Fantasy Football: When Should You Start Passing-Down Backs?

Theo Riddick is putting up a prince's point total at a pauper's price.

I’m always looking for value.

I hate clothes shopping. Everything about it -- from searching for the right size, to trying them on, to having to hem and haw about my budget that I came in with -- is awful to me. Yet, for some reason, when I go to a bargain or resale store, my eyes light up. I love digging through rummage sale stocks to see what wonderfully bad sweater someone might be throwing out.

Even in the fantasy football world, if there is a bargain to be had, I’m there.

It occurred to me that in many standard-scoring fantasy leagues, or even half-PPR ones, receiving backs like Theo Riddick were sitting out on the waiver wire. Danny Woodhead, for instance, is actually the eighth-best running back by per-game fantasy scoring in standard formats going into Week 11.

Perhaps if we better understand a receiving back’s matchups, we’ll appreciate the value of these traditionally bargain-price players. What can we learn about how to evaluate receiving backs and their matchups for the end of the 2015 season?

Step Right Up

Obviously, to figure out which teams are the best to sic your passing-down backs on for fantasy production, we want to examine which teams give up the most receptions and receiving yards. That said, there are a few different ways to examine this data.

The first is by looking purely at which teams give up the most fantasy points per game via receptions and receiving yardage to running backs.

The table below shows us this data, both for standard scoring and PPR scoring.

Rank Team Std. FPTS/G Team PPR FPTS/G
1 NO 8.9 ATL 15.1
2 SD 7.8 NO 15.1
3 JAX 7.6 JAX 14.2
4 DAL 7.6 DAL 14.1
5 CIN 7.2 OAK 13.8
6 STL 7.2 SD 13.4
7 ATL 7.1 CIN 13.3
8 OAK 7.1 STL 13.2
9 MIA 6.9 DEN 12.9
10 DEN 6.8 CAR 12.9

Remember, this is the basic interpretation you’ll see most places of which are the 10 easiest teams to start your receiving running backs against. Obviously, the standard scoring list shows who allows the most yardage per game through the air to running backs, while the PPR list factors in the concept of which teams are the easiest to throw to the running back against.

This way of looking at the data is fairly simplistic to me, though, and doesn’t take into account the offenses that have played these teams, or the game scripts that these teams have had to face.

For example, a team without a running back who can catch the ball won’t throw to their running backs, therefore artificially deflating the allowance of the other team’s defense (looking at you lately, LeGarrette Blount and the New England Patriots). On the other hand, a team that is almost always behind late will often throw to their running back in garbage time (i.e. Riddick and his Detroit Lions), and artificially inflate how much receiving scoring the other team allows.

In a nutshell, we need to isolate effectiveness from volume in these defenses. How do we do that?

Quality Goes In Before the Name Goes On

If we want to isolate a defense’s potential give up receiving points to running backs, we have to correct for those defenses who have just suffered a lot of plays at the hands of their opponents.

Defenses that have had more plays run against them simply will allow more catches; more catches means more yards, and more yards means more points allowed. If we want to exploit the true talent of defenses in guarding against receiving backs, we have to eliminate the effect of volume.

For that reason, the tables below show teams’ receiving fantasy points allowed to running backs (again, in standard and PPR) on a per target basis, in tiers. How does this change our perception of teams guarding against receivers out of the backfield?

Rank Team Std. FPTS/T Team PPR FPTS/T
1 BUF 0.13 SD 0.22
2 SD 0.13 BUF 0.21

No matter which scoring system you have, you should start all receiving backs against San Diego, simply because they’re a terrible defense and have a good enough offense to compete in shootouts. This forces the opposition to fire back, and so on and so forth. The Buffalo Bills are another contender for the top spot, not because they have a bad defense -- they’ve allowed just the 15th-most total fantasy points to running backs -- but because they’ve given up so many big-play receiving points on just 51 targets.

