Thursday, 19 January 2017 00:00

Lessons learned from 2016: Running backs

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Matt Jones led a slew of late-round running backs that didn't pan out in 2016. Still, it's important not to abandon the thought of drafting several running backs later on in your 2017 Draft, since there will probably be more quality zero RB candidates next season as trends tend to balance themselves out. Matt Jones led a slew of late-round running backs that didn't pan out in 2016. Still, it's important not to abandon the thought of drafting several running backs later on in your 2017 Draft, since there will probably be more quality zero RB candidates next season as trends tend to balance themselves out. Keith Allison/Flickr

Editor's note: This is Part 3 in a several part series where we dissect each offensive fantasy position and tell you what happened this season (2016) and how you can apply those lessons into your draft for next season (2017). You can check out all the lessons learned from quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends throughout the offseason.

The running back position has become one of the biggest conundrums in fantasy football. It's tough to know which one to draft since injuries, snap counts and age all play a large role in deciding which one to take, and those are just a few of the factors.

If you've struggled acquiring quality running backs this season, chances are you didn't draft Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarco Murray or LeSean McCoy. Those turned out to be the backs to draft this season, and we're going to look a few strategies you might've employed that prevented you from getting them. Also, we'll look at some other factors that played a large role in those successful backs seasons and how you can prepare to draft the right one next season.

Strategy No. 1: You went Zero RB and it didn't quite work

The strategy of waiting until later in the draft to select a running back was a popular in 2016, with the main reason for that being recency bias from 2015. That season, multiple first-round running backs got injured in 2015 or just failed to live up to expectations. Some of those players included Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and Jeremy Hill. That, combined with so many two-back systems, made it hard for people to trust drafting a first-round RB.

But as fate would have it, that trend swung back in favor of the first-round running backs performing well in 2016 and anybody who subscribed to the zero RB strategy might've had a tough time staying afloat in their respective leagues.

Top scoring running backs like D. Johnson, Elliott and Bell were all taken in the first or second rounds in the vast majority of fantasy drafts this season. Even some of the other top running backs, such as Buffalo Bills LeSean McCoy, finished third overall in scoring for  and wasn't drafted past the third round. DeMarco Murray was drafted at the tail end of the third round or early fourth round in most leagues, so he was a boarderline zero RB guy.

However, there were still some landmines at the position in the first round, the main one being Los Angeles Ram Todd Gurley. Gurley finished 21 overall among running backs in standard leagues, a far cry from his first-round ADP, but his downfall shouldn't come as too big of a surprise since the Rams trotted out a litany of undertalented players around him including a backup quarterback in Case Keenum, a struggling coach in Jeff Fisher, and a below average group of receivers that didn't produce one Pro Bowler. That said, Gurley is one of our favorite bounce back candidates for 2017.

Lesson: If your running back plays in an offense where a healthy amount of targets are unlikely and his quarterback will struggle to move the ball down the field, he's probably not worth drafting in the first round.

Strategy No. 2: You went Zero RB and it kinda did work.

When it came to the late-round running backs, there were still gems to be found. If you were lucky enough to snag Jordan Howard, a popular late-round pick whose potential was easy to forecast given doubt surrounding the talent of then-starter Jeremy Langford. Sure enough, Langford ended up playing a minuscule role after going down with an injury just three weeks into the season, Howard stepped in and delivered an RB1 year with 1,313 yards and 6 touchdowns. Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Melvin Gordon and Frank Gore also greatly exceeded their draft value, so what were some of the things those running backs had in common?

One word: Opportunity. Aside from Ajayi who turned out to be held back early because of a coaching staff that didn't believe in his talent early on, Blount, Gordon and Gore all served as their team's clear-cut No. 1 running back heading into the season. Blount benefited from the opportunity of Tom Brady missing some games and saw over 20 carries in each of the Patriots first three games. He also didn't have to worry about Dion Lewis sniping carries since he wasn't expected back in the lineup until later on.

