Welcome back to my NFL Game Script series, where I examine how game script affects running back fantasy production in season-long redraft and best ball formats.
In Part 1, I broke up our running back sample into quartiles based on their teams’ preseason Vegas Win Totals:
Quartile 1 is composed of players from teams with a Vegas Win Total of 9.5 or higher. Quartile 2 is 8.5 to 9.0; Quartile 3 is 7.5 to 8.0; and Quartile 4 is 7.0 and lower.
In this installment, I’ll be examining players from Quartile 2 — the group of players for which game script has the most damning consequences.
Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:
- How Game Script Affects Running Backs in Redraft and Best Ball Formats
- Austin Ekeler is Alvin Kamara-in-Waiting: How Season-Long Game Script Affects Running Back Production, Part 2
Quartile 2 is a Minefield of Downside Risk
In Part 1, I briefly examined summary statistics for each quartile. Among them, Quartile 2 reported by far the worst historical running back performances, which makes it a minefield of downside risk. Before I go any further, I need to stress that drafting players from this particular group of teams requires the exercise of extreme caution and judiciousness.
Below, I’ve reproduced a chart from Part 1 reporting average end-of-season PPR position rank for each ADP tier1 of running backs from each quartile.
Every other quartile has something to hang its hat on. Quartile 1 running backs report above-average ranks for late-round selections. Quartile 3 running backs report above-average ranks for early-round selections. Running backs from Quartile 4 are more hit-or-miss, but at least ADP RB4s report an excellent hit-rate.
But Quartile 2 offers nothing. The report above paints a very bleak picture for running back production in this quartile, which is made even bleaker when you examine its ADP over/under record:
Running backs from this group exceed ADP expectation only 37.3% of the time, which is an abysmal rate compared to other quartiles. Moreover, running backs drafted from this tier only “push” 47.9% of the time. You have better odds on a coin-flip than you do of a Quartile 2 running back meeting ADP expectation.
I’ve hammered Quartile 2’s downside to begin this article, because it’s vital that you understand what you’re up against here. Running backs on these preseason Vegas win total teams simply do not perform up to expectation very often. So, do not reach for upside among players in this tier. They are likely to disappoint you.
Quartile 2 Running Backs’ Historical Performance
Just like in Part 2, I correlated players’ team rush share and team target share with end-of-season PPR position rank. These results inform us if a player’s rushing or receiving volume is more important to PPR scoring based on whether the player’s team is leading or trailing more often during the season.
I performed these correlations for all Quartile 2 players. Then, I re-ran the correlations for two subsets of our sample population: (1) players with a high share of their team’s total opportunities (defined as 25.0% opportunity share or higher), and (2) players with a moderate share of their team’s total opportunities (defined as 15.0% to 24.9% opportunity share).
Check out Part 2 for a more thorough explanation of my methods and recommendations for how to interpret these results.
Quartile 2 Correlation Results
These correlational results may be best analyzed in contrast to Quartile 1’s results, which are reproduced below:
Quartile 1 Correlation Results
Correlational results for all players look uncannily similar for both groups here. But, our results differ beginning with high opportunity share players. Ideal high-volume players in Q2 rely on balance; both rushing and receiving stats contribute equally to overall fantasy success. This result implies a second one: 25% opportunity share is insufficient to guarantee fantasy success among players in this tier. Instead, we need to target players with truly elite opportunity shares and a nice balance of rushing and receiving statistics.
For moderate opportunity share players, the story doesn’t change drastically from Quartile 1 to Quartile 2. However, team rush % while leading does produce an even stronger negative correlation for Q2 running backs. This suggests that players who derive the majority of their production via rushing stats while leading do not fare well in PPR. These kinds of running backs define “game-script dependent.” That is, they’re only valuable when their team is winning — and their PPR production is more a function of their team’s success than the other way around.
There is, however, a silver lining for high-volume rushers. Players who earn significant rush attempts even when playing from behind do report a somewhat encouraging r=0.302 correlation for their effort. So, when examining Q2 running backs, we can offer these players the benefit of the doubt.
