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Better in Best Ball Running Backs

Kareem Hunt

Kareem Hunt

Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

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Last week I touched on better in best ball wide receivers, modeling my process after Underdog Fantasy’s Hayden Winks. Hayden dove into players who were “better in best ball” last season, using Underdog Fantasy’s half-PPR format. Be sure to check out his article HERE.

With wide receiver now covered, it’s time to take a look at better in best ball running backs.

As a drafter whose brain has been broken by Zero RB, I often find myself shying away from elite backs. Guys like Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler -- who all finished top-three in BB points per game -- are of little interest to me. Instead, give me those late-round guys with upside who randomly crack my lineup any given week, devastating my opponent. In your ordinary redraft league it can be quite burdensome figuring out who to start each week, but this is best ball, baby. All I need to do is draft the right players. It’s simple. The lack of roster management is why I love best ball.

Running backs don’t matter. But if they did I’d want to know which ones are best for my fantasy teams. So let’s have a look.

NOTE: Weekly PPR finishes are courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Advanced stats and metrics courtesy of RotoViz, and FootballOutsiders.

Better in Best Ball Running Backs

In Hayden’s article, “better in best ball points” for wide receivers were found by subtracting the average point total for the WR36 from any weekly output that exceeded that.

Example: Average point total for WR36 in 2021 was 11.5. In Week 1, Cooper Kupp scored 23.8 PPR points. 23.8-11.5=12.3. Kupp had 12.3 better in best ball points (BB points) in Week 1 last season.

For running backs, we are looking for the average score of the weekly RB24 since two running backs are often needed to fill your weekly lineup. In this case, the average score of the RB24 last season was 11.9 points. The same rules applied to the wide receivers to find BB points are then applied to the running backs.

Example: Average point total for WR24 in 2021 was 11.9. In Week 1, Christian McCaffrey scored 27.7 PPR points. 27.7-11.9=15.8. McCaffrey had 15.8 BB points in Week 1 last season.

Below are two charts. One showing running back PPR points and BB points. The other shows how they ranked. Any running backs who totaled 30 or more PPR points last season were calculated for BB points.

2021 Running Back PPR Points vs. BB points

2021 Running Back PPR Points vs. BB points

2021 RB PPR Rank vs. BB Points Rank

2021 RB PPR Rank vs. BB Points Rank

In the same way, I looked at the difference in player rankings in the wide receiver article, I want to do the same here.

I’m devastated to know that within these charts lies one of my favorite best ball targets this season in Tony Pollard. Last season, Pollard finished as the RB28 in total PPR points (pretty good) and as the RB46 in BB points (pretty bad).

His RB46 ranking in BB points doesn’t sound terrible on the surface. After all, he’s being measured against a field of 94 other backs. In essence, he’s still better than half the group. The problem is the ranking differential for Pollard (PPR rank minus BB points rank) is -18, which ranks third worst in this group. Only David Johnson and Mike Davis had a worse ranking differential (tied -27).

To the surprise of myself (and perhaps others reading this), I have drastically misremembered Pollard’s 2021 season, which included over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 39 receptions. Of the 15 games Pollard appeared in last season, he surpassed the 11.9 point threshold just three times and never had a true breakout game -- his best performance came in Week 10 vs. Atlanta (15.8 PPR).

Let this also serve as a cautionary tale on why it’s best to look at player production on a points per game basis rather than a yearly total. Pollard was the RB37 in PPR per game (10.8).

Nevertheless, this isn’t meant to scare anybody off of Pollard. I’ll continue to draft him given what we know about his talent and situation. Should Ezekiel Elliott miss any time, Pollard projects as a top-12 back in those weeks.

But his poor performance in BB points is a red flag, especially when we consider his role in Dallas’ offense. Despite totaling 169 touches and 1,056 yards from scrimmage, Pollard managed just two touchdowns. In a season where Elliott was often banged up, Dallas’ RB1 still totaled 55 red zone opportunities to Pollard’s 23. In goal-to-go situations, Elliott saw 22 touches to Pollard’s three.

