If you want to successfully project any player in fantasy football, you need to accurately forecast two things: workload and efficiency. How many opportunities will a player get to make plays and what will he be able to do with those chances? That’s it. Of course, projecting those two aspects of production is easier said than done, especially in a complex game like football.
What’s funny is that, as much obsessing as we do over player talent, it probably isn’t as important as we make it out to be. Sure, it’s obviously important for the teams and it’s really vital if you play in a dynasty season-long fantasy league, but the shorter the timeframe, the less talent matters. Playing fantasy football over the course of a single day, it follows that what we should be most concerned about with any position is workload.
And running back is the most extreme position. That makes sense if you think about it. First, running backs are extremely dependent on their teammates for production. Like, ridiculously dependent; a great offensive line can make a crappy running back look awesome and a poor offensive line can turn an All-Pro into a dud.
Since 2000, rookie running backs drafted in the middle and late rounds have a higher yards per carry than those drafted in the first two rounds. And if you don’t like yards per carry, the same holds true for success rate—a stat that adjusts expectations based on the down-and-distance. Teams are so bad at evaluating running back production—at separating talent—that they can’t even find better running backs early in the draft than late.
Nonetheless, there’s still very much a strong correlation between draft round and overall rushing yards.
Why? Workload. The backs drafted the highest get the most opportunities to make plays, and are thus the ones who have the most fantasy value. Opportunities exceed talent more so at the running back position than anywhere else. It is extremely important. If a running back gets a high number of carries, he’s pretty much guaranteed to be a useful player.
If you think about how little running back efficiency differs, it makes sense that workload would be more important. Whereas the touch count for running backs can differ wildly, the league-average YPC is 4.2 and the best running backs in the league are usually around 5.0 YPC—not much of a difference.
On top of that, YPC is very difficult to predict over the course of a season, much less a single game. There’s so much variance in those results that most of projecting YPC is just regressing it back toward the league mean. Simply put, running backs get almost all of their production as a result of touching the ball often.
I have four primary conclusions when it comes to running back workloads.
1. Workload is almost all you need to care about for projecting a running back.
It’s actually pretty crazy how much workload matters for running backs. On top of most of a back’s fantasy production coming from touches, workload is also easier to predict than efficiency. Because of that, 90 percent of our attention should be focused on identifying the running backs who will touch the ball the most.
2. Jump on rookie running backs if they’re going to see a lot of touches; draft slot doesn’t matter (only insofar as they’re going to get the ball).
Since NFL teams are so poor at evaluating running back talent, you can find talented backs throughout the draft. The early-drafted runners have the best production, but only because of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the teams think they’re the best running backs, so they touch the ball the most and produce the best bulk numbers. When a mid or late-round back is going to see a heavy workload, though, it’s an awesome value opportunity.
3. Touches near the goal-line are extremely valuable.
If touches, in general, are this valuable, you can imagine how important it is to get touches near the goal-line. The expected point value of carries and receptions soars once a team enters the red zone (and particularly inside the five-yard line).
Ideally, you want your running backs to not only see a lot of touches overall, but also to account for a high percentage of their team’s workload near the goal-line.
4. Backup running backs are the bee’s knees.
If player talent doesn’t matter that much at the running back position and most of success comes via workload, it follows that backup running backs should perform well in fantasy when they get more touches. And they do.
Actually, backups have performed better than starters when the starter has gotten hurt. The easiest play in all of daily fantasy you can make is to start a cheap backup who moves into the starting lineup after an injury.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is bales) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above.