Exploitation Theory: What the NFL Schedule Can Teach Us About Drafting Running Backs

As we approach the 2016 NFL season, let's identify the best and worst matchups for all 32 NFL backfields.

Owning Le'Veon Bell in 2014 helped a lot of people to a fantasy football championship. His campaign was a phenomenal season that propelled him into fantasy football stardom after he produced 2,215 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

And if not for another unfortunate knee injury suffered last season as well as a looming four-game suspension to start 2016, Bell would undoubtedly be the consensus number-one player on fantasy draft boards.

We all remember Bell's historic stretch in Weeks 11 through 15 in 2014, during which he averaged more than 31 fantasy points per game, but a look at the schedule brings that success into context beyond just Bell's dominant ability.

In those four weeks, the Steelers faced, in order, the 29th-, 32nd-, 26th- and 31st-ranked rush defenses according to our metrics. He had only two 100-yard rushing performances outside of that stretch, against the 19th-ranked Panthers and the 25th-ranked Browns.

None of this is to discount the player that Bell has become but instead to amplify the importance that a favorable schedule can have for a running back's season-long success.

Doug Martin's most effective performance last year came in a 235-yard performance against the 29th-ranked Eagles rush defense.

David Johnson's only 100-yard rushing game last year came against that same Eagles team, a 187-yard, 3-touchdown explosion that placed Johnson firmly on the Round 1 redraft radar.

Last year, the most favorable schedule in the NFL in terms of opposing rush defense went to Martin and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And after two mediocre and injury plagued season, those favorable matchups enabled Martin to reemerge as a dominant NFL running back.

What we did learn as a caution, however, is that volume and elite talent can overcome a dismal schedule. Such was the season that Todd Gurley produced, overcoming the second-most difficult schedule to prove his exceptional talent to the league.

That said, in 2015, the most difficult schedule belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals, and based on the struggles of sophomore Jeremy Hill, that showed.

These are just a few examples about how understanding the schedule can help you perhaps break the tie between selecting similarly ranked running backs, or even identify players who might be worth trading as the season progresses. Even for owners who just want to identify the best bye week fill-in for their weekly starter, identifying positive matchups can help you avoid mistakes and target the player most likely to return value to your team on any given week.

To see our research on quarterback streaming and schedules, check out last week's article.

To research running back strength of schedule, I utilized our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data. A team's NEP indicates how they performed relative to that expectation. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.

The specific metric I utilized was Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, which identifies how many points a defense is taking away from an offense on a per-play basis, adjusted for strength of schedule. This allowed me to rank NFL rushing defenses from first, the New York Jets, to last, the Buffalo Bills.

While defensive rankings can often fluctuate year to year, it is rare for a defense to move from the top 10 to the bottom 10 in just one year, or vice versa. More often than not, bad defenses stay average or worse year-to-year.

So what are some observations we can make from the 2016 schedule?

Rushing Schedule

Backfields to Target

Green Bay Packers

If a P90Xed Eddie Lacy is due for a rebound, the schedule certainly is rooting for it. The Packers have the fifth-easiest schedule based on our metrics, including 11 straight games to being the year where they don't face a top-12 defense. While his playoff schedule would include a matchup against the brutal Seahawks defense, Lacy could be a player who helps you get that far.

New York Giants

This is a tough one, especially after the Giants platooned their way to a wasted 2015 season from their backfield. That said, Rashad Jennings finished the year strong, with four straight games with 16 or more touches including a 170-yard effort against the Eagles to close the season.

Jennings was one of the most effective backs in the NFL last year on a per-carry basis based on our Success Rate and Rushing NEP per rush metrics and could be the perfect target in the mid to late rounds of your drafts.

The Giants possess the third-easiest schedule based on our metrics. And if Jennings can remain healthy until the postseason, he faces a soft playoff schedule against the Cowboys, Lions, and Eagles (27th, 22nd and 29th, respectively).

Detroit Lions

Once again, I apologize for pointing to such a muddled situation. The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards in 2015, with rookie Ameer Abdullah pacing the team with a whopping 597 yards on the ground. Joique Bell was the only other back to exceed 150 rushing yards (311), and he is no longer on the roster.

That said, the Lions boast the second-easiest rushing schedule in the NFL, while also possessing the best playoff schedule as well. Meaning there is gold to be found if the team finds a back to feature in 2015.

The Lions face only two teams who ranked in the top 12 in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per rush last year and finish the season against the 30th-, 24th-, and 27th-ranked teams.

While Theo Riddick is likely to grab a heavy passing-down role out of this backfield, things are wide open for the lead back role. Abdullah boasts the draft pedigree and exciting skill-set, but he is on the small side and fumbled four times last year, putting him in the dog house. He has the edge but could potentially battle the forgotten Stevan Ridley and dynasty football darling Zach Zenner for touches.

And if someone emerges as a lead back, watch out!

Backfields to Avoid

Buffalo Bills

Injuries, arrests, suspensions, and baby weight have already taken their toll on the Bills backfield, prompting the signing this week of Reggie Bush. But consider avoiding this backfield at their respective draft costs because of the brutal schedule. Well, that and the baby weight thing.

The Bills come in to 2016 with the most difficult schedule based on our metrics, with 50 percent of their games coming against top-12 defenses and just two matchups against bottom-10 teams.

While Rex Ryan teams can produce value based on volume alone, it may be a grind it out type of season for lead back LeSean McCoy. That volume may provide him with a decent floor, but his difficult schedule (and perhaps a crowded depth chart) could limit his ceiling. I'm looking elsewhere in the second and third rounds of drafts.

San Francisco 49ers

The case against Carlos Hyde just gets more compelling every day. Stuck on a potentially bad team with a bad line and a bad defense could put them behind in a lot of games. Hyde has rarely been involved in the passing game, and negative game scripts could really impact his overall productivity.

Beyond that, the 49ers have the third-most difficult schedule by our metrics, meaning Hyde may have little room to run even at the beginning of games. Nine of of his 16 games are against top-12 rush defenses, and he faces the top-ranked Jets and the third-ranked Rams in the fantasy playoffs. And with only four games against bottom-12 defenses, there isn't much upside throughout the year for the third-year back.

Unless he vastly improves his usage and ability in the passing game or Chip Kelly works his spread offense magic in an unlikely way, this is clearly a situation to avoid in 2016.

New England Patriots

The Patriots are an interesting rushing team regardless of schedule, rarely relying on one back to carry the load and often being inconsistent week-to-week in rushing strategy based on that week's game plan. Dion Lewis, though, showed his ability in the passing game and in the red zone last year, and those two skills perhaps make him matchup proof in regards to the schedule if he can get healthy.

That said, it is worth noting that the Patriots have the second-most difficult schedule against the run and by far the worst playoff schedule of any team with games against the Ravens (seventh), Broncos (fifth), and Jets (first). In fact, after their Week 9 bye, six out of their seven opponents rank in the top seven in rush defense.

This suggests staying away from the "power back" player in this offense (presumably LeGarrette Blount) and perhaps downgrading Dion Lewis just a bit.

Bringing Things Home

While we shouldn't use the matchups to predict Matt Jones to have more success than Mark Ingram, they can guide us toward Adrian Peterson or Ezekiel Elliott over David Johnson in our decision-making processes.

Matchups can have a significant enough impact on player performance that judgments like these become relevant when weighing players within a given tier. Use them to break ties or overcome difficult situations.

Expect some changes to these rankings as the season progresses, of course, and adjust accordingly. But don't overlook the impact strength of schedule can have on a player's fantasy outlook.