Fantasy Football Analysis: RBs



Next up in my summer analysis is the running back position. I analyzed the QB position already, and after digging through some RB stats from last year, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions. As always, this analysis assumes an ESPN standard scoring, 10-team league. Check it out after the jump.

One of the most frustrating things about the RB position in today’s NFL is that there just aren’t enough "every-down" backs anymore. "By-Committee" backfields are more and more becoming the norm, which makes for some treacherous fantasy football scoring. There are still a few every-down backs out there, but hardly enough to stock 2 starting positions in 10 teams, let alone 12 or more team leagues, which are becoming more and more popular.

So, what kinds of things are important when evaluating a RB? For me the first and foremost thing is opportunity, and that means carries. Obviously, you always want a talented RB, but assuming they’re all talented, the most important thing is what kind of opportunity is available. Generally speaking, would you rather have a RB that carries the ball 20 times a game, or 10 times a game? So, again, using the stats at, I took a look at some of the leaders in carries. In order to be considered in the ranking, I only looked at players that had at least 100 carries, so this will keep guys who barely played off the list (Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith, Tim Hightower, etc). Here are the top 20 RB in average carries per game in 2011 (total carries listed in parenthesis):

1. Maurice Jones-Drew JAX, 21.43 (343)
2. Arian Foster HOU, 21.38 (278)
3. Marshawn Lynch SEA, 19 (285)
4. Michael Turner ATL, 18.8 (301)
t5. Cedric Benson CIN, 18.2 (273)
t5. LeSean McCoy PHI, 18.2 (273)
7. Ray Rice BAL, 18.18 (291)
8. Frank Gore SF, 17.6 (282)
9. Adrian Peterson MIN, 17.4 (209)
10. Steven Jackson STL, 17.3 (260)
t11 Matt Forte CHI, 17 (204)
t11 Fred Jackson, BUF 17 (170)
13. Willis McGahee DEN, 16.6 (249)
14. Chris Johnson TEN, 16.37 (262)
15. Beanie Wells ARI, 16.3 (245)
16. Peyton Hillis CLE, 16.1 (161)
17. Darren McFadden OAK, 16.1 (113)
18. Michael Bush OAK, 16 (256)
19. Ryan Mathews SD, 15.86 (222)
20. Shonn Greene NYJ, 15.81 (253)

Outside of a small handful of guys at the top averaging 19-21 carries a game, most of the RB on the list are getting 16-18 carries a game, which just isn’t what it used to be (even as recently as 2007, the top 10 RB in carries averaged greater than 18 per game). Readers may notice that Darren McFadden and Michael Bush both appear on the list, and perhaps I should have picked only one (since McFadden only played 7 games last year), but I found it interesting to compare them both throughout, since they averaged nearly identical carries per game.

But anyway, just getting the ball a lot only tells part of the story. It’s what the running back actually DOES with all those carries that matters for fantasy football. This is where Yards Per Carry and touchdowns come into play. Between the two, YPC is a much more reliable statistic, because TDs are nearly impossible to predict. Take LeSean McCoy for example. He had the most rushing TDs of any RB in 2011 (17), which is more than his previous two seasons combined. Or take Chris Johnson, who scored a paltry 4 rushing TDs in 2011, but put up a monstrous 25 TDs combined in 2009 and 2010. TDs are nearly impossible to predict, and frankly, you don’t draft a running back hoping they’ll score a lot of TDs. So, YPC is the statistic worth tracking for any meaningful trends. It’s worth mentioning here that guys like Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, Ben Tate, Jonathan Stewart and many others score very high on the YPC list (and many of them would have made the top 20 in just YPC), but I have purposefully excluded them to compare how effective the 20 players above were with their carries. So, here’s the re-ranking of the same 20 running backs from above, but this time sorted by YPC with total rushing touchdowns in parenthesis (and keep in mind many of these players didn’t play all 16 games):

