3 Inefficient Running Backs to Target in Fantasy Football
Every year, players like Alvin Kamara or Jamaal Charles captivate fantasy players with their astounding efficiency that flies in the face of everything we know about regression and league-wide averages. But this isn’t their story. This is the story of the ugly ducklings that plod their way across the season at 3.8 yards per carry and finish as top-12 backs despite an otherwise lackluster performance.
What we're doing is we're taking a look at the characteristics of inefficient running backs that have finished as RB12 or better with the intent of discovering backs with similar characteristics heading into 2018. How do we define inefficient, though?
The group of inefficient backs will be those who finished in the top-12 at the position over the past nine years while averaging less than four yards per carry. This mark doesn’t have any significance other than that it is probably the most common dividing line for which backs are deemed efficient. Something like numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric is a better measure of a back's effectiveness but doesn’t reflect the mainstream consensus (what the majority of people you’ll be drafting against think) on efficiency. So for the purposes of this article, yards per carry it is.
How Often Does this Happen?
Predicting inefficient yet productive fantasy backs wouldn’t matter if it happened once every five years. But, on average, just over two backs average under four yards per carry and finish in the top-12 each year. In other words, a sixth of the elite fantasy backs are bad at running the football in a given year.
What sets them apart?
A Volume Game
It makes sense that, to make up for inefficiencies, these backs are getting the ball more, but it might not be as much as you think. The inefficient backs saw 2.3 more carries per season and 8.1 more targets than their efficient brethren. The difference is worth paying attention to but it's not exactly groundbreaking. On a per-game basis, the carries are negligible and the targets come to a half-target more.
The more notable measurement of volume might be the backs’ dominance over their own backfields. The inefficient backs saw a 3.6% higher market share of their teams’ rushing attempts and a 0.9% higher target market share. Their volume was a direct result of dominating their respective backfields, and mainly doing so in the running game.
Looking at the inefficient backs' receiving efficiency further shows how they were mostly being propelled up the fantasy ranks by sheer volume. The inefficient backs averaged 108 points per season from receiving stats while the more efficient ones typically scored 99 points from catching passes.
Despite this, the sample of inefficient backs averaged 0.3 yards per target fewer than the efficient backs with their only edge in the passing game being that they averaged 0.13 receiving touchdowns more per season. This hardly constitutes an advantage and is more than offset by their 1.55 fewer rushing touchdowns, which still leaves them at a deficit for scoring.
The data used for this awards a point per reception, so it's clear that volume primarily makes up the bulk of their edge as receivers.
The bottom line is that being an inefficient runner and receiver still doesn’t rule a back out of top-12 contention. Volume is king and if we are predicting a player to receive a player to be used like a top-12 back, he might not need the efficiency to clear that threshold in fantasy.
But the inefficient backs did score less points overall. Over the course of a season, they averaged 20.6 fewer fantasy points when compared to their efficient counterparts. Even still, Devonta Freeman was the highest-scoring back in 2015 while running for under four yards per carry (3.98 exactly).
Being inefficient doesn’t rule out backs from finishing as running back one, so finding the backs who can overcome this barrier can be a way to extract more fantasy value from your drafts. Let's take a gander at some backs who may be values based on their perceived inefficiency and average draft positions (ADP) in PPR formats (using Fantasy Football Calculator's current ADP data).
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills - ADP: 20.9
Over the past eight years, LeSean McCoy has registered six top-12 running back performances. Since he entered the league in 2009, no back has scored more total fantasy points, and the next-closest player on an NFL roster is Frank Gore, who trails by over 400 PPR points. McCoy fantasy-scoring skill set has translated to success across teams and over time in a way that no other active back's has.
And that's in spite of the Buffalo Bills' best efforts to stifle his production with losing game scripts (they are 21-22 when McCoy plays in the last three seasons). He may be fighting an uphill battle again in 2018.
Buffalo will deploy A.J. McCarron and/or Josh Allen under center in lieu of Tyrod Taylor's departure. McCarron is a career backup (only three starts in 2015), and Allen has the profile of a draft bust (or at the very least a slow learner). Despite what you may think of Taylor, the alternatives Buffalo has will be an offensive downgrade for the immediate future.
To make matters worse for McCoy, they also traded left tackle Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito retired, leaving their line without its two most formidable assets. But McCoy has the volume to overcome these factors, and he’s already managed one top-12 season averaging under four yards per carry.
McCoy’s path to success is pretty simple -- keep running.
In 2017, he saw 58.9% of the Bills’ carries and 14.7% of the teams targets. The rushing mark is just below the average for our inefficient backs while the receiving number crushed the average. This was on a team that ranked 31st in numberFire’s overall offensive rankings to boot. The scoring upside isn’t great but the volume is more than enough.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers - ADP: 17.9
If you’re native to PPR leagues, Christian McCaffrey has already done this once. And not much has changed since 2017.
Jonathan Stewart was replaced with another early-down veteran in C.J. Anderson, virtually ending the McCaffrey hype just as quickly as it began. But don't read into Anderson's presence too much -- McCaffery is still a player to like in your fantasy drafts.
His rushing workload doesn’t make him stand out as a prototypical inefficient high-volume back, but there are a few precedents for McCaffrey’s production with backs like Danny Woodhead and 2017 McCaffrey rushing for under four yards per carry and finishing in the top-12. As McCaffrey bucks the trend of the inefficient backs -- seeing 23.9% of his team’s carries a season ago -- and his poor line play should only serve to keep his ADP in check.
To counter his small rushing opportunity, McCaffrey saw the highest target share -- 21.1% -- of all top-12 backs over the nine-year sample. While this rate could come down, his first-round draft capital -- supported by our in-house projections -- points to his carries rising in year two. Regardless of rushing efficiency, this uptick in volume should hold up his fantasy value.
Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders - ADP: 77.1
Gross, I know, but stick with me.
Last year, the Oakland Raiders finished 6-10, which represented their worst season since Derek Carr's rookie campaign. However, for 2018, our models have a six-win season on the lower range of outcomes for them, and an increase in the win column would results in more positive game scripts as well as the opportunity to run the ball more frequently.
This opportunity would be largely funneled to Marshawn Lynch, who saw 56% of his team’s carries in 2017, which was the ninth-best mark last year. If the Raiders want to win games, they’ll continue to give Lynch the ball. The veteran back registered a -0.01 Rushing NEP per carry last season with his next-closest teammate at a mark of -0.08 Rushing NEP on a per-carry basis and the league-average at -0.05.
As Lynch forges on into his age-32 season, it’s reasonable to expect him to become more inefficient as a runner, but he’s still the best option in the Raiders' backfield. Lynch only has an outside chance of cracking the threshold we call RB1s, but he is a great example of a player who projects to dominate his backfield, yet fantasy gamers refuse to reflect this in his draft cost. Volume alone makes him a sneaky contender to push the envelope on his potential outputs this season.