2014 Fantasy Football in Review: Running Back Consistency

C.J. Anderson emerged late in the year and produced, but was his production more of an exception than the rule?

If you missed the first article in this series, then I really recommend checking it out, at least so you get familiar with what my goals are with this series. I go over the basis of what this series aims to do and spell out what I'm aiming to examine in this series. I'll provide a brief explanation below, but if you want to see the results for quarterbacks, click here.

If you're torn on running backs -- take them early or pluck the breakout guys from the wire? -- this article will come in handy.

I "feel" like it's the hardest position to replace and that the elite guys at this position offer the best value over replacement players of any of the four main positions, but I'm willing to change my tune if the numbers show me otherwise. Let's delve into them and see what they are.

Defining the Process

I'm going to try to summate my process, which I've already explained fairly fully. Any justifications I needed to make, I made there, too, such as why I chose a certain sample size or cut off.

The short version is that I gathered up weekly gamelogs from 2014 (excluding the always-wonky Week 17) for the top-48 running backs (in standard, point-per-reception [PPR], and half-PPR) scoring and did some math with them.

By finding the standard deviation for each player's fantasy output, we can then find a confidence interval which expresses where he'll fall 68% of the time. We can also use this to find a coefficient of variance, which is basically a number that stands for volatility.

For example, Lamar Miller and Matt Asiata had fairly similar fantasy seasons, per the year-end data. Miller averaged 13.31 PPR points per game. Asiata averaged 12.96. But those points weren't earned equally.

PPR ScoringTotal FPFP/GVarianceSt. Dev68% CI Low68% CI High
Lamar Miller199.6 (9)13.31 (17)0.44 (7)5.877.4319.18
Matt Asiata181.4 (13)12.96 (20)0.79 (42)10.212.7523.17

Year-end data tells us that they were pretty similar, but Asiata relied on big games to boost his averages. Miller offered a steady floor each week. Examining this weekly trustworthiness is something we'll delve into.

Running Backs

Running backs are a tricky bunch. Riddled throughout the game logs of even the biggest breakouts are games with a fantasy point here or there. If you were forced to start them during those down weeks, then things probably didn't shake out in your favor.

Did you really start Asiata in the right weeks? Did you figure out the Shane Vereen puzzle? The running back conundrum is much more difficult to pin down than the quarterback one -- especially when factoring in the floors these players can provide and the fact that running backs are less readily available on your waiver wires because of the whole supply and demand thing.

Elusive Floors

One of the main reasons why quarterbacks, according to my interpretation of the numbers at least, are streamable is because a lot of guys possess a realistic ceiling of at least 20 points. Also, picking up guys who can hit 20 points in the right matchup is easy, as there's only so much room for quarterbacks to be rostered. This past year, 20 quarterbacks had a realistic ceiling of at least 21.00 points, so odds were, there was an enticing play somewhere to be had on the waiver wire.

Running backs, actually, appear to be not that far off in terms of 20-point ceilings, which is surprising (and misleading). In half-PPR scoring, 16 running backs had a ceiling of at least 20.00 points, and 20 had a ceiling of at least 19.00 points. Only four had a double-digit floor. (Nine quarterbacks had a double-digit floor.)

Half-PPR68% CI Low68% CI High Half-PPR68% CI Low68% CI High
Le’Veon Bell11.1231.01 Jeremy Hill4.0020.72
Arian Foster12.2928.49 Mark Ingram6.9420.45
Marshawn Lynch8.3327.50 Tre Mason1.6020.23
Matt Forte10.8527.04 Andre Ellington5.7220.03
DeMarco Murray14.5425.86 Giovani Bernard5.2819.81
Jamaal Charles6.9524.94 Rashad Jennings3.5719.75
C.J. Anderson2.9024.53 Ahmad Bradshaw7.3919.71
Eddie Lacy7.6624.27 Joique Bell4.2319.13
Jonas Gray-5.4623.56 Alfred Morris4.7218.24
Matt Asiata1.7321.18 LeSean McCoy5.2017.94
Ronnie Hillman3.2721.16 Branden Oliver-0.2017.55
Justin Forsett6.9621.08 Lamar Miller6.6317.45

This means a few things.

More often than not, the elite running backs (if we make an arbitrary cut-off to say that those who post a floor in the double digits are the elite ones), relative to their position, are more valuable than elite quarterbacks. This is especially true when considering that most of the players in this chart were drafted in most leagues.

But, Asiata, Jonas Gray, Ronnie Hillman, and Branden Oliver either had big ceilings for a small window of games or that were impossible to pinpoint (who started Oliver against the Jets in Week 5?). This means that backs with consistent 20-point ceilings were even fewer (excluding these four means only 12 guys had a realistic shot to put up 20). Finding running backs with big (realistic) ceilings is difficult.

Applications: Finding Consistent Production on the Wire

The problem with running backs isn't that they aren't replaceable in the NFL. In fact, it's basically the opposite.

Zac Stacy lost his job this year (I really liked that dude, too), Ryan Mathews got hurt again, et cetera. Tre Mason was good, and Oliver stepped in and produced, filling the void at the top of the depth chart. Running backs can fill in and look capable. Quarterbacks don't typically do that (e.g. Ryan Lindley, Johnny Manziel). Point being: solid running backs are hard to come by, but other guys can step in and have a good game here or there, providing "free" production for your team if you got them from the waiver wire.

