Which Running Backs Are Most Likely to Have Touchdowns Vultured in 2015?
The vulture is the villain we’ve all come to know. He’s the guy who takes credit for your group work science project when you’re actually the one who built the volcano. He’s the jock who swoops in and kisses your girlfriend when you’re only getting up from your seat to get her a refill of soda.
The vulture is a character to be avoided at all costs. His lack of presence can be directly correlated with increased happiness, and vice-versa. And as it relates to fantasy football, while maybe not as impactful, avoiding the touchdown vulture can make or break your lineups on Sundays, thus affecting your happiness positively or negatively.
The good thing about the primary metric used at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP), is that it allows us to identify how effective players are in a way that isn’t very dependent on touchdown production. NEP allows us to quantify the number of theoretical points a player’s actions contribute to a team’s point total via their performance above or under expectation in a given situation.
If a running back secures a four-yard gain on a 3rd-and-3, they’ve contributed much more to their team in terms of expected points than if they’d rushed for four yards on a 3rd-and-7. One extends the drive, the other results in a punt; one is positive, the other negative. NEP accounts for these differences in these circumstances. You can learn more about Net Expected Points by viewing our glossary.
Nobody likes a vulture, and avoiding them, in tandem with targeting efficient backs in terms of NEP, can be a good two-pronged strategy as you approach your fantasy drafts this coming season.
So what can you do to take necessary precaution in avoiding the fantasy touchdown vulture? Thanks to Pro-Football-Reference.com's Game Play Finder, we have access to every single play run in the NFL since 1999.
Using this tool, I’ve identified the percentage of total team carries afforded to the leading running back for each club in 2014, as well as those carries that occur on “goal-to-go” situations within the 10-yard line for the same running back.
If the leading running back in terms of total percentage of team carries has a lower percentage of team rushes in goal line situations, then we know that they’ve had opportunities for touchdowns vultured.
But how, you might ask, can I account for the fact that vultured touchdown opportunities are merely a product of obviously-spiteful-to-fantasy-owners’ play-calling, typically the purview of the offensive coordinator? If a team’s offensive coordinators change like Don Draper’s mistresses, how can I get a read on how rushing touchdown opportunities might be allocated in 2015?
For the purposes of this analysis, if a team has a new offensive coordinator effective 2015, I’ve identified the distribution of the total carries and goal line carries of the leading rusher for the last year on the team for which the offensive coordinator last served as coordinator or head coach.
To give you an example, Chan Gailey last served in the NFL as a head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2012 before being brought on in the offseason as the New York Jets offensive coordinator. Thus, the data for the distribution of touches for the Jets is provided from the Bills’ 2012 season. Using this method, only the 49ers and the Browns can’t be analyzed due to their current offensive coordinators having no previous play-calling experience in the NFL.
So which big name running backs are at risk for having some of their opportunities snatched away by mean offensive coordinators? Let’s have a look.
Where the Vultures Swarm
Note: In the table below, data for Cardinals Offensive Coordinator, Harold Goodwin, is adjusted to reflect only weeks 1-13 of the 2014 season, to account for a season ending injury to Andre Ellington.
|Team||Offensive Coordinator||Season Analyzed||Lead RB % Total Carries||Lead RB % Goal Line Carries||Total vs. Goal Line Differential||Presumed 2015 Starter||NEP Per Rush 2014|
|Cardinals||Harold Goodwin||2014||68.84%||46.67%||-22.17%||Andre Ellington||-0.14|
|Jets||Chan Gailey||2012 (Bills)||46.28%||25.00%||-21.28%||Chris Ivory||-0.04|
|Bills||Greg Roman||2014 (49ers)||54.26%||37.93%||-16.33%||LeSean McCoy||-0.02|
|Bears||Adam Gase||2014 (Broncos)||40.41%||25.81%||-14.60%||Matt Forte||0.01|
|Panthers||Mike Shula||2014||36.99%||28.00%||-8.99%||Jonathan Stewart||-0.06|
|Eagles||Pat Shurmur||2014||65.82%||57.50%||-8.32%||DeMarco Murray||0.03|
|Rams||Frank Cignetti||2014||45.32%||37.50%||-7.82%||Tre Mason||-0.08|
|Redskins||Sean McVay||2014||66.08%||59.46%||-6.62%||Alfred Morris||-0.04|
Andre Ellington already proved highly inefficient in 2014 (-0.14 Rushing NEP per rush), so Harold Goodwin was doing the Cardinals a favor whenever he let Kerwynn Williams (0.13 Rushing NEP per rush) or Stepfan Taylor (-0.08 Rushing NEP per rush) tote the rock near the end zone.
