How to value fantasy running backs without a three-down role

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Jonathan Stewart still has fantasy value despite being on the wrong side of 30 and the Panthers using their first-round pick on a running back. (AP photo/Bob Leverone)
Jonathan Stewart still has fantasy value despite being on the wrong side of 30 and the Panthers using their first-round pick on a running back. (AP photo/Bob Leverone)

The running back position in Fantasy Football has been sliced and diced into various components more than at any time in league history. The era of the bell-cow back is seemingly dead, save for a couple of exceptions.

In its place is the first and second down back, the third-down back and the goal-line back. Numerous teams deploy different players for each role. So as fantasy owners, we have to settle for partial running backs. What I want to do here is figure out as precisely as possible what each of these roles is worth.

For example, take a back like Ameer Abdullah, who is being discounted this draft season because he’s not the goal-line back nor the third-down back. So he seems like 1/3 of a back, with a measly early down role. But appearances can be deceiving.

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Thanks to play-by-play data on Pro Football Reference (subscription required but highly recommended), we can look at the average of the top 24 running backs to see how they fared only on first and second down plays when it comes to fantasy scoring. When you combine rushing and receiving on these downs, the average early down scoring — again not including any goal-line runs which for the purposes of this were within five yards of the opposing goal — was 173.6 points.

So if you think a healthy Abdullah would be top 24 in the Detroit offense only when factoring when he’s projected to play, you have a pretty decent baseline projection and a likely top 15 RB. (Note I didn’t include fumbles as they are random.)

Similarly we can do the same thing with third-down receiving running backs. What is that role worth? I limited the plays here to passes only. And I calculated full-PPR. The fantasy points scored ranged from 21.3 points (Spencer Ware) to 70.5 (David Johnson) but the average for the entire top 24 was 32.2 points. Again, the less points per reception in your league, the lower this figure will be. But the point is that receiving running backs do most of their damage on early downs. The average catch total on third downs was just 14.2, a figure topped by a mere 11 backs.

So, 173.6 points for first and second downs, 32.2 for third-down receiving and now how much for goal-line?

The 2016 leader, no surprise, was LeGarrette Blount with 67.7 points. David Johnson (61.6), Jonathan Stewart (55.6) and Melvin Gordon (54.8) also topped 50 goal-line points. But the average for the entire top 24, with Christine Michael pulling up the rear (18.6 points), was 32.4. That means that goal-line is pretty much identical in expected value in PPR as third-down back.

So the final tallies:
First and second down: 173.6 fantasy points (top 24 average)
Third down receiver: 32.2
Goal-line back: 32.4

While this seems glaringly obvious, I want to emphasize that we want to target early down backs on winning teams. But losing teams are the optimal setting for third-down backs, as playing catchup may lead to more touches on first and second down late in games when teams are forced to use their third-down offense as their base attack. For goal-line, you want, like Blount had last year, a high-scoring offense.

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So this means that third-down backs on good teams have less value — think C.J. Prosise. If he doesn’t take the early down job, he’s very unlikely to have any appreciable fantasy value. The Seahawks are not going to be playing from behind that much.

The targets here are receiving backs on terrible teams, Bilal Powell and Duke Johnson (though Powell may supplant Forte, though not at this moment). Another interesting target is Washington’s Chris Thompson. I would not avoid James White as his receiving is clearly part of New England’s base offense, too.

Jonathan Stewart seems like a real bargain. He’s probably going to be the first and second down back and will definitely be the goal-line runner. So he should have 86.5% of the value of a typical bell-cow for the Panthers. If you want to assume that rookie Christian McCaffrey gets more than a typical receiving back workload on first and second-down, fine. But even 70% of a Panthers RB value is worthwhile at his 40-something RB ADP. Of course, this makes McCaffrey (top 15) the player to avoid the most given what he does — mostly catch — has such marginal value.

Joe Mixon is another back to avoid given that he is unlikely to be the goal-line or third-down back. The bargain in the Cincinnati Bengals backfield is Jeremy Hill, who may be nearly worth his ADP in the high 30s based on goal-line work alone. I’d expect him to get about half the early down work, too. So he should produce about 125 fantasy points — a high-end RB3.

Running back is so important that we’re going to get more specific in valuing and projecting the 2017 backs next week, focusing especially on the best zeroRBs — meaning those who should be available in Round 6 or later.