Using FireFactor to Dominate Your Fantasy Football League: Running Back Edition

Do running backs still provide a significant edge in fantasy football? Or is that an out-of-date approach to the game?

Welcome back!

Or, if you haven't read the similarly-named-but-clearly-distinct article called Using FireFactor to Dominate Your Fantasy Football League: Quarterback Edition, then welcome!

Also, if you haven't read the quarterback edition, then I recommend it. It will better lay out the FireFactor concept, but if you want the short version, here it is.

FireFactor is basically a Value Over Replacement Player number that indicates how to value a given fantasy football asset (i.e. actual, real life NFL players) considering that not every player plays the same position. An easy example is that Aaron Rodgers is likely to finish the year as the highest-scoring player in fantasy football, but we know not to take him first overall. FireFactor can quantify why that is. You can -- and should -- alter it to fit your specific league settings, which you can do with our fantasy football draft kit.

So, what should you know about FireFactor and running backs?

What You Should Know About FireFactor and Running Backs

If you were to set your league settings to a 12-team standard league -- with 1 quarterback starter, 2 running backs, 2 receivers, 1 tight end, and 1 receiver or running back flex spot -- then you would find that the top nine players via FireFactor are all running backs.

Based on expected fantasy point totals, positional scarcity at running back, and supply and demand at other positions (namely quarterback and tight end), top-tier running backs offer the greatest pound-for-pound impact over the rest of the pool of fantasy football assets.

Of course, running backs bust at a significant rate, but they just offer the best weekly advantage relative to other positions. In PPR leagues, the most consistent receivers can stack up to them, but the rest of the receiver crop sees a bump, too, diminishing the gap that elite receivers grant you relative to other receivers. That means that the upper crust of the running back position still offers the best advantage in this game we play, based on the numbers and the way that just about every league is still set up.

Let's see exactly how that translates into FireFactor.

What's a Running Back Worth?

The coolest thing about FireFactor, to me, is that it provides a very straightforward way to compares two players of different positions. In this sense, it can be used as a bit of a trade value chart, and you can see how certain projected finishers at various positions should be valued.

Is a low-end RB2 worth more than a starting tight end? What about a wide receiver?

Here's what FireFactor has to say about 12-team leagues with four-point passing touchdowns and half a point for each reception. Keep in mind that these aren't exactly side-by-side equals, as there's some rounding up or down to do to draw a close comparison, but it's a useful exercise nonetheless.

FireFactor Equivalent Fire Factor Score QB WR TE
RB 1 218.61 - - -
RB 4 202.47 - - -
RB 8 164.63 - WR 3 -
RB 12 122.6 - WR 10 -
RB 16 106.54 QB 2 WR 12 TE 1
RB 20 96.6 QB 3 WR 14 TE 2
RB 24 91.47 QB 4 WR 14 TE 2
RB 28 73.79 QB 6 WR 21 TE 3
RB 32 48.39 QB 8 WR 30 TE 6
RB 36 28.77 QB 12 WR 43 TE 8
RB 40 22.7 QB 13 WR 47 TE 9

The top backs have no true comparison in terms of counterparts, and it isn't until RB7 that FireFactor suggests a top receiver could be the right call in a draft. That is to say that Antonio Brown has a better FireFactor score in this set-up than DeMarco Murray has. Stands to reason, right? At some point in the first round, most people start to consider taking a wide receiver, and a fair amount of people probably don't even consider a running back with any question marks.

Similarly, once we get past the top eight running backs or so, the debate between receivers and running backs gets serious -- both anecdotally and analytically. Soon after this shift, the receiver position begins to grow in importance, and the WR12 or so is likely to wind up more useful than a mid-tier RB2 (in the RB16 to RB 20 range). Also note the gradual decline at running back, which is most clearly seen in FireFactor score, from RB16 to RB24. There likely won't be a huge difference in your second starting running back.

However, nobody says you can only start on player from that general tier. If you can secure two top-12 RBs (based on year-end projections -- it's not perfect, but there's only so much fantasy footballers can do to evaluate an asset given the unknowns), then you can set yourself up for a significant advantage against receiver-heavy teams or the squad that's rolling out Aaron Rodgers and Rob Gronkowski -- especially if they're starting weak running backs as result.

That's why the more interesting parallels are at the non-receiver positions. Fringe starters in 12-team formats with a flex (RB28 to RB36 or so) are still as valuable as roughly top-six quarterbacks or tight ends. The fact of the matter is that the supply at these two positions is much more significant than the demand -- just one player per team per week. If your league starts two quarterbacks or reduces the number of startable running backs, then this equation changes. Until then, backs are still more important because their scoring is harder to replace than a quarterback's or tight end's scoring.

Couple that with the difficulty to hit on late-round backs and the weekly nightmare of starting fringe running backs, and you should be considering spending a first- or second-round pick on a running back (or both). Even guys who provide RB12 or RB24 numbers are some of the most vital assets in the entire game of fantasy football. Unless you're in some sort of full PPR or 6-point-for-passing-touchdown league, right?

Yes and no.

If we flip the scoring to a 12-team league with the same flex eligibility as before and throw in a full PPR and bump up passing touchdowns, four of the top five players overall are running backs. Nine of the top 12 are backs. Half of the top 24 are -- you guessed it -- running backs. And this is in a scoring system in which it seems most apropos to shift focus away from the running back position. In reality, it's not totally the case. Few backs get heavy workloads.

Things to Keep in Mind

FireFactor isn't really telling us who to pick so much as it is telling us what positions are the most vital given your scoring settings. Sure, it suggests that Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster will be beasts, but the more important aspect is that it indicates where top running backs will likely wind up relative to all other players over the course of a season.

It also doesn't necessarily tell you when to draft players because you need to keep in mind average draft positions and potential value in drafts.

But given that scoring distributions at various positions are still pretty constant and predictable (even if we don't necessarily know who the top-scoring quarterback will be, we know he's going to score somewhere between 330 points and 370 points -- not 600 or 150), we can figure out which positions to approach with the most gusto.

In just about every format, that's the running back. In PPR leagues, we can sway a bit toward receivers earlier, but unless we're going for two-quarterback settings or some superflex leagues, then top running backs are still going to be the biggest weekly advantages based on how quickly the position drops off relative to the others.

Considering that you're basically playing the lottery if you try to hit on waiver-wire backs and late-round fliers, you should think long and hard about waiting too long to draft a running back.