Fantasy Running Back Value, Part Three: Replaceability

The running back value series continues with a look at replaceability.

I’ve been pretty obvious so far, letting you know that people are now underrating the impact a running back has in fantasy football, and showing you that the position is more important than quarterback and tight end due to simple supply and demand principles.

Before we get into today’s topic, I want to tell a little story to get you thinking in the “right” way. I put that in quotes because, as you’ll hear from anyone who’s deeply into fantasy football, there’s no 100 percent, foolproof way to approach the game. The way I see it, there’s no right way, but there’s a way to increase your chances, or probability, of winning.

A little over a year ago, I went to Seoul, South Korea to visit a friend teaching English there. I knew it was a great opportunity to go see one of the largest cities in the world, so I went all YOLO and bought a plane ticket to travel 13 hours to a place I knew little about.

Before leaving, I wanted to learn a bit about the culture, just so I wasn’t in for any crazy surprises. I didn’t want to say or do something offensive, and, naturally, I wanted to be as polite as possible while visiting. Because, you know, that’s what I am. I’m a polite guy.

So I read a little bit about the people of Seoul - what they ate, how they interacted, what they liked to do. It was fascinating, and the trip was the best one I’ve ever taken in my life. Seoul is great, the people are awesome, and the food is to die for.

You’re probably wondering how in the world this account fits into a fantasy football article, but it’s quite simple: In fantasy football, our research isn’t usually done about a group. It’s usually done about an individual.

We don’t look at the positional clusters – the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends – nearly enough. Instead, it’s about Jamaal Charles. It’s about Tony Romo. It’s about Roddy White and Jimmy Graham.

But why? If you’re going into a new situation – a new season – why would you first look at the individual and not the entire group? That’s like me traveling to Seoul and feeling good about knowing the culture after only talking to a few individuals, without seeing how those individuals’ experiences compare to the rest of the population.

How does that show us the true picture?

In essence, it doesn’t. To really understand how value works in fantasy football, you have to first look at the positions as a whole before digging deep into which players are necessary to have.

Is your mind right? Let’s go.

Defining Replaceability

We’re always taught never to use the word you’re defining in its actual definition, but replaceability is the quality, state or degree of being replaceable. You could consider something with low replaceability (something that’s not easily replaceable) as something of high importance. A diamond is difficult to replace, while the toilet paper your co-worker just used is not. The diamond is important and valuable, while that TP sticking to the dude’s foot in your office means nothing outside of a good laugh.

Remember, we’re only thinking about positions here, not individual players. I’m fully aware that many saw Peyton Manning as an irreplaceable (but to be honest, more replaceable than most realize) asset this season, but don’t associate names here – just think of each player as an anonymous data point.

Defining replaceability in fantasy football is a tricky task, and people typically use cumulative data to justify how replaceable something is in the game. For instance, many see Jimmy Graham as an irreplaceable piece in pretend pigskin because he scores a lot more fantasy points than any other tight end. Therefore, when you average out the margin of points between him and other tight ends, he gives you a weekly edge at the position that you can't find anywhere else.

But to me, replaceability is more than that. What usually goes unnoticed to Jimmy Graham backers is the supply and demand topic mentioned in my last article, and the general availability of usable tight ends. In other words, what could replace Jimmy Graham? If you don’t have Jimmy Graham, what do you have?

For starters, you have a whole lot of tight ends to choose from off the waiver wire each week. And unlike the supply of running backs and receivers, many of these tight ends are actually worthwhile because only one per team - 12 per week - is being started in your fantasy league. There are usable ones available, hence the commonly accepted tight end streaming tactic.

What exactly defines "usable"? Well, let’s go with a very straightforward definition: A usable player is one who finishes as a starter in fantasy football in a given week. That is, a top-12 quarterback, a top-24 running back or receiver and a top-12 tight end. After all, if a player you own ends up as a startable one once the week concludes, wouldn’t you think there’s a good chance that he’s giving you a competitive edge against your opponent?

