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Columns - Magazine

The Prototypical Running Back

by Jonathan Bales
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

If you’ve read any of my recent content on RotoWorld, you know I’m of the mind that we’re not all that great at assessing individual players due to issues with sample sizes in the NFL. There’s just so much variance that it becomes really difficult to trust past stats.


A look at Marshawn Lynch’s YPC over the past few years is evidence of that: 3.6, 4.2, 5.0 and 4.2. If both 3.6 YPC and 5.0 YPC are within the realm of possibilities for Lynch in 2014, how in the world can we be confident in our projection of him?


One of my goals as a fantasy owner is to sort players into different buckets to overcome the small sample issue. So maybe Lynch’s recent stats can be misleading, but what if we examine all backs in all of the various buckets into which Lynch falls? How do 28-year old running backs typically perform in relation to their previous career highs? How about those projected to get 280 carries (or wherever you’re projecting Lynch)? How about those in offenses similar to Seattle’s?


As we start to develop more and more categories for a player, I think we can acquire a clearer sense of who he is and how he’ll finish. This is my general strategy—sorting players into buckets and subsequently drafting certain “player types” based on how they’re categorized.


We can’t always get everything we want out of each player, and some traits matter more than others. But overall, I’ll generally try to stick to emphasizing players in certain buckets and with specific traits that predict success.


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Last week I outlined my prototypical quarterback. This week, I’m going to take you through what I look for at the running back position, along with roughly a thousand graphs because, hey, that’s what I do.


A Hefty Workload


Workload matters for all positions, but it is absolutely the most vital at running back. The league average for YPC is around 4.2, and the best backs in the NFL this year (with a decent number of carries) might be around just 5.5 YPC or so. To say there’s a larger deviation in workload than efficiency is an understatement.


Here’s how running back carries have aligned with fantasy rank over the past four seasons.




That outlier at the bottom is Darren Sproles, who basically works as a receiver (although it’s important to keep in mind that targets are just as important—probably more so—than carries). Now compare that graph to this one showing YPC versus fantasy rank.




This is a far less linear distribution and a much weaker relationship. Yes, you want your running backs to be efficient, but efficiency is volatile from year to year. You can actually often find value by targeting backs who were inefficient in the prior season, but will still see a hefty workload, because their YPC is likely to regress near the league mean (as we’ve seen with Lynch in recent seasons).


Fountain of Youth


There are times when it’s okay to be bullish on aging backs—specifically when they’re set to see heavy usage—but the best ones are generally the youngest. In terms of fantasy points per touch, running back efficiency peaks basically from the moment a back enters the league, and it’s a steady decline from there.




This is the perfect example of when to emphasize long-term trends over year-to-year stats. There’s so much variance from year to year that we can generally be a lot more accurate by simply understanding where a running back falls on his career trajectory and working from there. If a specific 30-year old running back has a 10 percent chance of rushing for over 1,000 yards and just so happens to do it, that doesn’t really change much in the subsequent season. Now he’s just a 31-year old back.


Turn on the Jets


All other things equal, we want running backs who are explosive. Both the 40-yard dash and the broad jump are really good measures of explosiveness. Here’s a look at how running backs have fared in terms of per-season approximate value, broken down by 40 time.




Explosiveness is particularly important to analyze for first and second-year backs. Generally, it’s backs with sub-4.5 speed who are going to do the most damage. Only when a running back has a track record of success—such as Arian Foster—should we overlook sub-par speed.


Versatility Reigns Supreme


I think versatility might be slightly overrated in the real NFL game, but in the fantasy world, it rocks. Never forget that, unless you’re in a total-points or best-ball format, you’re playing a series of head-to-head matchups in which you want a consistently high score.


Consistency matters in such leagues, but it’s really difficult to identify in individual players. There’s just way too much variance to label a certain player ‘consistent’ based on his past games alone. It would kind of be like saying a hitter with a poor batting average through 16 games is doomed for his career; maybe the average is indicative of future struggles, but maybe it isn’t.


Again, the solution is sorting players into buckets. When we do this with “pass-catching backs” versus “non-pass-catching backs,” we see that the former group has a higher level of week-to-week consistency.


Over the past four years, the top 25 running backs in catches have surpassed their median PPG total 14.4 percent more often than the bottom 25 backs (looking solely at running backs with at least 750 rushing yards).


Intuitively, this makes sense. Running backs who can contribute as receivers aren’t as reliant on a particular game script as those who don’t catch passes. When the Redskins are losing games, for example, Alfred Morris could be rendered basically useless. Compare that to someone like Reggie Bush, who might actually benefit from the Lions getting down in games.


Small School, Big Game


In my quarterback analysis, I mentioned that it seems as though BCS passers are more prepared for NFL success than their small-school counterparts. It’s the exact opposite for running backs, and the effect is pretty dramatic.




No matter the metric, small-school running backs have outperformed BCS running backs.




Like speed, a player’s college doesn’t matter very much once we have a good sample of NFL data on him. But for first, second, and even third-year backs, the background matters.


A Potent Offense


Finally, whenever possible, consider drafting running backs on potent offensive attacks. There’s a somewhat strong correlation between passing efficiency and running back fantasy points.




Elite running backs almost always score a boatload of touchdowns. Acquiring goal-line carries is obviously a big part of scoring, but so is the ability of an offense to consistently move the ball up the field.


Plus, since passing efficiency is so strongly linked to team wins, those running backs on teams that can pass the ball well also frequently see a lot of fourth-quarter carries because their teams are winning. A heavy workload plus the ability to score touchdowns equals lots of running back fantasy production.