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Columns - Magazine

Valuing Pass-Catching RBs

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

Remember that game when the Falcons were down by six points in the fourth quarter, but Matt Ryan led Atlanta up the field for the game-winning score by continually hitting Michael Turner on check-downs?

 

Also, remember that time when I kept getting hit on by Jessica Alba to the point that I had to literally physically remove her from clutching my body?

 

Neither rings a bell? I think the Alba scenario is actually way more likely than the Turner one. In his first five NFL seasons, Turner averaged 4.5 catches per year. He never reached 20 catches in a season and he scored one time on a reception during his entire career.

 

Running backs who don’t catch passes suck, for a bunch of reasons. The most damning is that they’re reliant on a specific game script for production; when the Falcons were losing in the fourth quarter, for example, Turner was basically useless.

 

Not all production is created equally. Given a choice, I’ll take the “same” total production that comes in a variety of ways because it increases safety. Fifty yards rushing and 50 yards receiving beats 100 yards rushing. Over the long run, the types of players who see their fantasy production come via just a single channel (in Turner’s case, as a pure rusher) are more volatile than diverse players.

 

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How Leading the Game Helps a Running Back

 

I’ve already done some research on how much better running backs perform when they’re the favorite to win a game, but now I want to look at teams during different intervals based on whether they’re winning or losing. First, I broke down rushing attempts by quarter.

 

PRB1

 

There aren’t really fewer rushing attempts in the first quarter, but I didn’t include any plays when teams were tied (which obviously happens to begin every game). You can see that teams rush the ball about the same number of times through the first three quarters whether they’re winning or losing. That shouldn’t be the case, as teams losing in the second half should be passing the ball more than teams winning, regardless of their deficit. The idea that “we have plenty of time” ignores the fact that losing teams should usually try to extend the game as much as they can in the second half, but that’s a topic of another conversation.

 

Once we reach the fourth quarter, though, rushing attempts deviate dramatically. Teams leading in the fourth quarter rush the ball twice as frequently as losing teams. That’s a big difference.

 

They’re not as efficient, though.

 

PRB2

 

While rushing efficiency is pretty even though three quarters (although losing teams strangely rush more efficiently in the first quarter), look at how much worse winning teams rush the ball in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, teams that are trailing late improve their ability to gain yards on the ground.

 

The reason for that is pretty obvious; defenses are expecting late runs from teams that are leading, while defenses play the pass against trailing offenses.

 

So the question now is do the increased attempts for teams leading offset the decreased efficiency, and if so, by how much? Let’s take a look at rushing yards by quarter.

 

PRB3

 

As expected, teams leading in the fourth quarter rush for more yards than losing teams (about seven extra yards). Is seven extra yards a lot? Yes and no. It shouldn’t dramatically alter your decisions, but 0.7 projected fantasy points can certainly be a tiebreaker when deciding between two backs who might not be the best pass-catchers.

 

As a final note, I want to mention that the effect of winning helping running backs doesn’t get stronger as leads grow. That is, you might think that teams winning by 14-plus points would have greater rushing numbers than those winning by seven points, teams up by seven would rush better than those winning by three, and so on. Here’s how fourth-quarter rushing attempts and efficiency look in games in which a team has a lead of at least eight points.

 

PRB4

 

That adds up to a difference of just over seven yards—the same as the overall numbers. If we look at games in which a team leads by at least 14 points, the effect is much smaller—a difference of only four yards. So the simple effect of holding a lead in the fourth quarter—a lead of any size whatsoever—results in greater rushing productivity.

 

Of course, teams aren’t always going to hold fourth-quarter leads when they should. What happens to the running back when his team is losing? Backs like Turner and Alfred Morris become highly ineffective, while those like Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray can actually improve their fantasy stats.

 

If you’re going to consider a one-dimensional running back, make sure he plays on a stacked team that will be a big favorite to win most games. That helps all running backs, of course, but non-pass-catching backs are almost reliant on it to allow for an elite ceiling.