Quartile 2 Player Averages by Career Opps% (Tar)
This chart reports average statistics for Q2 running backs based on their Career Opps% (Tar). In layman’s terms, Career Opps% (Tar) reports a player’s career receiving usage as a percentage of his total opportunities (rush attempts plus targets).
These results are telling. On the one hand, the top two Career Opps% (Tar) tiers report almost the same average end-of-season PPR rank, but substantially different ADP over-rates. This informs us that fantasy players have a tendency to draft running backs with strong rushing opportunity early in their drafts, but these players often fail to meet expectations and settle in the RB2/RB3 range. Meanwhile, players with very high receiving usage are somewhat under-drafted and average a similar overall result. So, the big takeaway here is to fade high-volume rushers and target high-volume pass-catchers to seize ADP-based value in the middle rounds of your draft.
But, we also can’t ignore the horrific results for the 0.0% to 16.5% tier. Not only is this group’s ADP over/under record abysmal, but its average end-of-season PPR rank is also completely defunct. Most strikingly, these players average around the same total opportunities as the 23.9% and higher tier, but they underperform expectations at an obscene clip despite that workload. Yet again, the biggest takeaway is to ensure you are targeting receiving upside, or prepare for disappointment.
2019 Quartile 2 Running Backs
2019 Quartile 2 NFL Franchises: Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks.
Below, I have highlighted Quartile 2 players who are likely to excel when playing with a lead and those who are likely to underperform ADP due to their poor historical Opps% splits. As we examined in the previous section, elite high-volume Q2 running backs must boast a balanced portfolio of both rushing and receiving usage. And, if a player does not project for an elite workload this season, it is absolutely imperative that he projects for above-average receiving targets.
Each player below has his current ADP position rank indicated in parentheses.
“Can’t Miss” Players
Ezekiel Elliott (RB4)
Elliott is as safe a fantasy play as you’re going to find … when he’s on the field. His career 11.5% team target share is excellent for a running back who earns 20-plus rush attempts per game. More importantly, his Career team opportunity share is 35.6%, which ranks second among all running backs in our sample.
The problem, of course, is that Elliott is currently embroiled in a contract holdout until further notice. I wrote extensively about the Cowboys backfield situation and believe that there’s little cause for concern. Nonetheless, there are a million-and-one reasons why Tony Pollard should be on your radar as a late-round stash.
James Conner (RB7)
Conner ranked 10th in team opportunity share (27.7%) last season despite missing three full games due to injury. If he had remained healthy for all 16 games, he easily would have approached Joe Mixon or Christian McCaffrey territory. His usage last season is reminiscent of 2015 Devonta Freeman, earning a 31.4% share of Pittsburgh’s rush attempts and a 10.5% share of the team’s total targets. Given the discouraging metrics for Q2 performers, Conner stands out as a true “can’t miss” fantasy prospect.
Dalvin Cook (RB11)
Cook’s 23.9% career Opps% (Tar) is about the same as Le’Veon Bell (24.5%). His 32.1% Opps% (Tar) while trailing also ranks among the league’s top running backs. Cook’s receiving aptitude (his occasional lack of concentration notwithstanding) is phenomenal, and he is among the most agile backs in the league. Given a full healthy season, his opportunity share would assuredly hit 25% or higher, and his receiving usage would put him in elite company with players like Conner and Todd Gurley.
However, his injury history is a very real concern. Last season he returned from a devastating ACL tear as a rookie, and Minnesota closely monitored his snaps from week-to-week. Fortunately, the Vikings have parted ways with Latavius Murray, and all reports signal that Cook is fully recovered and ready to be unleashed this season. The team also added hyper-athletic Center Garrett Bradbury to bolster their Gary Kubiak-style inside zone, which should substantially improve one of the worst offensive line units from 2018.
