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Which Running Backs Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2019? (Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 20, 2020

Derrick Henry didn’t have nearly as much opportunity as other top-tier running backs in 2019

I remember getting into arguments about why a certain running back’s yards per carry was low, or why one player’s role was more valuable than another’s due to where his touches took place. Anyone remember LeGarrette Blount?

In today’s game, it’s often hard to gauge just how valuable a running back’s role is. We know that we ideally get running backs who are used in the passing game, but just how much is each target worth?

From a general standpoint, running back carries were worth 0.61 fantasy points in 2019. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. A carry inside the 20-yard-line was worth 0.68 fantasy points. Moving that to inside the five-yard-line, they were worth 2.67 fantasy points. You can clearly tell that where touches take place matter quite a bit.

We can’t forget targets, either. The base number for targets to running backs is 1.16 fantasy points in a half-PPR format. Again, a target inside the 20-yard-line was worth 1.41 fantasy points, while one inside the five-yard-line was worth 2.89 fantasy points.

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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 J.D. McKissic at 5.4 yards per carry in 2019, 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 Non-Red Zone Running Backs (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
1  Christian McCaffrey 52.93
2  Austin Ekeler 52.85
3  Derrick Henry 49.85
4  Raheem Mostert 35.07
5  Nick Chubb 30.18
6  Aaron Jones 25.65
7  Miles Sanders 23.60
8  Saquon Barkley 23.52
9  Mark Ingram II 22.51
10  Dalvin Cook 19.97
11  Rashaad Penny 19.49
12  Gus Edwards 17.38
13  Tony Pollard 15.41
14  Derrius Guice 14.44
15  Devin Singletary 13.61
16  David Johnson 10.62
17  Brandon Bolden 9.92
18  Damien Williams 9.85
19  Rex Burkhead 8.97
20  Chase Edmonds 8.83
21  James Conner 8.15
22  Matt Breida 7.99
23  Jeff Wilson Jr. 7.69
24  Alvin Kamara 7.29

 

When outside the red zone, these were the running backs who did more than the average running back would’ve. As you can see, there were just nine running backs who scored 20-plus points from what they were expected to. Volume is certainly king outside the 20s, but hyper-efficiency can help move players up the ranks. Had Austin Ekeler not score the 52.85 points over expected and simply been average, he would’ve fallen from the No. 6 running back to the No. 12 running back.

Going over the same list from last year, the names who’ve appeared on here in two straight seasons include: Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, Matt Breida, Derrick Henry, James Conner, Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler, and Alvin Kamara. When you see them on here in back-to-back years, it can surely make sense to inflate their expected outcome, as they’re clearly above average. The only running backs to be on this list for three straight years are Kamara and Ekeler.

The Bottom-24 Non-Red Zone Running Backs (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
76  Patrick Laird -8.21
77  Bilal Powell -8.45
78  Malcolm Brown -8.45
79  Mark Walton -8.83
80  Dion Lewis -9.37
81  Nyheim Hines -9.68
82  Adrian Peterson -9.75
83  Joe Mixon -10.23
84  Leonard Fournette -10.95
85  Ty Johnson -11.31
86  Frank Gore -11.46
87  Royce Freeman -12.16
88  Justice Hill -12.63
89  Giovani Bernard -13.12
90  Jaylen Samuels -13.14
91  Sony Michel -15.66
92  Melvin Gordon III -17.99
93  Devonta Freeman -21.07
94  David Montgomery -24.18
95  Todd Gurley II -24.57
96  Kalen Ballage -25.89
97  Peyton Barber -28.70
98  Tarik Cohen -32.08
99  Le’Veon Bell -35.06

 

These running backs could potentially see a lesser role in 2020 after they failed to deliver outside the red zone. It’s important to remember that to really excel in this area, you need to break off some bigger runs, but still, it’s all relative. Seeing Le’Veon Bell score 35.1 fewer points than he was supposed to is massive, as it would’ve moved him from the No. 17 running back, all the way up to the No. 11 running back, in front of Chris Carson.

There were a few shocking names on here, as Joe Mixon and Melvin Gordon were both inside the top-24 in 2018. Meanwhile, Todd Gurley‘s ranks in this category have gone from No. 1 in 2017, to No. 13 in 2018, and then down to No. 95 in 2019. There was certainly a trend in his numbers but seeing him near the bottom is shocking. The only players who’ve appeared in the bottom-24 in back-to-back years include Nyheim Hines, Leonard Fournette, Royce Freeman, Kalen Ballage, and Peyton Barber. Volume certainly means everything to those running backs, particularly outside the red zone.

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 are guys that show up in the top-tier of this list nearly every year.