We have to keep in mind that fantasy football is a weekly game, not a yearly one. Comparing Jimmy Graham – a consistency monster who seems to always score a touchdown – to, say, Coby Fleener from a yearly perspective doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why? Well, if Jimmy Graham scored 160 more points than Coby Fleener over the course of the season (this is arbitrary), most would conclude that Jimmy Graham is giving their team an edge over a Fleener team of 10 fantasy points per week. The problem here is that this concludes Coby Fleener never outscored Jimmy Graham in any week during the season, and that a team is starting Coby Fleener each game.

Raise your hand if you saw anyone this year start Coby Fleener every single week. Anyone? Put your hand down, Mrs. Fleener.

Now raise your hand if the Jimmy Graham owner in your league started Jimmy Graham every single week. Right. Nearly everyone has his or her hand raised. Now put it down before your boss asks you why you’re raising your hand at your desk.

This isn’t a surprise – you start your studs in fantasy football. The unfortunate part is that most see the studs at running back as unpredictable, so they think selecting one early in a draft is no longer meaningful. But stop thinking that way! We’re looking at positions, and each player is a data point. We’ll get to predictability a little bit further down the line in this series though, I promise.

In essence, replaceabilty is a result of the supply and demand of fantasy football positions. And it’s more important to look at weekly, not yearly, data.

So what now?

Weekly Usable Players and Position Eliteness

Let’s go back to the diamond vs. toilet paper example above. A diamond is worth money because it’s rare. It’s difficult to replace. Toilet paper can be found anywhere, and once it’s used (eww), it’s worthless.

Your goal in fantasy football is to find diamonds. That is, players who are difficult to replace because they play so much better than the rest of the guys at their position.

As I showed above, people will use year-long data to determine who the “diamonds” in fantasy football are. This, however, doesn’t tell us how those points were accumulated. Instead of looking from a cumulative perspective, it’s actually more telling when you look from a week-to-week one.

This is especially the case for running backs, as they tend to get injured at a higher rate than any other position. Arian Foster, for instance, didn't play in half of his team's games this year. Why would you look at his points scored compared to a running back who played the entire 16-game schedule? You wouldn't (or shouldn't). It's not as though your Foster-led fantasy team was taking a zero at the running back slot when he was absent.

To begin to understand how to quantify this idea, take a look at the chart below depicting the number of times a quarterback finished in the top 12 at his position, sectioned off by "instances".

InstancesNumber of Quarterbacks
11 or more2
10 or more3
9 or more4
8 or more4
7 or more8
6 or more14
5 or more20
4 or more25
3 or more31
2 or more37
1 or more45

Data is through Week 16, as most fantasy leagues don't play Week 17.

As you can see, 45 different passers finished with a top-12 weekly passing rank at least once during the 2013 season. Why is top 12 relevant here? Again, this is the idea of usability mentioned in the section prior. If there are 12 passers being started in a 12-team league each week, finishing within this ranking would make a quarterback usable during that week. This is where the term “QB1” comes from when folks describe a quarterback’s week or season.

When looking at the chart, it’s clear that there’s a general excess of quarterbacks that are usable, as the demand for the position is set at 12 per week. For example, 20 different passers finished with five or more weekly top-12 finishes this past year, an excess of eight quarterbacks given the demand of the position.

As you move up to six, seven and eight or more weekly finishes, you naturally see a decrease in the total quarterbacks hitting those instances. But what this chart ends up showing is how valuable the top players actually were, week to week, compared to the rest of their peers. After all, given the definition of value and the Value Based Drafting principles fantasy owners follow, comparing how a player performs to the rest of the position is where you find the top-notch assets. It’s where you find your diamonds.

In 2013, the diamonds at quarterback existed in the “11 or more” bucket, as two passers were weekly top-12 signal-callers 11 of 15 times (keep in mind that Week 17 is not analyzed here). I know I’ve mentioned to focus on the position itself and not the players, but it’s pretty obvious that those two passers were Drew Brees and Peyton Manning.

