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Constructing a Top Running Back

Kent Weyrauch breaks down what it takes to construct a top 12 running back in fantasy, and where to find a few RB1 breakouts late in drafts.

Carlos Hyde - A Potential Running Back One

To RB or Not To RB

Fantasy Football can be a fickle beast when it comes to selecting a running back in the draft. You could draft a top 10 guy that gets injured and does nothing or take a flyer on someone in the 15th round that dominates. It’s extremely difficult to determine who will do what in the coming season. With that being said, there are some certain trends that exist pertaining to running backs that are selected outside the top 12 in their position. We’re going to dive into the data and use these trends to predict some potential breakout stars for 2017.

I took a look at every running back who ended the last three seasons as top 12 players but were selected below that mark. Essentially these are breakout running backs based on their ADP. The list contains 20 players. So, let’s dive in!

Players By Year

Year # of RB Breakouts
2016 6
2015 9
2014 5

Right out of the gate, we’ll look at the yearly changes in running back breakouts. 2015 was a crazy season for the top 12 drafted running backs. Six players from this group were injured in some capacity (Jamaal Charles, Le’Veon Bell, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Justin Forsett, LeSean McCoy) and two had disappointing seasons (Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill). This opened the gate for new faces to emerge as top fantasy producers. Meanwhile, the 2016 season and 2014 season both had modest breakout totals with six and five. Even in these modest seasons, we’re looking at half of the RB1 pool being drafted as breakouts, not studs.

From all 20 cases over the last three years, only four resulted from a lead running back getting injured and a backup taking the reigns. An example of this was last season when Jay Ajayi stepped into the lead role after Arian Foster was injured for the Miami Dolphins. Similarly, only four of the cases for top 12 RB breakouts were rookies and two of these cases also included injury to the lead back. The takeaway here is that it is difficult to expect a top 12 fantasy season from a rookie. This may not always be the case, as Leonard Fournette seems to be a favorite for bulk volume in 2017.

The Cases that Matter

The majority of the cases are running backs that were in uncertain situations to begin the season. Either they came off of bad seasons or were involved in some kind of RBBC situation. For example, C.J. Anderson in 2014 beat out Montee Ball (who ultimately got injured as well) for the starting position and went on to post almost 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 10 total TDs. Most fantasy football analysts and fans were expecting Ball to lead the backfield that season. It can be a tricky deal to try and predict these situations, but we can try our best to evaluate what it took to seize the reigns.

What to Look For in a Running Back

Here are the average stats for this collection of 20 cases.

Attempts Rush Yards Receptions Receiving Yards Total TDs
237 1062.6 40.5 341.2 9.8

In order to jump into the top echelon of fantasy RB production, you need to touch the ball a lot. This really isn’t a surprise and is a common advice for newer fantasy players. Volume is greater than efficiency when it comes to finding fantasy gold. One other important thing here is that these RBs averaged almost 10 touchdowns in these seasons. Again, this isn’t really a surprise, but there were also only three cases where a player had less than eight touchdowns. Additionally, most running backs that rise to RB1 status are effective pass-catchers out of the backfield. The age of the pure rusher seems to be somewhat faded.

What this means is that we need to find potentially high-scoring teams that rush often in the redzone. Additionally, we need to keep an eye on situations in which a backup running back could usurp his competition. Using the trends that exist in a top 12 back, here are some guys that I think have a chance to jump into RB1 territory this season.

(All ratings are on a 1-5 scale. RZ usage taken from Jeff Donovan’s play call splits article. ADP from Fantasy Football Calculator)

Middle Range Choices


Carlos Hyde (ADP RB19)

Talent Workload Team Offense Competition RZ Rush% ’16
5 4 3 3 55.36

If Carlos Hyde had played 16 games in 2016, he would have been an RB1. His extrapolated stat line would have been more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs. Hyde is considered a very talented runner, he just needs to stay healthy. Reports have stated that he looks great in camp and that none of the other running backs in that backfield will push him for lead duties. With Kyle Shanahan now head coach in San Fransisco, this formerly poor offense could rebound and directly benefit Hyde in 2017. You have to love seeing a +55% RZ rush percentage.

Mark Ingram (ADP RB26)

Talent Workload Team Offense Competition RZ Rush% ’16
4 3 5 3 43.22

Mark Ingram has been a top 15 RB for the last three seasons and he was the RB10 in 2016. Yes, Adrian Peterson is there now and the backfield has become quite a bit murkier this offseason. But two key things stick out to me about Ingram. First, he’s on one of the highest-scoring offense in the league. Second, in 2016 the Saints only rushed 43% of the time, which actually works in the favor of the pass-catching running back in the red zone. This number may change with AP in the mix, but we know Brees likes to throw TDs. Ingram is pretty good at getting into the paint himself. He had nine, six and 10 TDs in the last three seasons. He should see a similar workload to last season, even with 32-year-old AP there.

Deeper Sleepers


Eddie Lacy (ADP RB38)

Talent Workload Team Offense Competition RZ Rush% ’16
4 2 4 4 42.86%

No doubt, there are question marks plastered all over Eddie Lacy right now. A lot will need to happen in order for him to ascend back to being an RB1 again. First, he needs to beat Thomas Rawls out as the early down back. I don’t see this as much of an issue. Rawls can’t seem to stay healthy and Lacy is a much more consistent producer that the Seahawks can rely on. Lacy is also a much more refined pass-catcher than Rawls. Second, the offensive line needs to … do anything. After last season, it’s hard to expect much, especially so now with an injury already occurring to George Fant. With that being said, the Seahawks still have a good offense under Russell Wilson. Lacy should be the red zone running back for this team, and that represents the 10 TD upside needed to be an RB1.

Samaje Perine (ADP RB47)

Talent Workload Team Offense Competition RZ Rush% ’16
4 1 4 2 42.76%

This one is a situation in which Perine will have to beat out Rob Kelley. Fortunately, Rob Kelley is one of the most beatable “starters” in the NFL right now. Perine is a strong and elusive runningback who will provide the power that Washington needs to help round out their offense. With that being said, he would need to earn his starting role quickly in order to increase his workload to RB1 levels.

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