Which Running Backs Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2020? (Fantasy Football)
Opportunity is everything. That’s something you’ll hear a lot among analysts in the community, though it’s kind of a blanket statement. Just because two running backs have 200 carries, it doesn’t mean they had the same opportunity. Where did those carries take place?
In today’s game, it’s often hard to gauge just how valuable a running back’s role is, as they’re commonly used in timeshares. We know that we ideally get running backs who are used in the passing game, but just how much are targets worth? Well, they vary, just like carries.
From a general standpoint, running back carries were worth 0.64 fantasy points in 2020. But you already know that doesn’t tell the whole story. Every time a running back is handed the ball, there’s an expected outcome. For example, a non-red zone carry was worth just 0.50 fantasy points, but a carry inside the five-yard line was worth 2.57 fantasy points. Not every carry is created equal.
We can’t forget about those targets, either. The average target netted 1.13 half-PPR points in 2020. Again, a non-red zone target was worth 1.01 fantasy points, while one from inside the 10-yard line was worth 2.87 fantasy points.
Based on where their carries/targets took place, which running backs exceeded expectations? Who failed to live up to their opportunity? We’ll separate it by how the players did inside the red zone, outside the red zone, as well as overall. 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 D’Ernest Johnson at 5.0 yards per carry in 2020, 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)
|13||Ronald Jones II||10.7|
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 seven running backs who scored 20-plus points over what they were expected to. Volume is key. Had Jonathan Taylor simply been just average with his carries in-between the 20’s, he would’ve finished as the No. 12 running back rather than the No. 6 running back that he did. Talent matters, absolutely, but it’s tough to overcome a lack of opportunity.
Naturally, this list would favor those who broke long runs, as it would boost their non-red zone numbers in a big way. It’s no shock to see Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor, Dalvin Cook, J.K. Dobbins, and Alvin Kamara as the top-six running backs in 15-plus yard runs last year. Which running backs have made this list in consecutive seasons? Alvin Kamara (4), Nick Chubb (3), Aaron Jones (3), Derrick Henry (3), Dalvin Cook (3), and Raheem Mostert (2). 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 Bottom-24 Non-Red Zone Running Backs (Below Expected)
|156||Benny Snell Jr.||-11.5|
|158||Todd Gurley II||-13.5|
These were the running backs who failed to meet expectations and could potentially see a lesser role in 2021 after failing to deliver expected production 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. Remember all those great running backs listed in the section above this one? If Ezekiel Elliott would’ve produced simply what he was expected to outside the red zone, he would’ve finished as the No. 8 running back instead of No. 11. James Robinson would’ve finished as the No. 4 running back instead of No. 7 had he just been average outside the red zone.
There were just three players who scored 20-plus fewer points than they were expected to, again highlighting that volume is still paramount for running backs. We can witness dips in expected scoring throughout careers, and it happened rather quickly with Todd Gurley, who went from No. 1 in 2017, to No. 13 in 2018, then down to No. 95 in 2019, and at No. 158 in 2020. The players who’ve appeared in the bottom-24 in consecutive years include Leonard Fournette (3), Kalen Ballage (3), Peyton Barber (3), Malcolm Brown (2), Dion Lewis (2), Adrian Peterson (2), Todd Gurley (2), Giovani Bernard (2), and Frank Gore (2). 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)
|3||Jeff Wilson Jr.||23.0|
|12||Melvin Gordon III||14.3|
Not only did Alvin Kamara dominate outside of the red zone, but he crushed expectations inside the red zone, scoring 59.1 more fantasy points than the average running back would’ve. The leader in this category the last two years scored no more than 36.7 fantasy points over expectation. Kamara is dominant when it matters most, but he won’t be repeating his 2020 season. As odd as it may sound, Kamara scored 15.4 fewer fantasy points in the red zone than he was expected to during the 2019 season, but was 22.9 points over expectation in 2018, and 34.8 over expectations in 2017. It’s fair to say that 2019 was an outlier in what is a dominant red zone running back.
Derrick Henry has now shown up on this list each of the last three seasons, totaling 64.7 more fantasy points than the average running back would’ve. Outside of him, Chris Carson, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, and Chase Edmonds are the only running backs who’ve been inside the top-24 in back-to-back seasons. Will Edmonds get the goal-line role for the Cardinals this year, or will James Conner stand in his way?
Notice there are not as many repeat names on this list? Opportunity matters in the red zone, sure, but it’s not as static as expected fantasy points outside the red zone and will be more volatile on a year-to-year basis.
The Bottom-24 Red Zone Running Backs (Below Expected)
|144||Darrell Henderson Jr.||-8.4|
|163||Benny Snell Jr.||-21.4|
So, not only did Ezekiel Elliott have a tough time outside the red zone last year, but he was the worst running back inside the red zone as well, scoring 22.7 fewer fantasy points than he was expected to. Sure, the offensive line can be blamed for some of the struggles, but we rarely see a running back at the bottom of both lists. With that being said, Nick Chubb was second to last in the red zone list last year, while Alvin Kamara also scored 15.4 points fewer than he was expected to in the red zone.