I've added running backs, wide receivers and tight ends to the chart, shown below:

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight End
14 or more0100
13 or more0300
12 or more0401
11 or more2711
10 or more31322
9 or more41694
8 or more418135
7 or more823189
6 or more14252413
5 or more20353116
4 or more25434022
3 or more31535730
2 or more37617439
1 or more458111054

Data reflects PPR leagues.

Information overload, I know, but let’s dissect this a bit. There were a whole lot of wide receivers and running backs who hit usable status at least once or twice this past season, which isn’t really a surprise. I mentioned this fact in the supply and demand piece, showing that the majority of these players weren’t necessarily predictable. More on that in the next part of this series though.

You’re starting at least double the amount of backs compared to quarterbacks and tight ends in a standard league, meaning you’d like to see double the amount of running backs finishing in the weekly top 24 compared to a quarterback or tight end to judge value. That’s not really the case until you get into the “seven or more” range, but at that point, you’re still talking about a situation where the demand exceeds the supply.

But the one thing that should be eye-opening here is the fact that the elite players – the diamonds – at running back have more weekly usable finishes than any other position. That is, if you own one of these running backs, you’re gaining more of a weekly edge over any other player at any other position.

I understand wide receiver above replacement in terms of usable weeks could be considered more favorable than that of running back, but one thing to keep in mind is the actual number of usable players in general and the fact that top running backs are usable for a higher percentage of fantasy football weeks. Plus, this series is simply to show that running backs still hold value, not wide receiver.

I’m sure an anti-running back hipster is thinking, “But obtaining one of those running backs is much different than wide receiver, tight end or quarterback. Predicting which running back will be a top one in a given season is a much more difficult task compared to other positions in fantasy, despite the top backs being more valuable.”

This is a very valid point, and I’ll answer that question when I dig into predictability in the next article. For now, the key takeaway is from a positional level, and it's that owning an elite running back gives you just as much, if not more, of a weekly edge over an elite player at any other position in fantasy football, given a standard lineup. In other words, the top players at the running back position could be considered less replaceable than any other player at any other position. There's an argument for wide receivers, but this just goes to show that the running back position is indeed not losing its worth.

This isn’t just the case for top-24 running back games, either. Perhaps you’re more worried about a top-12 game, an RB1 performance. Cutting the parameters in half, you could argue that top running backs give you even more of a competitive weekly edge.

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight End
13 or more0100
12 or more0100
11 or more0100
10 or more0200
9 or more1201
8 or more1411
7 or more2651
6 or more21174
5 or more515117
4 or more1121168
3 or more17292816
2 or more24384522
1 or more33618036

I should note that all of these numbers line up similarly to what occurred in 2012 as well.

Let’s Recap

Perhaps this is a different way of looking at fantasy football, making it a little difficult to comprehend. So let’s recap what we’ve learned so far.

Running Backs are in Higher Demand

Because of basic supply and demand principles, the running back position is inherently a more costly one when compared to quarterback or tight end. The same could be said for wide receivers, but hey, this a running back value series, not a wide receiver one.

Top Running Backs are Very Hard to Replace

We see a whole lot of running backs and wide receivers finish with usable weekly performances, and without going into why you can’t put a lot of stock into this (that’s for the next article), you have to remember that the demand for these positions is twice as large as quarterback and tight end.

Moreover, the elite players at the running back position have consistently, year after year, produced more usable weeks than any other player at any other position. They – elite running backs – could be considered the most important players in fantasy football.

Coming Up Next

I talked earlier about the person (hipster) who assumes running backs are less predictable than any other position. To many, finding a top back, a clear advantage considering this very article, is easier said than done. But as I’ll show next, fantasy footballers have started to incorrectly value busts at the running back position because they overlook the journey. They conveniently forget that fantasy football is a weekly game, not a yearly one.