Is Chasing Running Back Performance an Efficient Fantasy Football Strategy?

Some running backs are prone to big games, but what happens when you rely on previous performances the following week?

The discourse on when and how to draft running backs in fantasy football leagues keeps growing.

Once considered the most consistent and important position in the game -- by which I mean fantasy football -- running backs are no longer running the board in the first round of draft after draft.

It makes sense anecdotally. Plenty of first-round running backs have failed to live up to the hype (though it really wasn't the case in 2014), and this suggests that drafting "safer" positions is more optimal than spending significant draft capital on a position that might turn into nothing but an injured reserve slot by Week 4.

It's hard to criticize a strategy too much that lets you pass over Montee Ball and draft Dez Bryant, but doing so means that you'll be relying on, well, less reliable options at an already unreliable position. So when Matt Asiata goes bonkers, it's hard to say no to him the following week when the other options are slim.

However, an in-depth look at how the position panned out in 2014 evidenced the difficulty of relying on late-round running backs in terms of consistency. What happens when we look at things even closer?

That is to ask: when a running back has a noteworthy game (we'll use 10 PPR points as a baseline), what happens the week after?

Back-to-Back Success

So, the top-48 PPR running backs (between Week 1 and 16) in 2014 accounted for 324 games of at least 10 PPR fantasy points. 181 came from backs who had an average draft position of Round 5 or later.

In turn, 143 such games came from players selected in the first four rounds. Of course, 15 players accounted for those 143 games as opposed to 33 backs who accumulated the 181 other games.

What happens, though, when we look at the week after a 10-point performance from these backs?

The second column in the table below indicates how many of the 33 backs drafted after Round 5 (or went undrafted) but finished in the top 48 in PPR scoring in 2014 secured at least 10 PPR points in a given week. The third column shows how many of those players posted double-digit points the following week. The percentage of repeat performers (after factoring out byes and injuries in the following week) can also be found.

Lastly, the average fantasy points scored in these double-digit outings and the follow-up week as well as the difference between the two (or the drop off) can be found.

WeekW1 10+ FPW2 10+ FPByes% - ByesW1 Avg FPW2 Avg FPDifference
1 and 2116054.55%15.7413.37-2.37
2 and 3138061.54%18.9110.73-8.18
3 and 41610271.43%14.0413.11-0.93
4 and 5156246.15%16.459.40-7.05
5 and 6115150.00%18.639.90-8.73
6 and 7137053.85%14.1612.80-1.36
7 and 8116054.55%17.2210.27-6.95
8 and 9158366.67%15.2111.83-3.38
9 and 10146250.00%16.8311.67-5.16
10 and 11145241.67%15.709.27-6.43
11 and 1292022.22%14.689.89-4.79
12 and 13114036.36%17.529.35-8.17
13 and 14116054.55%16.4814.29-2.19
14 and 1582025.00%17.867.70-10.16
15 and 1696066.67%15.8915.33-0.56

Fifth-round-or-later backs followed up an initial 10-point outing with double-digit performances 51.48 percent of the time last year when we exclude games that were followed with a bye week or an injury.

Now, in 9 of the 15 weeks, these backs at least averaged 10 points in their follow-up game, but with just better than a 50 percent chance to hit on these guys -- obviously without factoring in opportunity or opponent -- how trustworthy are they compared to other backs?

Before jumping straight into comparing these numbers with early backs, let's briefly touch on solely the late picks and undrafted players.

I'll spare you another table, but know that the 21 backs with an average draft position of greater than 120 (Round 10 in 12-team leagues) or who went undrafted yet who finished in the top 48 in PPR scoring through Week 16 accounted for 106 double-digit PPR weeks.

These backs hit the 10-point mark 57 times in the following week. Adjusting for bye weeks and injuries, that was a repeat percentage of 58.16 percent: better than when including backs taken between Round 4 and Round 10. Also, in 12 of the 15 weeks, they hit 10 points again on average.

So what about the marquee players, the guys selected in the first four rounds? Is it still roughly 50 to 60 percent with them?

WeekW1 10+ FPW2 10+ FPByes% - ByesW1 Avg FPW2 Avg FPDifference
1 and 21512080.00%18.6315.08-3.55
2 and 3106060.00%18.3614.70-3.66
3 and 484380.00%19.3316.84-2.49
4 and 596066.67%18.3818.36-0.02
5 and 696066.67%23.2817.06-6.22
6 and 786185.71%23.0019.63-3.37
7 and 897077.78%21.9121.930.02
8 and 9107287.50%22.2718.30-3.97
9 and 1095383.33%19.6820.000.32
10 and 11871100.00%19.1621.212.05
11 and 12119190.00%17.9718.040.07
12 and 13108080.00%19.1113.76-5.35
13 and 14118072.73%19.8022.212.41
14 and 1587087.50%29.4316.64-12.79
15 and 16880100.00%17.5117.640.13

Well, the repeating rate is noticeably higher, sitting at 80.3 percent. And even with the higher averages in the first week of hitting 10 points, their decline in the follow up week was actually less severe than their late-round counterparts.

Those results -- that early picks hit double-digits consecutively at a higher rate than later picks -- aren't exactly surprising, but the difference between the two is quite significant, as backs taken after Round 5 -- the players who likely aren't locked into starters' roles on your squad -- were just a coinflip to put together another 10-point performance the next week last season.

It's easy to note that this analysis doesn't account for opponent or weekly opportunity (you won't be blindly starting a player who had 10 points if the starter returns the next week), but unless you can make your roster decisions based not on an enticing performance the week before but solely on the upcoming week's objective information, you might be stuck with a bit of a dud in the following week.

Applying the Information

This information isn't foolproof, but that doesn't mean it's not actionable. As far as season-long leagues go, this supports the high bust rates among mid- and late-round running backs as well as the superior consistency offered by early running backs.

This also, in a way, supports the idea of the zero running back ideology by again showing that there's not much difference between an undrafted back and a back after the fourth round. If you're not drafting backs within the first three or four rounds (or really the first two), then you may as well wait as long as possible. Still, if you want the safety of a back who can rack up consistent solid performances, then you have to embrace the "risk" of taking running backs early.

As far as daily fantasy football goes, this should help you pump the brakes before loading up on a fringe running back just because he had a good game the prior week. It also indicates that, as far as cash games go, spending for the "early-round" backs is your best shot at hitting the 10-point threshold, which is unsurprising.

So, no, you don't have to have a first-round runner to get a solid performance, but if you chase performances from waiver wire or inexpensive backs in the daily format, then the odds are only slightly in your favor.