Fantasy Football: How to Spot a Breakout Running Back

There are breakout running backs in fantasy football each year. Is there a way to spot the breakout before it happens?

Fantasy football teams with Alvin Kamara were successful last year not just because he was easily a top-five running back, but because he was a top-five running back all while being selected far past the 100th pick in most drafts.

Alvin Kamara was that knock-off brand purchase you made that actually ended up being the real thing.

We don't usually see Kamara-like performances in fantasy football. Not to that extent. But we do almost always have a breakout running back or two each year in fantasy football. And pinpointing that dude and having him on your roster can pay serious dividends.

Is there a method to the madness, though? Can you actually use logic and reasoning to increase your probability in hitting on a late-round running back?

Of course you can.

The Method

How do you even determine what a breakout is anyway?

There's no generally accepted way of defining it, but we can at least draw out some guidelines.

Let's first start with a basic graph that depicts running back average draft position (ADP) on the x-axis -- this data is from -- versus PPR points scored on the y-axis from the last seven years. So, since 2011.

As you can see, we're not horrible at predicting who's going to be good and who's not. Overall, as you get deeper in the draft -- as you move down the x-axis -- fewer points are being produced by players.

What this graph allows us to do, too, is set expectation. Meaning, we can look at a particular draft slot and see how many points a player from that spot has typically produced. And this can help us in finding who the true "breakout" players at the running back position have been.

Over these seven years, here's a list of players who outperformed their average draft position most in a single season:

Player Year Average Pick PPR Points Expected Points Difference
Alvin Kamara 2017 140.76 314.4 92.13 222.27
Devonta Freeman 2015 113.43 316.4 102.18 214.22
Knowshon Moreno 2013 160.95 296.6 85.88 210.72
Le'Veon Bell 2014 26.62 370.5 169.68 200.82
Todd Gurley 2017 19.88 383.3 183.28 200.02
Darren Sproles 2011 148.87 271.3 89.52 181.78
David Johnson 2016 7.84 407.8 226.61 181.19
Adrian Peterson 2012 21.88 347.4 178.81 168.59
Alfred Morris 2012 158.61 252.0 86.57 165.43
Doug Martin 2012 40.97 311.6 149.60 162.00
DeMarco Murray 2014 17.50 351.1 189.22 161.88
Kareem Hunt 2017 51.53 295.2 138.92 156.28
DeMarco Murray 2016 50.01 293.8 140.32 153.48
Jordan Howard 2016 170.80 230.1 83.12 146.98

These have been the "league winners" at the running back position in fantasy football since 2011.

The issue is that not all of these guys were drafted late. David Johnson, for instance, went nuts in 2016, but he was an easy first-round pick. Todd Gurley was a beast last year, but most teams were selecting him in the second round. They weren't really "breakout" running backs.

To remedy the situation, I filtered out anyone with an ADP inside the top-100, and then looked at the backs who outperformed expectation by at least 100 PPR points. They also had to have been drafted (in fantasy).

Is this subjective? Yes, totally. Is it logical? I think so, considering it narrows the running back pool to only later-round players who played really well.

Our new list is below:

Player Year Average Pick PPR Points Expected Points Difference
Alvin Kamara 2017 140.76 314.4 92.13 222.27
Devonta Freeman 2015 113.43 316.4 102.18 214.22
Knowshon Moreno 2013 160.95 296.6 85.88 210.72
Darren Sproles 2011 148.87 271.3 89.52 181.78
Alfred Morris 2012 158.61 252.0 86.57 165.43
Jordan Howard 2016 170.80 230.1 83.12 146.98
Danny Woodhead 2015 118.46 243.1 100.16 142.94
DeAngelo Williams 2015 155.75 229.4 87.41 141.99
Fred Jackson 2013 132.56 233.1 94.92 138.18
LeGarrette Blount 2016 123.31 232.9 98.29 134.61
CJ Anderson 2014 193.31 211.3 77.35 133.95
Joique Bell 2013 154.48 216.7 87.79 128.91
Danny Woodhead 2013 125.51 223.4 97.47 125.93
Michael Bush 2011 125.64 222.5 97.42 125.08
Pierre Thomas 2013 138.84 211.2 92.77 118.43
David Johnson 2015 142.40 209.8 91.59 118.21
Jay Ajayi 2016 116.84 215.3 100.80 114.50
Jeremy Hill 2014 125.85 210.9 97.34 113.56
Duke Johnson 2017 112.40 216.1 102.60 113.50
Dion Lewis 2017 168.35 197.0 83.79 113.21
Isaiah Crowell 2016 128.59 205.1 96.34 108.76
Theo Riddick 2015 210.01 179.0 73.49 105.51
Bilal Powell 2016 138.58 197.0 92.85 104.15
Rashad Jennings 2013 209.96 174.5 73.50 101.00

are the breakout running backs we should be interested in.