As a result, Elliott found pay dirt 12 times to Pollard’s two. Despite being one of the league’s most efficient backs on a per touch basis, Pollard’s inability to find the end zone severely limited his fantasy upside. Mostly useless for best ball last season, Pollard had an 8.8% win rate in Best Ball 10’s (average win rate is 8.3%) and was seldom worth having in your lineup.

As was the case in 2021, you’re drafting Pollard as the high-upside handcuff behind Elliott. An increased role in 2022 could add to his upside, but a healthy Zeke could yield a death blow to Pollard drafters once again. Touchdowns matter and Pollard’s path to scoring them is muddied as long as Elliott is in the way.

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Last Year’s Studs

Kareem Hunt (CLE)

PPR Rank: RB50
BB Points Rank: RB31
Differential: +19

Last season was largely a lost one for Kareem Hunt. The soon-to-be 27-year-old back appeared in just eight games for the Browns, rushing for 78-386-5 while also catching 22 passes for 174 yards. For a guy sharing a backfield with bell cow Nick Chubb, Hunt was a top-24 back in four of his first six weeks. Since 2020, Hunt has suited up for 19 games with Chubb and remains a productive fantasy asset in a run-heavy offense.

Kareem Hunt vs. Nick Chubb 2020-2021 Game Splits

Kareem Hunt vs. Nick Chubb 2020-2021 Game Splits

Last season, Hunt was the RB15 in BB points per game (4.7) and was on pace for 79.9 total BB points -- good for the 10th most points -- one spot ahead of Nick Chubb‘s BB point total of 77.9.

Since entering the league in 2017, Hunt has had all-world efficiency. His 158.4 fantasy points over expectation ranked sixth in the league over that span while his receiving fantasy points over expectation (94.2) ranked fourth-best.

The downside to drafting Hunt at his RB32 ADP is that he and the Browns may struggle offensively to start the season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson will be suspended for the first six games, giving way to Jacoby Brissett as the team’s short-term starter. The good news is that the Browns will lean heavily on their backfield with Brissett under center, which could lead to high touch totals for both Chubb and Hunt.

It’s worth noting that Hunt could be a cut candidate next offseason, costing the Browns nothing in dead cap. Even if he were to be let go by the team, he’ll be a hot commodity for several teams in need of an upgrade.

Rhamondre Stevenson (NE)

PPR Rank: RB47
BB Points Rank: RB37
Differential: +10

Playing in an ever-crowded Patriots backfield, Rhamondre Stevenson showed flashes of a three-down back when given the opportunity.

The former Sooner managed 116.9 total PPR and ranked 37th in BB points (30.3). Limited at times by inconsistent usage, Stevenson appeared in 12 games and was 38th in BB points per game (2.5). Of the 12 games he appeared in, Stevenson had four top-24 finishes and went off for 27.4 and 22.7 points in games against Cleveland and Jacksonville.

Stevenson didn’t set the world on fire as a receiver, drawing just 18 targets on the season while catching 14 passes for 123 yards, but could earn more targets in 2022 with Brandon Bolden now in Las Vegas. Bolden unexpectedly led the Patriots’ backfield in receptions last season (41) following the injury to James White, and White doesn’t look like a sure bet to return this season.

Last preseason Stevenson wowed fans with a 30-216-5 rushing line that included 13 missed tackles forced per Pro Football Focus. With rumors of him already seeing some first-team reps at training camp, and Damien Harris heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Stevenson feels like a reasonably safe bet to take a second-year leap.

Rashaad Penny (SEA)

PPR Rank: RB42
BB Points Rank: RB19
Differential: +23

Fifth-year running back Rashaad Penny has spent much of his career shedding the “bust” label. Selected by the Seahawks in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Penny has dealt with a number of injuries throughout his career, limiting him to 37 of a possible 65 games.

Penny finally showed some of his promise late in the 2021 season when he emerged to be one of the legitimate “league winners” of last season. In the final five weeks of the season, Penny posted four top-12 finishes while averaging 22.0 points per game. Despite appearing in just 10 games, Penny managed an RB19 finish in BB points while also ranking as the RB42 in total PPR -- good for an impressive +23 differential. He ranked fourth amongst running backs in fantasy points over expectation (43.5) despite ranking 56th in expected fantasy points (61.0)

Even with a strong finish to his season, Penny was unable to discourage the Seahawks, lovers of the running game, from drafting Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker with the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

Despite the selection of Walker, Penny is rumored to be the starter heading into training camp. While this is reflected on some sites, Walker still holds a slight edge in ADP (89.0, RB31) over Penny (94.5, RB33) in Best Ball 10 drafts. Neither back is available for much of a discount at this time, and the Seahawks offense isn’t expected to be particularly good. Seattle’s commitment to the run is keeping their price somewhat high, but it’s hard to get excited about a two-RB committee in what may be a bottom-10 offense.

