2015 Fantasy Football in Review: Running Back Consistency

The 2015 season was abysmal for running backs, but were the healthy ones actually reliable?

We're only two seasons removed from DeMarco Murray's 392-carry outing in 2014, but it feels like it's been ages since running backs were locks for 300-plus carries, let alone candidates to break 400.

After all, Murray was the first back with at least 360 carries since 2008, when Michael Turner saw 376.

This shift from rushing to passing, in addition to the committee approach to the position becoming more commonplace, has drastically altered the way the fantasy football community views the running back position.

Even though running backs are being devalued in drafts relative to where they were for decades prior, are the best ones and the early picks still reliable from week-to-week?

Let's find out how running backs fared in 2015, an outlier season for the position.

The Approach

We've already broken down the approach in detail when we looked at quarterback consistency, but here's the gist of it: by tracking game-to-game performance from Weeks 1 through 16, we can see which players offered the most consistency and upside based on standard deviations derived from those weekly totals.

This will show us how a player's production (i.e. fantasy points) fell in 68% of their games, or about 11 of the 16 in a season.

For running backs, we'll only count games if a player had at least six combined opportunities (rushes plus targets) to try to eliminate games in which a player left with injury or a backup saw a small workload. Also, we'll be relying on players with at least eight such games unless otherwise noted.

What do we find?

The Results

We'll start with standard scoring results and break down the 22 backs with at least 10 points per game (again, only games with at least six opportunities), sorted by the player's high-end output.

Player FP/qGm 68L 68H Player FP/qGm 68L 68H
Devonta Freeman 17.4 7.43 27.30 Danny Woodhead 10.5 2.41 18.51
DeAngelo Williams 17.2 7.48 26.83 Karlos Williams 12.5 6.66 18.34
David Johnson 15.7 5.19 26.19 Charcandrick West 10.0 1.74 18.19
Thomas Rawls 14.3 3.54 25.06 Matt Forte 12.8 7.59 18.03
Adrian Peterson 14.5 6.30 22.75 Mark Ingram 12.8 8.97 16.60
Todd Gurley 14.4 6.51 22.35 LeSean McCoy 12.2 8.13 16.32
Lamar Miller 11.9 2.52 21.30 Jonathan Stewart 11.3 6.34 16.25
Doug Martin 12.6 4.53 20.61 Frank Gore 10.1 4.05 16.19
LeGarrette Blount 11.7 3.65 19.65 Latavius Murray 10.4 5.34 15.48
Chris Ivory 11.8 4.36 19.16 Ryan Mathews 10.3 5.23 15.31
Jeremy Langford 11.1 3.61 18.66 TJ Yeldon 10.0 5.45 14.53

Some late-round or even waiver-wire backs made the cut in terms of points per game, but only five players offered a floor of at least seven fantasy points in these games: Devonta Freeman (7.43), DeAngelo Williams (7.48), Matt Forte (7.59), Mark Ingram (8.97), and LeSean McCoy (8.13).

Freeman (17.4) and Williams (17.2) ranked 1st and 2nd in per-game scoring among this group, and Forte (12.8) was 7th, Ingram (12.8) was 8th, and McCoy (12.2) was 11th. The latter three (the early-round picks) were more reliable on the low end but not as productive on the high end.

This is something to keep in mind as we move forward.

As for PPR performances, here are the 18 backs with at least 13 PPR points per qualified game.

Player FP/qGm 68L 68H Player FP/qGm 68L 68H
Devonta Freeman 22.82 12.10 33.54 Matt Forte 16.23 9.65 22.80
DeAngelo Williams 20.61 10.22 31.00 Jeremy Langford 13.05 3.84 22.25
David Johnson 18.69 7.77 29.60 DeMarco Murray 13.30 5.36 21.24
Thomas Rawls 15.43 4.08 26.77 Chris Ivory 13.90 6.78 21.02
Danny Woodhead 15.33 5.61 25.04 Mark Ingram 16.95 12.96 20.94
Lamar Miller 14.97 4.96 24.99 Bilal Powell 14.67 8.91 20.43
Todd Gurley 16.05 7.35 24.74 LeSean McCoy 14.89 9.70 20.08
Adrian Peterson 16.46 8.41 24.51 Karlos Williams 13.50 7.62 19.38
Doug Martin 14.30 5.68 22.92 Justin Forsett 13.31 7.60 19.02

The same five players just profiled were the only to produce at least nine PPR points per game on the low end.

And while some early-round picks -- Lamar Miller (3.03 average draft position in 2015), Todd Gurley (5.04), and Adrian Peterson (1.02) -- were hot on their heels, the five backs to offer 25-point PPR upside on a realistic basis were drafted in the ninth round or later: Freeman (9.09), Williams (14.05), David Johnson (12.07), Thomas Rawls (17.11), and Danny Woodhead (10.11).

The late-round backs are also prevalent when we gauge consistency in terms of games with at least 12 PPR points.

12+ PPR-Point GamesADPCountPercentage of Qualified Games
Mark Ingram3.081191.67%
Devonta Freeman9.091184.62%
DeAngelo Williams14.05981.82%
Adrian Peterson1.021173.33%
Todd Gurley5.04969.23%
Matt Forte2.04866.67%
LeSean McCoy2.09866.67%
Bilal Powell- 666.67%
David Johnson12.07562.50%
Karlos Williams19.08562.50%
Jonathan Stewart5.11861.54%
Danny Woodhead10.11960.00%
Justin Forsett3.01555.56%
Latavius Murray4.03853.33%
Chris Ivory7.01750.00%
Giovani Bernard7.02750.00%
T.J. Yeldon6.02650.00%
Ryan Mathews9.06550.00%
Thomas Rawls17.11450.00%

Of the 19 backs to produce at least 12 points per game in half of their games with six or more chances, six had an ADP inside the top five rounds, seven were between Rounds 5 and 10, and six went after Round 10 or were undrafted.

What It Means for the Position

Honestly, I'm not sure. Again, 2015 was an anomaly for running backs, and the consistency breakdown for running backs in 2014 strongly suggested that weekly consistency was really only available from early-round picks.

Perhaps the sheer amount of running back casualties last year made it possible for these later-round picks to produce usable numbers at the top end.

A word of caution here: these results are all based on after-the-fact performance. That is to say that we already know that DeAngelo Williams panned out when he actually saw touches, so we can avoid the unpredictable nature of waiver-wire running backs, who often flame out after being added. Further, this type of analysis also rewards big games regardless of whether a player was on the bench or even the waiver wire before getting a clear shot.

Overall, only a few running backs offered weekly safety in 2015, and you can either chalk that up to an oddity of a season or assume it'll continue as the NFL continues to evolve.