The Highlights:

  • Featured backs have unsurprisingly thrived when paired with elite supporting casts.
  • Passing-down backs have provided the most value when paired with a middle-tier quarterback.
  • Early-down backs have offered the most value on teams with good offensive lines but poor passing offenses.

Running backs that get boat loads of touches are great, but the production of players at the position remains very dependent on their supporting cast. An ineffective offensive line can lead to defenders constantly penetrating into the backfield, and an ineffective quarterback can give defensive coordinators confidence to load the box.

Some running backs remain talented enough to overcome these obstacles and produce regardless, but it would make sense that those with better surrounding casts are superior fantasy assets than those on teams with mediocre or poor offensive talent.

Using our Trends tool, we’ll evaluate running back fantasy performance relative to quarterback play (using ESPN’s Total QBR metric), passing offense (using Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA, metric), and offensive line play (using Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric), dividing each metric into buckets consisting of the top 10, middle 12, and bottom 10.

We’ll measure and compare running back fantasy points per game, Plus/Minus (points above/below salary-based expectation), ownership, and Consistency (percentage of time meeting salary-based expectations) for each of the three fantasy-friendly running back archetypes:

  • Featured backs: Backs that averaged at least 20 carries plus targets per game (min. four games).
  • Space backs: Backs that averaged at least three targets but fewer than 10 carries per game (min. four games).
  • Early-down backs: Backs that averaged over 10 carries but fewer than three targets per game (min. four games).

Featured Backs

Our first two metrics attempt to encapsulate the strength of each running back’s respective passing attack, while our last metric measures the run blocking ability of each back’s offensive line. QBR reflects ESPN’s quarterback rating metric. Pass DVOA is Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for a passing offense, and OL ALY is a team’s rank in adjusted line yards, which takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on numerous factors.

(For reference, running backs with a salary of at least $4,000 on DraftKings have averaged 11.3 fantasy points per game, a +0.62 Plus/Minus, 45.4% Consistency, and 6.3% ownership since 2014; running backs with a salary of at least $5,000 on FanDuel have averaged 9.6 fantasy points per game, a +0.52 Plus/Minus, 44.1% Consistency, and 5.1% ownership.)

Featured backs with great passing offenses or great run-blocking offensive lines have far and away provided more production, value, and consistency than backs with average or mediocre supporting casts. This fact hasn’t been lost on the public, as backs these top-tier backs have regularly carried sky-high ownership.

Investing in workhorse backs on middling offenses might be a way of securing upside with an ownership discount in the right matchup, but backs on poor offenses have been inconsistent options that should be approached with extreme caution in cash game formats. Sometimes eating the chalk backfires, but investing in three-down backs on great offenses remains one of the most proven paths to racking up fantasy points.

Space Backs

Heavy ownership remains an issue for space backs on some of the league’s best offenses.

Receiving backs with top-tier run-blocking offensive lines and overall passing offenses have thrived over those with lesser units.

Surprisingly, the space backs with a middling quarterback have outperformed those with great or bad signal callers while providing modest ownership. This suggests the increased competence of a quarterback could prove to be a detriment for non-featured backs considering the team may be less willing to ask as much from their signal caller. Pass-down backs with great quarterbacks have remained productive, while those with bottom-10 quarterbacks have continued to struggle.

As you would expect, a bottom-12 offensive line isn’t as much of an issue for space backs as featured backs. Whereas the average Plus/Minus of featured backs with bottom-10 offensive lines is more than one point lower than those in the middle-12 or top-10, the average Plus/Minus of space backs with bottom-10 offensive line is nearly equal to or greater than those with middle-12 or top-10 units.

Early-Down Backs

Projected game flow might be more important for non-featured backs than any other position. The easiest way to not earn fantasy points is to not be on the field at all, so identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a back’s supporting cast can help to identify when a complimentary back might be ready to break out. Run-first backs will never provide year-long consistency as long as they’re non-factors in passing situations, but these ground-game bruisers have generally been at their best when paired with great run-blocking offensive lines:

Interestingly enough, backs on poor passing offenses averaged a higher Plus/Minus than those with mediocre or good passing offenses, likely because teams with a halfway decent quarterback are less likely to run on early downs.

Have more questions about DFS running back value? You can use our tools to research different types of backs yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.

More Fantasy-Friendly Running Back Archetype Coverage

Pictured: Rex Burkhead
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports