What First Downs By Running Backs Can Teach Us About Fantasy Football Success

Jeremy Hill was one of the best backs at getting first downs last year. Does that mean anything for fantasy football?

When it comes to fantasy football, we have to look for every edge we can get.

That can be especially true when trying to figure out which running backs won't bust, which seems like an impossible task sometimes.

It's also why overanalyzing small samples from players -- and let's face it, even a 16-game season is a pretty small sample -- has some merit at least. It's all we know, so we have to examine it and then decide from there.

Still, we'd be smarter not to rely on somewhat fluky plays -- such as rushes of at least 20 yards -- and rather favor something traditional like yards per carry, right?

Well, eh, erm, um -- this is hard to say -- not exactly.

Yards per carry isn't that indicative of fantasy points. Not as much as total yardage or attempts. That much makes sense, yeah?

But what if there was a stat that nobody really ever looks into that might be more indicative and also predictive of fantasy success?

First Downs and Fantasy Points

So, here's the thing. When checking out which easy-to-find, easy-to-measure stats had strong correlations with total fantasy points, I expected to see yards, attempts, and yards per game high up on the list (they were) as well as yards per carry (they weren't) while rushes of at least 20 yards or more and first downs were a bit less indicative of fantasy points.

I was wrong.

Now, this study isn't exhaustive by any means, but configuring which statistics correlated strongest with fantasy points (which was done in standard, half-PPR, and PPR scoring) from the top-48 fantasy scorers at running back (again, three different groups of players, though mostly similar individuals) during the 2014 season might have uncover a pretty telling, underlying statistic that can help us find trustworthy backs.

Also, digging into 2013 raw stats -- yards, attempts, yards per carry, yards per game, first downs, and 20-plus-yard rushes -- and comparing them to 2014 fantasy scoring showed some promising numbers.

The Results

I'll start with standard scoring because, well, it's standard scoring and because we're only dealing with rushing stats, so it would make sense that they matter most to standard leagues.

Here are the correlation results between year-end fantasy point totals and the five statistics. The closer to 1 the number is, the stronger the correlation was during the 2014 season.

Standard Scoring Current Year
20-plus Yard Carries 0.659
First Downs 0.888
Rushing Attempts 0.824
Rushing Yards 0.884
Yards per Carry 0.329
Yards per Game 0.831

So, first downs were stronger linked with fantasy points than rushing yards (though it was close). That's nice to see. However, yards per carry offered the weakest relationship between actual fantasy points, and that's kind of surprising.

I mean, one (yards per carry) is a rough measure of efficiency, and one (standard fantasy points) is touchdown and volume dependent, but just keep this in mind when you get enamored over a player's yards per carry mark. It's just a piece of a larger puzzle.

First downs aren't as strongly linked with point totals when rewarding receptions, but it was still the strongest correlated stat of the group in half-PPR formats.

Now, these findings are great and all, but of course, the way they have been applied doesn't really predict anything. It just has shown that players with high fantasy point totals are racking up first downs.

How did the top 48 scorers in fantasy points -- across the three scoring systems -- fare in these raw stats in 2013? (Keep in mind that a few rookies will have to be excluded from these results).

Well, not bad, really. Unless we get to PPR formats. Still, first downs in 2013 would have been a pretty darn good indicator of fantasy points scored in 2014.

Of course, not every player who racked up tons of first downs was a great fantasy asset the next year, but with so many unknowns, the first down doesn't seem like a bad place to look for running back potential.

First Down Earners in 2014

To save you some time, here are the top 24 backs in terms of first downs from 2014.

2014 Leaders First Downs 2014 Leaders First Downs 2014 Leaders First Downs
DeMarco Murray 85 Frank Gore 53 Jonathan Stewart 42
Le'Veon Bell 73 Arian Foster 52 Isaiah Crowell 34
LeSean McCoy 67 Jamaal Charles 50 Matt Asiata 33
Marshawn Lynch 65 Alfred Morris 48 Giovani Bernard 32
Jeremy Hill 61 C.J. Anderson 47 Andre Williams 30
Eddie Lacy 58 Mark Ingram 47 Branden Oliver 30
Lamar Miller 57 Joique Bell 43 LeGarrette Blount 30
Justin Forsett 56 Chris Ivory 42 Alfred Blue 29

Of course, this isn't a draft list. That's not what this is, but the first down might be a solid indicator of players trusted enough to move the sticks when it matters. Perhaps coaches value first downs and reward players for netting them.

Whatever it is, I think that -- at the very least -- the first down can be a bit of a tiebreaker for trying to decide between a group of running backs.