Fantasy Running Back Value, Part Two: Supply and Demand

Why is Matt Asiata part of this running back series?

I can remember setting up lemonade stands at the street corner in front of my house growing up. A friend of mine would bring over a pitcher, we’d make some lemonade, cool it a bit, then sell little Dixie Cups full of the tart juice for a dime to cars driving by.

It was incredibly hot outside one day (you know, one of those tough Pittsburgh summer days), and my friend and I were selling these cups like mad. Dimes were flowing into our small payment jar, and the neighborhood couldn’t get enough. It’s not like we had done anything special when we made our lemonade that day – people just wanted the product.

It got to the point where we began running out, and as a result, we had to raise the price. At the time, that type of elementary business decision made sense – you raise the price of something when you’re running out of it.

But for some reason, this hasn't been adopted in the fantasy football world.

I introduced this running back value series earlier in the week, noting that folks have gradually been shifting away from the belief that running backs are important to fantasy football. I disagree. And the first reason – the first step in showing you why this thinking is backwards – is because of the supply and demand of the position in fantasy football.

Why Does Supply and Demand Matter in Fantasy Football?

Had no one stopped at my lemonade stand, I would have had an excess of the drink. And lemonade, in that hot weather, can go “bad” quickly. So in order to get some of the neighborhood kids, my plan would have been to lower the prices, hoping to get rid of my supply by increasing the demand.

This is the most basic form of supply and demand. Generally, when there’s a high supply and a low demand, the price will be low. And the opposite of this is true as well.

We see this type of relationship every single day. Gas prices go up, usually due to a decrease in supply. Jay Cutler gets a big contract, which was mostly a result of a lack of quarterback supply in the NFL. Wild-card game tickets on online marketplaces decrease, as the demand for these tickets is low.

Yet, I’ve become more and more aware that, although we all understand the concept in our everyday lives, we fail to recognize its existence in fantasy football. Because trust me, it exists, and it’s one of the most important things to recognize in the game.

The Demand Side

Let’s first look at the demand side of the equation, which is one that’s much less subjective when it comes to analyzing this economic angle in fantasy football.

The majority of fantasy lineups have similar restrictions, starting one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one team defense. Somewhere in there, you’ll find either a flex spot where you can play multiple, non-quarterback players, or, sometimes, another receiver.

Demand can be defined as the desire of buyers for a particular commodity. If something is desired more, it’s naturally in higher demand.

Given the structure of fantasy football, it’s very clear that, all things being equal, the running back and wide receiver positions are in highest demand compared to the other roster slots in a standard lineup. While teams only need (or desire) one quarterback or tight end, they need (or desire) two to three running backs and wide receivers.

Unless roster structures change, this isn’t something that can really be debated. Where the real discussion occurs amongst fantasy circles is on the supply side, as it’s much more subjective, and much more difficult to grasp.

The Supply Side

In supply and demand, supply represents how much the market can offer. In the case of fantasy football, the “market” is the pool of players – the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers and defenses.

So far we know two things. First, demand is inherently higher for running backs and wide receivers, as roster structure dictates this. Second, in the supply and demand equation, when demand is high, in order to keep prices low, supply must be high as well.

To put this in fantasy football terms, the one way to keep the cost – a high snake draft choice or an expensive auction draft selection – down would be to keep the supply up. If there were thousands and thousands of worthwhile, usable running backs to choose from in fantasy, the high demand for the position wouldn’t matter. However, that’s not the case.

Remember, don’t think about how many fantasy points players are scoring just yet. We have to comprehend this high-level topic before moving on to a deeper points-related analysis. And, to be honest, the supply and demand part of this series is to show you that both wide receivers and running backs are important, not just running backs. But bear with me, I promise this is going somewhere.

Quarterback Supply

In the NFL, 32 quarterbacks start a game each week (well, when there aren’t bye weeks). But we all know that every one of those quarterbacks isn’t necessarily usable in fantasy football. Did you play Thad Lewis against your buddy when he started for the Bills in Week 16 against the Dolphins, one of the better pass defenses in the league? Probably not, unless you’re in some hipster 24-team league.

But quarterbacks are in a unique position in fantasy football – one that will be covered in depth when I get to the replaceability part of this series – in that their usage is more predictable entering a given week.

What exactly do I mean by this? Well, let’s pretend it’s Week 8, and your quarterback has a bye. You’re in a one-quarterback league, and don’t have a backup. You go to the waiver wire and see that Carson Palmer is available (this is arbitrary), and you snatch him up, slotting him in your starting lineup.

Have you ever wondered why you’ve been able to do that? Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many usable, starting quarterbacks in free agency each week?

It’s because there’s an excess supply of quarterbacks.

