Understanding the NFL's Red Zone Rushing Usage in 2015

Danny Woodhead was a red zone maven in 2015. What does his usage tell us about the current NFL?

No one likes to lose credit for the work they did.

To put blood, sweat, and tears into something only to have the glory at the end of it go to someone else is a sickening feeling. Even if it’s something as inconsequential as picking up someone’s tab for lunch, we all deserve the recognition we’re due. This is exactly what the FXX television show, The League, and its episode about “vulturing” explores: is it better to be the one who does what it takes to set up the score or the only who actually scores?

At least Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon didn’t try to punch ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry; that never ends well.

Yes, Yeldon has earned a reputation in just his rookie year of being the between-the-20’s grinder who gets his team to the red zone who then is pulled in favor of other options. I’m curious about whether that reputation holds up when we examine it statistically and whether it crosses over to other players.

With rushing touchdowns such a valuable fantasy component for the running back position, understanding red zone rushing is important. So, what can we learn by studying rushing usage in the red zone from 2015?

Credit Where Credit Is Due

When looking at statistics, especially ones with smaller sample sizes (like red zone rushing), always remember that context helps us understand them better.

For instance, if I told you that San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead had just 20 rushing attempts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this year, you’d probably (rightfully) feel like that was a low number.

If I told you, though, that Woodhead received 47.62% of his team’s total red zone rushing attempts -- the highest percentage of all Chargers -- you might look at that number differently. Then we can understand that the misfortune of the San Diego offense may have prevented him from more attempts, and his low raw number was the result of sharing with Melvin Gordon, who had 12 (28.57%).

Those players who monopolize Market Share with lower volume are often undervalued in fantasy, so it helps to see both sides of the equation. The table below shows the top-10 players by total rushing attempts in the red zone and by red zone rushing Market Share. Which players were the best in each?

Rank Player RZ Rushes Rank Player RZ M-Share
1 Devonta Freeman 48 1 Latavius Murray 69.39%
t-2 DeAngelo Williams 47 2 Todd Gurley 68.18%
t-2 Adrian Peterson 47 3 DeAngelo Williams 68.12%
t-2 Jonathan Stewart 47 4 Darren McFadden 66.67%
5 Doug Martin 41 5 Devonta Freeman 65.75%
6 Jeremy Hill 40 6 Doug Martin 61.19%
7 Chris Ivory 39 7 Adrian Peterson 61.04%
8 Frank Gore 36 8 Chris Ivory 60.94%
9 Latavius Murray 34 9 Frank Gore 59.02%
10 LeGarrette Blount 32 10 Isaiah Crowell 55.36%

Most of the players in the first column are reflected in the second, but some new faces creep in. Darren McFadden had an excellent Market Share of red zone rushing attempts but just 26 attempts there, due to the ineffectiveness of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense. Isaiah Crowell was in a similar situation, with 55.36% Market Share of the Cleveland Browns’ red zone rushing but just 31 red zone attempts. Other notable players just after the top-10 in Market Share: Matt Forte, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Johnson, DeMarco Murray, and Ronnie Hillman.

In addition, Jonathan Stewart falls out of the top-10 in Market Share, due to the fact that the Carolina Panthers had such a potent offense that his 47 red zone attempts represent just 43.12% of the team’s total red zone rushing.

Our hero of this study, Yeldon, comes in at 19th in red zone rushing Market Share in the league (44.44% on 24 attempts). He clearly wasn’t a titan of the goal line but he still led the Jaguars in this measure. Is this out of line with the rest of his season?

Name Recognition

Let’s add another layer of context to our study. Let’s say a running back was used more in the red zone than between the 20’s; we would consider that running back to be a prolific red zone specialist, right?

Not quite. By comparing the Red Zone Market Share of rushing to the Total Market Share, we can see which players had wide gaps in their usage -- some in favor of the end of the field, some used mostly in the middle. The first table below shows the top-10 backs in Market Share Differential that had at least 50 carries. Who appears?

Rank Player M-Share Diff.
1 Danny Woodhead +22.68%
2 Todd Gurley +14.17%
3 DeAngelo Williams +14.07%
4 Joique Bell +12.74%
5 Carlos Hyde +9.07%
6 David Johnson +8.23%
7 Darren McFadden +7.51%
8 Matt Jones +7.34%
9 Tyrod Taylor +7.27%
10 Isaiah Crowell +6.29%

At the top of the list we find our old friend, Woodhead. There clearly was no fluke in his red zone usage; the Chargers didn’t often utilize his rushing ability in the middle of the field -- preferring instead to use him as a receiving back. However, in close, they didn’t trust rookie Gordon to hang onto the ball. Thus, Woodhead had just a 24.94% Total Market Share and a 47.62% Red Zone Market Share. Joique Bell had a similar situation for the Detroit Lions, with Ameer Abdullah ostensibly too risky in close.

Todd Gurley had a slightly different situation, in that he was injured for five weeks of the NFL season, and therefore accrued just 54.01% of the St. Louis Rams’ total carries. With him out, however, the team’s offense was putrid and hardly came close to the end zone. He essentially created more red zone opportunities for his team and then grabbed them himself.

What about the anti-red zone specialists? The table below shows the same data for the bottom-10 players in Market Share Differential with at least 50 carries.

Rank Player M-Share Diff.
1 Melvin Gordon -18.25%
2 Lamar Miller -16.21%
3 Ameer Abdullah -14.65%
4 Dexter McCluster -10.46%
5 Le’Veon Bell -10.25%
6 Duke Johnson -9.46%
7 Alfred Morris -9.21%
8 Chris Polk -8.77%
9 T.J. Yeldon -7.86%
10 Adrian Peterson -7.80%

Gordon’s appearance on this list is a direct result of Woodhead’s position at the top of the previous list, and Abdullah’s is a result of Bell. Lamar Miller ranks seventh in terms of Total Market Share of his team’s carries but inexplicably he lost numerous red zone attempts to the likes of Damien Williams, Jonas Gray, and Jay Ajayi.

Finally, our friend T.J. Yeldon makes his appearance, having ceded 30 red zone attempts to Denard Robinson, Blake Bortles, and even Toby Gerhart. For whatever reason, rookies were not trusted to handle the ball close to goal in 2015.

What Am I, Chopped Liver?

One last consideration as you use this data to inform your fantasy valuations going forward: players can -- and do -- improve their fumbling tendencies (think about early-career Adrian Peterson), and become more trusted assets when in scoring range. Don’t knock out the likelihood of players like Gordon, Abdullah, and Yeldon becoming touchdown scorers for good just because of their rookie year usage; instead watch to see if anything in their situations change in the coming offseason.

If the Lions cut middling talents like Joique Bell or the Jaguars dump Toby Gerhart, this could be a sign that they’re ready and willing to move players like Abdullah and Yeldon into lead roles exclusively. Even in the case of Lamar Miller, we can see that the Miami Dolphins were ready to move on from him, and they gave rookie Jay Ajayi more high-leverage work in order to test him.

The red zone mavens of 2015 deserve their due, but soon, the heavy lifters may also get some recognition of their own.