And, fortunately, there are some things that a lot of these guys have in common that can help us spot them in future drafts.

Trend 1: Breakout Running Backs Are Rarely Handcuffs

Last offseason, I examined the strategy of handcuffing in fantasy football and noticed that there's really no reason to implement it. Not only are we bad at predicting who a particular handcuff is, but even when handcuffs do step in for an injured player, they don't usually perform all that well.

If you're going to handcuff, you should do it late in the season after the most fruitful waiver wire period -- the beginning of the season -- is over.

As noted in that article, the two running back handcuffs who have actually come through for fantasy teams over the last decade have been DeAngelo Williams, who got the nod in 2015 for an injured Le'Veon Bell, and Michael Bush, who started for the oft-injured Darren McFadden in 2011.

Unsurprisingly, both of those players made the list of 24 breakout running backs over the last seven seasons. But of the 24 running backs listed above, only 8 really benefitted from some sort of injury to their respective backfield. And, for the record, these additional six running backs (remember, Williams and Bush are part of the eight) weren't technically handcuffs because either the running back ahead of them on the depth chart wasn't an RB1 in fantasy football entering the season, or they produced before that running back went down.

The six added running backs I'm referring to are Jeremy Hill (2014 breakout), Rashad Jennings (2013), David Johnson (2015), Jay Ajayi (2016), Jordan Howard (2016), and C.J. Anderson (2014). Of these six running backs, only Hill and Anderson had a running back teammate with an average draft cost that was higher than roughly 40th overall.

Year Player Injured Teammate Teammate ADP
2015 DeAngelo Williams Le'Veon Bell 3.10
2011 Michael Bush Darren McFadden 15.78
2014 CJ Anderson Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball 16.60
2014 Jeremy Hill Giovani Bernard 19.82
2013 Rashad Jennings Darren McFadden 39.86
2015 David Johnson Andre Ellington 52.73
2016 Jordan Howard Jeremy Langford 59.07
2016 Jay Ajayi Arian Foster 74.03

For Hill, that teammate was Giovani Bernard, who had a high draft cost at the beginning of the season because of his pass-catching ability. The truth is, before the Bernard injury in 2014, Hill was starting to dig into his workload with multiple double-digit carry games.

In Anderson's case, he wasn't even next in line when Montee Ball suffered a groin injury in 2014. Ronnie Hillman was. Anderson then finally took over and showcased his skillset later in the season.

Essentially, what we're looking at is less about handcuffing and more about targeting backfields with questionable situations. Injuries can help catapult an unknown player into a plus situation, but had those injuries happened to more talented running backs, these breakouts would've been short-lived.

Trend 2: Breakout Running Backs Are Part of Ambiguous Backfields

To this point, in order to draft a breakout running back, you should probably be targeting backs who are a part of unclear backfields.

None of the breakout running backs above were the first ones selected in fantasy drafts from their particular backfield. They were all backups in some way.

But the running backs selected ahead of them from their backfields weren't anything special. The running back teammates from the breakout running back group were taken at pick 53.04 on average, or the middle of the fifth round in a 12-team league. Just 21% of the breakout running backs came from backfields where their teammate was selected in the first two rounds. In other words, these running backs aren't coming from situations where there's a clear-cut starter to start the year. That may not be a huge revelation, but it's noteworthy nonetheless.

Trend 3: Breakout Running Backs Are Pass-Catchers

We're dealing with the PPR format here, but even still, there's a pretty clear running back breakout archetype. He's a pass-catcher.

Among the 24 backs, the average target share seen in their breakout season was roughly 11%. And they've averaged exactly 50 receptions.

To put this into context, let's compare the averages seen by the breakout running backs to the 70-best fantasy running back seasons over the last seven years (roughly the top-10 running backs in each season).

Group Fantasy Points Rushing Share Target Share Receptions
Breakouts 229.54 41.57% 10.92% 50.00
Top 70 276.18 57.47% 12.15% 50.44

There is some overlap here, as many of the breakout backs were also in the top-70 at the position over the last seven years, but this chart is still pretty telling. Despite the group of breakouts scoring, on average, nearly 50 points fewer per season than the 70-best seasons since 2011, they still averaged almost the same number of receptions each year.

Just looking at the disparity between target share and rushing share tells us the story. For breakout running backs, things are skewed far more toward being less of a rusher and more of a receiver. That means the type of player you should be targeting late should have some sort of receiving role because he's likely to be catching passes all year round. That was pretty true within the sample of breakout backs, as only two of them caught fewer than 27 passes during their big season.

Trend 4: Breakout Running Backs Come From Good Offenses

Perhaps the most important trend in all of this is the type of situation these running backs are coming from. At times, we've seen the fantasy football community underrate the importance of offensive ability when evaluating a running back's potential.

