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7 Takeaways for 2016 – The RB Opportunity Report

For this week’s Running Back Opportunity Report, I’ll be handing out superlatives for 2015. Like every week, I’ll be using the Fanstasy Efficiency App to go beyond raw carries, targets and yardage stats to determine who delivered the most (and least) fantasy value in 2015.

Methodology and Acronyms

Check out the introductory article for a full breakdown.

There are two acronyms you’ll need to know for this series: EP and FPOE.

EP = Expected Points. EP is the difference between getting a carry at the your own 10 versus your opponent’s 10. Your 10, low EP. Your opponents 10, high EP.

FPOE = Fantasy Points Over Expectation. This is a player’s performance against EP. A TD from your own 10 yard line is worth more FPOE than from your opponent’s 10 yard line–and not because of the associated yardage–the TD itself is more valuable because it was much less likely to occur from such a great distance.

One Final note is that the FPs listed in the App and in this article are in PPR scoring.

Top 7 Takeaways from Week 16

1 – Rookie RB of the Year

Winner: David Johnson

It was a good year for rookie RBs this season, though not necessarily for the RBs we expected. T.J. Yeldon received the most valuable workload among rookies, but struggled to take advantage due to injuries and inefficient play. Other mid-round fantasy selections Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Tevin Coleman returned little value, producing inefficiently on smaller than expected workloads. Only Todd Gurley really delivered from the early ADP rookie RBs, averaging 10.9 EP and 5.3 FPOE in 13 games, both of which were second among rookies.

Outside of Gurley, the rookie RB production came primarily from the late rounds and waiver wire, with four lower priced rookies each producing bursts of viable, and sometimes league dominating, production.

RBEP/gFPOE/gWeeks
David Johnson16.76.212 - 16
Thomas Rawls11.27.93 - 5 & 11 - 13
Javorius Allen152.311 - 16
Jeremy Langford13.21.69 - 16

David Johnson‘s current stretch is the most impressive of these runners, and ultimately, the most impressive work we’ve seen from a rookie RB this season. Even at Gurley’s peak–a four game stretch from Weeks 7-10–Gurley couldn’t best what Johnson has done over the last four weeks:

RBEP/gFPOE/gWeeks
Todd Gurley14.29.27 - 10
David Johnson16.89.113 - 16

Johnson’s production also came just at the right time for fantasy owners. While Gurley rebounded from a mid-season slump in time for the fantasy playoffs, what Johnson has done over these last three critical weeks has been otherworldly.

RBEP/gFPOE/gWeeks
Todd Gurley12.67.414 - 16
David Johnson18.29.814 - 16

Johnson’s passing game usage also provides a degree of separation between him and Gurley. While Gurley averaged 5.6 receiving EP during his four week peak, he’s averaged just 1.5 reEP since, which is less than Isaiah Crowell‘s average this season, and less than half of Chris Ivory‘s. At one point Gurley looked to be developing into a three down workhorse. Given his usage down the stretch however, Gurely’s passing game role looks more like a red flag heading into 2016.

Johnson meanwhile, has averaged 6.9 receiving EP since Week 12, 10th most among RBs over that span, and saw 10.2 receiving EP last week despite Andre Ellington‘s return. It’s doubtful that Johnson’s usage in this regard is a fluke since, a former Wide Receiver, he’s perhaps even more talented as a receiver than as a runner.

Looking ahead to next season, both Gurley and Johnson are obvious targets. For Gurley, the question comes down to if he can develop his role in the passing game to insulate himself from game script. For Johnson, it comes down to whether or not he’ll maintain the every down workhorse role we’ve seen since Chris Johnson went down. It’s possible Johnson slows down in next week or in the playoffs, leading to a lighter workload in 2016. But as of right now I expect that my 2016 preference will be Johnson, since he’ll likely have a greater Expected Points workload, and may very well be the cheaper of the two.

2 – Most Under Utilized RB

Winner: Lamar Miller

Before Week 12 you could make a case that this superlative should have gone to David Johnson, who averaged just 4.8 EP but produced a league leading 0.78 FPOE per opportunity over the first 11 weeks. And Gurley once again makes a compelling runner-up with 0.27 FPOE per opportunity on only a 10.9 EP average this season. Lamar Miller however, looks to be the most criminally underused RB this season.

