Fantasy Football: The NFL's Most Likely Bell Cow Running Backs in 2016

The bell cow running back is a dying role in the National Football League. Matt Forte was one of the last ones.

Even someone who teaches should continually try to learn.

I try to advance my own knowledge and experience whenever I can. For instance, my summer is not going to be oodles of trips, lying on the beach, and drinking cool cervezas with little wedges of lime in them. It’s going to involve teaching myself the programming languages of R or SQL or C++ so I can crunch even more statistics.

This may sound intense, but there’s an even more daunting set of letters I’m hoping to tackle before then: RBBC, or “Running Back By Committee.”

RBBC operates based on the theory that multiple running backs divvying up the backfield responsibilities will allow a running game to be more efficient and the players to stay healthier. This makes perfect sense for NFL teams and their players, and -- from a professional standpoint -- I love this plan.

For fantasy teams, it’s become a lot harder to predict who will earn the most touches -- and likely, the most points -- in many backfields these days. This makes it crucial for us to know which teams still have a running back who actually fits the “bell cow” mold.

So, which teams in 2016 are most likely to be led a single running back?

Banana Banana Banana

We’re going to look at the RBBC in a future article and examine whether or not it actually is beneficial for NFL teams, but for now, we are concerned solely with which teams avoid it and how we as fantasy players can guard against this dispersal of value.

First and foremost, we need to see the allocation of opportunities (rushes plus targets) are laid out between their primary running back and others. If a running back is given a greater percentage -- or Market Share -- of his team’s opportunities, we know that the team has used a single-back (or “bell cow”) approach to the position, and we should try to acquire those players.

By organizing each team’s running backs by opportunities each of the past three seasons and then grouping them as RB1, RB2, and RB3+, we can see just how much preference the “primary” running back gets.


Our first exploration of this must be, then, a look at team’s allocation of their opportunities. If a team broadly gives a greater portion of their rushes and targets to their “lead back,” then this is a good way to see which teams we can start pinning down as single-back teams.

The table below shows each team with an Opportunity Share (percentage of total opportunities) above 60 percent for the primary running back over the last three seasons.

Team RB1 Opp. Share
Chicago 73.21%
Dallas 72.17%
Pittsburgh 64.98%
Minnesota 64.17%
Philadelphia 61.29%
Green Bay 60.10%
Seattle 60.09%

Many of our expected suspects appear in this table. The Chicago Bears have had their backfield led by Matt Forte for years, and his extreme versatility as a player meant that he dominated both rushes and targets out of the backfield. Forte in his prime was a true three-down running back who made it possible for the Bears to use just Michael Bush and Tony Fiammetta behind him in 2013.

Last year, however, Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey started to sap a few of his opportunities, as Forte got injured and started losing effectiveness.

The Minnesota Vikings are another unsurprising team here, as Adrian Peterson has been a one-man wrecking crew for the majority of his NFL career. In fact, if we excepted the 2014 season where Peterson was suspended while in the middle of investigation for domestic violence, the RB1 role in Minnesota would have been closer to a 71.97 percent Opportunity Share for this timeframe.

It’s a bit surprising that the Seattle Seahawks, with Marshawn Lynch toeing the line, are so low at a 60.09 percent Opportunity Share. Part of this, no doubt, is last year’s injury-riddled season for “Beast Mode.” If we exempt the ‘Hawks from 2015, the RB1 role would have soaked up a whopping 72.44 Opportunity Share, second-highest in the league.

Yoda Conditions

As with all lines of code, we have to look deeper into the data and try to find the patterns. The patterns in this data show us that can we find out much more than just which teams avoid RBBC as a whole; we can piece them into a few different categories based on how they structure their backfields. I show these categories in ascending order from most secure to least for fantasy purposes.

The first of these is the classic do-it-all single-back approach. The Bears fall into this category, as do the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. Chicago’s role breakdown can be found below.

Chicago Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 70.93% 80.29% 73.21%
RB2 22.82% 16.00% 21.16%
RB3+ 6.26% 3.71% 5.64%

The Bears, as you can see, have allotted rushes and targets by role in no specific fashion but have a clear division between RB1, RB2, and RB3+ opportunity count. With an immense amount of chances going to the RB1 and nearly no role player split between the opportunities given to the RB2 (who has received fewer than a third of the RB1’s totals), this is a clear single-back backfield. They were able to operate this way solely due to Matt Forte's incredible talent and value in his prime.

Our second category is the “change-up” approach, into which we can categorize the Green Bay Packers and Seahawks. The Packers are the best example of this, and I show their role breakdown in the table below.

Green Bay Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 62.98% 47.74% 60.10%
RB2 28.25% 35.71% 29.66%
RB3+ 8.77% 16.54% 10.24%

This shows us a fairly even split between rushing and receiving in terms of the roles’ duties. There is a slight split for the RB1 in favor of Rushing Sharen and for the RB2 in favor of Target Share, but there is still only a minimal role for the RB3+ group. In the Packers’ case, they use Eddie Lacy as an early-down bruiser who can also catch but will allow James Starks to step in for series at a time. This allows them to keep the defense on its toes and to keep their primary back rested.

Our final category is the “role player” approach, which encompasses the Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia’s backfield breakdown is featured in the table below.

Philadelphia Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 66.88% 42.70% 61.29%
RB2 17.41% 42.70% 23.26%
RB3+ 15.70% 14.59% 15.45%

We can see that the lead back still is far-and-away more heavily utilized in Philadelphia’s offense than his backups, but there’s a heavier duty split for the backup than in other approaches. The RB2 here is used more as a receiver than the primary running back in this scheme --Darren Sproles has had 145 targets to 139 rushes over the past two seasons.

Minnesota’s usage is similar, even when we factor out the 2014 season that Peterson missed; he had just 78.42 percent of the rushes and 43.43 percent of the targets in 2013 and 2015, compared to 11.37 and 27.43 percent respectively for the RB2 in those years.

Reality 101

It is interesting that only three teams in this "bell cow" tier of usage have retained their lead runner from the past three seasons, and that's the Packers' Lacy, the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, and the Vikings' Peterson. Only one of those is even old enough to have gotten their second contract in the league, so it's possible that Peterson is one of the last of a dying breed of true workhorse backs. Time will tell.

If we can nail down not just which teams use a primarily one-back system but also figure out how they split touches, we can be even better educated about where to find value in fantasy football. Every team splits their work in some way, but knowing which come the closest to a single back allows us to isolate those true remaining top running back situations.