Running back production is influenced by many variables beyond skill level: offensive line play, quarterback play, scheme, game flow, etc. But most of all, it’s influenced by opportunity. In this article, I’ll be focusing on opportunity statistics in order to highlight running backs with top-five upside in 2018.
Just How Important Is Opportunity to Running Back Production?
It’s a well-established fact that running backs with greater opportunity are likely to produce more fantasy points. To better define the magnitude, I performed a correlational study comparing opportunities (carries plus targets) to fantasy production. After controlling for population sizes from year to year, the correlation yielded an R-squared value of .80, meaning 80% of running back fantasy production is explained by opportunity alone — a very strong relationship.
Opportunity matters – and it matters a lot.
How Many Opportunities Does a Running Back Need?
Knowing the correlation is a good start, but what we really need to know is how many opportunities a running back needs in order to produce at a specific level. For example, how many opportunities are typically afforded to top-five running backs? What about RB1s (top 12) as a whole, or RB2s (13-24)?
Answering this question is more complex than you might think. Since statistical production at the running back position — like all skill positions — has changed drastically over the years; we can’t just take untreated historical averages and use them to predict future production. To address this, I evaluated the last 16 years of data and converted raw fantasy production to a normalized score that controls for population size and distribution. Then, to evaluate the current state of NFL running backs, I focused specifically on historical averages from the last six years, which represents a relatively stable period in terms of production and relative value at the running back position, as going any further back would put us at risk of skewing the results.
- Top-five running backs historically average almost 300 carries per season. Only certain offensive coordinators will be willing to give just one running back such a heavy workload, and only certain running backs can even handle that type of workload. This highlights the importance of finding a running back with great skill and durability, and making sure his situation will provide him sufficient volume.
- Top-five running backs historically average close to 75 targets, whereas RBs in the 6-24 range average around 50. Targets are a drastic differentiator between top-five running backs and all the rest.
- When drafting your RB1, you should target players who have upside for 300 total opportunities.
Which Running Backs Are Likely to Hit the 300-Opportunity Threshold in 2018?
In-house oddsmaker and projections guru Sean Koerner currently projects seven running backs to receive 300 opportunities in 2018 (ADP as of this writing in parentheses):
- Todd Gurley (RB1)
- Le’Veon Bell (RB2)
- David Johnson (RB3)
- Ezekiel Elliott (RB4)
- Saquon Barkley (RB6)
- Melvin Gordon (RB7)
- Leonard Fournette (RB9)
I don’t believe any of those names should surprise you. Most fantasy players have a pretty good idea which RBs are top-tier in 2018, and all seven of the RBs above are currently being taken in the first round, according to current ADP data. Of much more interest, rather, are the running backs who are not on Sean’s list above.
(Stay tuned for all of Sean’s projections coming soon.)
Alvin Kamara (RB5)
In 2017, Alvin Kamara finished as RB3 in PPR formats and RB4 in standard formats despite receiving only 220 total opportunities to touch the football. He has the upside to increase his touch total in 2018 because of the four-game suspension of Mark Ingram, but it’s still unlikely Kamara approaches 300 opportunities in 2018. Nonetheless, in his case, I don’t think the 300-opportunity threshold is of much consequence. Kamara’s receiving volume acts as a buoy to his fantasy floor, easily elevating him into top-five consideration despite his relatively small opportunity compared to other RB1 options. Continue to draft Kamara early and often without concern.
Kareem Hunt (RB8)
While Kamara may be somewhat resilient to the 300-opportunity threshold, I don’t feel the same way about Hunt, primarily due to Andy Reid’s coaching style.
To evaluate Hunt — and other RBs in this and future articles — I analyzed every active play-caller’s tendencies over the past six years. I researched every running back from every team for whom each play-caller has coached, recording total snaps, snap percentage, carries, targets, and usage rate.
In Hunt’s case, Reid’s history over the past six years doesn’t bode particularly well for Hunt’s volume of opportunity in 2018. Since 2012, Reid’s offense has produced two RB1s who earned more than 300 total opportunities in a single season: Jamaal Charles in 2013 (finished as the No. 1 overall RB in fantasy) and Hunt last year. LeSean McCoy didn’t achieve 300 opportunities in 2012, Charles didn’t do it in 2014 or 2015, and Spencer Ware couldn’t top 300 in 2016, either.
RB1s haven’t regularly hit 300 opportunities in Reid’s offense because he consistently provides substantial volume to RB2s as part of his offensive philosophy. Guys such as Bryce Brown, Knile Davis and Charcandrick West have eaten up touches (and TDs) from Reid’s RB1s consistently each year. Because the Chiefs return Ware from injury in 2018 — and they also brought in Damien Williams and Kerwynn Williams this offseason — it is very likely that Hunt cedes touches to other running backs in the Chiefs offense in 2018.
Nonetheless, even if Hunt does cede touches in 2018, he may still approach 280-plus opportunities for the season if he stays healthy. Considering he was the NFL’s leading rusher in 2017, it’s reasonable to assume that even with a reduced workload, he’s likely still an RB1 in 2018. However, it’s worth noting that his upside is significantly capped by Reid’s historical usage for running backs.
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Jerick McKinnon (RB13)
There’s an argument to be made that McKinnon is still being undervalued despite common sentiment that he should excel under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Ian Hartitz has already gone in-depth on McKinnon’s huge ceiling this year. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I’m bullish on McKinnon’s upside to earn close to 300 opportunities is because of Shanahan’s history with RB1s.
Shanahan has proven he consistently offers around 300 opportunities — or more — to RB1s in his offense. The lone exception historically was Isaiah Crowell on a wholly inept Cleveland Browns team in 2014. That year, Crowell and Terrance West split carries all season, but even then they combined for 339 opportunities as a backfield pair.
Also importantly, Shanahan has shown his willingness to give lead backs large volume despite having very different kinds of running backs in each of his stops. In Washington, Alfred Morris was a physical runner who never caught the ball out of the backfield (28 total targets in 2012 and 2013 combined). By stark contrast, Devonta Freeman was targeted 162 times in two years under Shanahan in Atlanta. Whether on the ground or through the air, Shanahan is getting his RB1 involved. After signing McKinnon to a huge contract this offseason, it seems reasonable to assume McKinnon will be the next beneficiary of Shanahan’s offensive system.
Historical coaching trends for RB usage cannot stand alone as a singular predictive tool for future RB outcomes. Still, historical opportunity stats — such as Shanahan’s historical RB usage — do give us cause to be bearish (relatively, of course) on guys such as Hunt or bullish on guys such as McKinnon.
Hunt is likely still an RB1 in 2018, but he may carry more downside risk than expected because of Ware’s return to Reid’s system. Conversely, McKinnon may be on the outside looking in at 300 total opportunities in 2018, but he’s still a perfect late first-round target for upside in Shanahan’s offense.
What to Expect in Part 2
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll use historical opportunity statistics to pinpoint rookie running backs with a chance at high volume in 2018. Which rookie RBs have the best coaching situations in 2018? And which rookies should you fade in 2018 redrafts? Can we gain a predictive edge by examining previous play-caller tendencies?
Yes, we can — and I’ll show you how in Part 2.
Pictured above: Ezekiel Elliott
Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports