Which running back should you choose in the first round?
By W. Casan Scott
It is difficult to win a fantasy football league without a dominant backfield. Each year there are a few no-brainer selections at running back. In the past, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Arian Foster were project top-picks who went on to dominate the NFL. Likewise, nailing a sleeper pick like Fred Jackson or Le’Veon Bell at running-back can take an average fantasy team to the finals. However, missing on a top running back can be devastating. So how can you minimize risk when drafting these high risk-high reward players?
There is a multitude of fantasy projectors on the internet, with some touting powerful mathematical algorithms as the magic behind their picks. But, like all mathematical models, it is impossible to describe all the uncertainty. And just how much more do these simulators perform over a simple linear equation? I ran a simple linear regression on fantasy football running backs from 2012-2014. I was able to explain roughly 80% of the relationship between a running back’s touches per game and fantasy football points per game (note: the extreme outlier is a game in which Joel McNight carried the ball once and caught 6 balls for 2 TDs).
Is fantasy football as easy as touches = points? Kind of, although predicting running back touches is not easy. A lot determines how often a back will receive the ball. The offensive coordinator, injuries, team success, and offensive line all play a part in predicting a running back’s carries, but some teams are much more predictable than others.
From 2012-2014, six teams dominated the league in rushing attempts per offensive play: Seahawks, 49ers, Jets, Texans, Bills, and Panthers. Of these teams, only the Seahawks and Texans had true starting running backs.
Like these teams, some running backs have consistently touched the ball much more than others over the past three years. Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Marshawn Lynch have dominated the NFL in touches per game from 2012-2014.
Using touches per game, I predicted fantasy points for each running back from 2012-2014 using the linear equation from the regression figure above. I then took the difference in predicted and actual fantasy value. The ten running backs doing the most with each carry over this period were:
The 10 running backs performing furthest below what their touches would predict were:
It will be interesting to see how Darren McFadden will perform running behind the Cowboy’s offensive line.
So who do you choose at the top of your fantasy draft this year? I would bet on a productive player in a system that’s runs a lot. Le’Sean McCoy will be joining the Bills, who ran the ball nearly 50% of the time last year. Arian Foster may be worth taking a chance on because he consistently outperforms his carries and Houston runs the ball a lot. The same goes for Marshawn Lynch. Le’Veon Bell improved greatly from 2013 to 2014, and should receive many carries again this year following his suspension.