Ellington wasn’t quite as bad as Darren McFadden, but he was damn close. In other words, steer clear of Andre Ellington if you’ve got any desire to bring home your fantasy football trophy in your league. His touchdown opportunities will get vultured, and even when they’re not, he likely won’t be making the best of his opportunities anyway.
Greg Roman, while with the 49ers in 2014, gave Carlos Hyde only one fewer carry than Frank Gore in goal-to-go situations despite Gore’s overall rushing efficiency (-0.06) topping Hyde’s (-0.09) by 0.03 Rushing NEP per rush, and Gore receiving 54.26% of total team carries.
This could portend trouble for LeSean McCoy in 2015, as he's backed up by the ageless wonder, Fred Jackson, as well as Bryce Brown. With a declining efficiency from 2013 to 2014 (0.12 to -0.02 Rush NEP per rush), and an offensive coordinator who’s not afraid to distribute touches to other backs on the team, McCoy might be setting up his fantasy owners for a frustrating 2015 season.
Those considering drafting Matt Forte were already likely worried considering he’s entering the season in which he will turn 30 years old. Forte’s backup, Ka’Deem Carey has shown promise in the few opportunities he received last season (0.03 Rush NEP per Rush on 37 carries).
This season, Forte will submit to the play-calling of much heralded offensive coordinator, Adam Gase. But Gase, in terms of his impact on fantasy football, hates us. Or at least he hates those of us who own his running backs. C.J. Anderson received 40.41% of the teams total carries in 2014, while only receiving 25.81% of carries in goal line situations.
This disparity didn't change much when taking into account that Anderson only took over the starting job effective Week 9 in 2014, as Anderson shouldered 65% of the load in terms of total carries while only receiving 50% of total goal line carries from Week 9 on. I’d worry about the potential for Carey to steal some of Forte’s looks in the red zone.
DeMarco Murray’s situation is a little harder to predict since the Eagles shuttled one of the better running backs in the league in McCoy out of town in order to acquire Murray’s services. Pat Shurmur and Chip Kelly clearly wanted a more running back more accustomed to the north-to-south running style, so they went out and got one after dealing Mccoy. And then they went and got another one in Ryan Mathews, signing him on the exact same day. Add to that the fact that Kelly and Shurmur also distributed less goal line touches to Mccoy in than they did in the percentage of total team rushes, and there might be reason to worry.
Murray was the only running back in the league to get 100% of his team’s rushes in goal line situations last season. That clearly won’t happen this season. Mathews was very efficient last year on a per touch basis when he wasn’t injured, racking up an impressive 0.09 Rushing NEP per rush, a whole 0.06 NEP higher than Murray. Murray’s fumbling issues from last season likely construct a good portion of this disparity, but to suggest Mathews won’t get his chances would be ludicrous.
Oh, and there’s always Chris Polk!
Morris has always seemed to contend with other players on his team for goal line touches. From Robert Griffin III’s sensational rookie season in 2012, to fullback Darrell Young’s five rushing touchdown’s since 2013, Morris has always seemed susceptible to this bogarting of end zone opportunities. Now the data confirms it.
While Morris still received a healthy 59% of total goal line carries for Washington in 2014, this is still 7% less than the percentage of total team carries Morris received. And while Roy Helu has finally left the building, Young hasn’t, and Griffin is one more year removed from the ACL surgery that stifled his running ability in 2013 and 2014.
I’d be willing to bet the trend of Morris battling touchdown vultures continues. Combine that with his lower than league average efficiency on a per rush basis (-0.04 Rushing NEP per rush) in 2014, and I’m steering clear of Morris unless I can get him in the fourth round or later.
Approaching Your Draft
As you approach your 2015 draft, remember that avoiding rushers based solely on potential vulture exposure is not a sound strategy. First and foremost, it's most prudent to target efficient backs that have a history of making the most of their opportunities, particularly if they receive a lot of opportunities in their current offense.
But using the data to avoid potential vulturism can be a secondary strategy used in tandem with selecting efficient backs in helping you zero in on your favorite targets on draft day. That way you don’t have to be the unhappy one when Chris Polk rushes three times for six yards and two touchdowns.
Rather, the unhappy ones will be your opponent that week for not knowing any different. And Best Buy, for losing the opportunity to sell more replacement televisions due to frustrated fantasy owners flinging their remotes at their current sets.
Stay tuned for part two of this series later in the week, where I'll analyze which running backs are in a good position to avoid vulture exposure next season.