Miller put together a career year in 2015 with 4.9 FPOE per game and 0.32 FPOE per opportunity. On a per opportunity basis, Miller was essentially Jamaal Charles this season. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that he was under used as the result of poor coaching.1 Despite his excellent efficiency Miller saw just 10.2 EP per game, which was 25th among RBs and behind notables such as Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray and Chris Johnson. He barely outworked Bilal Powel, Darren Sproles and Ronnie Hillman.

Miller is an impending Free Agent and turns just 25 in April. If he lands in a better spot, or better coaches land in his current spot, Miller could be in contention for the overall RB1 in 2016. That said, opportunity is king. If Miller doesn’t look poised for a bigger role in 2016 I’ll be limiting my shares–it’s hard to count on RB1 production from a RB3 workload.

3 – Highest Leverage RB of the Year

Winner: Danny Woodhead

Back in Week 2, I highlighted Danny Woodhead‘s advantage over Melvin Gordon in Expected Points, despite Gordon’s greater raw Market Share, writing this:

Woodhead is a great example of how Expected Points can provide insights not obvious through Market Share or other opportunity metrics. Woodhead has accounted for just 35 percent of San Diego’s rushing attack and 46 percent of the total RB touches, while Melvin Gordon leads the way with 55 percent of the carries and 49 percent of the total touches. But the Expected Points tell a different story. By EP Woodhead accounts for 44 percent of the Chargers’ rushing game and 59 percent of the overall opportunity, compared to 51 percent for Gordon as a rusher and just 36 percent overall.

Although Woodhead’s usage fell off slightly over the remainder of the season, he remains the best example of a RB who benefited from high leverage touches. On the surface Woodhead was a part time player who averaged less than 15 opportunities per game. But his 11.9 EP per game was the 14th highest of the season, a direct result of valuable redzone and passing down work. It’s also worth pointing out that despite turning 31 this month Woodhead’s 51.1 FPOE was the 8th most in the NFL. As I wrote last week (when he was the most efficient receiver of Week 15), Woodhead is likely to be one of the more under the radar ways to target an efficient RB with a valuable workload in 2016.

4 – Comeback RB of the Year

Winner: DeAngelo Williams

How could this go to anyone else than DeAngelo Williams? Sure, Tim Hightower was also raised from the dead the last few weeks, but Williams has been an absolute force for nearly the entire season. He also capped off his fantasy season with 153 total yards and 2 TDs in Week 16. So, you know, not too shabby.

Since Week 9 Williams has led the NFL in combined rushing/receiving EP with 17.5 per game. Only Devonta Freeman is within three points of him over that stretch. Williams also leads the league in Market Share of EP since Week 9 with 93 percent of the Steelers’ workload. Only Marshawn Lynch (in a one game sample) and Darren McFadden are above 80 percent over that span as well. Moreover, Williams’ 41.2 FPOE since Week 9 is the second most to only Adrian Peterson over that span. David Johnson is the only other back with more than 35 FPOE since Week 9.

If I told you before the season that Williams would be a higher volume, more efficient version of Le’Veon Bell, you’d have justifiably laughed me out of the room–but here we are. In the nine games Williams played without Bell he averaged 17.4 EP and 5.8 FPOE; in Bell’s five healthy games Bell averaged 15.9 EP and 4.7 FPOE.

Williams is under contract for next season, and given his performance this year it’d be a shock if he wasn’t brought back. He’ll remain an elite handcuff to Bell and could very well provide some early season value if Bell returns slowly from injury.

4 – Biggest Injury Loss

Winner: Arian Foster

There were a ton of injuries at the RB position this season, and from a fantasy perspective, you could make the case that Bell, Charles, Lynch, Mark Ingram, or Dion Lewis were the most devestating for fantasy owners. But each of those backfields continued producing after their lead back went down. Instead I would argue that the biggest loss to the fantasy RB landscape was Arian Foster.

In the four games that Foster played in this season he averaged an elite workload of 15.7 EP. And that jumps up to 17.8 EP if you exclude his first game back from injury when he rotated with Alfred Blue. Foster also averaged 6.3 FPOE per game and a solid 0.24 FPOE per opportunity over that stretch, providing an efficient return on a heavy workload.

When Foster was out of the lineup however, it was a different story. In the 11 games Foster missed the Texans had three different RBs average at least 5.0 EP per game, with none of them averaging even a third the FPOE that Foster was providing at his best. Essentially, without Foster the Texans backfield was a third as reliable and less than a third as efficient.

