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Christian McCaffrey Is the 1.01, Plus a Key Zero-RB Target: How Season-Long Game Script Affects Running Back Production, Part 4

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 3 — the group of players for which game script yields the best overall results.

Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:

Quartile 3 is Rich in Fantasy Upside

In Part 3, I described Quartile 2 as a “minefield of downside risk.” Quartile 3, by contrast, is almost exactly the opposite. Running backs on teams with preseason Vegas win totals of 7.5 to 8.0 boast the best overall results of any group in this study.

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.

Quartile 3 RBs crush the rest of the field for each of the first three ADP tiers. Perhaps most impressively, the ADP RB25-RB36 range reports an average PPR finish of 20.7.

Stop and think about that for a second. If you draft a running back from this quartile as your RB3/Flex, he historically finishes the season as a mid-tier RB2 on average. That’s precisely the kind of mid-to-late round value that Zero RB drafters covet, and Quartile 3 offers it in abundance.

If we examine Quartile 3 based on players’ performance relative to their ADP expectation, their value becomes even more apparent. No player is truly a “lock” in any draft, especially due to the volatile nature of player injuries. That makes Quartile 3’s 62.5% ADP over-rate all the more impressive. Despite the randomness of player injuries and despite the volatility of preseason fantasy projections, these players still outperform ADP at a blistering rate.

Quartile 3 Running Backs’ Historical Performance

Just like in Parts 2 and 3, 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 3 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).

For players in Quartile 3, their Vegas preseason win total of 7.5 to 8.0 suggests that they will likely face a healthy mix of both leading and trailing game scripts throughout the season. However, historically these teams spend 33.0% of their offensive plays leading and 46.9% of them trailing. So, we should lend extra attention and importance to correlational results for the trailing game script condition.

Check out Part 2 for a more thorough explanation of my methods and recommendations for how to interpret these results.

Quartile 3 Correlation Results

As with Quartiles 1 and 2, running backs from Quartile 3 depend on a healthy dose of both rushing and receiving usage to achieve PPR viability. Team Rush % (Trailing) is of particular importance to all players in this quartile. As I noted previously, Q3 teams spend the majority of their offensive snaps trailing. So, it is important that Q3 running backs remain on the field no matter the score. Failure to earn their coaches’ trust in negative game script situations may spell fantasy disaster.

Following this logic, it’s no surprise that Team Rush % (Leading) reports negative results for both high opportunity and moderate opportunity running backs. Teams in this quartile play with a lead infrequently. So, players that historically benefit from additional rushing usage when leading may not deliver strong PPR returns.

Instead, high opportunity share players must earn a dominant share of their team’s rushing usage while trailing. But, more importantly, they must also play a large role in the receiving game in all game script conditions.

Moderate opportunity players derive nearly all of their fantasy production via the receiving game. In fact, this group’s negative correlations for Team Rush % are by far the strongest negative results of any quartile. This means that rush-heavy players that fail to achieve a 25.0% opportunity share of their team’s offensive snaps are particularly prone to underperform expectation.

Conversely, these results also inform us that Q3 receiving specialists are particularly valuable. Indeed, just as Team Rush% reports the strongest negative correlations of any quartile, Team Target Share percentage reports the strongest positive correlations of any quartile. So, feel empowered to target Q3 receiving backs with confidence.

Quartile 3 Player Averages by Career Opps% (Tar)

This chart reports average statistics for Q3 RBs 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).

As we examined previously, Q3 RBs report excellent ADP over-under rates, which imbues them with rich redraft upside. Interestingly, this trend remains true for all running backs regardless of their career Opps% (Tar) and/or resultant team target share percentage.

However, players that report balanced career Opps% splits are particularly valuable. This middle range of Career Opps% (Tar) performers boasts the lowest average end-of-season PPR rank, the highest average Team Rush % and the highest average Team Opps % overall. So, while all players from this quartile offer value above ADP expectation, running backs with a versatile skillset are particularly strong redraft targets.

2019 Quartile 3 Running Backs

2019 Quartile 3 NFL Franchises: Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.

Below, I have highlighted Quartile 3 players who are likely to excel this season based on their career Opps% splits. As we examined in the previous sections, players must report strong historical usage while trailing, and running backs with a versatile skillset offer the best overall upside.

Moreover, this season only five NFL franchises qualify as Quartile 3 teams. So, there is a relatively small pool of running backs fitting these impressive historical trends. These players’ scarcity makes them even more valuable.

Each player below has his current ADP position rank indicated in parentheses.

“Can’t Miss” Players

Christian McCaffrey (RB2)

I’m not going to waste your time waxing poetic about a player that everyone is already targeting at the top of draft boards. McCaffrey’s 41.4% career Opps% (Tar) ranks first among players with at least a 20.0% career team opportunity share. And, his career 22.3% team target share percentage ranks first among all RBs in our sample. He’s elite. Period. In fact, he’s my No. 1 overall player in PPR — just slightly edging out Saquon Barkley.

