting them early, late, or just getting pass-catching only backs, you still want them to give you dependable output each week. In this analysis, we examined the top-30 running backs being drafted and how consistently they produced their average fantasy points (FTPS) per game last season in half-PPR scoring. The criteria for analyzing each running back was the following:

  • Must have had 150 or more touches
  • Being drafted as a top-30 running back
  • Played two or more quarters in each game – If the player exited without two quarters logged, that game was not included. For example, Aaron Jones left in the first quarter with a knee injury in Week 15. This game was not included in his analysis as it doesn’t give us a good idea of Jones’ productivity. While a player being injured is noteworthy, I wanted to get a feel for how players performed when healthy.

Le’Veon Bell (RB7), Devonta Freeman (RB17), Damien Williams (RB12), Josh Jacobs (RB20), and David Montgomery (RB23 – rookie) were not included due to one of the above criteria.

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The graphic below illustrates running back consistency by calculating a standard deviation based upon their fantasy points per game in 2018. Standard deviation (SD) was used to examine the player’s consistency of putting up their average fantasy points (FPTS). For consistent production, we want a standard deviation to be low or as close to zero as possible. From the 25 running backs in this analysis, the average FPTS per game was 15.4 with an average standard deviation of 7.6 (both averages can be seen with the dotted line in the graphic).

Note: All ADP and positional ranks were from August 7, 2019.

To provide more insight on running back consistency, Mike Tagliere’s great analysis from his “Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between” series was included. The idea behind his work was looking at the average top-12 (RB1), top-24 (RB2), and top-36 (RB3) performances from all weeks of the season. An example of why we find the average is this: Dion Lewis was RB12 in Week 1 with 19.5 FPTS points while Mike Davis was the RB12 in Week 17 with 12.6 points – a variation of 6.9 points at the same finish. If we find the average of each of the three tiers, we can have a better understanding of what makes an RB1, RB2, and RB3 performance. Results will vary slightly in this analysis based on criteria and point formats (half-PPR versus PPR). The thresholds for each running back tier are RB1 – 17.3 FPTS, RB2 – 10.9 FPTS, RB3 – 6.7 FPTS. Here is a breakdown of each of the running back tier performances from 2018.

Player 2019 Positional Rank Games Analyzed Top 12% Top 24% Top 36%
Saquon Barkley RB1 16 68.8% 93.8% 100.0%
Christian McCaffrey RB2 15 73.3% 86.7% 100.0%
Alvin Kamara RB3 15 60.0% 86.7% 93.3%
Ezekiel Elliott RB4 15 46.7% 93.3% 93.3%
David Johnson RB5 16 18.8% 62.5% 93.8%
James Conner RB6 13 46.2% 76.9% 100.0%
Joe Mixon RB8 14 42.9% 64.3% 92.9%
Todd Gurley RB9 14 78.6% 92.9% 100.0%
Dalvin Cook RB10 11 9.1% 54.5% 81.8%
Nick Chubb RB11 10 20.0% 70.0% 90.0%
Melvin Gordon RB12 12 75.0% 91.7% 100.0%
Marlon Mack RB13 12 33.3% 41.7% 83.3%
Kerryon Johnson RB16 10 20.0% 60.0% 80.0%
Aaron Jones RB17 11 27.3% 63.6% 81.8%
Leonard Fournette RB18 6 50.0% 66.7% 83.3%
Derrick Henry RB19 16 18.8% 43.8% 50.0%
Chris Carson RB21 14 35.7% 71.4% 78.6%
Sony Michel RB22 12 33.3% 41.7% 50.0%
Mark Ingram RB23 12 25.0% 33.3% 66.7%
James White RB24 16 31.3% 75.0% 81.3%
Phillip Lindsay RB25 15 20.0% 60.0% 86.7%
Kenyan Drake RB26 16 18.8% 50.0% 68.8%
Lamar Miller RB27 13 15.4% 69.2% 84.6%
Tarik Cohen RB28 16 31.3% 56.3% 68.8%
Tevin Coleman RB29 16 12.5% 43.8% 75.0%

 
Let’s look a little closer at some of the most consistent, highest performing, and least consistent running backs from 2018.