The Top-24 Red Zone Running Backs (Above Expected)

Rank Player RZ Diff
1  Derrick Henry 36.77
2  Mark Ingram II 36.09
3  Aaron Jones 32.70
4  Todd Gurley II 24.15
5  Raheem Mostert 23.62
6  Ronald Jones II 18.75
7  Boston Scott 17.99
8  Jamaal Williams 17.54
9  Jordan Howard 16.18
10  Chris Carson 15.31
11  Devonta Freeman 14.85
12  Duke Johnson 13.52
13  Kenyan Drake 12.91
14  Chase Edmonds 11.44
15  James Conner 10.99
16  Peyton Barber 10.66
17  Damien Williams 9.78
18  Kareem Hunt 9.72
19  Justice Hill 8.92
20  Brandon Bolden 8.28
21  Dalvin Cook 8.26
22  Malcolm Brown 7.48
23  Marlon Mack 6.83
24  Mike Boone 6.68

 

Not only did Derrick Henry tear it up outside the red zone, but he also crushed it when it mattered most, scoring 36.8 more fantasy points than the average player would’ve inside the red zone. The leader from 2018 was Melvin Gordon, who scored 32.9 more fantasy points than expected. Henry was on this list last year, too, totaling 14.6 more fantasy points than expected. So, he’s now scored 51.4 more fantasy points than the average running back would’ve on just 93 total carries/targets over the last two years. He’s pretty good.

The running backs who’ve made an appearance inside the top-24 of this list in back-to-back seasons include Todd Gurley, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Jordan Howard, Kenyan Drake, Marlon Mack, and James Conner. These guys can clearly get it done when it matters most, as the carries and targets are worth much more in this area.

The Bottom-24 Red Zone Running Backs (Below Expected)

Rank Player RZ Diff
76  Ty Johnson -7.13
77  J.D. McKissic -7.28
78  Le’Veon Bell -7.28
79  Mark Walton -7.74
80  Miles Sanders -7.89
81  Patrick Laird -8.16
82  Ito Smith -8.18
83  C.J. Ham -8.40
84  Alexander Mattison -8.52
85  Jaylen Samuels -10.11
86  Kalen Ballage -10.33
87  Giovani Bernard -11.86
88  David Montgomery -13.36
89  Kerryon Johnson -13.86
90  Chris Thompson -14.40
91  Alvin Kamara -15.37
92  Dare Ogunbowale -15.74
93  Joe Mixon -16.49
94  Sony Michel -18.34
95  Saquon Barkley -19.06
96  Gus Edwards -20.00
97  Frank Gore -25.32
98  Nick Chubb -30.50
99  Leonard Fournette -35.17

 

We all knew that Fournette had a bad season when it came to his touchdown output, but it wasn’t due to lack of opportunity. If he’d simply been average in the red zone, he could averaged 17.1 fantasy points per game rather than the 14.8 points he did. Some would be shocked to see Nick Chubb this low, but he wasn’t good in the red zone last year. Meanwhile, Kareem Hunt ranked 18th despite missing more than half the season.

The only running backs who’ve made the bottom-24 list in back-to-back years include Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel, and Frank Gore. On 104 carries/targets in the red zone over the last two years, Barkley has scored 40.8 fewer fantasy points than the average running back would’ve. He’s much better when he has the whole field open to him, as evidenced by his numbers outside the red zone, which are top-notch.

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  Derrick Henry 15.02 71.60 86.62
2  Raheem Mostert 12.24 46.45 58.69
3  Mark Ingram II 33.20 25.39 58.59
4  Aaron Jones 8.34 50.01 58.35
5  Christian McCaffrey 19.05 37.99 57.05
6  Austin Ekeler 65.27 -11.37 53.91
7  Dalvin Cook 9.37 18.86 28.22
8  Rashaad Penny 5.75 16.04 21.79
9  Chase Edmonds -3.66 23.93 20.27
10  Damien Williams 3.06 16.56 19.63
11  James Conner 17.39 1.74 19.14
12  Boston Scott 4.32 14.24 18.56
13  Brandon Bolden 9.72 8.47 18.19
14  Tony Pollard 0.60 15.77 16.37
15  Derrius Guice 7.35 8.94 16.28
16  Ronald Jones II 2.87 12.91 15.78
17  Miles Sanders 20.43 -4.72 15.71
18  Duke Johnson 7.44 7.13 14.57
19  Jamaal Williams 17.95 -6.43 11.51
20  Mike Boone -1.45 12.51 11.06
21  Kenyan Drake -16.19 26.94 10.75
22  Jeff Wilson Jr. 4.58 5.79 10.37
23  Ezekiel Elliott -3.25 13.31 10.06
24  David Johnson 24.18 -14.17 10.01

 

There were six running backs who scored more than 50 points over expectations in 2019, which was a ridiculously high number. In 2018, there was just one running back to reach that number. In 2017, there were just two of them. Derrick Henry‘s ascension continued, as he was No. 18 in 2017, No. 11 in 2018, and now No. 1 in 2019. If he were average, Henry’s actual opportunity would’ve finished as the No. 14 running back instead of where he did as the No. 3 running back.

