Which NFL Team Situations Are Best for Backup Running Backs?

Fred Jackson is ancient in NFL terms, but are we still under-appreciating him in fantasy football this year?

I’ve spent most of the last week at the high school I teach at getting students graduated. It’s been a long week of following up on finishing transcripts, getting final credits in, and having graduation meetings to verify that they are ready to leave us and go out into the world. As part of these meetings, we ask the students what one thing they would tell an incoming student to the school. Without fail, they’ve all responded: “Take advantage of the opportunities that are here for you.”

Opportunity is important but often overlooked, even when it comes to the football world. Especially when it comes to the running back position, team situation is vitally important when considering the value of a player. The most talented prospect in the game might land behind a three-down bell cow back and waste away waiting for an opportunity, while an average talent might land in an open depth chart and be much more productive.

When we’re drafting our fantasy football teams, we want to take advantage of players with opportunities in order to find undervalued options on draft day. At a certain point, those backs that are certain starters run out, and we need to find undervalued options late in drafts. Which teams have the best depth charts for backfield backups?

Cap and Gown

We’ll examine two different facets of value when it comes to these second-string runners: opportunity and production. Getting this kind of broad picture of backup running back situations in the league will allow us to see which teams consistently share the ball the most, which will give us cheap tailback options to dog-ear for our fantasy drafts.

We will measure production primarily through our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The specific kind of NEP we’ll use for this is Total NEP, which is the sum of expected points gained or lost on any play in which a specific player touches the ball. We’ll look at opportunity through the lens of a more traditional statistic: opportunities (rushing attempts plus targets).

Walking the Stage

Which teams afford the most chances to their depth charts? By looking at the second-most prolific running backs on each NFL team over the past five years, we begin to see some patterns emerge. The table below shows the top five teams in the league by average change-of-pace opportunities since 2010, in terms of opportunities.

TeamAvg. Opportunities
New York Jets174
San Diego Chargers162
Buffalo Bills155
Kansas City Chiefs155
Detroit Lions151

This is an interesting set of teams to look at in the same context as each other. Only three would be considered run-heavy, but only one of those had a three-down back in the last five seasons: Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs. Kansas City is a surprising entry here, given how much the offense runs through Charles.

The New York Jets under Rex Ryan were the quintessential ground-and-pound team, forcing the ball to their running backs even in classic passing down situations. No matter who was the second-string back, they got plenty of touches each year due to the high-intensity nature of Ryan’s ground-oriented offense. As a matter of fact, the Buffalo Bills have also been a dual-backfield team for a while, with the tag-team tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. This “lightning and thunder” approach will likely continue, as Rex Ryan is now the head coach in Buffalo, and traded for LeSean McCoy this offseason.

The Chargers and Lions have also had three-headed monsters in their backfields lately. This figures to diminish in San Diego with their selection of Melvin Gordon in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Detroit, however, will likely see value from veteran Joique Bell, third-down back Theo Riddick, and rookie speed runner Ameer Abdullah.

The bottom five teams in this statistic are Tennessee (32nd), Philadelphia (31st), Washington (30th), Cleveland (29th), and St. Louis (28th).

Front of the Class

It really helps to see which teams give the most touches to their second-string options, but another part of backup value is the quality of the opportunities. It doesn’t help a receiver to get 80 targets a season if only a third of them are catchable; it doesn’t help a running back to get 200 carries behind an awful offensive line. We want to know which teams afford the most potential value to their running back depth chart. To measure this, we’ll examine which teams rank at the top of the charts in average Total NEP for backup running backs. The table below depicts this data.

TeamAvg. Total NEP
New Orleans Saints27.66
New England Patriots25.37
Detroit Lions18.46
Oakland Raiders15.25
Indianapolis Colts11.26

We see much more prolific offenses on this list than the previous list. Four out of these five teams have made the playoffs in the last two seasons, and a strong and balanced game is a good indicator of added value for any skill player on offense. The Saints and Lions, especially, are proponents of running back by committee. It’s no coincidence that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has been with each of these two teams in the last few years; his three-pronged approach to the running game allows multiple players to grab value. We normally avoid teams like this, but perhaps we should buy into the backups in a muddied backfield.

The Patriots come in second place here, which also makes sense given head coach Bill Belichick’s penchant for changing running backs out like pairs of socks. This specific game-planning approach gives a lack of predictability on a week-to-week basis, but gives more players value.

Oakland is a highly surprising team here, but when put in the context of Darren McFadden’s injury issues, it makes much more sense. After this, the next man up would get starter-level carries for the remainder of the season. This indicates that we should keep looking into situations with starters who are easily injured as well; this strategy holds up.

The bottom five teams in this statistic are Baltimore (32nd), Chicago (31st), Tennessee (30th), Cincinnati (29th), and Miami (28th). Tennessee actually appears in the bottom-five twice here, as their offense is lackluster and they prefer to give touches mainly to lead backs; avoid their second-string runners at all costs.

Graduation Rate

We’ve figured out where opportunity and value each exist among backup running backs, and both of those actually meet at the cross-section of the Detroit Lions. We’ve also discovered Tennessee’s status as the bottom of the barrel for backfields.

One last thing to take notice of is which teams have been the most effective on a per-opportunity basis. Massive volume will of course boost value, but everyone knows that the New Orleans and New England offenses are good. The table below shows the top five teams by average backup back Total NEP on a per-opportunity basis. Where can we find a little bit of sneaky value?

TeamAvg. Total NEP
New Orleans Saints0.203
New England Patriots0.199
Detroit Lions0.122
Oakland Raiders0.110

This list is largely the same as the Total NEP top-five, but with one change in its members: Washington joins the gang here. This might be surprising, but despite the team not allocating many touches to its change-of-pace backs, they are high-value opportunities. I remember many a Roy Helu swing pass reception for 80 yards, and there was one specific game in the last few years when even fullback Darrel Young had multiple vulture touchdown runs.

If you keep your eyes open, you’ll find value all over the running back realm. It might be hiding here and there, but knowing to look at the undervalued backups in teams that prefer the by-committee approach and the handcuffs to easily-injured backs will get you much farther than your leaguemates on fantasy draft day this summer. You may not want to buy in too much on players like Shady McCoy, but grabbing Fred Jackson for a fraction of the price seems to be a smart move.