Rather than presenting more data on McCaffrey, let me instead offer advice on his potential handcuffs. Neither Elijah Holyfield nor Jordan Scarlett presents a strong case to be a starting-quality RB if McCaffrey suffers injury. Scarlett only hauled in 15 receptions in his three-year career at Florida, and Holyfield managed just seven catches over his three years at Georgia. If you want to hedge on McCaffrey for whatever reason, you should do so by targeting Cam Newton, whose goal-line rushes would skyrocket in McCaffrey’s absence. Alternatively, consider drafting Curtis Samuel, whose versatile all-purpose skillset as an H-Back at Ohio State may afford him Tavon Austin-like rushing usage.

Le’Veon Bell (RB6)

Like McCaffrey, Bell’s career usage perfectly matches every positive trend among Quartile 3 RBs. His 24.5% career Opps% (Tar) share is amazing for a running back who routinely flirts with 250-plus rush attempts each season. And his 13.2% career team target share is equally impressive considering the pass-happy Steelers offense within which he played for five seasons.

The primary concern with Bell is the time he spent away from football. But, even that argument is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, his conditioning may have suffered from his year-long holdout in 2018. On the other hand, he likely saved his body from significant long-term damage by taking time away from football. Altogether, I view that argument as a wash.

A stronger argument against Bell would be that he’s learning a new offensive system with Adam Gase in New York. Bell will likely suffer declines in efficiency due to the relative weakness of the Jets offense compared to the juggernaut Steelers offensive attack he’s left behind. Nonetheless, these arguments are likely already built in to his current ADP at RB6. Prior to this season, Bell has been a perennial top-3 fantasy RB. So, even if he does fall short of his career expectation, he should still land safely in the upper-half of the RB1 tier.

If you’re targeting Bell in the first or second round this season and are also targeting a handcuff to mitigate downside risk, look no further than Elijah McGuire. McGuire’s 24.1% career Opps% (Tar) and 31.0% Opps% (Tar) while trailing are both within 0.5% of Bell’s historical averages. He also proved last season that he can handle a three-down workload, logging 15.4 PPR points per game as a starter.2

Players to “Buy” at Current ADP

Tevin Coleman (RB30)

In Part 3, I noted that Aaron Jones and Tevin Coleman serve as excellent player comps for one another given their historical offensive usage:

Based on that comparison, I advised drafting Coleman as Aaron Jones arbitrage due to the 13-rank disparity in their current running back ADP. But, that’s not the only reason to target Coleman in the middle rounds this season. He fits a number of positive trends from my research that hint at supreme upside.

  1. Coleman is the only Q3 running back currently being drafted in the RB25-36 range. As we examined in the intro to this article, that range of running backs has reported an average end-of-season PPR finish of RB 20.7.
  2. His career 20.2% Opps% (Tar) places him squarely in the mid-tier of Q3 RBs, which boasts an average end-of-season PPR finish of RB 24.1. That average finish is the lowest among any RB group from all quartiles in this series.
  3. Coleman has a strong rapport with 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan from their time together with the Atlanta Falcons from 2015 to 2016. During Coleman’s 2016 sophomore campaign — with Shanahan at the helm — he averaged 14.7 PPR points per game, which ranked 13th among running backs. That same mark would have ranked 15th last season.
  4. Shanahan’s offenses have historically featured RB committees with heavy receiving usage, which is vital for Q3 running back PPR production.
    1. Over Shanahan’s last four seasons,3 his top two RBs in opportunity share have combined to average 326.5 rush attempts, 95.3 targets and 355.0 total PPR points.
    2. If we assume that Coleman will earn a 50% share of those opportunities, his PPR projection would be 177.5 points. That PPR total would have ranked 22nd among RBs last season. If we increase Coleman’s projected share to 60%, that results in 213.0 PPR points (RB14 last season). And, if Coleman totally controls the backfield and earns a 70% split, that translates to 248.5 PPR points (RB9 last season). Indeed, the only scenario in which Coleman fails to deliver on his RB30 ADP would be if he only managed a 38% share of the 49ers’ backfield opportunities, which seems highly unlikely.
  5. Lastly, Coleman’s competition for touches is somewhat limited following Jerick McKinnon’s recent setback. Realistically, Coleman’s primary competition will be Matt Breida, who profiles more as a steady rushing threat rather than a versatile three-down option.

The 49ers signed Coleman for a reason: They intend to use him. San Francisco signed McKinnon last offseason with a similar intention, but that pipe dream dissolved when McKinnon tore his ACL in training camp. Shanahan’s system, combined with McKinnon’s receiving skillset, vaulted McKinnon into heated RB1 discussion before his injury. Now, the 49ers have brought in Coleman to perform a similar role, and he’s only ADP RB30? I don’t buy it.

Coleman isn’t sexy, but he’s remarkably consistent. Over the last three seasons, he’s finished as RB19, RB22 and RB18 in PPR. Given the trends he fits in this analysis, combined with his team fit and rapport with Shanahan, he has quickly become my most-drafted player among all my redraft and best ball teams. Furthermore, his low ADP also offers Zero RB drafters an ideal mid-round target after stocking up at WR for the first five rounds.