Most Consistent

Lamar Miller (HOU): AVG FPTS: 12.3* | SD: 5.0
Lamar Miller averaged 12.3 FPTS in the 13 games he was healthy. One game was removed due to an injury suffered in the first quarter, bumping his average to 12.3 from 11.4. In the games he played, Miller was an RB2 or better 69.2 percent of the time and an RB3 or better 84.6 percent of the time. The big knock on him was his upside. Miller only had two games of finishing as a top-12 running back. Fantasy owners knew with Miller in their starting lineups, he had a slim chance of getting them RB1 production.

He may have been consistent (SD of 5.0) last year, but his upside is why he’s being drafted at an ADP of 72 and as the RB28. His draft position could be a good value considering that Miller’s worst finish in the last three years was last season as RB22. His lack of high-end games last year could have been attributed to the Texans’ 27th ranked offensive line, according to Football Outsiders‘ rankings. The team addressed the line this offseason with their first two picks in the NFL draft, which could lead to more productive fantasy outings for Miller. However, the Texans recently traded for pass-catching back, Duke Johnson.

The addition might be a sign that the Texans’ coaches don’t have a lot of confidence in Miller. Do you believe in Miller still being the lead back? Do you trust his new offensive line? Do you see Johnson having a bigger role to take away Miller’s fantasy value? I have a lot of questions on how Miller will produce this year, but at such a reasonable price tag for a starting running back, he might be worth the pick.

Kerryon Johnson (DET): AVG FPTS: 12.3 | SD: 5.1
Like Lamar Miller, Kerryon Johnson didn’t produce at a high level in his 10 games last season — averaging the 17th highest FPTS per game with 12.3. In two games he finished over the RB1 threshold of 17.3 points and he had eight games where he hit the RB3 threshold or better. While he was consistent producing RB2- and RB3-type performances, Johnson didn’t provide you with much hope for an RB1 finish.

As inefficient as his numbers appeared, he was actually effective. The issue for his lack of production was that Johnson was underutilized in games. Johnson rushed for 641 yards on just 118 attempts (5.4 AVG). His average yards per rush was second best in the league among running backs with 100 or more attempts. He did miss the last six games due to injury, but looked productive on his 150 touches (smallest sample size among running backs analyzed).

Now that the Lions released their former third-down back in Theo Riddick, Johnson’s role could expand in the passing game. With only C.J. Anderson behind him on the depth chart, Johnson could have a fantasy breakout season. The only question is, do you trust that Matt Patricia and the Lions will maximize Johnson’s potential?

David Johnson (ARI): AVG FPTS: 13.9 | SD: 6.4
Any fantasy owner of David Johnson would agree that he did not play like a top-10 running back. Only 18.2 percent of his games met the RB1 threshold (the lowest out of the top-six running backs by 28 percent). That’s not the production you wanted from a guy that was being drafted third overall last season. To his credit, Johnson somehow scratched and clawed his way to finish as RB10 in the 32nd ranked offense in total yards. The Cardinals averaged an atrocious 14.4 points per game under offensive coordinators Mike McCoy and Byron Leftwich, who replaced McCoy midseason.

Taking the glass-half-full approach, Johnson was still an RB1 in a bad system. Insert new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury was brought in for his creative offensive mind, which should help resurrect Johnson’s fantasy output.  Another positive is that Johnson has the eighth-easiest strength of schedule (SOS). With a more creative offense in place, I expect to see an increase in average points per game with Johnson. How consistent will his production be in his third offense in three years? That is yet to be seen.

Highest Average FPTS

Todd Gurley (LAR): AVG FPTS: 24.5 | SD 7.9
Most people forgot Todd Gurley was the RB1 last year in just 14 games. He provided a safe floor with a 7.9 standard deviation at an average of 24.5 fantasy points per game. Speaking of his safe floor, Gurley finished as an RB2 or better in 92.9 percent of his games (second highest among running backs). So why is he being drafted as the ninth running back in drafts this year?

