A Review of the 2013 Fantasy Football Season: Running Backs

You all hated Ryan Mathews entering the season. We didn't.

Running backs get hurt. It happens, and it’s nearly a given that a few top-round running back picks will hit the IR at some point in an NFL season.

The lack of consistency at the position has brought fantasy footballers to the point where they’re beginning to devalue the position, despite its inherent scarcity and value. This, in the end, is what spawned the idea of the running back value series I’m in the middle of writing.

As I mentioned in the quarterback review article, comparing preseason rankings to postseason results can, a lot of times, give you the wrong idea. However, it’s still a good exercise to walk through, as you’re able to learn and see how volatile a position is from a season-long standpoint.

Without rambling on and on about the things I’ve talked about here, here and here, let’s dig right into our running back picks for the season and see how they worked out. To begin, let’s take a look at our projections versus what actually occurred, shown in the table below.

Preseason RB RankProject FPActual RB RankActual FPDifference
1Adrian Peterson295.50Jamaal Charles308.00+7
2Arian Foster263.50LeSean McCoy278.60+1
3Lesean McCoy224.67Matt Forte263.30+8
4Doug Martin214.85Marshawn Lynch239.30+2
5Ray Rice212.60Knowshon Moreno236.60+60
6Marshawn Lynch206.48Eddie Lacy207.50+19
7Trent Richardson202.04DeMarco Murray205.40+6
8Jamaal Charles200.05Adrian Peterson203.70-7
9Alfred Morris199.22Chris Johnson198.20+2
10C.J. Spiller185.27Fred Jackson187.10+40
11Matt Forte182.28Reggie Bush185.20+4
12Chris Johnson181.01Ryan Mathews184.40+8
13DeMarco Murray179.73Frank Gore174.90+3
14Stevan Ridley179.61Le'Veon Bell171.90+18
15Steven Jackson175.86Alfred Morris169.30-7
16Reggie Bush174.43Giovani Bernard166.90+19
17Frank Gore170.93Joique Bell163.70+35
18Maurice Jones-Drew169.11Zac Stacy157.40+46
19Darren McFadden159.90Danny Woodhead147.40+34
20David Wilson159.41Maurice Jones-Drew144.02-2
21Ryan Mathews157.91Rashad Jennings138.50N/A
22Chris Ivory155.64DeAngelo Williams137.60+8
23Darren Sproles147.33Pierre Thomas134.20+11
24BenJarvus Green-Ellis140.83Andre Ellington126.30N/A
25Eddie Lacy139.27Rashard Mendenhall126.10+3

Note: The numbers above reflect standard, non-PPR scoring. In addition, the “difference” column notes the difference in rank between the actual running back position and where we, numberFire, had that running back ranked at the beginning of the season.

Where We Goofed

Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Before I get started, remember that these players are just some of the highlights. Clearly we missed on a lot of guys (we’re not perfect, after all. I know, I’m just as shocked as you are), and obviously there were some that we nailed. I wanted to simply talk through the bigger names, that’s all.

First up, Le’Veon Bell. This one could deserve a pass, as Bell’s injury status was up in the air entering the season. But the Steelers running back performed far above expectation, and was one of the most consistent running backs in the league this season from a fantasy perspective.

Though the numbers above reflect standard leagues, in PPR ones, Le’Veon finished with 11 weekly top-24 performances, something that only six other running backs accomplished. The crazy part is that he only played 13 games, whereas each running back ahead of him (outside of Eddie Lacy) in terms weekly consistency played every game.

His Rushing Net Expected Points total was a fairly miserable -13.85, but Bell made up for his lack of rushing efficiency (which was mostly a result of a bad offensive line) with his ability to catch passes. While missing three games, Bell still totaled 45 receptions, good for 17th-most in the NFL at the running back position.

There’s no doubt that the algorithms will like the soon-to-be second-year back more next year than they did this year, especially if he enters the season healthy.

Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

Hmm, sensing a theme here? The algorithms weren’t as optimistic about the rookie backs as some of the rookie’s teams were, making for some inaccurate predictions. We had Lacy slotted as the 25th-best back entering the season, and he finished as the sixth-best one, good for a 19 slot difference.

However, this article could be the metrics’ saving grace, as yours truly did note that some of the analytics around the Packers’ rushing attack weren’t as bad as most thought. It was just a matter of how much volume the Pack would give Lacy, which was higher than most initially thought.

Expect Lacy to be a first-round pick next year as a result of his rookie campaign.

Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams

Like a lot of people, the algorithms didn’t know what to think about the Rams’ backfield this season. The metrics favored Daryl Richardson at the beginning of the season, and considering he lost his job quickly, there was little hope that the prediction would be right. That was fine, especially if no running back truly emerged in the St. Louis backfield.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, as rookie (here we go again!) Zac Stacy came through big for fantasy owners. He not only finished as the 19th-best running back this year, but he did it in just 12 games started in the toughest division in football.

Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos

Moreno was a flier at the end of fantasy drafts this year, as owners were simply hopeful that he could materialize as the top back in an efficient offense. We weren’t as confident, considering the running back competition in Denver and the fact that Moreno had never been a very effective runner according to our metrics.

Four months later and Knowshon Moreno is one of the best backs in fantasy football.

Only four running backs finished ahead of Moreno in terms of fantasy points scored this year, and from a weekly perspective, Moreno gave you 11 top-24 performances. He outperformed his numberFire rank by a ridiculous 60 spots, making him the biggest miss at the position this season for us, injured running backs aside.

Honorable Mentions: Trent Richardson (ranked 7, finished 34), Stevan Ridley (14, 30), Doug Martin (4, 50+), Arian Foster (2, 44), Ray Rice (5, 28)

Where We Looked Smart

LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

McCoy was numberFire’s third overall running back (and draft selection) this season, and he finished as the number two back overall in fantasy. With 13 top-24 PPR weekly finishes this year, only Jamaal Charles had more, making Shady one of the most consistent running backs in the game.

If you followed our rankings and were fortunate to have a fifth or sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, you probably ended up feeling pretty good as that’s where LeSean McCoy’s ADP (average draft position) hovered.

C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills

If you recall, C.J. Spiller was a runner who many thought would take the next step once he received more touches. Spiller had just 207 touches in 2012, rushing for an average yards per carry of 6.0 while putting together the best Rushing NEP score of anyone outside of 2,000-yard rusher Adrian Peterson.

But even if he saw an increase in touches, the situation surrounding Spiller had regression written all over it, which is why he was just our 10th-ranked running back entering the year as opposed to a top-five one. Those who followed the numberFire rankings certainly dodged a bullet with Spiller this season, especially considering his sporadic productivity.

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers

While you were all against drafting a guy who seemed to break his clavicle every five minutes, we were selecting Ryan Mathews confidently in the fourth or fifth round considering he was our number 21 back in 2013.

He finished with a low-end RB1 ranking, outperforming even our expectations. But the reason he’s on this list is because the majority of fantasy owners were hesitant to go after the Charger due to an injury narrative that clouded the true judgment of fantasy owners.

As I like to say, numberFire algorithms don’t have feelings. This was the perfect pick to show that.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Murray was another player fantasy owners were worried about, as he had never played an entire season at running back during his short career, touching the ball now more than 164 times on the ground in a single season.

Again, like Mathews, the algorithms didn’t care about that. Murray was numberFire’s 13th-ranked runner entering the season, higher than you would’ve found him in other rankings. He finished the year as the seventh-best back from a cumulative perspective, and in his 14 games, Murray had a ridiculous 12 top-24 performances.

Honorable Mentions: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (ranked 24, finished 31), Rashard Mendenhall (28, 25), Lamar Miller (27, 38), Maurice Jones-Drew (18, 20), Frank Gore (17, 14)