When a team drafts and plays a rookie quarterback, what impact does that have on the rest of the offense? Specifically, how does it affect the running game? It’s logical to assume that running backs with rookie QBs tend to benefit from increased volume from check downs and a general offensive focus on the ground game as a means to take pressure off the team’s first-year signal-caller. But another narrative instead submits that we ought to avoid these RBs because they are likely to face eight-man fronts with more frequency and increased defensive attention in general.
In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a few examples where an author is bullish on an RB because his QB is a rookie (Delone Carter, Cedric Benson, and Trent Richardson) and here’s a few examples where the author is concerned about increased defensive attention (Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and . . . Trent Richardson). This season we’ve seen Evan Silva argue in favor of Terrance West because he expects high rushing volume (in part due to the presence of Johnny Manziel), while RotoViz’s own Dwain McFarland has cited eight-man fronts as a reason to be cautious of West at his current ADP.
Both arguments make sense. The first presumes that teams will want to use the run game to ease their rookie QB into the offense and help them avoid mistakes. The second supposes that rookie QBs won’t be able to keep defensive attention off the run game, impairing their RBs’ ability to gain yards and score touchdowns. Both arguments are totally logical, but which one is right? To answer that question I took a look at 13 years’ worth of NFL data and found what I believe to be a knockout blow to one of these two arguments. So take my hand as look to answer this question once and for all—I promise I won’t let you let you down.
What the Hell is a VORB?
My first step was to create two cohorts of games, one for rookie QBs and one for veteran QBs.1 For a game to make either cohort a QB had to account for at least 80 percent of his team’s passing attempts in the game. That’s it. This resulted in 582 rookie QB games and 6,382 veteran QB games.2 For all RBs in these offenses I summed their carries, receptions, touches, and fantasy points. I then took the average of each RB stat across the entire cohort.
Basically what we’re looking at is the total fantasy production from all RBs on a team, broken into two groups: those with rookie QBs and those with veteran QBs. For brevity’s sake3 I’ve named the Backs in Rookie Offenses “BROs” and the veteran Offense RBs “VORBs.”4 Check out the results in the table below:
|RBs w/ Rookie QB (BROs)||RBs w/ Veteran QB (VORBs)||Difference|
- OK, the Backs in Rookie Offenses (BROs) carry the ball more, but only by a small margin. As a group the BROs see just .4 more carries per game than the veteran offense RBs (VORBs).
- BROs also account for one less reception per game, which goes directly against the narrative that RBs with rookie QBs benefit from increased check downs. As a result BROs actually touch the ball less on a per game basis than VORBs.
- In terms of fantasy points per game the VORBs put a whooping on the BROs, scoring nearly two points per game more in standard and nearly three FP/game more in PPR.
- Score one for eight-man fronts and veteran QB leadership.
VORBs before BROs?
Interesting results, but I know what you’re thinking,5 not all rookie QBs are made equal. There’s a difference between a QB who gets thrown in at the end of a lost season, or who can’t beat out a veteran starter to begin the year, and one whose team is committed to developing him and is presumably of a higher talent level. I mean, no one goes into the season hoping their fantasy RB will be on a Rusty Smith-led offense, right?
Let’s weed out the Jeff Tuels of the world and add some splits to our BRO data. That way we can look at how the BRO performance changes as the rookie QB plays more games:
- Wow, the BRO carries go up like clockwork as the rookie QB plays more games. This certainly seems to validate the idea that teams want to control the game with the run when they’re looking to protect/develop their rookie QB.
- Surprisingly, BRO receptions actually trend down as QB stability increases. This further weakens the argument that we can expect increased check down receptions for BROs.
- Even though BRO fantasy points trend up with increased QB stability they never match the output of the original VORB cohort. Moreover, the PPR FP for BROs with high QB stability is less than a point greater than the general BRO cohort.
- If you’re drafting a RB because you’re expecting increased check down opportunities from a rookie QB, stop doing that.
Can the BROs Make a Comeback? (No, no they can’t)
If you’ve been rooting for the BROs to pop on a tank, chug some muscle milk, and fist pump their way to a stunning come from behind victory, I have some bad news. We saw the effect of increased QB stability on the BROs, and now we’ll run the same analysis for the VORBs to see if they also benefit from increased QB stability. Stop crying, it’s only fair.
- The increase in carries for the VORBs, although consistent, is extremely subtle. One could take from this that teams aren’t really looking to protect their veteran QBs with the run game, regardless of how invested in the QB they are.
- By controlling for QB stability we’ve uncovered a noticeable difference in carries between the BROs and VORBs. When QB situation is stable the BROs receive nearly two carries per game more than the VORBs. I think that this difference is the primary driver behind the narrative that fantasy RBs benefit from increased volume when their team has a rookie QB. The narrative is based on a kernel of truth. BROs do in fact receive more carries than VORBS if their offense is built around their rookie QB.
