The lack of love for running backs in the NFL is difficult to comprehend as fans of fantasy football. While the real game is becoming less dependent upon high-end runners, the fake game needs them just as much as it ever has, if not more. So when there’s a backfield shift, it means a lot more to the fantasy football landscape than the real one.
We saw an example of this in action last week, when everyone’s favorite 2013 late-round fantasy running back, Knowshon Moreno, signed with the Dolphins. The deal wasn’t an incredibly lucrative one, which was just another sign that the running back position matters little in today’s NFL. But the moving of teams, in terms of fantasy football, is a big deal.
Stemming from the signing, Miami’s backfield got a little messier, while Denver’s became clear. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas will now have another runner to battle for carries, while soon-to-be second-year running back Montee Ball should see the bulk of Denver’s touches.
That’s a high-level view of the situation though. Digging deeper, we need to answer a few questions. Is Knowshon Moreno the guy to own in Miami? What about Lamar Miller? Can Montee Ball carry the load? Where will he end up being drafted?
Let’s dig in.
Moreno as a Dolphin
To anyone who watched a Dolphins game last year, it was clear that they lacked run support offensively. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the unit ranked 23rd in the league (adjusted for strength of schedule), with neither running back – between Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller – finishing with a positive NEP score.
This isn’t all on the running backs though. Football Outsiders ranked Miami’s offensive line 28th in run blocking a season ago, so it’s not as though the two rushers were getting much push.
The running game in Miami is a general mess. Signing Moreno, however, provides the team with proven experience in the backfield, as well as strong pass protection. That’s important too, as Ryan Tannehill was sacked eight more times than any other quarterback a season ago, accounting for over 400 yards lost.
The real question for fantasy owners is whether or not Moreno can be effective in a non-2013 Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos offense.
You can look at Moreno’s numbers with and without Peyton Manning, and you may not see a noticeable difference in yards per carry average. But there’s an obvious difference in the numbers he produced last season compared to his four previous seasons in the league. Take a look at the chart below to see for yourself:
|Year||Attempts||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP/Rush|
Last year, Moreno’s Rushing Net Expected Points total ranked third in the NFL among all running backs, behind only LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray. In his previous three seasons with significant volume, his Rushing NEP total was never positive.
However, that’s not a terrible thing. It’s difficult for running backs to maintain a positive NEP score, as running the football is much less effective than throwing it. If you think of what NEP is and how it works, this should make sense – it’s a whole lot easier for a team to gain large chunks through the air than it is on the ground. Running backs don’t have the luxury of adding eight or nine yards per play. They’re sometimes getting just one or two on first and second down.
That’s why looking at rank is a better way to judge running backs. And when you do that, Knowshon’s numbers aren’t nearly as bad as they may look.
Below are Knowshon Moreno’s ranks among 130-plus attempt runners throughout his career:
|2013||17.37||3 of 38|
As you can see, Knowshon hasn’t been that bad within the context of the running back position. While he ranked in the 30th percentile as a rookie, he’s been an above average volume runner over his last three 130-plus attempt seasons. And it’s not just the Manning effect, either – in 2010, Moreno mostly played with Kyle Orton.
Moreno's solid through the air, too. Through his first five seasons in the NFL, he’s hauled in 157 catches on 204 targets. His Reception NEP – a measure of the number of points added by a player on receptions only – has totaled 93.07. When you divide that by his volume, you get a Reception NEP per target average of 0.46.
That’s really, really solid. In fact, of the 653 running back seasons since 2000 where the runner caught at least 20 passes, Knowshon Moreno owns the 14th, 63rd and 130th best seasons when it comes to Reception NEP per target efficiency.
Daniel Thomas has yet to even have a 20-plus reception season, and Lamar Miller has just one, ranking 623rd.
Moreno is going to be the best running back in Miami next year, both on the ground and through the air. He's the only runner on that team that I'll more than likely own in fantasy. If he’s able to secure the majority of work, he should still be able to be fantasy relevant. Just don’t expect the same type of production he saw in Denver.
Entering the 2013 season, many thought Montee Ball would simply be the guy in Denver. It was a foolish notion in hindsight, as Knowshon Moreno was a capable back in Denver’s offense the season prior, and had more experience in pass protection.
Throughout the Broncos AFC winning season, Moreno saw the majority of touches, while Ball would be mixed in, especially close to the goal line towards the latter parts of the year. By the end of 2013, Ball carried the rock 120 times, while Moreno saw over double the amount at 241.
It’s fairly obvious that any running back with Peyton Manning under center is going to succeed, especially when Manning was as effective as he was in 2013. A good passing attack means defenses are going to have to play for the pass, opening things up for the running game a bit.
But there’s more than that to get excited about. As Daniel Lindsey pointed out in his Broncos review a little over a month ago, Ball was tremendous for Denver down the stretch last year, rushing to an 18.44 Rushing NEP from Week 8 through the end of the season. With the understanding that runners will typically not have high NEP numbers, that total is shocking. In fact, it’s a better total than what we saw from nearly every NFL running back over that time.
There’s downside with Ball though, too. He doesn’t have the experience Moreno had, and only toted the rock 120 times last year – can he last a full season of 250-plus attempts? He also wasn’t nearly as effective as a pass-catcher when compared to Knowshon, averaging 0.21 Reception Net Expected Points per target. Remember, Moreno’s average was 0.46. Ball’s reception average from his rookie year is a little below average.
It seems as though Denver has the potential for a better runner in Ball, and if he ends up getting the majority of Denver backfield touches, that could mean good things in fantasy football. However, keep in mind that his receiving metrics aren’t as polished as Moreno’s, so there could be a decline from that perspective.
The problem with any Denver player in fantasy entering the 2014 season is that they're naturally going to have inflated average draft positions given the way they performed in 2013. And I can guarantee you that the average fantasy owner won't comprehend the type of regression the Broncos may suffer through next year. So while Ball could certainly be a top running back in fantasy a year from now, his ADP may not reflect any sort of equity - he may end up being drafted at his ceiling.