Part two of the DraftKings perfect lineup series continues with the running back position that saw a rookie out of Penn State lead the NFL in scrimmage yards. Saquon Barkley was a dominant force on a Giants team that had no other positives come from their 2018 campaign. He carved up the Big 10 for three years and now looks like he will terrorize opponents in the NFC East for the foreseeable future.
Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott both eclipsed 2,000 scrimmage yards in 2018, the first time two running backs did so since 2014 when Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray accomplished the feat. Had Christian McCaffery played the whole game in Week 17, he would have made it three which would had been the most since 2006 when five running backs went over the total.
The bell cow back is alive and well as some of these figures we’ll discuss will certainly demonstrate. Take Zeke for instance as his targets out of the backfield increased from 3.8 per game in 2017 to 7.0 last year. When your running back is your best offensive weapon, why not feed him as many touches as possible?
That’s not to say running backs on the ground didn’t serve a purpose; Sony Michel and Nick Chubb showed that they have promising futures in their rookie seasons. However, part of our success on DraftKings is made off receptions, an aspect that Michel and Chubb’s skillsets are currently lacking. One thing that 76.2% of the perfect running backs shared was getting the W for their respective teams.
32 OF THE 42 PERFECT RUNNING BACKS WON THEIR GAMES STRAIGHT UP
Christian McCaffery made the perfect lineup four times in 2018 and did so each time in a Panthers loss, averaging 11.5 receptions in those games. The 10 running backs that made the list off losses or ties averaged 9.1 receptions per game, thus showing the importance of being a back that is either gamescript-independent or ones like Tarik Cohen or Duke Johnson that see an increased role when their team operates under negative gamescript.
While some of the 32 running backs who won their games were the gamescript-independent types, there are some who thrive off operating when their team plays with a lead. Marlon Mack, Derrick Henry, and Nick Chubb are those that fall into this category that were perfect at one point last year and perform better in positive gamescript as they don’t see much work out of the backfield. Mack, Henry, and Chubb saw +9.16, +10.6, and +11.3 FPPG differentials respectively in games that their teams won in PPR scoring.
It’s critical to roster these positive gamescript backs in games that you believe they will win or they could be a liability if their teams end up falling behind. In fact, the average margin of victory for the 32 backs that made the list when their teams won their games was 13.88 points.
THE AVERAGE NUMBER OF TOUCHES PER GAME FOR THE PERFECT RUNNING BACKS WAS 24.7
Bell cow backs like Christian McCaffery, Todd Gurley, and Saquon Barkley that work independent of gamescript represented 22 of the 42 perfect running backs last season. As running backs are being included in the passing game more and more, expect this trend to continue heading to 2019. This is the main reason why these backs are highly-priced as they are all but locked in for 20+ touches each week whether their teams are leading or trailing.
There are instances where fewer than 20 touches has proven successful. Isaiah Crowell earned RB3 honors as he torched the Broncos on the ground for 219 yards on 15 carries in Week 5. A 77-yard touchdown run certainly helped his bottom line that day. Tevin Coleman converted 18 touches into 32.6 DK points against a lifeless Redskins defense in Week 9. Needless to say, each back that didn’t get 20 touches crossed the pylons at least once.
Projecting running backs that can produce without a ton of volume can provide salary relief to afford the top-tiered options. Typically, these backs don’t exceed $6000 on DraftKings; Crowell and Coleman were an affordable $4100 and $4800 when they went off on their respective weeks.
31 OF THE 42 RUNNING BACKS WERE PART OF GAMES IN WHICH THEIR RESPECTIVE TEAM WENT OVER THE TEAM TOTAL
While 54.76% of the perfect backs participated in games that went over the game total, there was a stronger correlation for running backs that hit perfection and their respective teams going over their team totals, occurring at a 73.8% rate.
Positive gamescript usually indicates feeding the running back as much as possible, especially during routs with the leading team eating as much clock as possible. The Bills didn’t do their part in reaching the game total of 44 in a 37-5 defeat in Indianapolis in Week 7 as it became the Marlon Mack show early in that game and throughout the contest. The Dolphins didn’t have an answer for Aaron Jones as he turned 15 carries into 145 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers easily covered their team total of 29 but without help of the Dolphins offense, the teams fell short of the game total of 45.