Foster’s Achilles’ tendon injury is a big deal, so unfortunately we may have lost him as an elite RB for good. But I for one will be keeping an eye on his ADP this off-season. If he can return close to his previous form, his value from workload alone could put him in mid-range RB1 territory.

6 – Most Valuable RB

Winner: Devonta Freeman

In a crazy year for RBs Devonta Freeman stood out as a both the most reliable RB on a weekly basis, and one of the most efficient. Excluding Week 11, when he was knocked out of the game with a concussion, and Week 1, when he worked behind Tevin Coleman, Freeman averaged 18.6 EP this season. And on top of that enormous workload, Freeman was remarkably efficient, leading the NFL in combined FPOE with 75.0. Think of it this way, David Johnson’s monster stretch since Chris Johnson’s injury is what Freeman has done all season.

As a Freeman owner in dynasty, the question becomes how much to believe in him for 2016. On the one hand Freeman just finished as the overall RB1 at only 23 years old in an NFL severely lacking for top fantasy options at RB. On the other hand, we’ve seen RBs come and go in the Shanahan zone blocking scheme before, so Freeman could conceivably be a flash in the pan. At the very least he would likely take a hit if Kyle Shanahan were to depart.

There’s also Coleman to worry about. Coleman struggled mightily this season, receiving just 4.9 EP per game (78th among RBs) and producing -10.2 FPOE (157th among RBs). So we can go ahead and write Coleman off… except that’s exactly what many did last season to Freeman after his inefficient rookie season. Not to say that Coleman can replicate what we’ve seen from Freeman, but it’s not out of the question that he turns this into a committee with a few more big runs and a few less inopportune fumbles.

So what do I think of Freeman? It depends on the price. If I can get first round startup value for him, I’ll explore trading him this off-season. If not, I’m content to ride Freeman into next season. Providing Shanahan returns, he should be a safe bet to return as at least an RB1. He has it red flags, but at the RB position, who doesn’t?

7 – The Most Efficient Men in the World

Rushing: Jerick McKinnon

Jerick McKinnon was the week’s most efficient rusher and most efficient RB overall with 17.6 rushing FPOE and 16.5 combined FPOE. McKinnon now has a rushing FPOE per attempt of 0.37, which is fifth among RBs with at least 30 carries. Despite averging only the 103rd most rushing EP he’s now 25th in rushing FPOE for the season.

For the season, McKinnon has been more efficient than Peterson as a rusher, averaging 0.37 FPOE per attempt to Peterson’s 0.19, and as a receiver, averaging 0.24 FPOE per target to Peterson’s 0.18. The usual caveats about sample size apply, with McKinnon seeing less than a fourth of the carries and targets that Peterson has.

McKinnon could be a good buy low once March hits, which is when Peterson’s roster 2016 roster bonus is due. If Peterson is back, and I believe it’s highly likely that he will be, McKinnon should be fairly cheap to acquire as an injury handcuff and/or 2017 stash.

Receiving: Travaris Cadet

Travaris Cadet returned home last week to the team that originally un-drafted him, with three receptions for 69 yards and a TD. His 9.6 FPOE was the highest of the week.

With just one week in New Orleans, Cadet produced more FPOE with the Saints than C.J. Spiller has all season, and did so on a larger workload than Spiller has averaged. That highlights both what a colossal disappointment Spiller has been this season, as well as the opportunity that Cadet has in front of him as a Saint. Spiller may be back next season–based on his contract my guess is that he will be–but even if he is, Cadet could win the job as the primary receiving RB, which has been a valuable role in the past. In deeper dynasty leagues Cadet is definitely worth an add.

Combined Efficiency: Tim Hightower

Hightower was the week’s second most efficient RB overall with 9.4 FPOE on 27 attempts and three targets. More importantly he probably either won you your league or made you swear off fantasy football forever.

While it’s nice that Sean Payton is finally committing to feeding one Saints RB, it’s tantalizing to think about what kind of production we could see out of Ingram with this same opportunity. As for Hightower, I doubt the 29 year old impending Free Agent has much fantasy utility ahead. But Hightower, as someone who hadn’t played a snap since 2011 but averaged 10.3 EP with the Saints and 15.7 EP the last three weeks, does provide a valuable example of the importance of RB opportunity.

  1. One can only imagine how bad things might have been for Miller this season if Thomas Jones had been on the roster.  (back)

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