Exploitation Theory: What the NFL Schedule Can Teach Us About Streaming Running Backs
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.
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 numberFire 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.
Marshawn Lynch's best 2014 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 3 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 buying or selling as the playoffs approach. 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 New York Jets, to last, the Cleveland Browns.
While defensive rankings will assuredly fluctuate due to injuries and matchups, with seven weeks of data to analyze, we now how a pretty decisive look at which defenses are great and which flat out stink.
So what are some observations we can make from the 2015 schedule?
Charting the Matchups
Below is a chart that identifies the remaining rankings of each team's 2015 opponents (by week) in terms of their opponents' Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play rank through seven games.
I also produced a cumulative (Weeks 8-16) score to identify the running backs with the best schedule overall. The higher the total score, the easier the schedule. Do keep in mind, however, that bye weeks are not factored into this score.
As you draft for daily leagues or look at players to target or sell in redraft, utilize this chart to help you navigate the options.
Backfields to Target
But this is a team that will likely remain committed to the run in an effort to protect the inconsistent Kirk Cousins, and Jones is an intriguing flier to stash on your bench with the playoffs around the corner.
With only one top-14 run defense on their schedule in terms of Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, Washington owns the easiest collection of matchups. There may not be a running back you can trust right now in Washington, but it is certainly a situation to monitor.
Nothing on the schedule would indicate that the Devonta Freeman magical season is going anywhere soon. They face no top-12 rush defenses according to our adjusted metric for the remainder of the season, with the 13th-ranked Jaguars being their toughest matchup.
And when you can say that the toughest defense you will face is the Jacksonville Jaguars, it seems relatively easy to assess that good things are in store.
While acquiring Freeman in seasonal leagues is unlikely, owners should count themselves as lucky and ride the wave to the playoffs.
New York Jets
The injury situation for Chris Ivory is deeply concerning right now, but the schedule certainly is not. That is especially true during the all important fantasy playoffs in Weeks 14 through 16.
During that stretch, the Jets (and hopefully a healthy Ivory) will face the 27th, 23rd and 26th ranked rush defenses in Adjusted NEP per play.
Acquiring Ivory now may be difficult with his recent success, but if the injuries persist it may be worth spending a bit to nab him for managers with a playoff bound squad.
Backfields to Avoid
While Justin Forsett has bounced back after a terrible start to the season, those looking for a strong finish may be looking in the wrong spot.
In addition to having a bye remaining on the schedule, the Ravens will also face three of the top five rush defenses during the fantasy playoffs. They also have only two matchups remaining against teams ranked in the bottom-18 of the NFL in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.
Forsett is a player I would strongly consider selling after this next game against the 30th-ranked Chargers.
San Fransisco 49ers
Carlos Hyde was a revelation after a dominant Week 1 performance but has since faded into obscurity as poor game scripts, blocking and injuries have significantly limited his effectiveness. And it's about to get worse.
Over the next five weeks the 49ers will have four games against top-seven rush defenses in Adjusted NEP per play in addition to having a bye week.
If you have the ability to weather that storm, things certainly improve starting in Week 13, but for many that will be too little, too late.
Regardless of what your strategy is moving forward in daily or redraft, allow the remaining schedule to inform your decisions. Understanding the matchups can help you identify the perfect moment to take a chance on Charcandrick West and the right time to fade Frank Gore. Doing your homework can quite literally pay off.