Fantasy Football: Identifying Running Backs to Unload

Derrick Henry may have the majority of his team's rushing attempts, but he's losing targets and goal-line opportunities in droves. How can fantasy owners identify and avoid situations like this?

There’s an old saying, “stuck between a rock and a hard place”, which means a person is in a difficult dilemma.

This phrase actually originates in the ancient Greek tale Odyssey, by Homer, where the hero Odysseus had to sail his ship through a narrow pass between a monster on a rock (Scylla) and a deadly whirlpool (Charybdis). This section of the story ends somewhat tragically, as Odysseus has to make the decision to lose some of his men to the monster’s reach, rather than risk all of them, as well as the ship and himself to the whirlpool.

Thank goodness fantasy football doesn’t have nearly these dire of outcomes if you lose your league.

The reason I bring up being “between the devil and the deep blue sea” is that I feel this phrase accurately describes the state of the running back position in 2018. We know about committee backfields at this point; it’s expected that one running back will primarily be used as the ground-and-pounder and another the "scat" receiving back. We know that there are “between-the-20s” backs and short-yardage, goal-line backs.

What concerns us more and more is that an unnerving trend is emerging in running back usage this year, and it's one that puts our rushers in an uncomfortable, unenviable spot: the advent of the non-receiving, non-goal-line back. How can history help us to identify these backs and avoid their destruction for the remainder of this season and beyond?

My Name Is Nobody

I’ve settled on the term “rock back” to describe these two-down runners who get pulled in important situations. Not only does it reference the metaphor in the header, I like the image of them being sort of a deadweight for fantasy scoring because they get no chances for receiving or scoring upside.

Now, I do have to admit: I didn’t birth the idea of the rock back -- that honor goes to this tweet, which turned me on to researching the idea. And the research bears this idea out.

In looking at this historically, I used Pro Football Reference to check profiles of running backs against our measures here. I decided on at least 150 carries in a season, with no more than 30 targets (2 per game) and 5 touchdowns (1 every 3 games or so, to account for flukes).

We ended up with 61 seasons since 2000, and those with multiple seasons as a fantasy lead weight are shown in the table below.

Name Number of Seasons
Julius Jones 3
LeGarrette Blount 2
Alfred Blue 2
Justin Fargas 2
Travis Henry 2
Larry Johnson 2
Antowain Smith 2
Emmitt Smith* 2
Fred Taylor 2

It’s a bit surprising to me to see a name I didn’t immediately recognize -- that of the former Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks’ back Julius Jones -- at the top of this table, but perhaps it shouldn’t, since the rock back is the epitome of fantasy running back mediocrity. Jones was the 43rd overall selection of the 2004 NFL Draft and comes from highly notable bloodlines (his brother Thomas Jones was kind of a big deal for a while).

But Jones wasn’t really notable himself, except for the fact that he posted three consecutive rock back seasons from 2006 to 2008, where he had a 16-game pace of just 807 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 201 attempts, while averaging just 22 targets (16 catches) for 140 yards.

If the unconscious urge to emit a sound you just experienced was something like “blah” or “urgh”, or even “yikes”, you now understand the Tao of the rock back.

One other way we could define the rock back is by those with limited targets and who are pulled close to the goal line, since this perhaps more accurately depicts the players who are getting chances to score. There have been 40 player-seasons since 2000 with no more than 11 rushes from inside the opponents’ 10-yard line and 30 targets or fewer. Those running backs to do so in multiple seasons are shown with their seasonal averages.

Past Rock Backs Years Rush AttemptsGoal Line Rushes Targets
Alfred Blue 2014-15 176.0 8.0 17.0
Cedric Benson 2006, 2008 185.5 9.5 18.0
Julius Jones 2007-08 161.0 6.5 25.5
LeGarrette Blount 2011, 2013 168.5 7.5 15.0
Ricky Williams 2005, 2010 163.5 7.5 25.0

The point here, though, is that this kind of limited role really reduces the impact potential a fantasy running back has. The average running back PPR score per game for rock backs since 2000 is just 8.1, and they’ve played in just under 15 games per season. That gives us an average season of 120.5 PPR fantasy points, or what would’ve been the RB42 last year, just ahead of Jonathan Stewart and just behind Matt Forte.

2006 Fred Taylor is the supreme outlier of these, and even his 194.8 PPR points would’ve been just a low-end RB2 last year, with him ripping off nearly 16 carries a game at almost 5.0 yards per attempt.

Our goal should always be to find fantasy upside in our running backs, and these players’ profiles severely limit the chance for that.

The Journey Is the Thing

So, let's look at players who are on pace for our rock back thresholds this year. Who is it that we should avoid or look to unload on another owner in your league?

The table below shows the running backs with limited receiving and goal line opportunities: 20 or more rushing attempts, 6 or fewer targets, and 3 or fewer rushing attempts inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.

Rock Backs, 2018 Rush Attempts Goal Line Rushes Targets PPR/G
Phillip Lindsay 33 2 6 10.8
Chris Ivory 25 2 6 8.9
Sony Michel 24 2 5 5.5
Derrick Henry 46 1 2 5.2
Rex Burkhead 24 0 6 4.9
Peyton Barber 43 3 4 4.7
LeGarrette Blount 28 2 3 4.2
Frank Gore 24 1 1 4.2
Doug Martin 20 0 3 3.8

Of these nine rushers, only two are currently on pace to score more than 100 PPR fantasy points this year, and yet even they have tenuous holds on their scoring potential due to their roles.

Unsurprisingly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hardly rushing at all, so Peyton Barber is getting very few opportunities to punch the ball into the end zone. It’s surprising, though, that he isn’t getting very many targets in the Bucs’ high-flying aerial attack. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick seems to be throwing far downfield, and checking down to the running back simply isn’t in the playbook.

Undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay has exploded onto the NFL scene, shocking everyone by becoming the Denver Broncos’ top fantasy back, when most of us expected fellow newbie Royce Freeman or journeyman Devontae Booker to take the lead. Lindsay is described as a primary scatback, however he’s seen just an average of 2.0 targets per game and is earning very few carries in close. His best chance to score will be on a long run, which are fluky and hard to count on. Freeman nearly appeared on this list, but he has five carries inside the opponents’ 10-yard line.

The New England Patriots have two of these rock backs on our list, with first-round rookie Sony Michel and veteran Rex Burkhead joining him. Both of these players are leeching off of each other’s touches, but Michel has played in just two games this season and already has five targets and two goal-line rushes; he may graduate from this group, especially with Burkhead being placed on injured reserve and James White doing all his work in the passing game.

Finally, the leading rusher of this group is Derrick Henry. Big-bodied bruiser Henry has the most carries and rushing yards among rock backs, but shockingly he has gotten used on the goal line just once this year, while seeing only two passing targets. His Tennessee Titans counterpart Dion Lewis, however, has 12 targets to his name. If Henry doesn’t see increased goal line usage, he’ll end up an empty yardage grinder.

These are the running backs you should be avoiding starting whenever possible and trading to someone else if you at all can. Sure, sometimes a player’s role will open up due to the primary goal line or receiving back getting injured, but many of these players’ values have that kind of potential baked into their cost still; you can take advantage of that when making your deals.

Don’t let these running backs be the millstone around your fantasy teams’ necks. Cut them free and give your team a chance to float.