Positive Target Regression: Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)
Looking back to look ahead is a fairly common tactic in fantasy football. We are always trying to use past data to predict future outcomes, and while that might not be 100% possible, it’s still helpful in broad strokes to see what evidence there is to help build a picture of what will come next. I fully admit that numbers don’t show the whole picture and that some of these splits mentioned are fairly small sample sizes, but I believe this type of analysis can yield useful information. So without further ado, let’s look at some positive target regression candidates at the running back position to see who we should target heading into our 2021 drafts.
2020: 44 targets in 14 games – 3.1/game
The first back on this list is none other than dynasty darling Antonio Gibson. While the rookie played in 14 games in 2020, it felt like the offense didn’t quite know what to do with Gibson until the Week 8 bye. Gibson averaged 2.57 targets per game in weeks 1-7, but in weeks 9-17, he averaged 3.5 targets, increasing almost one per game. This even includes Week 13 when he left injured after just two carries and no targets. As the team got more familiar with him, and as he got more familiar with the offense, Gibson’s usage spiked. This makes sense as most rookies need some time to acclimate to their new surroundings, but it also shows that Gibson is the perfect candidate for this type of list.
In addition, the WFT went 6-8 in the games Gibson played. He averaged 2.2 targets and 7.5 receiving yards per game in their wins, but in WFT losses, those numbers increased to 3.9 targets and had 25.2 receiving yards. In short, when the WFT trailed and didn’t have the luxury of running the ball, the team still tried to keep Gibson involved in the offense. I don’t expect that to be the case quite as much this year with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm instead of Alex Smith, but Gibson should be a factor regardless of the game situation.
While Gibson did well in terms of receiving down the stretch and when the team was losing, he didn’t record a single receiving touchdown in 2020. There could be several reasons for this but based on the numbers, it had nothing to do with who was under center. In Gibson’s 14 games, Smith started seven of them. Gibson averaged 3.1 targets in those games, which is identical to what he averaged in the other seven games without Smith. This shows that Gibson’s lack of touchdown production likely wasn’t tied to the quarterback on the field but the play-calling as a whole. However, as mentioned, the presence of Fitzpatrick should provide greater certainty. He’ll likely throw the ball more, and Gibson stands to benefit from this change.
2020: 47 targets in 10 games – 4.7/game
The presumed starter for the Miami Dolphins this season, Myles Gaskin did well when he was on the field in 2020. He averaged 5 targets per game through Week 8 but then missed four games with an MCL sprain. Gaskin would return in Week 13, but a stint on the COVID exemption list cost him two more games. He was active for the final two games of the regular season. Over his final three games, in weeks 13, 16, and 17, Gaskin still averaged 4 targets per game, which tells us that the Dolphins continued to view him as a critical component of their passing game.
Much like Gibson, Gaskin was just as if not more effective when the team was losing. In Miami’s six wins with Gaskin, he averaged 4.5 targets and 41.2 receiving yards. In their four losses, Gaskin averaged 5 targets and 35.2 receiving yards. Gaskin would have drawn the fourth-most targets among NFL running backs if he had stayed healthy, trailing only J.D. McKissic, Alvin Kamara, and Nyheim Hines. This is impressive company, and it shows just how talented Gaskin is.
Another thing that makes me excited about Gaskin is how he played with rookie Tua Tagovailoa. In the five games that the two played together last season, Gaskin averaged 4.4 targets and 48.2 receiving yards. When Tua was benched for Fitzpatrick, Gaskin’s targets were slightly higher, around 5 per game, but he only averaged 29.4 yards. Tagovailoa was better for Gaskin from a fantasy standpoint in 2020. I fully expect Tua’s rapport with Gaskin to grow as the young quarterback gains experience. This should result in a boost in fantasy output for them both in 2021.
2020: 26 targets in 6 games – 4.3/game
Joe Mixon played in only six games in 2020, with the Bengals going 1-5 in those games. The one win with Mixon in the lineup came in Week 4 against the Jaguars. While Mixon had a monster game on the ground (25 carries, 151 yards, and two scores), he also converted all six targets for 30 yards and another touchdown. He dominated the game. By comparison, in those five losses with Mixon in the lineup, he averaged just three catches on four targets for 21.6 yards and no touchdowns. When Mixon was healthy, the team leaned on him, and it paid off.
Unfortunately, Mixon’s season ended in Week 6, when he injured his foot against the Colts. From there, the Bengals relied on a combination of veteran backup Giovani Bernard and journeyman Samaje Perine. During Weeks 7-11, a four-game stretch where the Bengals were without Mixon but still had Joe Burrow, Bernard averaged 5.2 targets, meaning the team was still trying to lean on the running back in the passing game. Once Burrow got hurt and went to IR himself, Bernard’s targets slipped to three per game. Of course, in the offseason, Bernard left in free agency, signing with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bengals have done little to replace him.
Extrapolating all of this makes me think that the team wants to rely on the running back for short passes and expects Mixon to do it himself. Perine is still a backup, and the Bengals spent a fifth-round pick on Chris Evans in April’s NFL draft, but neither is true competition for Mixon at this point. The main question is whether Mixon can stay healthy. He missed two games in each of his first two seasons before playing all 16 games in 2019. Ultimately the Bengals were right to shut him down last season and allow him to heal. Between Burrow’s return and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase to the offense, Mixon should finally have the opportunity to be a bell-cow back for fantasy. We’ll see what he does with it.
2020: 35 targets in 13 games – 2.5/game
Jamaal Williams is the only player on this list who’s on a new team. I believe the former Green Bay Packer could become more of a fantasy factor in Detroit, but before looking at his new situation, let’s look back to last season.
As the second option behind Aaron Jones, Williams played sporadically in 2020, serving as the primary runner on the occasional drives where the Packers opted to rest Jones. Williams did have a larger role in two midseason games where Jones was inactive. In Week 7, he caught 4 of 5 targets for 37 yards, and in Week 8, he caught all 6 targets for 27 yards. With Jones in the lineup, however, Williams averaged a meager 2 targets per game. But clearly, Aaron Rodgers and the team had no problem passing to Williams when he was the main back. For his part, Williams was an efficient receiver, catching 31 of the 35 targets sent his way (89%) in 2020.
When the Packers resigned Jones to a long-term deal, that effectively meant they had decided to let Williams walk in free agency. He found a home on the rebuilding Detroit Lions. They have a new head coach in Dan Campbell, a new signal-caller in Jared Goff, and are very depleted on offense outside D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson. It’s clear that the Lions are basically punting this season and almost trying to lose, but that doesn’t mean their players can’t be viable in fantasy football.
As a rookie who played in 13 games last year, Swift caught 46 of 57 targets (80%), an average of 4.4 per game. But this was an offense that also had Kenny Golladay, Matthew Stafford, and Marvin Jones Jr., among others. All these players are gone, which means Swift should become the focal point of this offense. However, I expect the Lions and their new coaching staff to utilize Williams and his talents as well. Williams may still be the no. 2 running back, but he should easily see more than 2.5 targets per game in Detroit. He’s a great target in later rounds of redraft leagues and a perfect depth option for contending teams in dynasty as well.
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