1. Fred Jackson BUF, 5.5 (6)
2. Darren McFadden OAK, 5.4 (4)
3. Ryan Mathews SD, 4.9 (6)
4. Matt Forte CHI, 4.9 (3)
5. LeSean McCoy PHI, 4.8 (17)
6. Willis McGahee DEN, 4.8 (4)
t7. Ray Rice BAL, 4.7 (12)
t7. Adrian Peterson MIN, 4.7 (12)
9. Maurice Jones-Drew JAX, 4.7 (8)
10. Michael Turner ATL, 4.5 (11)
11. Arian Foster HOU, 4.4 (10)
12. Steven Jackson STL, 4.4 (5)
13. Beanie Wells ARI, 4.3 (10)
14. Frank Gore SF, 4.3 (8)
15. Marshawn Lynch SEA, 4.2 (12)
16. Shonn Greene NYJ, 4.2 (6)
17. Chris Johnson TEN, 4 (4)
18. Cedric Benson CIN, 3.9 (6)
19. Michael Bush OAK, 3.8 (6)
20. Peyton Hillis CLE, 3.6 (0)

This second list is where the re-ranking gets very interesting. Guys like Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and Marshawn Lynch were near the top in carries per game, but here it shows that they’re not as effective with their carries as guys like LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice or even Adrian Peterson. But check out Fred Jackson and Darren McFadden’s beastly YPC average! I wonder if both of them had stayed healthy for the whole year if they would have been able to keep that average up. And look at how pathetic Michael Bush’s YPC looks compared to McFadden. Hmm…

But guess what, running backs can do more than just take a handoff. Obviously, they can catch the ball too. Those RB that can prove to be effective receivers out of the backfield add even more value to their fantasy teams, especially those in leagues that award points per receptions. Targets (just like carries) dictate receiving opportunity, and are therefore especially important. Again, it’s worth mentioning that guys like Darren Sproles (again), Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart score very well in targets (Sproles is far and away the leader among all RB), but I’m keeping this re-ranking to the same 20 RB again for comparison purposes. So, here they are re-ranked by targets-per-game:

1. Ray Rice BAL, 6.5 (704, 7)
2. Matt Forte CHI, 6.3 (490, 1)
3. Arian Foster HOU, 5.53 (617, 2)
4. Fred Jackson BUF, 5 (442, 0)
5. Chris Johnson TEN, 4.93 (418, 0)
6. LeSean McCoy PHI, 4.6 (315, 3)
7. Ryan Mathews SD, 4.21 (455, 0)
8. Maurice Jones-Drew JAX, 4 (374, 3)
9. Steven Jackson STL, 3.87 (333, 1)
10. Peyton Hillis CLE, 3.4 (130, 0)
11. Darren McFadden OAK, 3.29 (154, 1)
12. Michael Bush OAK, 2.93 (418, 1)
13. Marshawn Lynch SEA, 2.73 (212, 2)
14. Shonn Greene NYJ, 2.56 (211, 0)
15. Frank Gore SF, 1.94 (114, 0)
16. Adrian Peterson MIN, 1.92 (139, 1)
17. Michael Turner ATL, 1.63 (168, 0)
18. Cedric Benson CIN, 1.47 (82, 0)
19. Willis McGahee DEN, 1.33 (51, 1)
20. Beanie Wells ARI, 1.07 (52, 0)

There is a HUGE disparity between the #1 guy on this list (6.5 targets per game) and the #20 guy on this list (1.07 targets per game), and there’s a healthy drop-off from the #14 guy (Shonn Greene) and the #15 guy (Frank Gore). The guys at the bottom of this list won’t offer you much in the way of receptions or receiving yardage, so for them to be worth having as a starter, they better do well as a pure running back getting a large number of carries and having a good YPC average. It might not be surprising to Viking’s fans to see Adrian Peterson near the bottom of the targets ranking, because we all know that Peterson just isn’t used very frequently on passing downs.