ATLANTA ALLOWED SIX PERFECT RUNNING BACKS
This should come as no surprise as no team in the NFL has been consistently hurt by running backs out of the backfield more than the Falcons since 2016. In fact, their defense has allowed the most receptions and targets to pass catching backs in each of the last three years. The Patriots won Super Bowl 51 by exploiting this weakness as they didn’t have an answer for James White’s 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown.
In DraftKings full PPR scoring system, targeting running backs who excel out of the backfield against the Falcons is the gift that keeps on giving, especially when Christian McCaffery and Alvin Kamara reside in the NFC South for two meetings each year. McCaffery made the perfect lineup in both 2018 matchups while Kamara secured a spot in Week 3 perfection. Other notable running backs who will clash with Atlanta in 2019 include Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Jerick McKinnon, Dalvin Cook, and Dion Lewis.
7 OF THE 17 PERFECT LINEUPS FEATURED RUNNING BACKS THAT BENEFITTED FROM A TEAMMATE EITHER HOLDING OUT, INJURED, OR SUSPENDED
Look no further than Week 1 when James Conner took advantage of Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and reeled off 39.2 DK points off 36 touches and an inexpensive $4500 salary. Alvin Kamara’s volume was never higher in 2018 than Weeks 3 and 4 during Mark Ingram’s suspension that resulted in 37.0 and 44.1 DK point performances. With Aaron Jones placed on IR with a knee injury, Jamaal Williams and his $5400 salary were an integral part in being able to roster Christian McCaffery and Antonio Brown in Week 16. Not only that, Williams was just one of two active running backs available for the Packers in that game and saw all of the touches.
7 out of 17 isn’t the strongest correlation but it warrants attention when the average cost of these running backs, not including Alvin Kamara in Weeks 3 and 4, was $4520. While Giovani Bernard didn’t make the perfect lineup when Joe Mixon was inactive in Week 3 and 4, he was a chalky play that returned value at his $5900 and $6400 salaries in those respective weeks. Given the right circumstances, taking advantage of these opportunities to get 20+ touches at minimum cost is highly recommended.
Revisiting the Kamara scenario, we were filled in on the Ingram suspension back in May and while he was still too cheap in Week 1, he was correctly priced by Week 3. Undoubtedly, he would see a bump in volume and in the two weeks he made the perfect lineup, he touched the ball 55 times at a combined $19100 in that timeframe. On a dollar-per-touch basis, even as expensive as he was priced in those two weeks, Kamara was a bargain at $347 dollars compared to $383 dollars per touch off 24 touches and a $9200 salary from fellow perfect Week 3 back Todd Gurley.
There was substantial evidence that Melvin Gordon wasn’t healthy in Week 12 after fully practicing on Wednesday but being downgraded to limited on Thursday and Friday. He would eventually leave the game against the Cardinals with a knee injury that made him questionable throughout the week. Austin Ekeler was sitting at $3600 and for those who pulled the trigger to roster him in spite of Gordon playing, those people were handsomely rewarded with a 26.3 DK point performance as Ekeler was the flex option in Week 12’s perfect lineup.
These free squares that become available make for excellent flex plays that open up a lot of possibilities in terms of putting together a variety of lineups. Once the salaries for the upcoming week release during Sunday Night Football, they do not change regardless of transactions, suspensions, or players declared inactive before kickoff on Sunday. While a heavy focus was dedicated to the running back position, this concept applies to all of the other positions as well; Chris Godwin was a fine example that made the perfect lineup twice with DeSean Jackson declared inactive both weeks. Other than quarterback, no other position typically touches the ball more than the running back. When a starter is declared inactive, those 15-20+ touches need to go to the next man up that is usually available at an inexpensive price tag on DraftKings.
Looking at a macro level, total running back receptions throughout the league were about the same in 2018 as they were in 2017. However, running back carries dropped by nearly 800 attempts from 2017 to 2018, further evidence of the passing epidemic that is spreading like wildfire. To better understand where the league is headed and the magnitude of that number, 800 represents 3.13 fewer rushing attempts per NFL game.
Our lineup construction philosophies should be cognizant of this new utilization of the position. Ground-and-pound backs will still serve a purpose in not just the league but in fantasy football. However, in PPR scoring, receptions from the running back position are gold. It’s why we pay up for Gurley, Barkley, and McCaffery that get nearly all of the running back touches and represent 18-20% of the salary cap on DraftKings. Expect these trends to continue as we head into the 2019 season.