Dion Lewis (RB50)

Last season, Lewis ranked 14th in targets (67) and ninth in yards after catch (466) among all running backs. And, you might be surprised to learn that he also earned a 24.9% overall team opportunity share. Contrast Lewis’ 24.9% mark with Derrick Henry’s 26.2% share last year. The Titans ran essentially a 50-50 split in their backfield, with Lewis dominating targets and Henry dominating rushes. Lewis quietly finished as RB28 in PPR, despite scoring only two touchdowns all year.4

His 2018 statistical profile most closely resembles Kenyan Drake’s — save for Lewis’ rushing usage while leading:

Fast-forward to 2019, and Drake is being drafted at RB28 while Lewis is all the way down to RB50. Why, exactly? Is Henry that much more of a threat to Lewis’ touches than Kalen Ballage is to Drake’s? Moreover, poor touchdown equity severely hampered Lewis in 2018, whereas Drake significantly outperformed his usage with nine total touchdowns. If we assume touchdown regression and backfield competition for both players, shouldn’t they offer similar PPR upside this season?

Like Coleman, Lewis is not the sexiest option in the world, but at RB50, he’s essentially free in redraft. Given his RB15 finish in 2017 shouldering the load for the Patriots, Lewis offers excellent upside if Henry suffers injury. And, even if the two players operate in a split yet again, Lewis’ receiving usage (and overall usage) should still allow him to flirt with Flex duties from week to week. I’m not suggesting Lewis is some “hidden gem” or “breakout candidate,” but at ADP RB50, he offers excellent late-round value, especially for Zero RB drafters.

Players to “Sell” at Current ADP

Derrick Henry (RB20)

Given the impressive historical results for Q3 running backs, it’s fair to give borderline players the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, there remains one Q3 player that I’m still selling this season: Derrick Henry. But, it’s not a hard-sell like my take on Nick Chubb. Instead, Henry’s case is a little more complex. First, let’s address the negatives in his statistical profile, Then, I’ll provide some consolation for those of you who still believe in him this season.

Reasons to Fade Henry

Henry’s career profile5 offers no glimmer of hope for meaningful receiving production. His 90.7% career Opps% (Rush) is the third-highest in our entire sample. In fact, last season only one player had a higher Opps% (Rush) usage6 than Henry: Sony Michel (95.0%).

Other players with a similarly high rushing usage distribution last season include Chris CarsonLeGarrette BlountAdrian PetersonJordan Howard and Alfred Morris. Those player comps are not good company to keep, especially considering our results that point to target share as a strong determinant of PPR success in this quartile.

Henry also reports poor leading vs. trailing splits for rushing and overall usage. For his career, he has earned a 41.5% rushing share when leading and a 31.8% share when trailing. That 9.7% differential ranks seventh-worst in our sample. He has also commanded a 25.6% opportunity share when leading and a 14.7% share when trailing. That 10.9% differential is the fourth-worst in our sample.

As I discussed in a previous section, the correlational data for Quartile 3 suggests that elite players must maintain their overall production even when playing from behind. Henry’s leading vs. trailing splits do not inspire confidence that he can achieve this. His historical opportunity stats are extremely skewed towards a leading game script, which is a big red flag in an otherwise encouraging dataset for Quartile 3.

A Consolatory Counterargument for Henry Fans

The argument not to fade Henry is twofold:

  1. Our correlation results revealed that Team Rush% (Trailing) is meaningful for high opportunity share players. Henry achieved a 26.2% opportunity share last season despite being relentlessly hamstrung by Matt LaFleur. His projected usage for 2019 should match or exceed his 2018 totals. So, while his skillset is nearly entirely restricted to rushing statistics, he may nonetheless achieve a sufficient Team Rush% (Trailing) share to offset some of his receiving downside.
  2. His ADP is currently in moderate decline, which reduces your draft capital investment if you allow him to fall.

Based on the parameters of this study, I cannot advise drafting Henry this season. However, if you choose not to heed my advice, I then urge you at least not to reach for him. The NFL no longer supports rush-heavy running backs like BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Jeremy Hill from past seasons. Henry’s profile is unnervingly similar to such players, which places him alone among my “sell” recommendations in Quartile 3.

What to Expect in Part 5

Part 5 will focus on Quartile 4 running backs and will serve as the conclusion to this series. Quartile 4 is comprised mostly of bottom-dwelling NFL teams. How do RBs fare against potentially the worst season-long game script in football? Is there cause to fade elite players like Saquon Barkley just because he plays on a poor team? Or, instead, is there still ample value in drafting RBs from mediocre squads?

Image Credit: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Christian McCaffrey.

  1. RB1-RB12, RB13-RB24, RB25-RB36, RB37-RB48, RB49+  (back)
  2. PPR RB13 over span  (back)
  3. Atlanta Falcons from 2015-2016; San Francisco 49ers from 2017-present  (back)
  4. Lewis scored nine total touchdowns in 2017 with the Patriots  (back)
  5. Even dating back to his college years at Alabama  (back)
  6. Henry: 92.3%  (back)

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