We know Henry finishes high on this list every year, but what about someone like Mark Ingram, who would’ve finished as the No. 21 running back instead of the No. 7 running back? Now 31-years-old and with more competition, there’s plenty of reasons to fade him.

Fun Fact: Aaron Jones has finished No. 4 on this list in back-to-back years. He’s pretty dang good at football. If only Matt LaFleur knew that.

The players who were on this top-24 list in back-to-back years include Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, James Conner, Damien Williams, and Duke Johnson. In fact, Henry, Jones, Drake, Johnson, and Ekeler have made the list three years running. You can see why I’m excited about Drake this year, as he’s consistently better than expected, and the offense has only gotten better this offseason.

The Bottom-24 Overall (Below Expected)

Rank Player Rec Diff Rush Diff Total Diff
76  Ty Montgomery -4.11 -5.28 -9.39
77  C.J. Ham -4.43 -6.25 -10.68
78  Jon Hilliman -2.72 -8.05 -10.77
79  Melvin Gordon III -6.86 -5.67 -12.53
80  Bilal Powell -6.83 -6.59 -13.42
81  Kerryon Johnson 7.17 -20.86 -13.69
82  Nyheim Hines -13.53 -0.96 -14.49
83  Patrick Laird -2.75 -13.61 -16.36
84  Royce Freeman -4.37 -12.14 -16.51
85  Mark Walton -6.61 -9.96 -16.57
86  Chris Thompson -7.89 -9.45 -17.35
87  Peyton Barber -2.26 -15.77 -18.03
88  Dare Ogunbowale -11.11 -6.95 -18.05
89  Ty Johnson -11.50 -6.94 -18.44
90  Jaylen Samuels -6.28 -16.97 -23.25
91  Giovani Bernard -12.43 -12.55 -24.98
92  Tarik Cohen -13.39 -13.28 -26.66
93  Joe Mixon 8.27 -34.99 -26.72
94  Sony Michel -9.93 -24.07 -34.00
95  Kalen Ballage -14.29 -21.93 -36.22
96  Frank Gore -0.78 -36.01 -36.79
97  David Montgomery -2.93 -34.61 -37.54
98  Le’Veon Bell -5.12 -37.23 -42.35
99  Leonard Fournette -24.69 -21.44 -46.13

 

This can’t be good for Fournette’s workload. But then again, he ranked 64th in 2018, totaling 15.09 fewer points than he was expected. Had he been simply average, he would’ve outscored Dalvin Cook last year. Le’Veon Bell isn’t surprising to anyone who watched the Jets in 2019. The same can be said about David Montgomery, though the Bears didn’t bring in any competition, so he could be a Fournette-like player who shows up on this list in back-to-back years. Based on opportunity and expected fantasy output, Montgomery would’ve been the No. 15 running back instead of the No. 25 running back he finished as in 2019.

The most surprising name on this list, to me, was Joe Mixon. Not many realize he totaled a massive 278 carries last year, which ranked as the fifth most in football, but scored on just five of them, which ranked 24th among running backs. The only player who went from the bottom-24 to the top-24 the following season was David Johnson, who ranked No. 74 (out of 82) in 2018, and then finished as No. 24 in 2019.

The only players to show up on the bottom-24 list in back-to-back years were Leonard Fournette, Peyton Barber (the only running back to be on there three straight years), Sony Michel, Giovani Bernard, Chris Thompson, and Nyheim Hines.

Key Takeaways

Volume certainly matters, but there are players who continuously outperform expectations. There are also others who continually perform below expectations. Here are my favorite takeaways from the running backs.

  • Leonard Fournette needs volume. If he loses it, he’s in big trouble.
  • Derrick Henry continually outperforms his opportunity. Still, his opportunity ranked as just the No. 14 running back last year. That needs to come up.
  • Aaron Jones is a stud, through and through. Even if his volume is cut, he can get it done on limited touches, ala Alvin Kamara.
  • Saquon Barkley struggles in the red zone.
  • Kenyan Drake continually outperforms opportunity and is set to get more than ever.

If you’d like to see the leaders in opportunity from the 2019 season, here’s a link to the article highlighting each position.


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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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