Still, Penny has shown absurd levels of efficiency, even if in a small sample size. I’m intrigued.

Alexander Mattison (MIN)

PPR Rank: RB38
BB Points Rank: RB32
Differential: +6

If you’re looking for a running back living in Tony Pollard opposite world, look no further than Alexander Mattison.

Like Pollard, Mattison was drafted as a high-end fantasy handcuff for another starter -- in this case, Dalvin Cook. What’s interesting is Mattison’s stand-alone value when Cook is healthy is virtually non-existent, while Pollard is a legitimate contender for 10+ opportunities on any given week.

Despite being the less-reliable player on a week-to-week basis, Mattison ranked 14 spots better than Pollard in BB points last season. Why? Because when given opportunities to thrive, he did so in a big way.

Mattison surpassed the 11.5-point threshold just four times in 16 games. It sounds brutal, but it wasn’t. In fact, Mattison did everything drafters hoped he would when called upon.

Of the four times he surpassed our RB2 point threshold, Mattison never finished with fewer than 16 points in a week. You’ll see his other three useable weeks yielded even better results.

Alexander Mattison 2021 PPR Numbers

Alexander Mattison 2021 PPR Numbers

When you consider Mattison’s production relative to Pollard in a PPR context, it’s almost absurd to think Mattison would’ve been the far more valuable best ball asset.

Tony Pollard 2021 PPR Numbers

Tony Pollard 2021 PPR Numbers

Mattison had just two more touchdowns than Pollard last season, accounted for 337 fewer yards and had seven fewer receptions. But in best ball spike weeks hold more value than anything else, and Mattison was rich with spike weeks.

Playing behind the oft-injured Cook, Mattison could be primed for the occasional smash week in 2022. His 124.8 ADP (RB44) looks like a value in every sense of the word.

How to Play it in 2022

Outside of the obvious top picks in every year’s draft, dissecting which running backs will prove most valuable in best ball is no easy task.

To start, the top-12 backs in BB points last season all drew relatively high draft capital -- Cordarrelle Patterson being the exception.

However, much like some “better in best ball” wide receivers -- you know, the random deep threat who gets you 15 points on a single 80-yard touchdown -- we also need to seek out running backs who can smash on any given week.

Sometimes these players capable of big weeks come in the form of satellite backs. Washington’s J.D. McKissic was a surprisingly excellent example of this last season, ranking as the RB33 in BB points (36.6) and as the RB26 in BB points per game (3.3). McKissic’s win rate of 10.8% was well above average despite him missing the final six games of the season due to a concussion. Prior to his injury, teams rostering McKissic were sporting a 13.2% win rate.

Other times it can come in the form of a touchdown-dependent hammer like Damien Harris (BB points 57.8, RB19) or a reliable high-end handcuff like Mattison. Targeting players in a good offense makes for a nice, albeit obvious edge.

Heading into this season, 2022 feels like a great setup for some late-round bloomers.

2022 Rookie Running Back ADPs

2022 Rookie Running Back ADPs

This year’s rookie class features a handful of backs going in the 10th round or later who could find themselves in a significant role at some point in the season. Isaiah Spiller looks like the RB2 in a high-powered Chargers offense this season -- as does Rachaad White in Tampa Bay.

While in Atlanta, fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier, despite playing in an underwhelming offense, is well worth a shot as he looks to beat out two running backs (Patterson and Damien Williams) whose best years are undoubtedly behind them.

Tyrion Davis-Price and Hassan Haskins find themselves in run-heavy schemes on their respective teams, and Brian Robinson, whose situation is most hard to predict, could very well wind up in a three-headed committee to start the season. An injury to Antonio Gibson at any point in the season likely propels Robinson into mid-RB2 territory.