The issue isn’t about Gurley’s productivity – it’s his availability. He missed the last two games of the regular season and was sparingly used in the Rams’ playoff run due to a knee injury. That knee injury has raised many questions and concerns on how much the Rams will utilize Gurley this season. To make his situation murkier, the Rams spent a third-round pick on running back Darrell Henderson and re-signed Malcolm Brown. Gurley is arguably one of the riskiest picks in drafts this year, but taking the number one overall running back from a year ago in the second round could make or break your fantasy season.

Do you trust his knee? Do you trust that the Rams will still utilize him in a similar way from last season? That’s what you need to ask yourself if you’re considering Gurley at his ADP of 14 and RB9.

Christian McCaffrey (CAR): AVG FPTS: 21.8* | SD: 8.6
Christian McCaffery played every game, but rested for most of his Week 17. For this analysis, that game was removed. I don’t think including a game where McCaffery played 10 total snaps is a good way of figuring out how consistent he performed last season. Removing the Week 17 game boosted his average FPTS to 21.8 from 20.8. Like Gurley, McCaffery had a safe floor by having RB2 or better numbers in 86.7 percent of his games, while hitting the RB3 threshold of 6.7 FPTS in 100 percent of his contents.

A turning point in McCaffery’s season occurred in Week 8 when Cam Newton suffered a shoulder injury. Before the injury, McCaffery was the RB10 from Weeks 1-8. From Weeks 9-16, he had the most FPTS among all running backs. For 2019, all reports have come out saying Newton’s shoulder is healthy. I would expect the Panthers to play it somewhat safe and not risk further injury to his shoulder. Less running for Newton could lead to more work in short-yardage situations for McCaffery.

He is currently slotted as the second running back in most formats and I don’t see any reason for him to move. McCaffery was the target leader among running backs in 2018 that helped provide fantasy owners with great upside and a high floor. If he stays healthy, I don’t see any reason for his production to drop.

Saquon Barkley (NYG): AVG FPTS: 21.3 | SD: 7.2
Saquon Barkley had a historic rookie season for the Giants. How historic? Barkley became just the third rookie to eclipse 2,000 total yards, set the rookie running back receptions record at 91, and had the second-most FPTS by a rookie of all time. He also had the highest percentage of games (93.8) that yielded an RB2 or better finish.

Barkley consistently put up good numbers even in a middle of the road offense (finished 17th in total yards of offense). The reason for any success the Giants had was because they had Barkley and arguably the top WR in the league, Odell Beckham Jr.

With Beckham gone and no legitimate deep threat receiver on the roster, Barkley will likely see an increase of defenders near the line of scrimmage. According to PFF, it might not matter for Barkley. Against 8+ defenders in the box, he tied for the second-highest rushing grade with a 78.9. While he still has Eli Manning as his quarterback and no other weapons on offense to take attention away from him, Barkley is too talented not to draft as the number one overall player.

Least Consistent

Alvin Kamara (NO): AVG FPTS 20.9 | SD: 9.7
Alvin Kamara was the overall RB1 in Weeks 1, 3, and 4 to start last season. One of the reasons why was his backup, Mark Ingram, was serving a four-game suspension. Kamara averaged 57.3 snaps per game while Ingram wasn’t playing, but after Ingram returned, he averaged 38.9 snaps. Kamara didn’t see a single game of 50 or more snaps when Ingram returned. Here were the fantasy points per game when Ingram was out of the lineup and when he returned:

Without Ingram (AVG FPTS: 29.7)
38.6 14.9 26.5 38.6

 

With Ingram (AVG FPTS: 17.7)
5.4 14.5 23.1 31.6 24.2 17.3 10.3 11.2 13.2 19.8 24.5

 
Ingram is gone from the Saints backfield and Latavius Murray is now the expected backup to Kamara. Murray’s role is still to be determined, but if it’s anything like Ingram’s role, Kamara could see some inconsistent numbers from week to week. Due to his upside and being a part of a great offense, Kamara is still worthy of his top-four ADP. His points per game may not be as consistent as some of the other top-tier backs, but getting his upside is hard to find.

