Jonathan Bales

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Picking the Right Running Back

Thursday, December 25, 2014


If you’re going to be a successful daily fantasy player, you absolutely need to hit on your running back selections. Running backs are such a consistent source of points that your ability to identify the best ones is crucial to your success, particularly in cash games. That’s especially true on FanDuel, where the 0.5 PPR scoring increases the value of backs relative to pass-catchers.

 

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In my book Fantasy Football for Smart People: Daily Fantasy Pros Reveal Their Money-Making Secrets, I spoke with daily fantasy pro PrimeTime420 about how he selects running backs for his cash games:
 

At running back, I look for a lot of things. One is that I like to take backs on teams that are heavily favored. If a team is up early, they tend to pound the ball the rest of the game for some ball control.
 

I really favor pass-catching running backs. When you can get backs who also see goal-line carries in addition to catching passes, like Charles, that’s serious upside. Ideally, I’d like to find all three traits; if a running back is on a big favorite, catches passes, and sees goal-line work, that pretty much makes him a lock for me.
 

I also look for cheap backups when star running backs go down. There’s a lot of turnover at the position with injuries, so those backups can be really valuable, especially if the injury occurs after site salaries are already set.
 

I also examine the opposition’s run defense. I don’t specifically target backs against a weak run defense, but I look at the run defense strength when deciding between backs who I like.
 

The main thing I want to avoid is timeshare situations; I don’t want running backs who split carries. That’s a pretty popular trend around the NFL, but I’d rather have a mediocre back who is going to get the majority of his team’s carries than one who might be really talented but will see only 10 touches or something like that. The opportunities to score points matter a lot—even more than the talent level for running backs.
 

There’s a lot of information here. I always find it interesting that the best players in daily fantasy often have a really firm grasp on trends and data, even if they don’t specifically study the numbers. If you look into some of the traits PrimeTime420 seeks in his backs, you find that he’s right on the money with what he wants.
 

PrimeTime420 mentioned that he wants running backs that play on the team favored by Vegas to win. Well, here’s a look at rushing yards versus projected points in Vegas.


PJ1


The total matters when projecting backs—more so than for any other position due to how winning teams alter the game script—and all else equal, it makes sense to target backs on favorites. That’s especially true if a large percentage of the running back’s points come on the ground; a player like Alfred Morris has more to lose if the Redskins are trailing than someone like Matt Forte if the Bears are losing.
 

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Next, PrimeTime420 mentioned that goal-line carries are critical, and he’s right. You want running backs who are going to see two things: 1) lots of plays near the goal-line and 2) a high percentage of the offense’s goal-line carries.
 

Take a look at the average number of plays run by offenses with top 10 and top 25 fantasy running backs.
 


PJ1


The best running backs play on quality offenses and dominate that offense’s share of red zone carries.
 

For the most part, I think a lot of NFL teams look for the wrong traits in running backs. They place too much importance on college production, which is largely the result of offensive line quality, and draft those running backs too high.
 

In a perfect world, we’d be able to draft running backs based on their talent. But as PrimeTime420 pointed out, in terms of fantasy production, workload matters way, way more than efficiency. Take a look at the correlation between YPC and running back fantasy rank.


PJ1


Not much of a relationship. Now take a look at carries versus running back rank.


PJ1


The difference here is obvious with a pretty linear relationship. No matter how talented we think a running back might be, a huge percentage of his value is going to be dictated by workload. We want to avoid timeshare situations and target running backs who will see the most touches.
 

If some of those touches can come through the air, that’s even better. Being able to contribute as a pass-catcher raises a running back’s floor, giving him more safety—of clear importance in cash games. Pass-catching backs aren’t as fragile as those that don’t catch many passes because the former doesn’t need the game to follow a specific flow in order for them to produce.
 

Finally, PrimeTime420 pointed out the value in hitting on a backup running back. Whenever we can get RB1 touches at a minimum price (or close to it), that’s a really beneficial situation. Not only is that player very likely to return value, but it also opens up all kinds of cap space to give us flexibility elsewhere.
 

Remember how I said running back production is nearly all the result of workload? Well, take a look at backup running back production (RB2) when they start in place of an injured RB1. 


PJ1

Yes, backup running backs who have been thrust into the starting lineup have scored more fantasy points than the original starters since 2009. It’s not that backups as a whole are better players, but just that running backs are so reliant on their teammates and game situations for quality production that we need to place more importance on external factors than on actual running back quality.
 

So there you have it; if you want to dominate your daily fantasy running back selections on FanDuel, emphasize workload, first and foremost, followed by goal-line carries, pass-catching ability, and the Vegas lines.



Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series and founder of RotoAcademy -- a fantasy football training school. He can be found on Twitter @BalesFootball.
Email :Jonathan Bales



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