- The VORBs’ FPs increase by roughly a point in both standard and PPR scoring once QB stability in accounted for, but unlike the BROs the VORBs aren’t seeing significantly more touches. What accounts for this increase?
- Even when QB situation is stable the VORBs maintain their lead on the BROs despite the extra carries the BROS receive. In standard scoring the VORB lead shrinks slightly from 1.8 FP to 1.5 FP, but in PPR the VORB lead grows from 2.8 to 3.2 FP per game.
Why do VORBS Outperform BROs?
I’m especially intrigued by the increase in the VORBs’ FP when QB stability increases. They’re seeing only .5 touches more per game, yet their fantasy output increases by roughly a point in both standard and PPR. What accounts for this increase? I went back to the data and I think I have an answer—efficient QB play. In fact I think efficient QB play may be behind the entire VORB > BRO effect. Below are the same tables that we saw above, but I’ve added one additional row: the average of the primary QB’s AYA.6
- See how both standard and PPR fantasy points increase along with AYA in both tables? That there is what you call a correlation.
- Just like with the BROs’ FPs even QB stability can’t make up the difference between the BRO and VORB AYA.
- The increase in AYA as QB stability increases looks like the missing link to explain why FPs went up for the VORBs even though carries and receptions only increased slightly.
- Similarly, I think increasing AYA probably explains as much of the BROs improved fantasy production as their increasing carries do.
- The big takeaway here is that efficient QB play is good for RB production and veteran QBs are more likely to play efficiently.
I’m declaring this an electric K.O. in favor of the VORBS. I’d go so far to say that RBs with rookie QBs don’t benefit from increased volume they see. That may sound illogical, but I believe what this analysis clearly shows is that even though RBs with rookie QBs may see more carries, the less efficient play of their QBs serves to counteract the benefit that these carries should deliver. As a result, even the BROs with the most stable QB situations can’t match the fantasy output of the general VORB sample.
For fantasy drafting purposes you should absolutely avoid factoring “has a rookie QB” into any argument for moving an RB up your draft board. At best the benefits of that approach will be dubious; at worst you’re getting the valuation of having a rookie QB exactly wrong. Here’s the bottom line: If you’re drafting a RB you want his QB play to be efficient—and veteran QBs are more likely to deliver efficient QB play.
How to Play it in 2014
Now that we know VORBs are more likely to produce fantasy points than BROs, let’s apply that knowledge to the 2014 fantasy draft landscape.
- Minnesota: Peterson is probably best off if Matt Cassell starts the entire year. That seems unlikely. But even if Teddy Bridgewater starts, Peterson still may be better off than last year as long as you think that Bridgewater will be a more efficient than Christian Ponder.7
- Cleveland: I think that this analysis throws a little bit of cold water on Ben Tate and West. When considering the fantasy prospects of the Browns’ RBs this year keep in mind that even though they’ll be playing in the S2K RB Machine they’ll still likely have to contend with inefficient QB play, which could cap their upside.
- Jacksonville: I think this analysis uncovers some of the risk inherent in drafting Toby Gerhart this year. Gerhart’s ADP has risen to the late third round on fantasy football calculator, up from the mid-fifth ADP of two months ago.8 I don’t hate Gerhart at his current ADP but keep in mind that for all the lip service being paid to the workhorse role Gerhart will have, if the Jaguars decide to give Blake Bortles a whirl this year, Gerhart’s production is likely to suffer.9
Congrats to those in the eight-man front camp, it’s a proud day for you and family. In a future article I may dive deeper into the interaction between AYA, frequency of eight-man fronts, and RB production, but for now don’t be suckered by a couple extra rushing attempts—take the RBs who have less defenders to deal with.
- To do this I used the data at armchairanalyis which covers the last 13 seasons of NFL games. The data also includes playoff games, which I left in to make the sample sizes as large as possible. (back)
- Technically by “games” I really mean the offensive output in a game. If the offense for both teams met the criteria, the game was included twice. (back)
- meaning, my fingers are starting cramp up at the thought of typing “RBs in rookie QB led offenses” another 27 times (back)
- I apologize if my choice of acronym has made you hungry. (back)
- unless this is what you’re thinking (back)
- To create this AYA data point I summed the Adjusted Yards for the entire cohort and then divided by the total attempts. Basically I created a QB version of the Dawson’s Creek Trapper Keeper. (back)
- like I do (back)
- No doubt as a result of the RotoViz bump. (back)
- Yea, I know the other option is Chad Henne. But Bortles is still a rookie; a rookie that even the Jags themselves have acknowledged is a bit of project. I think Henne is likely to be the more efficient option. (back)