The Anatomy of a Difference Making Fantasy Running Back
We’re over the hump with this series.
Onto the most important position in fantasy football, the running backs.
What matters most to predict the fantasy success of the future bell cows that lead us to fantasy glory?
Is it Size? Speed? Draft Capital? Receiving ability?
As I did for Quarterback and Wide Receivers, I am going to outline which of the consensus “most predictive” measures for evaluating collegiate running backs have, in fact, been predictive of RB1 success.
Creating a framework to outline which characteristics the running backs in the upcoming 2021 draft either check or fail to check. Using a 6-year sample from 2015-2020, the dataset will outline which traits the difference-making fantasy RB1’s all shared. The parameters I set are as follows:
To qualify an RB finished in the top 12 scoring of fantasy points per game in any one of those 6 seasons (2015-2020).
Played a minimum of 10 games in that season.
Once again, the reason I chose running backs who ACTUALLY FINISHED top 12 in PPG is due to the unpredictability of fantasy football. Sure, I could’ve looked at the consensus top 15 dynasty running backs and used that as my sample, but chances are, half of those guys will bust and never have a top 12 finish. I set the parameter as top 12 to separate between great and good fantasy assets at the position. An RB1 is a coveted finish for any running back.
Before we get into this, I always want to remind you that BOTH film and stats/analytics need to be considered when evaluating any position, so this is only ½ the equation.
Of the 37 qualified running backs, I chose to measure them based on what is considered the most accurate measures of fantasy success around the industry. My goal was to test conventional wisdom and see which of these measures proved to be the most accurate. The following are ranked from most common to least common below:
1. Size above 205 pounds (34/37 or 92%)
The reason I am “all the way out” on guys like Javian Hawkins, Pooka Williams, and Jaret Patterson is that it is extremely hard to provide a high ceiling as a sub 200 pound running back. 92% were above 205 pounds and only Danny Woodhead was able to achieve an RB1 season as a sub 200 pounder. This trait is the reason that “workhorse size” is so coveted because it is a benchmark that translates.
2. Weight Adjusted Speed Score above 95 (32/37 or 86%)
The other half of the measurables equation is speed. You know how everyone says, “40 times don’t even matter”, well according to this they matter 86% of the time. When you examine the names and speed scores on this list closely, you can see that a lot of the guys that didn’t achieve at least a 95-weight adjusted speed score, needed a lot of volume and receiving work to reach the RB1 finish. (Hunt/Robinson/White/Freeman/Ingram). Whereas the elite speed scores (about 110 or higher) tended to result in players becoming elite fantasy assets currently (JT/Saquon/Henry/etc.).
3. Draft Capital in Rounds 1-3 (24/37 or 65%)
This was one of the most interesting results of this exercise. 65% of these players were day 2 or earlier picks, which was the lowest number of the four main fantasy positions. The takeaway here is that a fourth-round draft capital running back is not necessarily a death sentence for their future fantasy success. 35% of the running backs in this sample were day 3 picks or UDFA’s so if a running back you like in this class is drafted late, continue to take your shots late in rookie drafts.
4. College Target Share Above 8% or the 60th percentile (22/37 or 59%)
I feel like we demean running backs with lackluster receiving production in college to junk bond status. The reality is, having elite receiving production wasn’t a requirement for players to finish as RB1s a decent percentage of the time. You can say it was due to touchdowns or a lot of carries but that’s the point, there are multiple ways to skin a cat (yes this is a Derrick Henry & Nick Chubb rant). Nonetheless, if you aren’t catching a lot of passes in college, chances are you won’t catch many in the NFL either. Also, worth noting that I couldn’t find the data for Woodhead/Ekeler & Robinson from small schools but due to their ability in this area they would probably bump the percentage to 65%.
Much like the other positions, I wanted to see if the results changed for repeat top 12 running backs (RBs who finished top 12 in PPG more than once from 2015-2020) and this yielded 20 players.
These are the guys we’re chasing with every incoming rookie that enters the NFL, we want sustainable RB1 production over multiple years. Here’s how the traits stacked up:
1. Size above 205 Pounds (19/20 or 95%)
Remains the most important trait for running back success, only Austin Ekeler weighed less than 205, and that dude's shredded now since his weight was last recorded. I have a hard time believing he’s still under 205.
2. Weight Adjusted Speed Score Above 95 (17/20 or 85%)
No change in this area remained important for sustainable fantasy RB production.
3. Draft Capital in Rounds 1-3 (16/20 or 75%)
Interesting to note that draft capital made more of an impact for sustainable RB1 production and Austin Ekeler was the only UDFA. This has been my issue with James Robinson this offseason, the position is so replaceable with fewer coaches opting for workhorses, that history indicates he will have a tough time maintaining the production he put up last season.
4. College Target Share Above 8% or the 60th percentile (14/20 or 70%)
Like I said with Ekeler, he would qualify but I cannot find his college target share number. So, a jump for this area as well when it came to multi-time RB1s. Receiving productivity was a plus for sustainability but not a total requirement.
Now that we’ve determined what was most important, we can examine the current running back class and see how they stack up.
As always, use these benchmarks as well as film to form the full pre-draft evaluation of the player but it is worth noting a few things.
As expected, the top 3 running backs are head and shoulders above the rest of the class.
Najee Harris didn’t test but to achieve the 95 threshold, he would just need to run faster than 4.67 which he would’ve done easily in my opinion.
Carter and Gainwell are intriguing but the size concerns are an issue for sure.
Chuba Hubbard remains one of the best-kept secrets and examples of recency bias I can remember.
I labeled a big tier of “draft capital dependent” running backs because they all fit the weight and speed criteria and with fringe day 2 capital, they will be interesting for fantasy.
Elijah Mitchell weighed 215 at the senior bowl but tested at 201 for his pro day so I have no idea what his playing weight and speed is exactly, but it should be good, nonetheless.
The small guys at the bottom are completely irrelevant to me and Jermar Jefferson is because he stinks.
Check out the Anatomy of a difference-making Wide Receiver / Quarterback articles if you haven’t already and stay tuned for Tight Ends in the coming days. Share if you enjoyed it & Subscribe to Fantasy Stock Exchange on YouTube to see the video version of these articles where I will be covering film as well!