The running back position was a mess by the end of the 2015-2016 season. Studs Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, and Marshawn Lynch all missed at least eight games with injuries, while fantasy championships were decided by guys like Tim Hightower, Thomas Rawls, and (then-unknown) David Johnson. The do-it-all running back was becoming a dying breed: Only Devonta Freeman and Adrian Peterson managed to surpass 200 standard fantasy points during the 2015-16 season.
Running backs made quite the comeback in the 2016-17 season. Nine separate backs racked up 200-plus fantasy points, ranging from rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard to proven vets LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray.
Still, two running backs stood above everyone else when it came to total production, as Johnson and Bell showed that running backs who moonlight as wide receivers are just about the easiest way to ensure 25 touches on a game-by-game basis. They were more than capable of converting these opportunities into plenty of production, as they averaged nearly five additional DraftKings points per game (PPG) than all other running backs (per our Trends tool):
Not only did they accumulate plenty of weekly raw production, but Johnson and Bell also ranked among the top-seven backs in DraftKings and FanDuel Plus/Minus and Consistency Rating, making them worthy (and then some) of their high weekly salaries. This dominance wasn’t lost on the public, as Johnson and Bell became the first running backs from 2014-2016 on both DraftKings and FanDuel to post an average ownership percentage above 20 percent – and they averaged over 25 percent each on FanDuel. This year, FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard.
As runners, Johnson and Bell were fantastic last season, posting respective rushing lines of 293-1,239-16 and 261-1,268-7. As receivers, Johnson and Bell were in an entirely different league of their own, ranking first and second, respectively, in targets and receiving yards among all running backs (Bell played only 12 games). They handled this wide receiver-esque workload efficiently, averaging 1.73 and 1.58 yards per route run – the third- and fifth-highest marks among all running backs with at least 50 targets last season.
Per Adam Spinks, Johnson and Bell’s receiving market share was more than five percent higher than any other back’s last season. This is even more impressive considering the guys that came closest to replicating their aerial production were mostly scat backs in the Duke Johnson and Theo Riddick mold. Murray was the only other running back that played at least 70 percent of his team’s overall snaps as well as 3rd down and five-plus yard situations.
Johnson and Bell’s receiving production was nearly unprecedented, as they joined Marshall Faulk as the only running backs to average at least nine points per reception (PPR) per game from strictly receiving production over the course of their career:
While Johnson and Bell’s overall domination was similar, the way they went about scorching secondaries was fairly different. Johnson was essentially able to function as an every-down wide receiver whenever the Cardinals felt like splitting him out. Pro Football Focus (PFF) named him the No. 1 receiver in the league last season; he finished with the league’s highest PFF receiving grade regardless of position.
The Cardinals weren’t afraid to utilize Johnson downfield, as he led all running backs with an average target depth of 4.6 yards. Per PFF, Johnson’s target depth bumped up to 8.2 yards when lined up as a receiver or working downfield on wheel routes – three yards higher than Bell’s mark when split out as a receiver.
Head coach Bruce Arians wasn’t afraid to utilize Johnson all over the formation, and he means it when he says he wants to get Johnson 30 touches per game this season:
Of course, covering Johnson is only half of the problem. He’s just as dangerous after the catch as he was running from the backfield, as he forced a league-high 27 missed tackles in the passing game last season. Overall, Johnson’s season-long 80-879-4 receiving line would’ve ranked him as the 35th-highest scoring PPR receiver last season without the benefit of any rushing statistics.
Bell took a slightly different approach in keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night. After missing the first three games of the season due to a suspension, Bell proceeded to play 93 percent of the Steelers’ running back snaps, earning 94 and 99 percent of the team’s running back carries and targets, respectively. He’s now been targeted five-plus times in 35 of his 47 career games. Through the first four seasons of his career, Bell’s average of 42.7 receiving yards per game ranks second behind only Roger Craig‘s among all running backs since the merger (Johnson is No. 3 at 41.8).
All of this success is even more incredible considering Bell is essentially responsible for creating all of his receiving yardage. He posted an average target depth of -0.1 yards last season, meaning he actually totaled more yards after the catch than total receiving yards.
The Steelers’ strategy with Bell in the passing game was simple: Give him the chance to win one-on-one matchups and make plays in open space against over-matched defenders:
Bell’s ability to break down pass defenses at the line of scrimmage is what allowed the rest of the offense to go. A league-high 16.9 percent of Ben Roethlisberger‘s pass attempts were thrown at least 15 yards downfield last season. No other quarterback broke even 14 percent. The Steelers love throwing the ball downfield, and the return of Martavis Bryant won’t change that in 2017. Still, Roethlisberger will continue to need a check-down option when his deep targets are covered, and Bell is fully expected to continue to fill that void in his typically-effective manner. If you want to construct Roethlisberger-Bell daily fantasy stacks during the season, do it with our Lineup Builder.
2017 Fantasy Value
Combined, Johnson and Bell surpassed their salary-implied total in 22 of their 31 games, while also continuing to thrive in seemingly sub-optimal situations. Overall, Johnson and Bell rank as the top-two running backs in DraftKings points per game as road underdogs since 2014. Be sure to monitor our Vegas dashboard to identify prime slates to target Bell and Johnson.
New backs such as Leonard Fournette and Joe Mixon could emerge as three-down studs in 2017. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone finding themselves with a heavier workload than either Bell or Johnson. While used in different ways, their production is on a different level than everyone else, and their unique receiving usage provides a floor that has been non-existent for most running backs.