James Conner (PIT): AVG FPTS 19.4 | SD: 9.7
James Conner was the starting running back for the Steelers in 2018 due to Le’Veon Bell’s contract saga lasting the entirety of the season. He played well in his absence, scoring 12 touchdowns and rushing for 935 yards in 13 games — not even Le’Veon Bell had 12 rushing touchdowns in a season for the Steelers. Conner had three games of over 30 FPTS, but had three games with less than 10 points. Now that Antonio Brown and Bell are officially out of Pittsburgh, their offense could look a lot different.

Reports have been coming out of Pittsburgh that backup running back Jaylen Samuels is emerging as a weapon for Pittsburgh. Conner did suffer injuries late in the season, so utilizing another running back could be to prevent him from wearing down. This isn’t something you want to hear if you’re considering Conner at his eight overall ADP.

In past seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers made one running back have the bulk of the workload. Since 2014, the Steelers have had a running back finish in the top five every year. Yes, they had Le’Veon Bell, but even during games that Bell missed, the backups were just as good.

In 2015, DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s backup, finished the season as the RB4 in just 10 starts. In 2016, Bell was the RB3 in 13 games while his fill-in, Williams again, was the RB3 in the three games Bell missed. So why am I telling you this? The point is that Pittsburgh has a good offensive system for running backs.

Yes, Conner was inconsistent in his first year as the starter, but he’s in too good of a situation to worry about someone stealing touches. Don’t forget that Antonio Brown left the Steelers and took his 168 targets with him. Someone must have an increased target share in 2019 – why not Conner? With a strength of schedule (SOS) that’s the second easiest in the league, I think Conner is a good value in drafts.

Derrick Henry (TEN): AVG FPTS: 12.1 | SD: 11.5
In the last five games of the season, no running back had more fantasy points than Derrick Henry. In that span, he averaged 23.2 FPTS and was the overall RB1 in back-to-back weeks (Weeks 14 and 15). Who could forget his Week 15 performance, scoring 47.5 FPTS (highest of any player from 2018!)?

However, there is a flip side to last season. From Weeks 1-12, Henry averaged 7.1 FPTS and was the RB42. Yikes! From the running backs analyzed, he had the highest SD of 11.5 (highest inconsistency) with the lowest percentage of RB3 or better performances at just 50 percent. Henry could not be trusted in fantasy.

Going into the 2019 season, Henry strained his calf, but was on record stating it wasn’t serious. He may not think it’s serious, but a lower leg injury for a running back makes me put him further down my draft board — especially a running back that can’t consistently produce. Henry has shown he can put up monstrous numbers, but those games are far and few between. If you think he can pick up where he left off from his last five games in 2018, draft him at his ADP of 36. I believe his first 12 games are a more accurate reflection of Henry’s fantasy output.

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Kevin O’Connor is a featured writer at FantasyPros.

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1Saquon Barkley (NYG)RB
2Christian McCaffrey (CAR)RB
3Alvin Kamara (NO)RB
4Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)RB
5David Johnson (ARI)RB
6DeAndre Hopkins (HOU)WR
7Nick Chubb (CLE)RB
8James Conner (PIT)RB
9Davante Adams (GB)WR
10Julio Jones (ATL)WR
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16Todd Gurley (LAR)RB
17Dalvin Cook (MIN)RB
18JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT)WR
19Michael Thomas (NO)WR
20Mike Evans (TB)WR
21Keenan Allen (LAC)WR
22T.Y. Hilton (IND)WR
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24Marlon Mack (IND)RB
25Kerryon Johnson (DET)RB
26Melvin Gordon (LAC)RB
27Aaron Jones (GB)RB
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30Leonard Fournette (JAC)RB
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