Carrying the Load: Opportunity Breeds Productivity

Carrying the Load: Opportunity Breeds Productivity

[the_ad id=”63198″] In my time playing Fantasy Football, few things have frustrated me more than a stud player not getting his chance to shine. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how much talent a player might have if they’re riding the pine pony when kickoff comes on Sunday. Worse yet, there are times when our beloved players might have to share their precious backfield with another intruder.

In fact, my disgust for a shared backfield has led me to all but abandon non-bell cow running backs in my Fantasy draft strategies and Daily Fantasy preferences. I respect all of the “Zero RB” theorists out there, but it’s just not my style.

Let’s face it, opportunity breeds productivity. Currently, there are only 7 RB in the NFL with more than 150 carries. Six of those backs rank within the top 8 at their position for standard scoring.

Something that jumps off the paper is the talent level of these players. While there’s certainly fantasy studs on this list, like DeMarco Murray and David Johnson, there’s also less talented players like Melvin Gordon and LeGarrette Blount sneaking their way into becoming RB1 weekly locks. How does this happen, you ask? OPPORTUNITY.

Now, there are conflicting schools of thought on how to handle the position. Some coaches believe that their absolute best player should be out there handling the bulk of the workload weekly, only taking breaks to catch their breath. However, on the other hand, some coaches feel that it’s best to… get this… keep their backs fresh and split the workload between two capable sets of legs.

Carry Rank Player Team Attempts RB FPPG Season Rank
1 LeGarrette Blount
161 14.4 6
2 Melvin Gordon
161 13.2 3
3 DeMarco Murray
160 14 2
4 Ezekiel Elliott
159 15.7 5
5 Matt Forte
157 11.3 8
6 David Johnson
156 14.8 1
7 Lamar Miller
153 9.5 14

Giovani BernardDoes it make sense to have a rotation if you have two capable backs? Of course it does… there’s no denying that. Dan Quinn is mastering the form in Atlanta right now with their rotation of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both players are effective and have standalone RB1 value, when healthy. Cincinnati has a similar situation. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard rank 20th and 21st respectively among fantasy football backs this year, and both rank within the top 25 in carries for the season. Here, we see an offense that has committed to the run and has no problem rotating their players as they please. While Bernard assumes a larger chunk of the passing play volume, Hill has only out-carried Gio by 27 totes this year—thus keeping both entirely fantasy-relevant.

Clearly, this method works for these teams, and I fully respect the talent of these 4 backs, but I wouldn’t touch any of them with a 39 ½ foot pole when it comes to DFS, and would be hard pressed to pick them in a season long draft. Yes, when you roll the stats up, they look desirable… but it’s the week-to-week variability and erraticism that makes me fear these players. For instance, Mr. Bernard has the 23rd most carries of any back in the NFL this season, however, he’s had less than 10 carries in half of his games. That’s a bit scary for me. Undoubtedly, he’s an effective back overall; but we, as fantasy players, need to decide whether we want to gamble on players like Gio on a weekly basis or not. Ask yourself… If you’re slotting him in your cash lineup on FanDuel in any given week, are you confident he’ll get the volume to return value? If you’re playing in a season-long league… Can you stomach the possibility that your RB2 might not eclipse 10 fantasy points? It’s happened 3 times already this year. Again, I’m not saying that you should take him out of consideration altogether. Everyone has their price. But you need to make a personal decision whether or not you’re prepared for the “lows” that come along with these timeshare backs. In many cases, the talent is there— so it’s fully contingent on the man with the clipboard calling that player’s number enough times for him to be relevant.

Personally, I’m not into the peaks and valleys. I look for consistent opportunity and consistent productivity. Given the choice between a more talented committee back and an average bellcow, I’ll almost always take the bellcow.

The proof is in the pudding. Regardless of the “real-life” effectiveness of a Running Back by Committee (RBBC) approach, volume focused on a single player almost always breeds fantasy effectiveness. There are currently 17 running backs with over 100 carries. Every single one of those players are a top 20 fantasy RB this season.

Carry Rank Player Team Attempts Att/Game Season Rank
1 LeGarrette Blount
161 20.1 6
2 Melvin Gordon
161 20.1 3
3 DeMarco Murray
160 20 2
4 Ezekiel Elliott
159 22.7 5
5 Matt Forte
157 19.6 8
6 David Johnson
156 19.5 1
7 Lamar Miller
153 19.1 14
8 Todd Gurley
134 19.1 18
9 Frank Gore
126 15.8 12
10 Devonta Freeman
116 14.5 10
11 LeSean McCoy
112 16 4
12 CJ Anderson
110 15.7 11
13 Carlos Hyde
109 18.2 13
14 Christine Michael
107 15.3 17
15 Isaiah Crowell
106 13.3 16
16 Jeremy Hill
104 13 20
17 Spencer Ware
102 14.6 9

It’s easy to sit here and sell you the value of David Johnson, LeSean McCoy or DeMarco Murray, so I won’t waste your time. However, here’s some practical advice. If you’re in a season-long league and bought into one of those RBBC backs, you may now be looking for more consistency. Trust me, I know how frustrating the “lows” can be, especially when all of you other “pieces” are fitting nicely. Have you ever tried to rely on Gio in a given week, only to find out that Marvin Lewis decided it was a Hill week? You probably lost, if so.

