Blair Andrews examines the running back workloads for the most contentious AFC backfields ahead of Week 13.
By now, a lot of backfield workload splits are pretty clear, or dominated by workhorse RBs. But there are still a handful of battles raging that present opportunities for savvy fantasy owners.
We’ll use the RotoViz Screener and the NFL Stat Explorer to dive into the Week 12 advanced stats for backfields in which these battles are ongoing, focusing on expected points (EP), fantasy points over expectations (FPOE), and opportunity (targets and carries).
Baltimore looks like a backfield with a battle raging, but in actually Mark Ingram is the clear lead back. Gus Edwards has nearly as much production in the fourth quarter as he does in the first three quarters combined, and much of that fourth-quarter production comes in games in which Ingram has already smashed and the Ravens are ahead by multiple touchdowns.
Given the frequency with which the Ravens get ahead by multiple TDs, maybe Edwards’ production is sustainable, but as a garbage-time only back he’s hard to rely on.
Although Frank Gore carried the ball 15 times, he’s taken a clear back seat to Devin Singletary, who was the only RB to be targeted and rushed for over 100 yards. Singletary remains among the most efficient rushers in the league, ranking fourth in YPC and 14th in FPOE despite scoring only two TDs this season.
The Bills ran only one play from inside Denver’s 10-yard line on Sunday, and it was Gore who got that carry. But if Singletary continues to impress look for him to take more high-value touches from Gore.
What looked like a timeshare or at least a 1A-1B situation earlier in the season has turned into a definitive 1-2 situation. Since Denver’s Week 10 bye, Phillip Lindsay has led the way in both rushing EP and receiving EP, nearly doubling Royce Freeman’s total EP output over that span. Lindsay continues to struggle with efficiency, while Freeman provides some excess value in the receiving game. Ultimately it will be hard to trust anyone in this offense, as a single-digit outing like on Sunday is always well within Denver’s range of outcomes.
Carlos Hyde is coming off two consecutive positive FPOE performances — the first time he’s done that since 2016. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to follow it up with a third such performance. Houston never once possessed the ball inside the Colts’ 10-yard line, as both of their TDs came from at least 30 yards out. This meant not only that Hyde did not score a TD, but that his 16 carries netted only 7.4 total EP. Duke Johnson achieved more than half of that on only six touches, only one of which was a passing target. In most games, Johnson will be more involved in the passing game, and is the more attractive option in PPR leagues. His 3.8 total EP mark a low point of the season.
Even with this game, Johnson still leads the backfield in total EP over the last five weeks.
Marlon Mack has been replaced almost seamlessly by Jonathan Williams in the rushing game, and if you want proof that RBs don’t matter, you perhaps need look no further. But of course, that’s not the whole story: Williams and Mack gain rushing yards in very different ways. Through 12 games, only two RBs are averaging more yards before contact (YBC) per game than Mack. Williams, on the other hand, is No. 17 in yards after contact per game, despite starting only one game this season.
Why does this matter? It turns out yards before contact are (1) more repeatable and (2) more predictive of future fantasy scoring than yards after contact.1
There’s also evidence YBC is more attributable to individual RB talent and less to offensive line play or other team factors, as yards after contact are actually more stable and predictive on the team level.
In other words, Mack has a rushing skill that Williams doesn’t — namely, the ability to pick up yards without getting touched at all — and that skill is both more repeatable and more a measure of individual RB talent than the ability to break tackles or to pick up yards after contact. Williams is likely not as good a Mack replacement as it appears.2
Mack is still expected back this season, but won’t play in Week 13, meaning Williams should get about the same workload as last week. With the TD equity Williams brings on that workload, he’s a must-play, though his success is probably less sustainable than it would appear.
Miami was starting to play too well, and with Tua Tagovailoa no longer a sure thing in the upcoming draft, the 2020 QB prospects are getting thin. So the Dolphins decided to continue using Kalen Ballage as their lead back. His stranglehold on the backfield is slipping, however. His touches and EP now represent only a plurality of Miami’s backfield workload. He played only one offensive snap more than Patrick Laird on Sunday. Laird was once again the most efficient rusher, though he failed to catch his only target. Myles Gaskin out-touched Laird but played fewer snaps and gained only 10 yards on his four carries.3
New England Patriots
The backfield in New England isn’t so much a battle as a division of labor. Sony Michel got 80% of the carries and zero targets, while James White and Rex Burkhead split the receiving work. No back was good in this game, and White even displayed a floor we hadn’t seen yet this season.
In a game that saw the Steelers make a QB change midway through the third quarter, Benny Snell was able to run for 98 yards yet still somehow underperform his opportunity. Only Kerrith Whyte Jr. was efficient as a rusher, and only Jaylen Samuels got any significant passing game work. Latest reports indicate James Conner will likely miss at least one more week, meaning this is the sort of split we’ll probably see going forward. Samuels appears to be the most attractive option as the pass-catcher.
Image Credit: Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Marlon Mack.
- And actually more predictive of future fantasy scoring than total rushing yards. Stay tuned in the offseason for more details. (back)
- In what will be a surprise to no one, Christian McCaffrey leads all rushers in YBC, by a lot. (back)
- It’s a tiny sample, but in case you were wondering, Laird is averaging 3.2 yards before contact per carry. Ballage is at 0.7 and Gaskin is at 0.2. There is virtually no number that doesn’t indicate Laird is the best player in this backfield. (back)