I know I’m generalizing, but in a standard, 12-team league, you’d expect maybe 20-30 quarterbacks to be rostered at any given point. Even if you don’t have a backup, finding one off the wire that can produce decent numbers that week isn’t the most difficult task to do. And the reason for this is exactly why we write a weekly “Waiver Wire Quarterback” article on this site: Usable quarterbacks in today’s NFL are everywhere, making the already low-in-demand position even less valuable.

Need proof? This season, 25 different quarterbacks finished the season with four or more top-12 weekly quarterback finishes. In other words, more than double the demand for quarterbacks ended up being QB1s - very usable quarterbacks – in a given week. And it wasn’t just this year where this has happened – 2012 saw the exact same number.

And you may be sitting there thinking, “But are you really confident going into a week starting Ryan Fitzpatrick?” My simple answer to that is, “Absolutely.”

Remember when I said that quarterbacks are predictable? It’s because they have more opportunity, even if they’re a backup, in a given game compared to any other position. They touch the ball on every play, throwing the pigskin 30-plus times per game. When a waiver wire guy has a moderately easy matchup, you know that starting him will produce a high floor because of this, a luxury other positions don’t have.

I’ll be digging more into this when I write about replaceability, but the lesson learned with quarterback supply is that, while the supply appears to be low for the quarterback position in fantasy, it’s not. In fact, you could argue that it’s equivalent to the running back position, despite the demand being lower.

Running Back and Wide Receiver Supply

You can attribute the same ideas at quarterback to tight ends, kickers and defenses, so let’s jump straight into the meat of fantasy football lineups: running back and wide receiver.

Many folks may assume that the supply of these positions, especially receiver, is quite high. It seems as though we see a couple of players at wideout or running back ending a given week close to the top of the final weekly rankings, providing us with this perception.

But let me give you a brief example as to why this perception isn’t reality, and it involves one of our favorites from 2013, Matt Asiata.

In Week 15, both Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart were ruled out, forcing the Vikings to start the 235-pound Asiata against the Eagles. Because of game flow, the fact that the Eagles defense wasn’t that bad at stopping the run and that it was Matt freaking Asiata, fake footballers, despite picking him up, left Asiata on their benches.

A few hours and three touchdowns later, those same owners were shedding tears, knowing that benching Asiata had knocked them out of championship contention.

We face those same decisions each and every week with wide receivers and running backs. There are so many of them available compared to the quarterback position, creating a large pool of players. While people may see this as the “supply” of these two positions, the real supply exists with confidence and usability, which is often overlooked – fantasy owners, instead, look only in hindsight.

Like I said above, 25 quarterbacks finished in the weekly top-12 four or more times this season. Because you’re starting at least two running backs and receivers, looking at “top 12” doesn’t really give you the same idea. Instead, it’s necessary to look (at least) at the top 24.

This year, 44 running backs in PPR leagues hit the top 24 four or more times. At wide receiver, this number was 40. Keep in mind, the demand for these positions is at least double that of quarterbacks, so, in order for their value and cost to be the same as quarterback, the demand must double the signal-calling position, which clearly isn’t the case.

And while 110 wide receivers and 81 running backs accomplished this at least once, we have to remember the Matt Asiata example above. Did you sincerely trust Brandon Jacobs against the Bears during their Week 6 matchup? Or Edwin Baker when Willis McGahee was out in Week 15? How about Benny Cunningham in Week 12? Jason Avant in Week 3 against Kansas City?

The fact is, many of the weekly top-24 performances at both running back and receiver are due to unforeseen circumstances. The majority of fantasy owners started Chris Ogbonnaya, not Edwin Baker, in Week 15. And not many trusted Brandon Jacobs in Week 6 because, well, it’s Brandon Jacobs. The only reason Benny Cunningham was relevant in Week 12, too, was because Zac Stacy left the game with an injury.

Trust and confidence is completely different when it comes to running backs and receivers versus quarterbacks, because quarterbacks have more opportunity. As the examples above show, wide receiver and running back opportunity is always in flux.

That’s why the actual supply at these positions isn’t simply “the pool of wide receivers and running backs.” Instead, it’s “the pool of usable and predictable wide receivers and running backs,” which is difficult to find.

Moving Forward From This Exercise

I’m fully aware that I grouped wide receivers with running backs in this running back series, but both positions, separate from fantasy points scored, should be approached in a similar way in fantasy football from a supply and demand perspective.

Specifically for running backs, the main reason for this article was to show that, although we often see top running back performances from some of the most random NFL running backs imaginable, a majority of those instances aren’t very predictable. And when they aren’t predictable, they aren’t usable. And when they aren’t usable, the supply of the position actually decreases, as there are fewer usable players available.

The bottom line is this: You start double or triple the amount of running backs (and wide receivers) as you do any other position in standard fantasy football. You need them more. And although running backs have seen a decrease in role in the real NFL, they haven’t in fantasy football: You still need them as much as you ever have.

Make sure to check back next week for Part Three of this series, looking at running back replaceability.