Exploitation Theory: What the NFL Schedule Can Teach Us About Drafting Running Backs

Identifying the best and worst matchups for all 32 NFL backfields.

Owning Le'Veon Bell in 2014 helped a lot of people to a fantasy football championship. His campaign was a phenomenal season that propelled him into fantasy football stardom after he produced 2,215 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

And if not for an unfortunate marijuana-related arrest in the offseason that resulted in a two-game suspension, he would undoubtedly be the consensus number-one player on fantasy draft boards. 

We all remember Bell's historic stretch in Weeks 11 through 15, during which he averaged more than 31 fantasy points per game, but a look at the schedule brings that success into context beyond just Bell's dominant ability.

In those four weeks, the Steelers faced, in order, the 29th, 32nd, 26th and 31st ranked rush defenses according to our metrics. He had only two 100-yard rushing performances outside of that stretch, against the 19th-ranked Panthers and the 25th-ranked Browns. 

None of this is to discount the player that Bell has become but instead to amplify the importance that a favorable schedule can have for a running back's season-long success. 

Further,  Marshawn Lynch's best performance, a 140-yard, 4-touchdown effort, came in a Week 10 drubbing of the 30th-ranked New York Giants.

Even the seemingly matchup proof DeMarco Murray saw two of his worst performances come against the fifth-ranked Eagles. 

And while volume can often compensate for a poor matchup, such as  C.J. Anderson's 21-carry, 58 -yard performance in which he scored three touchdowns against the ninth-ranked Bills, it certainly makes it more difficult for even the league's best running backs to achieve success. 

These are just a few examples about how understanding the schedule can help you perhaps break the tie between selecting similarly ranked running backs, or even identify players who might be worth trading as the season progresses. Even for owners who just want to identify the best bye week fill-in for their weekly starter, identifying positive matchups can help you avoid mistakes and target the player most likely to return value to your team on any given week.

To research running back strength of schedule, I utilized our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data. A team's NEP indicates how they performed relative to that expectation. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.

The specific metric I utilized was Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, which identifies how many points a defense is taking away from an offense on a per-play basis, adjusted for strength of schedule. This allowed me to rank NFL rushing defenses from first, the Detroit Lions, to last, the New Orleans Saints.

While defensive rankings can often fluctuate year to year, I found it interesting that no defenses went from the top 10 in 2013 to the bottom 10 in 2014, or vice versa. Jumps like that are rare, and more often than not, bad defenses stay average or worse year to year. 

So what are some observations we can make from the 2015 schedule? 

Backfields to Target

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Perhaps the Doug Martin resurgence is more than just training camp hype. The former first round pick and fantasy darling has seen his average draft position (ADP) steadily climb this offseason after he quickly beat out Charles Sims for the starting job and reported to camp in perhaps the best shape of his career. 

His quickness was clearly noticeable in his first preseason action, and with a top five fantasy season already on his resume, is it that far fetched to believe that he can reclaim his position as a rising star at the position? 

The NFL schedule makers are clearly in favor of that, providing Martin with by far the easiest schedule for a running back in 2015. His slate includes a fantastic eight games against run defenses ranked 23rd or worse in our metrics, and only four against teams that ranked in the top 10 at stopping the run last season. 

His playoff run includes a great Week 14 matchup against the 32nd-ranked New Orleans Saints and a Week 16 matchup against the 27th-ranked Chicago Bears. 

If you are believer in playing the matchups or using a Zero RB strategy, Martin is a guy worth targeting in the sixth or seventh round. 

Carolina Panthers

While no one would be faulted for shying away from this Panthers offense that just lost Kelvin Benjamin for the year with a torn ACL, the schedule might make it worth the risk. Oh, and I guess there is always Jonathan Stewart lengthy injury history as well and offensive line concerns. 

Still, from Weeks 13 to 16, the Panthers do not face a rush defense that ranks better than 30th in the league, an unmatched four-game stretch when it matters most for fantasy owners. If Stewart can make it relatively unscathed through 16 games, something he hasn't done since 2011, the reward could win you leagues. 