This list can actually provide a decent buying opportunity for some running backs, as they may have simply had bad luck in that volatile area during 2020. A few names that stand out here are Cam Akers, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Joe Mixon. If Edwards-Helaire scored touchdowns at an average rate, he would’ve finished as the RB15, and that’s while missing three full games.
The only running backs who’ve made the bottom-24 list in consecutive years are Frank Gore (3), Kalen Ballage (2), Joe Mixon (2), Ito Smith (2), Alexander Mattison (2), and Le’Veon Bell (2). One thing I want to note about Saquon Barkley (he missed most of the 2020 season), but he’s struggled in the red zone over his NFL career, totaling 46.7 fewer fantasy points than average running backs would’ve on just 109 carries/targets, finishing negative every year.
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 2020 season.
Top-24 Overall (Above Expected)
|11||Jeff Wilson Jr.||-2.0||23.0||21.0|
|21||Melvin Gordon III||-3.9||14.3||10.4|
There were three running backs who scored at least 50 fantasy points over expectation in 2020, a number that’s pretty static. There was a spike in 2019 with six of them, but that number was just one in 2018, and two in 2017. Derrick Henry continues to rule the world of destroying expectations, finishing as the No. 18 running back in 2017, No. 11 in 2018, No. 1 in 2019, and No. 3 in 2020.
If Nick Chubb had been simply average with all his touches in 2020, he would’ve finished as the No. 24 running back, not the No. 9 running back he did. Chris Carson was another one who made a double-digit leap, going from the No. 29 running back in opportunity, all the way up to a No. 17 running back finish.
Since becoming a full-time running back, Aaron Jones has finished No. 4, No. 4, and No. 7 among running backs in fantasy points over expectation. He’s extremely similar to Alvin Kamara, as they’re two running backs who don’t require 20-plus touches in order to get into elite territory.
The only running backs to make this top-24 overall list in consecutive seasons are Aaron Jones (4), Derrick Henry (4), Christian McCaffrey (3), Dalvin Cook (2), Jeff Wilson (2), and Chase Edmonds (2). I know I hinted at this earlier, but if Edmonds gets a 200-plus touch role in Arizona, he will be a steal.
The Bottom-24 Overall (Below Expected)
|158||Todd Gurley II||-13.5||-8.0||-21.5|
|162||Benny Snell Jr.||-11.5||-21.4||-32.9|
This article just keeps looking worse for Elliott, who scored a grand total of 46.7 fewer fantasy points than he was expected to. Rather than his RB11 finish, he would’ve been the RB4 had he simply been average. Elliott’s finishes over the last few years in points over expectations have been No. 23 in 2019, No. 53 in 2018, and No. 14 in 2017. The Cowboys paid him a lot of money and he’s getting tons of opportunity, so he doesn’t even need to be great in order to finish as a top-five running back… just average.
Kenyan Drake was actually inside the top-24 running backs for points over expectations for each of the previous three seasons but fell to 161st in 2020. What happened? Has he reached the decline, or was it simply a bad year for him? Josh Jacobs was No. 42 among running backs in 2019 but fell all the way to No. 155 on the list this year. Based on his opportunity, he should’ve finished as the RB4. Will one/both of these running backs bounce back for the Raiders in 2021? Their workloads are certainly going to be lighter than they were in 2020.
Again, Cam Akers and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are two running backs who simply had bad luck in the red zone. Both would be going higher in drafts had they flipped their fortune. Unfortunately, Akers suffered a year-ending injury in July, while Edwards-Helaire is going around the RB18 range. BUY.
The players who have shown up in the bottom-24 list in consecutive years are Peyton Barber (now four years running), Joe Mixon (2), Dare Ogunbowale (2), Kalen Ballage (2), and Frank Gore (2). This is not a great look for Mixon, though it’s worth noting that all the Bengals running backs under Zac Taylor have been averaging fewer yards than expected based on NFL’s NextGenStats. The scheme isn’t helping, but Mixon hasn’t done anything to overcome that to this point.
Since I started this study four years ago, there’s been just one running back who’s gone from bottom-24 to top-24 the following season: David Johnson, who ranked 74 of 82 in 2018, then finished 24th in 2019.
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.
- Aaron Jones is a stud who continually outperforms expectations. We shouldn’t hope for it anymore; we should expect it.
- Touchdowns are volatile; use those who performed below expectations as a buy-low opportunity.
- Continuing above point: If Clyde Edwards-Helaire bounces back in the red zone, he’s going to be an absolute steal at his current cost.
- Why does Peyton Barber continue to get opportunities?
- Ezekiel Elliott isn’t elite with his opportunity – he’s never been – but he doesn’t need to be in order to be a top-five back. He just needs to be average.
- Chase Edmonds could be a breakout star if he sees increased volume, ala Austin Ekeler a few years ago.
- Joe Mixon hasn’t overcome Zac Taylor’s scheme and has underperformed.
- Saquon Barkley struggles in the red zone.
- Leonard Fournette is part of a group that includes Kalen Ballage, Peyton Barber, Malcolm Brown, Dion Lewis, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, Giovani Bernard, and Frank Gore. His playoff games were a very small sample size.