So what does this all mean? Well, here’s the list of the top 20 RB by average fantasy points per game (no longer restricted by carries, and excluding players who played in 6 or fewer games due to injury, benching or whatever):

1. Arian Foster HOU, 19.2
2. LeSean McCoy PHI, 18.7
3. Ray Rice BAL, 18.3
4. Fred Jackson BUF, 17
5. Maurice Jones-Drew JAX, 16.4
6. Adrian Peterson MIN, 15.8
7. Darren McFadden OAK, 15
8. Marshawn Lynch SEA, 14.4
9. Matt Forte CHI, 14.1
10. Kevin Smith DET, 13.4
t11. Ryan Mathews SD, 13.3
t11. Michael Turner ATL, 13.3
13. Ahmad Bradshaw NYG, 13.1
14. Steven Jackson STL, 12.1
15. Reggie Bush MIA, 11.8
t16. Michael Bush OAK, 11.6
t16. Darren Sproles NO, 11.6
18. Beanie Wells ARI, 11.1
19. Frank Gore SF, 11
20. Rashard Mendenhall PIT, 10.7

There are only a few RB that make it into the overall top 20 that weren’t in the initial top 20 in carries: Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Rashard Mendenhall. With the exception of Mendenhall, the other four guys were able to make up for their low carry average by maximizing their yards per carry average as well as their receiving targets (all 4 were top 20 in targets and YPC in 2011). Mendenhall makes the list primarily because of TDs. On the flipside, the five guys that were top 20 in carries that didn't make the list in average points per game? (Shonn Greene, Peyton Hillis, Cedric Benson, Willis McGahee and Chris Johnson). All five of those guys had deficiencies in the other 2 areas. Let’s consider our own Adrian Peterson separately. Despite a bad showing in the targets ranking, Peterson ends up in the top 10 in average fantasy points per game, mainly because he gets a healthy number of carries, and his yards per carry is also pretty good. On the flipside, consider Cedric Benson who was tied for 5th overall in carries per game, but doesn’t even make the top 20 in points per game. Why? Benson had a pathetic 3.9 YPC and a dismal 1.47 target average. We can't ignore touchdowns completely here, because they do give players points. Benson also only had 6 TDs, while Peterson had 10, and that certainly helps to partly explain the disparity too. But IMO, it's rooted more in the YPC and Targets statistic than in TDs.

So to boil this all down, what it shows me is that, the very best fantasy football running backs need to do well in at least 2 of the 3 categories I’ve looked at: carries per game, yards per carry or targets per game in order to be worthy of being a starter. The elite RB do well in all 3 and are hot commodities regardless of format, but in order to be a starter in a 10-team league (especially as your #1 RB) they’ve got to do well in at least two of those three categories. If a player doesn’t get many carries, then they better be able to maximize their YPC and Targets (think Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush). If they don’t get a lot of targets, then they better maximize their carries and YPC (think Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner). And if they don’t have a great YPC, then they better make up for it in carries and targets (think Michael Bush). On the flipside, if a player does poorly in 2 out of the 3 categories, then they’re not worthy of being a starter (think Cedric Benson or Shonn Greene).

While carries by themselves are a very useful tool to help gauge opportunity and can predict pretty well who the top performers are, they don’t tell the whole story. You’ve also got to pay attention to yards per carry and receiving targets. The top 5 RB in 2011 were all guys that scored well in every area, while everyone else on the list had to overcome some deficiency in one area (carries, ypc, or targets) by doing exceptionally well in the other two. And occasionally, guys will make-up for an area with touchdowns, but again, since they are nearly impossible to predict, I don’t find tracking TD frequency to be a very useful statistic.

So, with all of that in mind, here is my early list of top 10 RB for 2012:

1. Arian Foster HOU
2. Maurice Jones-Drew JAX
3. LeSean McCoy PHI
4. Ray Rice BAL
5. Ryan Mathews SD
6. Matt Forte CHI
7. Marshawn Lynch SEA
8. Ahmad Bradshaw NYG
9. Fred Jackson BUF
10. Adrian Peterson MIN

Others worth keeping an eye on as potential starters: Darren McFadden OAK, Michael Turner ATL, Trent Richardson CLE, Chris Johnson TEN, Frank Gore SF, Shonn Greene NYJ, and Doug Martin TB

This FanPost was created by a registered user of The Daily Norseman, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the site. However, since this is a community, that view is no less important.

Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Daily Norseman

You must be a member of Daily Norseman to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Daily Norseman. You should read them.

Join Daily Norseman

You must be a member of Daily Norseman to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Daily Norseman. You should read them.




Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.