3 HOU 0.11 CIN 0.20
4 NO 0.11 JAX 0.20
5 NYJ 0.11 HOU 0.20
6 CIN 0.11 SF 0.19
7 JAX 0.11 NYJ 0.19
8 MIA 0.10 TB 0.19
9 DAL 0.10 OAK 0.19
10 TB 0.10 NO 0.19
11 STL 0.10 DAL 0.19
12 OAK 0.10 - -

These teams are still good matchups for receiving running backs, mostly because they are bad defenses against the position; Miami, New Orleans, and Dallas are three of the top-five best matchups for running backs overall. In a case like Oakland’s, they have an offense geared toward a shootout, however. St. Louis is the other odd one here, as their defense is very good, but they’ve allowed big receiving plays to players such as Jeremy Langford, Le'Veon Bell, and Duke Johnson.

12 - - STL 0.18
13 SF 0.09 ARZ 0.18
14 ARZ 0.09 MIA 0.17
15 CLE 0.09 BAL 0.17
16 CHI 0.09 ATL 0.17
17 DEN 0.08 CLE 0.16
18 BAL 0.08 IND 0.16
19 PHI 0.08 CHI 0.16
20 ATL 0.08 MIN 0.16
21 KC 0.08 DEN 0.16
22 IND 0.08 WAS 0.16
23 NYG 0.08 KC 0.16
24 WAS 0.08 NE 0.16
25 CAR 0.08 - -

This is our receiving back middle class, the salt of the earth who will neither win nor lose you a matchup if you play your receiver-runners against them. Arizona shockingly inhabits this tier -- I’d have expected them to be lower -- right alongside Cleveland, who gives up a ton to runners on the ground (32nd in rushing defense, per our metrics) but not through the air.

25 - - PHI 0.15
26 DET 0.07 CAR 0.15
27 MIN 0.07 NYG 0.15
28 NE 0.07 DET 0.15
29 PIT 0.07 GB 0.15
30 GB 0.07 PIT 0.14

Philadelphia has been particularly stingy to running backs this season both in the rushing and receiving game, with a dominant line in the trenches and athletic linebackers in coverage. The Lions and Packers only reside here because opponents don’t need to pass to their running backs to beat these defenses. They are blustering right through them on the ground (20th and 25th, respectively, against the run according to our metrics), or going deep (31st and 20th against the pass).

31 TEN 0.06 TEN 0.13
32 SEA 0.05 SEA 0.12

Finally we have the elite Seahawks’ defense, which is just so good (second in overall defense, per our metrics) that it’s useless to play almost any running back against them -- receiving or not. The Titans have seemingly had a poor secondary this year, leading teams to take shots downfield instead of underneath. In actuality teams are just rushing against them more than any other team this year (1.14 pass-to-run ratio). They haven’t had the chance to defend running back targets, only seeing 28 through Week 10.

Batteries Not Included

The last note I have about receiving running backs is the importance of game script. If a team goes up early, they’re not likely to throw heavily to anyone, let alone the running back.

An example of this is the Green Bay Packers’ 2015 Week 9 game at the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were up by 16 going into the fourth quarter of the game, clearly in the driver’s seat for the whole 60 minutes. The Packers targeted their running backs 9 times for 101 yards and a touchdown in that game, including 8 targets to James Starks. On the other hand, the Panthers targeted Jonathan Stewart just twice for two yards.

A team down late in a close game is more likely to throw the ball than most other situations: the game is close enough to still win but not so close that you want to run simply to control the clock. Of the 11 teams with four or more games in 2015 where they led by one or two scores (3 to 14 points) going into the fourth quarter, seven of them appear in the top-half of the league in receiving back fantasy points allowed.

That said, we can sometimes overthink this to oblivion: teams with running backs that cannot catch won’t throw to that player regardless, and receiving backs playing good defenses still won’t score much. This is simply a way to help you understand where to best utilize players who are traditionally misunderstood.

When you can find those players at bargain prices, that’s a massive windfall.