Gordon's volume wasn't as great as Blount's (at least in the early stages of the season) but he played in a talented offense in San Diego that moved the ball down the field, which set him up with goal line opportunities to score a career-high 10 touchdowns. His opportunities in the receiving game exploded when receiving back Danny Woodhead went down with injury and Gordon stepped up to the challenge and managed to 41 catches for 419 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Lesson: It's still a great idea to select several running backs in the later rounds, but focus on the opportunity factor above all else. It's also a great idea to combine the non-zero RB strategy and draft a stud RB in the first round to maximize your chances of landing the best mix of running backs.

Strategy No. 3: You went with coaches with a track record for producing valuable fantasy running backs

Opportunity is huge when it comes to fantasy production, but how certain coaches create opportunity within their schemes is also a big factor. If you follow the trends of coaches and how they utilize certain positions in their offense, you know an offenses identity is important when it comes to predicting fantasy value.

For example, the Tennessee Titans organization was very adamant about running the ball more in 2016, and the result came in the form of 293 carries for DeMarco Murray. Murray was coming off a dismal season in Philadelphia where he pretty much sat out a majority of the year. Clearly, that lack of playing time helped him stay fresh and he was able to parlay that into a great rebound year in Tennessee and the Titans were the third-most run heavy team in the NFL in 2016.

LeSean McCoy was in a similar situation. McCoy played in a run-first offense under Rex Ryan in Buffalo and also came off a down year after missing four games but rebounded nicely in 2016 with his fifth 1,000-yard season. His 13 touchdowns were the second-highest of his career.

A slightly less sexy but still effective example is Kansas City Chief Spencer Ware. Ware benefited from Andy Reid's RB-friendly offense and an injury to Jamaal Charles created opportunity for Ware to rumble his way to RB18 status in 2016. The Chiefs used him plenty in the pass game as Ware ended up with 33 catches for 447 yards and 3 touchdowns. He totaled over 1,300 yards combined rushing and receiving and continued Reid's long history of producing quality fantasy production at the running back position. Isaiah Crowell also produced over 1,000 combined yards in Hue Jackson's offense in Cleveland. If you remember, Jackson's run-based offense helped the likes of Jeremy Hill and Darren McFadden have their best running seasons ever in Cincinnati and Oakland, respectively.

Lesson: Running backs benefit from having a bit of time to recover. If running back struggles one year but has proven to be reliable over the course of his career and also plays in a run-based offense, then try and draft him. Take note on guys like Todd Gurley as many coaches are being sought the extremely talented runner be the best he can be in 2017.

Strategy No. 4: You went with hybrid running backs and reaped the rewards

Of the 11 running backs that finished with at least 50 receptions, five of them finished with at least 200 fantasy points which made them RB1s for the season. Four of the top five running backs had at least 50 catches and the only one who didn't was Ezekiel Elliott.

Lesson: If you're going to draft a running back in the first round, you should always aim for the backs who can run and also see a healthy amount of targets out of the backfield. Le'Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman epitomize that.

Strategy No. 5: You went for older running backs with question marks and paid the price

Adrian Peterson, at 31 years, tore his meniscus in Week 2 and ran just six times for 22 yards after returning to the field in December. Jamaal Charles, who's approaching the 30-year mark, suffered complications from surgery on his second surgically repaired knee. Both Charles and Peterson were drafted in the early first or second rounds and both didn't help your fantasy team much.

Arian Foster also turned 30 this season and couldn't get back to his old form in Miami after dealing with several injuries from 2015 including a torn groin muscle and torn Achilles. Matt Forte of the New York Jets was fantastic for the first half of the season with six double-digit fantasy performances but failed to reach more than 7 points over the final eight weeks. 

Lesson: In general, the running back position is a brutal one for players approaching 30 years of age. It's best to avoid drafting running backs with injury history that are close to or older than 30 years in the first round.