We've got hindsight in our favor, but we probably should've been higher on Alvin Kamara last year even if we believed he was just an average back with a lot of athleticism. Being a pass-catching back in the Saints offense has been huge -- of the 24 backs we're analyzing, 3 came from the New Orleans' offense.

And get this: among our 24-player grouping, an astounding 11 running backs came from offenses that were in the top-four of numberFire's scheduled-adjusted metrics during their breakout campaigns. That's nearly 46% of all running back breakouts over the last seven years. The offense that one of these running backs is coming from has ranked, on average, about 12th.

The fact that good running backs come from strong offenses isn't all that shocking. What might be is the rate in which it's happening.

The 2018 Season

What's this mean for 2018? Well, let's take a look at a handful of cases where late-round running backs fit most or all of the criteria listed above.

Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and Ty Montgomery

The most obvious place to start is in the Green Bay backfield, where Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and Ty Montgomery are slated to compete for work. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, last season, the only running back with better per-rush efficiency than Jones was Alvin Kamara. Jones, too, was just one of 17 running backs since 2000 to finish the season with at least a 0.15 Rushing NEP per rush average and a 50% Success Rate, or the percentage of positive expected points runs made by a player. Not only that, Jones also finished last season with the highest differential between his yards per carry average and his running back teammate's yards per carry average.

Jones appears to be the most talented in that backfield, so if he slips in your draft, he's an obvious target. But it's not a bad idea to throw a dart at the other Green Bay backs, as well, considering the Packers are a virtual lock to be strong offensively with Aaron Rodgers back and healthy.

Corey Clement

Per Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP data, Jay Ajayi is coming off of draft boards in PPR leagues around Pick 38. And as RB19, he's not really someone you'd typically handcuff.

There's nothing wrong with Ajayi, per se, but during his time with Philadelphia last season (including the playoffs), he had a 37.58% rushing share, which isn't a noteworthy mark at all. He also had the same number of targets as teammate Corey Clement in games where the two played together.

In other words, the Eagles split up the backfield.

With Carson Wentz returning, the Eagles' O should once again be one of the better ones in football. That means Clement sort of fits the mold of what we've seen from a typical breakout back: he's in a good offense, he catches passes, and the backfield itself doesn't have an established bell-cow back. And if something were to happen to Ajayi, then Clement would assume a larger role in the offense.

The underrated obstacle in Clement's way may be Darren Sproles, who could end up leading the team in running back snaps this season. So put him on your late-round running back list, too.

Kerryon Johnson

Depending on your league and the site you're playing on, Kerryon Johnson could end up being drafted far higher than 100th overall this year. If he's not, then he's also an underrated breakout candidate.

Theo Riddick, who you could argue should be on this list, as well, is currently the biggest barrier for Johnson in the receiving game. That undoubtedly hurts Johnson's potential. And if the Lions deploy LeGarrette Blount at the goal line, then Johnson won't be that valuable in fantasy football this year.

But that's why his cost is depreciated -- he's in a crowded backfield. As we know, though, crowded backfields are where breakout running backs emerge from. If things go Johnson's way, he could end up returning nice value for fantasy owners given the Lions' offense is coming off a season in which they scored the seventh-most points in the league, and they look strong on that side of the ball again this year.

James White and Rex Burkhead

We know New England will score points next season. We also know they throw to their running backs: over the last five years, four running backs have had a prorated (because they didn't play all 16 games) target share of at least 12.81% in the Patriots' offense. We've even seen two late-round New England running backs exceed their average draft cost by over 100 PPR points over the last seven years.

In 2018, the go-to early-round Patriots back is rookie Sony Michel. And it makes sense. But not only could James White and Rex Burkhead see snaps with a healthy Michel in the lineup, if the rookie goes down to injury or is benched for whatever reason (perhaps because of his known fumbling issues), White and Burkhead would immediately surface as viable fantasy options.

Peyton Barber

The top running back by ADP on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster is rookie Ronald Jones, but there are potential size and workload concerns surrounding him. He's listed at 205 pounds, and the thought is that he and Peyton Barber will share the load in the Bucs' backfield to start the year.

So, naturally, what if the bigger-bodied Barber ends up as the one who sees the most work? What if Jones' lack of reception share in college translates unfavorably to the NFL? Again, it's a situation where Jones should be considered the top back in the backfield, but with so many offensive weapons and an above-average quarterback, Barber does profile as a potential breakout back.

Bringing It Together

Finding these running backs is a lot easier said than done, and it's not like it happens all that often. That's what makes selecting the breakout back a difficult task.

But utilizing the trends above can help increase your probability of hitting on these players.

And that's really what this is all about -- it's about probability. It's about increasing your chances, not guaranteeing your chances.

It's just another way to find an edge over your competition.