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I would recommend trying to trade for someone with a similar amount of total fantasy points, but with a higher volume of carries. But, wait a minute, doesn’t that mean that the player you’re acquiring is doing inherently less with each carry? In most cases, yes, it does. However, what we’re doing is creating a “floor” for our RB slot.

Let’s compare two players: Player A and Player B.

Season Rank Player Touches Yd/Touch Carry Rank % of Team RuYd
6 Player A 167 3.8 1 65.40%
7 Player B 78 7.2 35 24.20%

These players rank 6th and 7th respectively in overall fantasy points by running backs. Now, remember, receptions do play a role, so we’ve changed the metric to total touches. Player A has 167 touches so far this season and has produced 630 yards of offense. Player B has produced 564 yards, but with less than half the touches.

Clearly, Player B is more productive on a per touch basis and has the potential to rip off bigger chunks of yardage at any given moment. However, with that ability comes the downside—Player B has failed to eclipse 5 fantasy points in two separate games this year and has only received 10+ carries twice so far. Such a floor which would surely cripple any cash game lineup or weekly season-long matchup. Player A, on the other hand, has had at least 13 carries in every game, and has been held under 10 fantasy points only twice. The main difference here is consistency. Player A holds a standard deviation of 6.6 fantasy points per game, while Player B holds a standard deviation (SD) of 9.4 fantasy points per game.

[the_ad id=”66786″]To pull back the veil of mystery, Player A is LeGarrette Blount, while Player B is no other than Tevin Coleman. Understanding that Coleman is currently injured, I’d still rather roster Blount, given his usage, when both players are healthy.

From the table above, we can tell that Blount is a much larger piece of his team’s rushing offense, demanding 65.4% of all rushes. On the other hand, Coleman is only getting the ball on 24.2% of all plays. When you’re torn, think about game flow.

Is it possible that the Patriots take a big lead in this game? If so, you can count on Blount to grind down the clock in the 2nd half. Is it possible that it’s a close game throughout? Great… the Pats won’t have to go pass-happy and Blount will still get his carries as the starting RB.

Are the Falcons underdogs this week? Are they going to have to throw the ball to keep up? Sounds like it could be a Coleman type of week. Is it possible that the Falcons are going to blow out their opponent, thus throwing the ball less in the 2nd half? Might want to reconsider relying on Coleman and pivot to a back with more projected touches and a more stable floor.

In my mind, when playing games that require a higher floor, like cash games, or season long weekly matchups, I want Blount, a player with a lower SD and higher consistency on a week to week basis. On the other hand, if you’re playing in a GPP Daily Tournament, or are the underdog in a season-long league and need someone to really explode with a high ceiling, a player like Coleman might be more helpful. Sure, Blount isn’t the sexiest of picks… but more times than not this season, he’s been a reliable source of carries, and has done just barely enough with those carries to make himself generally effective.

[the_ad id=”58837″]Take Jacquizz Rodgers in Week 5, for example. With Doug Martin’s injury, Jacquizz got his first start for the Bucs in Week 5. In his career, Rodgers has averaged 20.9 rushing yards per game. Then something amazing happened—he got 30 carries. Mind you, he was far from effective with those 30 totes, averaging a putrid 3.3 yards per carry. But what did that amount to? 101 yards. Throw in 5 catches for a measly 31 yards, and Jacquizz Rodgers, of all people, became a RB1 for Week 5. Since then, he’s continued to produce in the fantasy world, averaging over 100 yards per game (albeit needing 25 carries to gain those 100 yards.) It surely ain’t pretty, but hey, we’ll take it.

While everything is 20/20 in hindsight, in the future, when you’re debating between two players for a draft, consider which you think will consistently get the ball on a weekly basis. Is there another RB they need to contend with? Is the team’s quarterback a gunslinger, or are they a game manager that feeds their backs? Asking yourself these questions will provide you the fantasy floor that you cherish so dearly. At the end of the day, no matter how talented a player may be, they can’t put up numbers without getting fed the rock. Given that, there’s only one solution—find the guys who are going to feast.

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