The fantasy value of NFL running backs has changed. In 2015, only one back rushed more than 300 times and just five had more than 250 runs. In 2010, there were 11 with over 250 carries and seven of those exceeded 300. Surprisingly, both seasons contained eight running backs with 50+ receptions. The position that once dominated the first round of fantasy drafts no longer compares as well against wideouts or quarterbacks.
No matter the era or changes in popular offensive schemes, the value of any fantasy player is always a mixture of their talent, situation and opportunity. Depending on the position, not all categories carry equal weight. I covered this in my book Fantasy Football: The Next Level about eight years ago. The names have all changed by now but the concept is still accurate.
Running Back Value = Talent + Situation + (Opportunity x 2)
Talent – This is just not that critical. The 31 rushers with 150+ carries last year only varied 1.39 yards per rush with an overall average of 4.19 yards. That means Doug Martin’s top mark of 4.87 yards was only about 24 inches better than the average rusher in the group. By contrast, the top 32 wideouts varied from 9.03 to 17.80 yards – a difference of almost nine yards per catch.
Situation – The total league carries have declined in each of the last eight years. The number of receptions increased but those are spread out more among pass-catching specialists than the primary back. Offensive scheme is important but all teams still rely on running backs more than any other individual player. The quality of the offensive line and strength of schedule hold just as much impact to any back’s situation.
Opportunity – This is what matters most for valuing a running back. There is marginal difference in how many yards running backs will gain when they touch the ball. Reception point leagues mean greater value for pass-catching backs but again – it’s all about the volume. Given the decline in workload over recent years, securing a player with the most touches is an even bigger advantage.
Talent can be hard to measure and is not a major success factor anyway. Situation will yield either advantages or disadvantages to a running back but mostly from the quality of the blocking or the ease of the rushing schedule. The best of all worlds is for a talented back to play in a run-heavy offense with a great offensive line and against an easy schedule and to receive a high volume of touches. And that combination almost never happens.
Where the best values are found in fantasy drafts is when there is a significant positive change to one or more variables. The reality is that most fantasy team owners draft as if the previous season is going to repeat. Value stems from acquiring players who will outplay their 2015 production.
Improved situations and increased workloads are central to gaining an advantage.
Carlos Hyde (49ers) – Every variable is positive here other than an average offensive line. Hyde not only has one of the most favorable schedules of all running backs, but a great new offensive scheme and a chance for far more carries and catches. New head coach Chip Kelly had the Eagles ranked #1 with 539 touches by running backs in 2015 and Hyde will receive the majority of the backfield workload this season.
Lamar Miller (Texans) – Changing teams will make a dramatic difference for Miller who left the Dolphins that were ranked #32 in running back carries (290) last year. And he lands in Houston where they were #1 (424). That change in volume alone gives Miller his most promising season. Miller’s experience as a receiver will further enhance his value.
Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) – He’ll be popular in drafts for a great reason. Considered as the most talented back in the 2016 NFL draft, he goes to Dallas where he’ll enjoy potentially the best offensive line and faces a schedule that is much improved from last year. Plus, the Cowboys intend to ride the rookie like it’s 1999. He could be the next Emmitt Smith and he’s worth drafting as if he was.
Rashad Jennings (Giants) – The Giants kept their offense consistent by promoting offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to head coach. And Jennings improved with a 4.4 yards per carry average in 2015. The Giants brought in no new challengers to the backfield and the schedule is one of the best for running backs this year.
Tevin Coleman (Falcons) – The best change is volume and that’s the plan in Atlanta for the second-year back that was eclipsed by Devonta Freeman last year. But Freeman tailed off badly when he rushed for only 347 yards on 113 carries over the final seven games (3.1 yards per carry). The backfield will remain split and Freeman still keeps almost all the receptions. But Coleman will see much more than the 87 carries of last year along with more use at the goal line.
Ameer Abdullah (Lions) – The Lions enter the second season with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter so the backfield workload won’t change much. But hidden inside Abdullah’s total stats from 2015 is the change that Cooter made when he took over the offense at mid-season. The rookie back ran for 357 yards on 75 carries over the final seven weeks for a healthy 4.76 yards per carry average. His workload will increase and the offense seeks to become more balanced with Calvin Johnson gone.
C.J. Anderson (Broncos) – While Anderson has been a notoriously slow starter, there are good reasons to expect improvement. He was re-signed to a four-year contract as the primary back in an offense that will seek to rush more now that Peyton Manning is gone. His carries are expected to go up sharply and the schedule is significantly lighter than it was in 2015. Over his three previous seasons, Anderson has never averaged fewer than 4.7 yards per carry.
Just as important as knowing who presents a good fantasy value is avoiding those who are not.
Jay Ajayi (Dolphins) – After a low-key rookie season backing up Lamar Miller, the Dolphins turn to Ajayi as the feature back despite his paltry 49 carries and 3.8 yards per carry average. This same offense only gave Miller 194 carries last year though his fantasy value was propped up with 47 catches. But Ajayi was limited to only seven receptions and he’ll face one of the worst running back schedules in the NFL.
Frank Gore (Colts) – The 33-year-old has long been a standout but he lost a step and ended with a career worst 3.7 yards per carry during his first season in Indianapolis. He’ll be no spryer this year in the same scheme with a below-average set of blockers. Worse yet, his schedule is much worse than last year.
Chris Ivory (Jaguars) – Ivory left the Jets after his first 1,000 yard season and at first glance it seems a nice fit in Jacksonville. But offensive coordinator Greg Olson had the Jaguars ranked 31st in running back carries (295) last year and ranked 30th (303) in Oakland for 2014. His offenses like to throw to backs though Ivory’s six-year career only totals 53 receptions and T.J. Yeldon is expected to act as the receiving back. Throw in one of the worst run-blocking lines and one of the worst running back schedules and Ivory is much less attractive.
Running backs are still a critical component of every fantasy team. Talent, situation and especially opportunity continue to be the keys during the season as well. If any back has a chance to carry the load even for one week – grab him. Fantasy owners cashed in later in the year with David Johnson, Thomas Rawls, Javorius Allen and others.