Daily Fantasy Football: Assessing the True Value of Carries and Targets for Running Backs
Alvin Kamara was on a mission in 2017. That mission was to destroy everything we know about efficiency from a running back.
Despite never being a true workhorse for his team, he bathed in fantasy points over the stretch run of the season. He notched at least 20 points on FanDuel in seven separate games, five of which came consecutively from Week 9 through Week 13. The only thing that ended this run of destruction was a concussion on the opening drive in Week 14. The man was unstoppable.
This tear put DFS players in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, Kamara was clearly a talented player on a great team who was putting up sickly results. On the other, his salary had shot as high as $9,200 on FanDuel despite the fact that he had maxed out at 17 opportunities (carries plus targets) in a single game prior to the concussion. That's the same pricing range as the game's elite at the position, guys like Le'Veon Bell, who averaged 26.69 opportunities per game.
If you used Kamara, you risked getting bitten if he couldn't maintain the absurd efficiency, and you were potentially missing out on guys like Bell with safer touch totals. If you didn't use Kamara, you were begging him to not rip off another 75-yard touchdown to put a dagger into all of your rosters. It was not a fun internal discussion.
But there is a bright side to having Kamara beast out during his rookie season. By doing so, he illustrated the pitfalls of analyzing a player based on his total touches or opportunities. FanDuel uses a half-point-per-reception (PPR) scoring system, meaning that the value of a target is inherently going to be larger than that of a carry. Add on that passes to backs tend to generate more yardage than carries, and you've got yourself an imperfect system.
Kamara's not alone in this, either. So many backs across the NFL now fill specialized roles, whether it be largely as a pass-catching back or as someone who leaves the field when the team is forced to throw. You've still got your unicorns like Bell, David Johnson, and Todd Gurley, but those true bell cows aren't as abundant as they once were.
This isn't to say we should flat out ignore the volume that a back is getting. Some guy who gets five targets and no carries per game -- in the long run -- will not be on par with a 20-carry back. Volume still matters. But how do we account for the difference in value between a carry and a target?
Thankfully, we don't have to just guess here. There's a little thing called data that can help us answer this question. And we're going to try to solve this riddle today.
Let's look back at the past three NFL seasons to see what we can learn about the value of a carry relative to a target from a DFS perspective. There are still going to be other factors at play, but this should at least help us make better decisions when guys like Kamara come onto the scene.
What the Data Shows
It's pretty simple to figure this all out. You just find the average fantasy points for a carry and compare that to a target. This ain't rocket science.
In order to do this, we narrowed the list to exclusively running backs who logged at least one carry from 2015 to 2017. This omits wide receivers and quarterbacks, who would manipulate the value of a rush attempt.
After doing this, we're left with 34,764 rushing attempts by running backs and 11,011 targets in our three-year sample. We can calculate the FanDuel points tied to each event by isolating scoring based on rushing stats (for a carry) and receiving stats (for a target). Here's a look at how that breaks down on a per-carry and per-target basis.
|From 2015 to 2017||FanDuel Points|
Doing the math here, this means that each target is worth 2.026 times as much as a carry. Logically, that makes sense, and it gives us our first benchmark when evaluating different players.
The one risk with tying in all running backs in this sample is that not all running backs are going to be viable from a DFS perspective each week. A back who enters exclusively to get carries at the goal line could inflate the rushing numbers, making a rush appear more valuable than it actually is. As such, we should be tweaking our investigation just a tad.
To do so, let's look just at running backs who logged at least 50 carries between 2015 and 2017. This will weed out the true gadget backs, many of whom don't get the requisite volume to be considered in DFS. Once we do that, our results stay largely the same.
|Among 50+ Carry Backs||FanDuel Points|
The value of a carry actually increased 0.002, and a target went down 0.012. When we look just at this data, the value of a target is 1.997 times greater than that of a carry.
To make things as basic as possible, we should view every target as being roughly twice as valuable as every carry. This means when we're talking about 17 opportunities for Kamara, it makes a huge difference whether he got there with nine targets or none.
So, we've established a baseline value for a target relative to a carry. We can't view every running back the same based on his total opportunities or his market share because each back is going to get to that mark in a different fashion. This isn't ground-breaking in any way, but just having a number we can attach to each type of opportunity should prove helpful.
What This Means for 2018
Now that we have this baseline, let's take a look forward to 2018. How can we use this data to make decisions early in the season for DFS and potentially for re-draft and dynasty leagues?
If you're looking for a more in-depth discussion on the season-long side of things, numberFire's JJ Zachariason discussed the topic two years ago, looking at this effect in both non-PPR and full-PPR leagues. It's very much a worthwhile read if those are your preferred scoring formats or if season-long is your jam.
