Why Darren Sproles' Production Dipped in 2013

Darren Sproles wasn't the same type of fantasy running back in 2013. Why?

He’s short, but his fantasy football impact has been anything but little.

Darren Sproles, the Saints running back whose height is similar to some pre-adolescent teenagers, has made quite a mark since joining the team in 2011. He’s become one of quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite targets, catching 232 passes over the last three season, 37 more than any other running back during that time.

As a result, Sproles finished 5th in fantasy at the running back position in 2011, and 12th in 2012 despite missing three games. This past season, however, Sproles – one of the more consistent backs the fantasy football game has seen over the last couple of seasons – dipped to the 24th-ranked back.

Why? How? Is there an easily defined answer for this drop in production and rank?

Sproles' 2013 Campaign

Anytime there’s a drop in production from one year to the next, you’d expect to see some sort of decline in efficiency. Interestingly enough, that wasn’t exactly the case for Sproles. Take a look at how his 2013 campaign compared to the previous two he had where he was a top-12 running back:

YearRushesRushing NEPReceptionsReception NEPPPR Fantasy Points

The numbers above reflect numberFire’s Net Expected Points metric, which analyzes how many points – real points – a player is adding for his team over the course of the season. You can read more about the statistic here.

In 2011, Sproles saw a lot more rushing attempts than his newest two seasons in New Orleans, as well as 11 more receptions. To make him even more of a fantasy unicorn, Sproles was far more efficient on the ground, doing more with higher volume. That’s a big reason for his 271 PPR fantasy points.

But in 2012, Sproles’ volume fell due to injury, as did his rushing efficiency. And as a result, he finished with 55 fewer fantasy points than he did in 2011.

Sproles’ 2013 year was actually a lot like his 2012 season, which is why it’s interesting to see a 42.7-point difference in the fantasy column from one year to the next. He saw more rushes this past year, had slightly better efficiency, and although his Reception NEP and total receptions were a tad lower, it doesn’t seem to be a big enough reason for such a dramatic change in fantasy points and running back rank.

But keep in mind, our NEP numbers aren’t simply for fantasy football. Instead, they exist to show us how well a player is actually performing in order to give us a better idea of how a player is going to do. In other words, the metrics aren’t weighted the same way fantasy football is. And that, my friends, makes all the difference in the world.

Sproles in the Red Zone

Fantasy football is a touchdown-driven game. While we at numberFire look at Net Expected Points data (numbers that aren’t awkwardly skewed towards touchdowns), fantasy scoring isn’t – touchdowns rule the landscape.

And in 2013, Darren Sproles scored four fewer touchdowns (24 points) than he did in his 13 games in 2012. Why? Red zone use.

Take a look at the chart below depicting Sproles’ numbers in the red zone in 2012 and 2013.

YearRushesRushing TDsTargetsReceptionsReceiving TDs

Bingo. In 2012, Sproles had a total of 24 tries in the red zone (targets plus rushes), while that dropped to 19 in 2013. And because he’s more prolific of a receiving running back than a rushing one, it’s more important to note that his red zone targets decreased by 10 from 2012 to 2013, despite playing in more games.

As a result, Sproles caught four fewer touchdowns in the red zone, something that’s even more noteworthy in PPR leagues.

It’s not as though the volume in the red zone disappeared for the Saints, either. In 2013, Pierre Thomas saw two additional red zone targets and 10 more rush attempts than he did in 2012, which probably didn’t help Sproles’ cause. And Jimmy Graham, New Orleans’ star red zone tight end threat, increased his red zone volume by nine targets and eight receptions.

Those were supposed to go to Darren Sproles.

What most people may not realize is that Sproles’ fantasy value in 2011 and 2012 had a lot to do with how the team was using him in the red zone. For a 5’6’’ back to have scored nine and eight times in 2011 and 2012 respectively, he was almost bound to regress a bit, especially if his volume changed even in the slightest. And it did.

Though it's early in the offseason, this is something to keep in mind as your mind shifts to 2014. If the trend continues, Sproles' value will keep dwindling.