Strategy No. 6: You bought into the Lamar Miller hype and were proven wrong

As painful as it is to say, Miller failed to live up to expectations surrounding his new role as a feature running back in a Bill O'Brien offense. After carrying the ball 268 times in 2016, Miller failed to score a touchdown until Week 6. He set an NFL record for most carries without a touchdown ever and he left those who expected him to contend for the rushing title and see a healthy amount of receptions disappointed. 

His body suffered a lot of wear and tear and he frequently had to come out of games after taking too many hits. While the jury isn't completely out and maybe Miller could see his stats increase if quarterback Brock Osweiler improves and J.J. Watt transforms Houston's already insanely good defensive until into to an all-time great one, but his inability to hold up in his just first season as the Texans' workhorse back without any major injury concerns coming in should give you some pause.

Lesson: An unproven running back is still a risk, no matter how much opportunity is there. Few running backs are capable of enduring over 200 carries.

Strategy No. 7: You didn't pick every handcuff running back, you picked the right handcuff running backs

While it's always important to prepare for injuries by drafting a running back's backup option, sometimes you're better off not doing so if the backup isn't very good. For example, Robert Turbin and Jerrick McKinnon turned out to be average handcuffs this season and McKinnon had plenty of opportunities to prove he wasn't.

From Weeks 3 to 5, McKinnon averaged 17 carries per game but only posted one 10+ fantasy performance and that was because he scored. On the flip side, Spencer Ware of the Kansas City Chiefs managed to post multiple 20-point performances and was also very effective after the catch with 13.5 yards per reception which ranked ahead of all Kansas City players including Travis Kelce.

Lesson: Don't worry so much about acquiring a running back handcuff until you're sure the backup is talented enough to be a factor if your starter goes down.

Strategy No. 8: You know that touchdowns are fluky, but talent/opportunity isn't

Everybody knocked Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman's potential to repeat his 11-touchdown season from 2015 and he did just that. Although he once again benefited from Tevin Coleman's absence in the offense, Freeman continued to bolster what was a historically great Atlanta offense and maintained his role as one of the team's top receivers, averaging a third-best 4.1 targets per game behind Mohamed Sanu and Julio Jones. His 83 percent catching percentage was best on the team.

Lesson: Good players still put up points regardless of potentially fluky touchdown numbers.

Strategy No. 9: You drafted risky rookie running backs in the later rounds and it didn't help you too much

If you drafted the likes of Devontae Booker, Paul Perkins, Kenneth Dixon or C.J. Prosise, chances are you didn't reap a whole lot of benefit. Booker struggled with patience and vision in his first season and failed to log a 100-yard performance despite several games of 20+ touches. Despite that, he's still worth keeping in your dynasty league because he finished with 189 yards and two touchdowns over his last two games. He could see improvement heading into next season.

As for Dixon, he started to get more involved in the Baltimore offense down the stretch but failed to reach starter status and Terrance West ate into his workload every other week. Still, Dixon started to play a much bigger role in the team's passing attack as the season wore on and posted four games with at least four catches.

Prosise was never completely healthy in his rookie year but did flash promise with three double-digit fantasy performances in Weeks 8, 10 and 11. Perkins was virtually a non-factor in what was a very bad New York Giants rushing attack but he also scored his highest fantasy total in Week 17 with 10 points.

Lesson: The rookie running back class wasn't exceptional this season. Take note of how talented each running back class is coming out and don't waste too high draft pick on a player not expected to see a significant amount of snaps no matter how talented he is.

Hope that helps you prepare for next season.

Link to original photo




Last modified on Monday, 23 January 2017 11:04
George Banko

George Banko started talking about fantasy football shortly after graduating college. He started as an intern at before working as a staff writer for Fantasy Knuckleheads. He currently contributes to the Fantasy Hot Read podcast, which is available on itunes. He also educated himself on player evaluation and is a graduate of The Scouting Academy in 2015, which is an online course run by former NFL Scout Dan Hatman. He started Fantasy Football Helpers as a blog in 2011 and converted it to a full-scale website in 2014. Read more.

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