But this can actually be problematic in the sense that we overvalue how easy it is for these backs to produce and for how easy it is to snag the right guy when the opportunity comes (we can't pretend like we knew how the Cleveland backfield would shake out or of all the Baltimore backs that Justin Fosett was going to be the clear number-one and be that good). Add this to the fact that there are 7-13 other owners in that league who have access to the same information you have, and things get very tricky.

But going back to Oliver -- fantasy football collectively seemed to like his prospects with a thin depth chart -- his first big week came as a surprise, a Week 5 breakout against the "stingy" New York Jets run defense (which ranked just 19th per our metrics this year). After that game, though, Oliver had just one game with double-digit half-PPR points (20.4 in the following week). 20.4 points from a waiver wire back is the dream of those who prefer to stock up on other positions, but Oliver totaled just 21.7 points in his next three contests (8.8, 9.8, 3.1 points, respectively).

I'll cut him a break -- and I liked Oliver as much as the next guy, so that's not why I picked him -- and look at his better two of the three weeks. In Week 7, when he collected 8.8 points, he was the 25th-highest scoring back. Week 8 with 9.8? 25th again. By the time we reacted and played him, he was a fringe starter at best, and this happens quite often. And, really, you were starting a guy -- if you got him -- who wasn't really producing that well, but we didn't know if it was a minor hiccup or if his best was already behind him. You didn't know how to value him, sell high or wait for him to put up 20 again.

Compounding this, 12 undrafted backs (according to ESPN's ADP) finished in the top-48 in half-PPR scoring (25%). That's pretty good! But what about consistency? Forsett was the only back inside the top 20 in consistency. As for fantasy points per game, only Forsett (eighth) and Hillman (15th) were inside the top 20.

What about the guys drafted 120th or later (after the 10th round in 12-teamers)? They were better but not necessarily great.

PlayerADPFP RankFPPG RkConsistency Rank
C.J. Anderson140.214940
Ahmad Bradshaw132.322116
Jeremy Hill128.191429
Jonathan Stewart143.0262414

Ahmad Bradshaw was solid this year, posting at least 15.0 half-PPR points in his 10 games. That was a mark Jonathan Stewart hit just twice this year, Week 14 (21.5) and Week 16 (19.9). If you held onto him all year or picked him up for the playoff push, you were rewarded with some good games, but with a 68% ceiling of just 16.2, he was far from a week-winner.

C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill were great examples of late-round picks (or undrafted if nobody took Anderson) who panned out, but they were more the exception than the rule. Of the top-11 backs (there was a tie for 10th) in terms of half-PPR points per game during the back half of the fantasy season (Weeks 9-16), only Forsett was undrafted, and only Hill and Anderson had ADPs outside 120 overall. Seven of the 11 had ADPs lower than 20: Marshawn Lynch (5.3), Jamaal Charles (5.3), Matt Forte (7.2), Eddie Lacy (11.7), Arian Foster (13.0), DeMarco Murray (18.1), and Le'Veon Bell (18.7).

Daily Fantasy Applications

So, streaming isn't a viable option for running backs because it's not as though there are guys who will get a full allotment of work just waiting out there (like an Alex Smith each week). But how does this information apply to daily fantasy football?

Well, it depends on you, to be honest. In terms of cash games (head-to-heads and 50/50s and the like) paying up for the guys in the first table -- who have the higher floors and highest ceilings -- can be very beneficial, as they are the most likely to receive heavy carries and put fantasy points on the board. But, the thing with daily fantasy is that a guy like Forsett can be deployed, too, in any week for a lower asking price -- altogether different than in your traditional leagues where if he's rostered, you can't touch him. In the last half of the season, both Forsett and Forte had five double-digit half-PPR games, and Forsett (15.24) averaged just shy of a point fewer than Forte (16.29).

What about GPPs? It stands to reason that saving money at quarterback, when guys have similar ceilings, is likely helpful in building the highest-scoring lineup you can, but as the first table shows us, only 14 players had a likelihood of scoring 20-plus points in 68% of their games (or roughly 11 of the 16 games, a good majority of the season), and finding a back who can do that in a given week might be tricky.

Or it might be obvious, which is why it's no surprise to see discount backs heavily owned in a certain week. Remember the Jeremy Hill debacle in Week 10? I'm all for saving salary at running back, but I just know that that decision comes with a low floor and an elusive ceiling.

What It Means for the Position

To me, the numbers indicate that investing heavily in running backs -- whether season-long or daily -- is the way to go because their floors are unmatched and so are their ceilings (because big running back games from value aren't as foreseeable as big quarterback games and often follow and are followed by single-digit games -- like Oliver's).

I'll provide a visual for the discrepancy between the top-tier backs and the rest of the pack when I conclude the series, but this complex topic has already generated a lot of words. But, this season, the few workhorse backs left in the NFL offered significant benefits above the rest of the field in terms of consistency and ceiling (and floor).

The numbers indicate that it's very difficult to replicate the production from the guys drafted inside the top 20, but it's not impossible to come across a C.J. Anderson or a Justin Forsett -- and it's not a lock that backs drafted early pan out. But if you're playing the odds, you might want to reconsider just how likely it is to find solid running back production from the wire.

But in terms outside the position and in the context of your whole lineup, can you get away with it if you own the league's best wide receivers? We examine that in the next entry in the series.