Production Partners: Running Backs
This is the second edition of my four-part series on fantasy production that is partially linked to my previous “Breaking” series. In this series, I will be looking at fantasy production per team. By that, I mean what proportion of fantasy top-12 players at each position play on the same team as other fantasy top-12 players. For this article specifically, I will be looking at the running back position. If you missed the first article on quarterbacks, go back and check it out. Also, be on the lookout for the next two articles on wide receivers, and tight ends.
What proportion of fantasy RB1’s play with other top-12 players at the other three skill positions? In other words, what percentage of fantasy RB1’s also play with either a fantasy QB1, WR1, or TE1.
For this study, I pulled every positional top-12 player since 2000 at each position. From there, I found which RB1’s also played with another top-12 fantasy player on the same team. For clarification, here are the top-5 RBs from 2016:
A “1” in either of the last three columns means that RB also played with a top-12 player at that position. A “0” in either of the last three columns means that RB did not play with a top-12 player at that position. For example, David Johnson played with a top-12 fantasy receiver, but did not play with a top-12 fantasy quarterback or tight end. On the other hand, Ezekiel Elliott played with a top-12 fantasy quarterback and tight end, but did not play with a top-12 fantasy receiver. This was done for every top-12 RB since 2000.
I explained in more detail how to interpret this chart in my previous article, but let me quickly translate what is happening. I broke down the top-12 RBs into three categories and found the proportion of backs in each category that played with another top-12 player at either QB, WR, or TE. The number above each bar is the expected number of top-12 positional players corresponding to that bar that played with a top-12 running back.
For example, on the left we see that, on average, 5 RB1’s will play with a top-12 QB, but only 4 RB1’s will play with a top-12 receiver. Examining the rest of the chart, we see that RB1’s are partnered with WR1’s the least of the three positions. On the other hand, the chart shows that RB1’s are most likely to play with a top-12 quarterback, followed closely by tight ends.
One thing to note is the splits between the top half and bottom half of the RB1’s. The expected number top-12 backs to play with another top-12 positional is spread pretty evenly throughout the top-12 running backs. For example, we can expect 2 RB1’s each from the top half and bottom half to play with a top-12 receiver. Similarly, we can expect nearly 3 RB1’s in the top half to play with either a top-12 QB or TE and about 2 RB1’s in the bottom half to play with either a top-12 QB or TE. The splits are very similar between the top and bottom half of the RB1’s, so predicting ceilings based on other top-12 fantasy players on the same team is a little difficult.
Interpretation and Conclusion
Looking at the results, we see that RB1’s are less likely to finish with a top-12 wide receiver out of the three other skill positions. Intuitively this makes sense since an elite rusher usually commands touches away from the passing game and that team’s receivers. The quarterback will still score fantasy points, even with an elite rusher, but the receivers take a hit fantasy-wise. Where the exception lies is with dynamic, high-scoring offenses like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or New Orleans. Additionally, a top-12 back that is also partnered with a top-12 receiver does not affect the ceiling of the running back. In fact, over the past three years, the RB1 overall has also finished with a top-12 receiver on his team. But on average, playing with or without another top-12 fantasy receiver is not indicative of a top-12 fantasy running back’s production.
Another thing to note is the high proportion of RB1’s who play with a top-12 QB or TE. It is interesting to see that we can expect nearly 5 RB1’s to play with a top-12 tight end, which is fairly higher than wide receivers. Looking into this further, I found that this can be explained in two ways: 1) their offense is dynamic enough to support an RB1 and TE1 or 2) their tight end acts as the team’s WR1. This is the case for teams like Kansas City, Tennessee, or San Diego.
Similarly, we can expect about 5 RB1’s to play with a top-12 QB. However, there are little or no trends in terms of predicting RB1’s based on playing with a QB1. There is a healthy mix of pocket passers and mobile quarterbacks, and playing with a QB1 does not affect the ceiling of a running back. An RB1 playing with a top-12 QB is more indicative of the QB still being able to produce fantasy points, despite the elite rushing abilities of their team’s running back.
Overall, the running back position is tough to predict for fantasy production based simply on the nature of the position. The yearly turnover of the top-12 running backs always makes it difficult to predict who exactly will finish as an RB1, minus the select few elite of the elite. This is why there are two schools of thought when it comes to drafting running backs: top-heavy or zero-RB. There are pros and cons to both, with neither being the wrong strategy, it just depends on the year. As an added element, this article shows that predicting RB1’s based on their fellow teammates is no more fruitful than drawing names out of a hat, but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. The results in this article show that a running back from a dynamic offense is the most successful type of back in fantasy. This goes hand in hand with my Breaking Running Backs article that showed the ceiling for backs on winning teams is higher than that of backs on sub-.500 teams. Targeting running backs on potent offenses is the way to go in drafts or trades, as they offer more upside than backs who might be carrying their teams offensively.
Thanks for reading and be sure to look out for the next article in this series on wide receivers, followed by tight ends. Stay tuned!