With eight matchups against defenses ranked 22nd or worse and only five against top-10 opponents, whoever lines up behind Cam Newton will face the third-easiest schedule in the NFL. We know Stewart has the talent to maximize that opportunity, and perhaps the ease of his schedule will outweigh the injury concerns. 

Philadelphia Eagles

While the workload of DeMarco Murray is a bit of a mystery heading into the 2015 season, it seems reasonable that the Eagles did not pay him $40 million to rotate consistently with Ryan Mathews. This will be a run-heavy team with a schedule that lines up favorably for Murray to prove to the Dallas Cowboys (and critics) that he is much more than the product of his offensive line. 

In the Eagles' first nine games, they face only one top-10 opponent as opposed to eight ranked 19th or worse. It is an opening schedule worth taking advantage of, and perhaps gives owners pause when debating between Murray and a player like  Jeremy Hill, whose Cincinnati Bengals have the most difficult schedule in the NFL. 

That being said, it may be worth trying to trade Murray after that nine-week stretch of awesomeness, as things get difficult fast. In their final six games the Eagles face five opponents ranked in the top-12 in rushing defense and have the second-most difficult playoff schedule in the NFL. While volume could still make Murray a top-10 back during that difficult stretch, it shouldn't be surprising if his postseason narrative is a tale of two halves. 

Backfields to Avoid

St. Louis Rams

While I am firmly in the Todd Gurley fan club, the schedule just looks terrible for the best running back prospect since Trent Richardson... er, Adrian Peterson

While the middle of the schedule has several favorable matchups, the playoff run features three opponents ranked in the top four in rush defense from 2014. And while you could argue that the Detroit Lions without Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley plugging up the middle will be appreciably worse, matchups against the Cardinals (11th), Seahawks (3rd) and Buccaneers (4th) still look daunting for the final four weeks of the Rams' season. 

With injury and workload concerns still surrounding the much-hyped rookie back, perhaps the schedule is enough of a reason to pass on him at his current fourth- or fifth-round ADP. 

Cincinnati Bengals

The most difficult schedule in the NFL in terms of opposing rushing defenses belongs to the Bengals, which does not bode well for sophomore running back Jeremy Hill. With an ADP now at 10th overall, it's worth wondering if this is a player who can return that investment with the difficult slate of games ahead of him. 

In games where Hill rushed for 100 yards in 2014, only one was against a defense that ranked in the top 12, and that was against the 10th-ranked Broncos in large part due to an 85-yard touchdown run that elevated his overall statistics. Without that run, Hill would have finished with 21 carries for just 62 yards. 

In 2015, Hill will face eight top-12 rush defenses and 12 that finished in the top 15. He has only three games against opponents who ranked 24th or worse, including no games against teams ranked in the bottom seven. 

While none of this means that I will take Hill off my draft board, it is a situation that might lead me to take one of the top receivers on my board instead at the end of the first round. 

Charting the Matchups

Below is a chart that identifies the ranking of each team's 2015 opponents (by week) in terms of their opponents' Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play rank from 2014.

I also produced a cumulative (Weeks 1-16) and playoff (Weeks 14-16) score to identify the running backs with the best schedule overall. The higher the total score, the easier the schedule.

As you draft or identify waiver wire targets, utilize this chart to help you navigate the options. 

12345678910111213141516Cummalitive scorePlayoff Score

While I wouldn't use the matchups to predict Alfred Blue to have more success than Jeremy Hill, it can help guide me to favor C.J. Anderson or maybe even (gasp) LeSean McCoy over Hill in my decision-making process. Matchups can have a significant enough impact on player performance that judgments like these become relevant when weighing players within a given tier. 

Expect some changes to these rankings as the season progresses, of course, and adjust accordingly. But don't overlook the impact strength of schedule can have on a player's fantasy outlook.