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The Most Underrated Backfield in Fantasy Football

We often look for fantasy football value from individual players. Who is primed to breakout? Who is being undervalued due to injury? But what about them teams themselves?

There can also be signs of an entire backfield poised to explode, even if the individual statuses of the pieces are a little murky.

To find the most undervalued backfield in fantasy, I turned to the RotoViz Screener and focused on Expected Points. Narratives tend to dominate during the season, so using EP is a good way to re-ground our expectations and get some perspective on the exact volume and value of a player, or in this case, player group.

What if I told you that the backfield that had the fourth-most Expected Points in 2017 now features running backs with overall ADPs of 87th and 182nd, as well as several backs that are going undrafted? Is that a team you’d want to invest in? 

Get in on the Gold Rush

The top two teams in terms of 2017 RB Expected Points come as no surprise. New Orleans and New England ran uptempo offenses and targeted their backs a ton. Jacksonville had the third most-valuable backfield – also no shock, given their extreme run-heavy approach.

The fourth-most valuable backfield was a revelation, however. Although perhaps it shouldn’t be, considering who’s behind it.

OFFruATTSreTRGSruEPreEPTotal Expected PointsruFPOEreFPOEPPR

San Francisco had just 36 fewer total Expected Points from their RBs than New England did last year. It’s notable considering the Patriots were second in scoring with 28.6 points per game, while the 49ers were 20th with just 20.7 PPG.

The 49ers generated more theoretical value from their backfield than teams like Minnesota, Carolina, Pittsburgh, and the Chargers. Backs from all those teams will cost you a first- or second-round pick in 2018.

I say theoretical value because in reality the 49ers featured one of the least efficient run games in the league and not all that value was realized. Despite that, the 49ers still outscored half those teams – including Pittsburgh – in terms of real points in 2017.

Nowhere To Go But…

Kyle Shanahan brings a reputation for the run game, yet last year his team was just middle of the pack (15th) in terms of running efficiency (ruFPOE), and they were the second-worst team in the NFL when it came to the RB passing game (reFPOE).1

What’s more likely? Shanahan forgot how to run game, or the 49ers had a bad roster with bad RBs?

download (1)

Hyde was the eighth-least efficient RB on the ground last year.2 In the passing game, he was an abject disaster — dead last in the entire league by a longshot. His reFPOE of -31.1 lapped that of the second-worst back, Isaiah Crowell, who had an reFPOE of -14.1.

Let’s talk about Shanahan. As was the case in San Francisco, he had a bit of a rough start as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta in terms of efficiency. In his first season at the helm, he had a break-even ruFPOE of 1.4, and a middling reFPOE of 5.2. The next season?


With a year to better install his zone-blocking system, Shanahan’s backfield efficiency metrics exploded. After a very average year, Atlanta’s ruFPOE of 48 in 2016 was third highest among all backfields, and the RB passing game mark of 43.3 reFPOE was the best in the league by a wide margin.

Can you guess which team was second in that metric in 2016? Yup, the 49ers (reFPOE of 35.6), the team that would follow up with one of the least-efficient run games the next season… under Shanahan, a run-game guru.

Efficiency is a stumbling drunkard. While it’s highly unpredictable, it does tend to regress to the mean. Shanahan’s history in the run game, meanwhile, is steady and steeped in history. We know what we’ll get in terms of volume.

There are plenty of reasons to think San Francisco’s backfield efficiency regresses to the mean in 2018, and if it does, there is value to be had here.

Does QB Affect the Run Game?

They’ve also added a quarterback that looks legit in Jimmy Garoppolo. Intuitively, we know that this should take some defensive focus off of the run game and allow it to be more efficient. But is there any evidence to support that?

While it’s a very small sample, we can indeed see that the 49ers backfield was considerably more efficient after Garoppolo took over as the starter in Week 13.

Weeks ruFPOE reFPOE
1-12 -29.1 -14.1
13-17 4.4 2.9

The presence of Garoppolo is no guarantee the 49ers run game will turn around, but it’s one more reason to believe that it will.

Who Benefits?

A detailed breakdown of the 49ers backfield is a tricky topic worthy of a deeper dive in a coming article.

However, as it stands, lead back Jerick McKinnon is poised to be the biggest beneficiary. He has an ADP of 87th overall (seventh round) in early MFL10 drafts. Although, that number may be deceiving, as he’s been a sharp riser now that draft data is pouring in and more people are realizing the amazing spot he’s in. I’ve recently seen him going in third and fourth rounds of drafts.

The fear here is that the 49ers will invest in the deep RB rookie class that is incoming, knocking McKinnon out of a clear lead role. The depth chart also contains a couple of deep sleepers that shouldn’t be written off, including RotoViz favorites Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols. 

We’ll bring you some deeper analysis of who you should targeting in San Francisco, but for now, this is fair warning not to ignore the most underrated backfield in fantasy football.

  1. You can sort all of the values in the above table to see where teams ranked.  (back)
  2. among RBs with at least 80 carries.  (back)

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