What's the True Value of a Running Back Target in Fantasy Football?

Running backs are becoming more efficient in the passing game, and that's shown in fantasy football.

It seems counter-intuitive, but running backs see more scoring variance in point per reception fantasy football leagues than wide receivers do. When you look under the hood, though, it makes sense -- there are more ways for running backs to score points, while it's not very common to find a wideout scoring a ton of fantasy points without catching a lot of passes.

The NFL has become a pass-friendly league, and it's allowed the running back position to become more involved in the passing game. Kind of. If you compare the 3,647 running back targets from last season to the 3,317 from 2008 then, yes, running backs have become more involved in the passing game. But in 2000, that number was actually 3,738, and it peaked in 2002 when running backs saw 3,903 targets.

What's changed is the effectiveness of these targets, not the volume.

According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- if you need to learn about what NEP is all about, check out our glossary -- running backs have seen a gradual increase in per-target efficiency of about eight percent since the turn of the century. The wide receiver position, while seeing more volume, has stayed relatively the same efficiency-wise.

Is this increase in efficiency due to rule changes, or is it because teams have focused on molding pass-catching specialists in the backfield? I'm not entirely sure. But what I do know is that volume isn't really the reason we've noticed receiving-oriented running backs more in fantasy football.

It's efficiency.

That's played a role -- or it should play a role -- in how we view running back targets in fantasy football leagues.

The Value of a Target

For a number of reasons, the 2011 season marked a changing of the guard with passing efficiency. If you recall, nearly four quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards that year, while three passers threw more than 40 touchdowns. Matthew freaking Stafford was a fantasy football deity that season.

But quarterback efficiency, per NEP, has gotten even better since then, and that's really shown within the running back position.

Take a look at the chart below that depicts the fantasy points per attempt at the running back position -- all running backs -- as well as the fantasy points per target at the position.

YearFP/AttemptFP/Target (PPR)FP/Target (Non-PPR)

To be clear, the fantasy points per attempt column isn't simply looking at the total number of fantasy points scored by a running back and dividing it by the number of attempts. Instead, it's looking at specifically rushing -- the number of points a running back is adding only when he gets a carry. Naturally, because the back isn't catching a pass, there's no need to designate the difference in average in a PPR and non-PPR league.

Over the last five years, this number has decreased by 0.03 points per attempt. That may not seem significant, and you're not entirely wrong, but there's a downward trend.

Meanwhile, a target's worth in PPR and non-PPR formats has increased over the last five years. In PPR formats, a target last season was worth 0.117 more points than it was in 2011, and it actually increased by a similar margin in standard leagues.

So there's a downward trend with fantasy points accumulated per rushing attempt, an upward one with fantasy points per target, and we can see how much more valuable a target is for a running back than an attempt.

All of this is to say that targets matter, and they're continuing to become a bigger and bigger deal at the running back position, regardless of format. Remember that in August.