From a DFS perspective, it can help to see which running backs truly got the most opportunity in 2017. This isn't going to be predictive because it's just looking back at what has already happened, but it can give us a look at which archetypes tend to stand above the rest.
As such, here's a look at top-20 running backs in adjusted per-game opportunities from 2017. We're calling them "adjusted opportunities" just for simplicity's sake, and it means we've taken each player's target total, multiplied it by two, and added it to his raw carry total.
|RBs in 2017||Rank||Adjusted Opportunities Per Game|
Do you notice a trend on this list? You should. Each of the top-12 running backs averaged at least 3.5 targets per game. Even though Jordan Howard ranked 8th in carries per game, he slid to 13th in adjusted opportunities due to his lack of receiving involvement. Toss in the Chicago Bears' offensive struggles, and it's not hard to see why Howard was largely a dud in fantasy this year.
Basically, you need to be involved in the passing offense to be a top-tier DFS asset. And this was evident in our investigation of 2017's perfect FanDuel lineups, as well.
The 34 running backs to wind up in a perfect lineup averaged 4.09 receptions per game. Only nine of those 34 had fewer than three receptions in the games they made the list. Even though FanDuel is not a full-PPR site, you still need to target backs who are involved in their team's passing offense. Failing to do so is limiting both your team's floor and ceiling.
From a more micro perspective, David Johnson wound up ranking fourth on this list despite missing the entire fourth quarter in the only game he played. There's a reason he was the top overall pick entering the year, and he should probably be near the top again in 2018 despite abundant and legitimate questions around the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback situation.
With Johnson being out of commission, Bell was in a tier of his own. He averaged 35.53 adjusted opportunities per game, and nobody else was higher than 32. If Johnson's healthy, he's in that same usage tier. But nobody else -- not even Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley -- can rival that usage. Because Bell's also on a team with a good quarterback situation, he should be viewed as the most valuable DFS asset at running back entering 2018 and priced as such.
Dalvin Cook's eighth-place ranking on this list is superbly noteworthy as we look forward to 2018. In the three games prior to his season-ending torn ACL, Cook averaged 29 adjusted opportunities per game. That would have put him tied with Johnson for fourth on the list. The Minnesota Vikings have tremendous talent at wide receiver and a re-tooled offensive line. Assuming Cook is healthy and the quarterbacking situation gets cleared up in the offseason, Cook could be a tremendous player to buy before his price adjusts to his role.
Once you get a bit lower on that list, you'll finally see Kamara's name down in 18th. That's not representative of his true role, so let's handle him separately here.
Obviously, Kamara's value changed drastically once Adrian Peterson was shipped out of town. That means his full-season numbers are filthy, filthy liars trying to mask what he truly was. We should toss them out of this equation to determine how we should have been handling Kamara.
Let's do exactly that and look at Kamara's numbers over the second half of the year, omitting the week he left early due to the concussion. In this seven-game stretch, Kamara averaged 22.43 adjusted opportunities per game. That would have ranked 12th on our season-long list, right between Mark Ingram (who would also get a bump in the post-Peterson era) and Christian McCaffrey. That's not the salary tier he was occupying at the height of his success.
This sort of process obviously will not take into account Kamara's talent and situation, both of which will inflate his value. And not every target for a running back is created equal, either. But just having this sort of reference in our back pocket is helpful as it gives us a check on where we should be valuing players, and it's possible it shows that Kamara's salary got a smidge too high late in the year.
There are a plethora of factors that will influence a running back's value in daily fantasy football. Offensive-line health, quarterback efficiency, projected game flow, and on and on and on. But volume matters, too, and assessing which volume matters more helps us better judge the true value of each opportunity the running back gets.
We know that FanDuel is only a half-PPR site, and because of that, we can sometimes allow ourselves more leeway in targeting backs who aren't involved in the passing game. But as you saw above, there weren't any top-12 backs in adjusted opportunities last year who got there without the benefit of some targets. It's crucial that we look for guys with dual involvement when filling out our rosters.
That exercise should have also illustrated the immense DFS value of a bell-cow back. Bell dusted the crowd when adding in his work in the passing game, beefing his value up to an outlierish tier. That carries both a high floor and a high ceiling, so we should feel comfortable paying up for those studs when they come along in both cash games and tournaments.
Finally, we should be better equipped to assess the true value of a back once he starts to pop for DFS. For a back like Kamara, it's all gravy to plug him in when his price undersells his role. But once the pricing on a back starts to creep into the upper registers without the volume to back it up, it's okay to pump the brakes and start looking elsewhere.