The Red Zone

Last week, we looked at how pass-happy red-zone quarterbacks fare. This week, we’ll take a look at running backs.

Hi, my name is Ian and I’m a Jerick McKinnon-believer. I didn’t think this was going to be an issue at first. Sure, McKinnon was an option quarterback in college who didn’t face top-tier competition, but look at his measurables! On-field success aside, McKinnon is a walking-talking clone of LaDainian Tomlinson:

mckinnon vs lt

The great PlayerProfiler.com was the first time I saw the McKinnon-Tomlinson comparison, and it couldn’t be more spot on from an athleticism standpoint. Unfortunately for McKinnon, a RB’s success in football is very dependent on their offensive line and the Vikings had the league’s worst run-blocking unit this season according to PlayerProfiler. Even more unfortunate for McKinnon is the fact that volume isn’t everything; it’s THE everything.

It’s not that McKinnon hasn’t had his share of opportunities in the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings offense, it’s that he hasn’t received the fantasy-friendly opportunities that we hope for from our DFS RBs. That’s right: Red-zone carries. McKinnon averaged 14.73 touches during games with Peterson sidelined since 2014 compared to just 12.81 touches for Matt Asiata. Despite the additional touches, Asiata has averaged nearly two additional DraftKings points per game without Peterson in the lineup compared to McKinnon.

Not all touches are created equal. We found out last week that quarterbacks who have the most volume in the red zone have exceeded their salary-based expectations over 60 percent of the time on DK over the past three years. Does the same reasoning apply to RBs? Do high-volume red-zone RBs provide more value in DFS than we think? Let’s take a look.

The Study

This post will focus on RBs and how the most active red-zone RBs have fared over the past three seasons.

Using our Trends tool, I’m paying attention to three main factors:

  1. Consistency: Do active red-zone RBs tend to be more consistent than RBs who don’t pound the rock in the red zone?
  2. Plus/Minus: Do RBs who run more often in the red zone tend to exceed their salary-based expectations? — and by how much?
  3. Raw Points: Do RBs who run more often in the red zone tend to rack up fantasy points regularly?

I pulled the top-15 RBs by season by average red-zone rush attempts per game to get our sample group. Note: The correlation between a running back’s number of red-zone carries and number of carries inside the five-yard line has been at 0.88 or higher during each of the past three seasons. For that reason, I will focus on only red-zone carries, since most of the same guys populate the group for carries inside the five-yard line.

Below are the top-15 RBs in red-zone rush attempts per game over the past three seasons (minimum eight games played):

red-zone-rbs-by-season

Thanks to the fine folks at Pro Football Reference for supplying the above data. A few takeaways:

  1. Not a single running back managed to finish in the top-15 during each of the past three seasons. Eleven running backs managed to make the list during two seasons.
  2. We see that for the most part the running backs in the above group are at least part of a running back committee. There aren’t any true vultures in the group, meaning RBs who would come on the field for only red-zone situations and have only a few carries per game.
  3. The magic number of red-zone carries per game is just about 2.75. On average, running backs who have achieved this level of red-zone involvement have also racked up over 15 touches per game. If a RB is great inside the red zone, chances are that they’re pretty solid between the 20-yard lines as well.

Let’s take a look at how high-volume red-zone RBs have done by year.

2014

2014-rz-rb-dk

2014 rz rb fd

We see that the group of 2014 RBs balled out, especially on DK. We should expect a 50 percent Consistency Rating (all else equal), and this group of RBs far surpassed that on both sites. The average Plus/Minus from the group is very high for such a large sample. While 2014 studs such as DeMarco Murray and Le’Veon Bell make up this group, it also has the likes of Andre Williams and Ben Tate.

2015

2015-rz-rb-dk

2015-rz-rb-fd

The Consistency and Plus/Minus marks aren’t as high as they were in 2015, but the returns are still strong. What did drop was the average fantasy points per game for both groups, although this could be more of a result of the 2015 group having very few full-time RBs due to injury. Only four of the 15 RBs played a featured role for the duration of the season, as 2015 was the year from hell when it came to No. 1 RBs. This means a group that included supposed ‘washed-up’ RBs like DeAngelo Williams, Tim Hightower, and Chris Johnson still managed to consistently exceed their salary-based expectations by a decent-sized margin.

2016

2016 rz rb dk

2016 rz rb fd

Everything we saw from 2014 and 2015 was highlighted this season. The averages across the board are astounding and 14 of the 15 RBs in the group posted a positive Plus/Minus (sorry/not sorry Doug Martin). Even removing DFS cheat-codes Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson gives us a +3.48 Plus/Minus with 60.9 percent Consistency on DK.

Takeaways

So what does all of this tell us?

  1. RBs who have had featured red-zone roles have been very consistent DFS assets that have exceeded their salary-based expectations by a good amount during each of the past three seasons.
  2. The sample has averaged about 2.75 red-zone and 16.25 carries per game. Only 17 of the 45 RBs in the sample averaged fewer than 15 carries per game on the season, so the RBs that are racking up carries near the goal line are often very involved in the offense.
  3. Even the RBs that haven’t averaged 15-plus carries per game haven’t been true ‘vultures.’ Guys with a low average of carries per game like Rob KelleyTim Hightower, and Jonas Gray were featured backs who simply weren’t featured in their offenses for the entire season.

A common storyline during the season is that Player X RB has earned more touches near the goal line. This season, Mike Gillislee was reportedly the Bills’ goal-line back for the last portion of the season. Shady ended up out-touching him near the goal line anyway. While it’s a common practice to have a committee of RBs with different roles in an offense, offenses will still attempt to get the ball into the hands of their best player more times than not. Unless there’s a timeout or stoppage of play right around the goal line, workhorse RBs will often be the same guys who are getting most of their team’s red-zone carries, and this group of players has regularly balled out in DFS over the past three seasons.

Next week we’ll take a look at wide receivers.