Cook is a risk only because of his injury history — not because of his style of usage or his potential game script. Draft him with confidence at RB11, but it would be prudent to also cuff him with talented rookie Alexander Mattison.
Players to “Buy” at Current ADP
Devonta Freeman (RB16)
Freeman’s outlook is almost exactly the same as Cook’s. He’s returning from a major knee injury, is the undisputed lead back in his offense and boasts excellent career Opps% splits that fit our correlational trends. The one major difference, however, is that Cook is a player that excels on the edge, whereas Freeman is a balanced, powerful runner between the tackles. Freeman’s signature jump cut may suffer from his sprained MCL and PCL last season, but the bigger concern is his durability given his running style.
Still, he has a relatively clean injury history prior to 2017. And, more importantly, he comes at a significant discount to Cook. In fact, if you’re scared off by Cook’s injury history, why not wait another round and grab Freeman instead? From a statistical standpoint, they’re almost the same player, with similar red flags and similar upside. At RB16, he offers ADP arbitrage value in an otherwise bleak running back group.
Tarik Cohen (RB27)
Sadly — or fortunately — Cohen has garnered significant bearish sentiment this offseason due to the Bears’ drafting of David Montgomery. While I appreciate that Montgomery could very well hinder some of Cohen’s receiving potential, I’m not convinced he can deflate Cohen’s PPR value entirely. Remember that Cohen ranked 11th among all running backs in PPR scoring last season — and he did so despite Jordan Howard gobbling up 250 rush attempts and 26 receiving targets.
Cohen’s career Opps% (Tar) is a ludicrous 46.6% — a mark that is typically only matched or exceeded by specialty players like Theo Riddick. Unlike Riddick and players like him, Cohen has managed an 18.6% team opportunity share over his two-year career. That’s better than players like Marlon Mack and Tevin Coleman. He remains one of the few pass-catching backs whom I still trust in 2019 — even if his opportunity share dips 2-3%.
Players with Uncertain Outlooks
Aaron Jones (RB17)
Jones is a difficult player to project this season. To his credit, he has demonstrated time and time again that when his coaching staff feeds him the ball, he is a dynamic and extremely efficient runner. But, for some reason he’s never earned his coaches’ full trust and has operated in a committee with Jamaal Williams for two straight years. New Head Coach Matt LaFleur further complicates matters, because the Packers will be installing a new offensive playbook, and Jones will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff.
Let’s also not forget that LaFleur was responsible for restricting Derrick Henry with Tennessee last season. LaFleur finally took the training wheels off in the final few weeks, and lo-and-behold, Henry tore up opposing defenses. The question is: Has LaFleur learned his lesson? Will he commit to Green Bay’s best running back in Jones, or will he once again err by restricting his lead back’s usage?
Placing coaching concerns aside for the moment, Jones also doesn’t report a compelling career Opps% split. His best player comp is Tevin Coleman.
Jones and Coleman are actually pretty similar if you think about it. Both players have been locked in a committee for their entire careers. Both players have flashed RB1 upside when they’ve earned ample opportunity. And, both have also disappointed in redraft due to their touch volatility from week-to-week. This particular data doesn’t suggest that there’s a glaring difference between Jones and Coleman, and yet they find themselves in drastically different ADP ranges. Jones is RB17 as of writing, while Coleman comes in at RB31.
I’m not confident enough in Jones to draft him at his current ADP, but I’m also not so put off by his statistical profile that I’d advise fading him outright. Instead, what I’ll advocate for is to draft Coleman. If you can get Aaron Jones-style production 14 running backs later, you insulate yourself from risk by decreasing your draft capital investment. So, Jones may be questionable, but Coleman is likely a slam dunk.
Mark Ingram (RB23)
Ingram is an okay redraft option but a best ball sell given his team situation and historical Opps% splits. He’ll begin as the Ravens Week 1 starter, but rookie Justice Hill has a better-than-average chance to overtake the aging veteran.
