How Vegas Spreads Affect Fantasy Football Running Back Performance
My friend Kris jokingly uses the phrase "RBs, LOL." when our league mates discuss running backs for upcoming drafts. He's joking about how running backs have fallen from grace in fantasy football of late, mostly due to the NFL becoming a more pass-happy league.
This fall has led to frustration for many fantasy owners -- deciding which running back to start on a weekly basis can feel futile. Poor game script causes teams to pass and leave their running back off the field, and sometimes your back fumbles early in the game and gets benched. Running backs have even missed plays because they reportedly ate too many Skittles.
These things happen and are unavoidable. But we can lessen the blow of some of these instances by using spread data from Las Vegas bookmakers.
My Favorite Things
In order to conduct this study, I used the Rotoviz Game Splits App, which allows you to break down how a player has performed in specific situations. Using statistics from FantasyData.com, I was able to scrape results for the top-50 running backs in FanDuel scoring for 2015.
Next, the results were split by how they performed when they were favorites and then as underdogs. Not just for 2015, but over their entire career. I also included some players who were injured last season such as Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, and Carlos Hyde.
After seeing the results, some players had to be removed. Patriots' running back James White never played a game as an underdog. Cardinals' stud running back David Johnson actually had the best home-road split, but only because he played one career game as an underdog and scored 0.8 points. Seahawks' running back Thomas Rawls also only played one game as a dog, so his results were excluded.
In this new pool of 53 running backs, the favored back scored an average of 9.75 standard fantasy points, while underdogs scored an average of 8.65, a difference of about 1.10 points.
For reference, Matt Forte has averaged 3.1 more points per game as a favorite than he has as an underdog. On the contrary, Doug Martin has averaged 0.51 more points per game as an underdog than he has as a favorite.
The entire list of running backs is listed below, sorted by the largest discrepancy between favorite and underdog success.
The bottom five running backs on the list scored poorly as favorites. However, they were all rookies in 2015 aside from Hyde, who has only played two seasons.
Veteran running back Adrian Peterson has done extremely well as a favorite and as an underdog, scoring over 16 fantasy points per game. He averages only 0.05 more points per game as a favorite, meaning he's generally been matchup-proof.
DeAngelo Williams dominated after Le'Veon Bell exited in 2015 with an ACL injury. His career totals show that he averages 1.5 more points per game as a favorite. However, in 2015, he averaged 7.4 more points per game as a favorite.
Time For Some Action
Be sure to listen to the classic jam "Time 4 Sum Aksion" by Redman while reading this section.
Looking at this list and the stats can possibly help us predict success, but most results won't help you when picking your featured back on Sundays. The top four on our list, though, may also be the most actionable when it comes to picking your guy.
Devonta Freeman turned on God Mode for several weeks in 2015 and single-handedly propelled some fantasy teams into their playoffs. He finished fourth on the list, but that's only because of his inefficient rookie season. In 2015, Freeman averaged a whopping 21.08 fantasy points as a favorite and only 10.7 points as an underdog. Atlanta is currently favored in Week 1 versus Tampa Bay, if you're curious.
Karlos Williams lands at number three. His ranking is a bit questionable since 2015 was his rookie season. However, in four games as a favorite, Williams scored a tasty 13.95 fantasy points per game. That's better than Eddie Lacy, Doug Martin, and Frank Gore's average scores when their teams are favored. Again, four games is a small sample size, but if given the opportunity to start, Williams will be a must-play as a favorite until further notice.
Jamaal Charles is just terrific. When the Chiefs are favored, he's somehow even better. Of all the players on the list, Charles' numbers are the most actionable. In 35 career games as a favorite, he has averaged 17.58 points per game -- that's about 6.4 points better than he performs when the Chiefs are underdogs. This sample size is large enough to show a legitimate trend when it comes to Charles being the favorite.
Todd Gurley finished atop the list with an uber-impressive 19.43 fantasy points per game when the Rams are favored. This is seven points higher than his average as an underdog. Again, it's worth noting that we only have one season of data when it comes to Gurley. With only a few games of data, I decided to look at how Jeff Fisher performed as a favorite.
Since Fisher began coaching the Rams in 2012, the Rams have averaged about 1 carry and 17 rushing yards more per game when the Rams are favored. In these games as favorites, the Rams averaged 26.47 rushing attempts per game. But if we look at games where Todd Gurley played and the Rams were favored, the Rams attempted 30.25 carries per game. Fisher seems more inclined to lean on Gurley when the Rams face weaker competition. And judging by his rookie season, you can't blame him.
Three of our top-four running backs will be highly priced on daily fantasy sites, so draft at your own risk. But if you're looking for a high floor at such a risky position, paying up for one of these guys when their teams are favored will place your team in a favorable position.