More importantly, Ingram’s career 17.8% Opps% (Tar) and 5.7% career team target share do not suggest he is a runaway value in this tier anyway. He should receive plenty of high-efficiency rush attempts with quarterback Lamar Jackson freezing backside linebackers throughout the season. But, if Ingram doesn’t secure a 10% target share or higher, then his rushing volume and efficiency still might not be enough.
He’s truly a borderline case at RB23. It’s about 50-50 odds that he finishes as an RB2 or RB3 this season, and even that is partly dependent on Hill’s development as a rookie. He’s probably being fairly drafted, but he offers limited upside at his ADP. I’d much rather opt for wide receiver value than to roll the dice on Ingram.
Players to “Sell” at Current ADP
Nick Chubb (RB12)
I disparaged Chubb in my passing revolution series earlier this offseason, and I’m about to do it again. Historically, high-volume running backs from this quartile require a balanced distribution of both rushing and receiving attempts in order to exceed ADP expectation. And Chubb simply doesn’t have that kind of balanced profile. For better or for worse, his Opps% splits most closely resemble Doug Martin:
Now, that comparison to Martin may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which version of Doug Martin we’re talking about. But, in the modern NFL, players like Martin no longer compete for fantasy RB1 status. Instead, for the last two seasons, PPR RB1s have reported a 50-50 split between rushing and receiving statistics, which is precisely what is demanded of elite players in this quartile. Curious where Chubb falls along that spectrum? 75.9% rushing vs. 24.1% receiving.
That’s just not going to cut it. I love Chubb as a player, but his poor receiving stats do not bode well for him in this “quartile of death.” He’s a strong fade for me.
Chris Carson (RB24) & Rashaad Penny (RB32)
Admittedly, Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny might be in a unique situation due to Seattle’s old-school offensive scheme. Seahawks OC Brian Schottenheimer installed a between-the-tackles run-first offense last season, and that scheme may insulate Carson and/or Penny from potential game script issues in this quartile.
Seattle played with a lead or while tied on 58.7% of their offensive plays in 2018. Combined during both of those game script conditions, the Seahawks chose to run the ball on 62.4% of their offensive plays, which led the NFL by a significant margin. They spent 41.3% of their offensive plays while trailing, but their pass-rate only increased from 37.6% to 54.2%. To be fair, that difference represents a 16.6% increase in pass attempts — which is right in line with league averages — but 54.2% is still shockingly low.
In this case, Seattle’s stubborn insistence on running the football may provide Carson with sufficient rush attempts to justify his ADP. Nonetheless, Carson’s and Penny’s career Opps% splits present little — if any — evidence that either back will find fantasy success if Seattle faces worse game script in 2019. Carson managed a paltry 2.9% team target share while trailing last season, and Penny only performed marginally better with a 4.2% target share.
Between the two backs, Penny seems like the better bet to take on increased receiving duties if the Seahawks choose to pass more often this season. However, as we examined in Part 2, significant changes to players’ career Opps% splits are exceedingly rare. It would be surprising to see either of Seattle’s running backs exceed a 7% target share in 2019.
If you believe Seattle will contend for a playoff spot, then draft Carson at ADP — but no higher. If instead you believe that opposing defenses will stifle Seattle’s offense, forcing them out of the playoffs (and into more trailing situations), then fade Carson and consider Penny as a mid-to-late round flyer. But be warned: Quartile 2 is a historically dangerous tier of running backs from which to draft. You’re likely better off seeking value elsewhere altogether.
What to Expect in Part 4
I’ll admit: This piece was rather bleak. I’m sorry to have to be the bringer of such disparaging data, but don’t worry: Quartile 3 offers a completely different outlook. Players from Quartile 3 are rich in value, and we have relatively few of them this season. The combination of their upside and low availability makes these players easy to identify — and their low ADPs make them easy to draft. I’ll detail each of these strong fantasy plays in Part 4, which includes players from the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.
Image Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Nick Chubb.
- RB1-RB12, RB13-RB24, RB25-RB36, RB37-RB48, RB49+ (back)