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Fantasy pre-mortem -- If the top six picks fail, here's how it'll happen

By Scott Barrett
Jul 9, 2019

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Dec 31, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) takes the field for action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football talk in a second. But first, general talk: When a medical examiner performs a postmortem, they’re performing an autopsy — examining a cadaver to determine the cause of death.

When someone performs a pre-mortem you could also say they’re performing an autopsy, but, this time, before anyone has died.

Okay… Yeah, that’s not what I meant. Let’s try again:

A pre-mortem is typically done in an office environment, not far from a watercooler, surrounded by khaki-clad, living, breathing coworkers. It’s generally used as a type of managerial strategy, where a team attempts to imagine how a project might fail. After analyzing and identifying the most likely causes of failure (i.e. death), the team can work backward and take whatever steps necessary to ensure that those events do not occur.

My point in highlighting this type of thinking is this — by being proactive about potential catastrophes in fantasy football before they occur, we can limit our risk of failure and increase our odds of being successful.

By current ADP, each of the top six picks is a running back: (in order) Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, David Johnson, and Melvin Gordon. All six running backs have drool-inducing upside and could easily finish the season ranking first in fantasy points. However, when making a top-six selection, you don’t want to just focus on a player’s upside — you need to be especially aware of each player’s risk. It’s hard to win your league in the first round, but it’s very easy to lose it by drafting a first-round bust.

Today, we’re going to be performing a pre-mortem on each of these six running backs. While only looking at each player’s risk (ignoring upside), we’ll be identifying the most likely reason why each player might “bust” and whether that risk is legitimate enough to bump them out of the top six.

General positional risk

Last season, there were four first-round running backs who missed significant time: Le’Veon Bell (16 games), Leonard Fournette (eight games), Kareem Hunt (five games), and Melvin Gordon (four games). During your fantasy postseason, Gordon missed two games, Todd Gurley missed the most important game (Week 16), and Bell and Hunt sat out all three weeks.

In 2017, the first running back off the board (David Johnson) played in only one game.

In 2016, another first-round running back (Adrian Peterson) missed 13 games.

In 2015, again multiple first-round running backs missed a significant stretch of the season: Jamaal Charles (11 games), Le’Veon Bell (10 games), and Marshawn Lynch (nine games).

Running backs touch the ball more than wide receivers or tight ends. Because of this, they have a higher upside (more opportunities to score fantasy points) but also more risk (more opportunities to suffer a serious injury).

By my data, running backs typically do miss more time due to injury than any other position (29% more missed games per year than wide receivers). By Josh Hermsmeyer’s data, running backs are roughly 26% more likely to suffer a serious injury than wide receivers.

All of these six running backs have a higher risk of busting due to injury than the wide receivers being drafted in the top-12. However, the injury risk is about the same for each individual back. Maybe Kamara’s injury risk is lowest because he’s likely to see the fewest touches. Maybe Gordon’s injury risk is highest because he’s missed at least three games in three of his four NFL seasons. It’s hard to quantify, and this is a feather in the cap for zero-RB drafters, but, ultimately, not one I find too compelling.

With injury risk (a universal problem for running backs) now out of the way, let’s look at each running back individually:

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Likeliest cause of death

Last season, as a rookie, Barkley ranked second among all running backs in carries (261), targets (121), and touches (352). If he stays healthy and busts in spite of it, it’s likely not due to volume. And it’s probably not because he isn’t good — Barkley averaged 5.01 yards per carry as a rookie, after Sean Payton (who, remember, drafted Kamara) called him the best running back prospect he’d seen in 25 years.

Rather, it’s possible the New York Giants are just so bad that those touches aren’t enough to return high-end value. Without Odell Beckham Jr. on the field, it’s likely opposing defenses will sell-out to stop Barkley and dare New York to beat them with anyone else. Further, a more anemic offense means shorter drives and fewer scoring opportunities. So, if New York is just as bad as everyone thinks they’ll be next year, Barkley could suffer in terms of efficiency, volume, and quality of volume.

We’ve seen this before too — in each of the past five seasons, we’ve seen exactly one running back rank top-10 in touches but rank 20th or worse in fantasy points scored.

How likely is this?

Not very.

To my surprise, of those five running backs, only one played on a team with a losing record. Rather, their bigger issue was a lack of receiving volume. Those running backs saw just 8% of their touches come through the air, while receptions comprised 26% of Barkley’s touch-total last season.

Remember, a target is worth 2.74 times as much as a carry to running backs in PPR leagues, and running backs see more targets in negative game-script. Typically, that’s enough to offset any decrease in rushing volume or scoring opportunities. This was also the case for Barkley last season – he was more productive for fantasy in losses and when the team was trailing.

Also, it’s not like the Giants were very good last year anyway, and, in fact, Vegas actually projects New York to improve in the win column next season. They did lose Odell Beckham Jr., but they also significantly upgraded their offensive line (which should especially benefit Barkley).

Sigmund Bloom raises a good point, however — what if Daniel Jones takes over as the starting quarterback, to the detriment of Barkley’s receiving upside? In college, Jones rarely targeted running backs, instead opting to flee the pocket and pick up yards on the ground. I think this point is legitimate, though not a death knell even if true, and still unlikely. Vegas has the over/under at 3.5 starts for Jones in 2019.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Likeliest cause of death

Kamara ranked just 24th in touches (201) in 2017. Last season, after Mark Ingram returned from suspension, Kamara ranked just 14th in touches (184). Of course, he also ranked top-five across both stretches in fantasy points scored.

Still, Kamara’s lack of raw volume is unsettling for a running back with his ADP. If he busts in 2019, it’s likely because of this: the regression fantasy analysts have been predicting since Kamara’s fifth career game finally comes, and his volume is not enough to support his lofty ADP.

Throughout NFL history, there are 895 instances of a running back totaling at least 100 carries in a single season. Within that sample, Kamara has two seasons ranking in the top-four by fantasy points per touch.

Everything about this stat should make your palms sweaty. It screams regression to the mean — which is what typically happens (and dramatically so) when a running back finds their name onto a chart of this magnitude. Either that, or maybe Kamara really is just one of the best running backs to ever play the game.

How likely is this?

Okay, the above chart is scary, but also Kamara is just really good — he’s our highest-graded running back over the past two seasons. And his head coach and offensive scheme is also really good and perfectly suited for his talents — Sean Payton has an unparalleled history of coaxing elite (fantasy) efficiency numbers from his running backs.

Since 2008, there are 40 instances of a running back averaging at least 0.45 fantasy points per snap and drawing at least 350 snaps. 10 of these instances, including five of the top seven, came from a Sean Payton coached running back. The Patriots were the only other team to make this list more than twice (just three times).

Also, when you’re constantly projecting “a regression to the mean,” you miss out on elite league-winning talents like Rob Gronkowski, Adrian Peterson, Jordy Nelson, and Jamaal Charles, who constantly defied volume-based expectations. I think Kamara is just one of those players. I also think volume should be even better this year with Latavius Murray replacing Ingram. Over the past three seasons, Ingram ranks as our 10th-highest-graded running back (of 64 qualifiers), Murray ranks 37th.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Likeliest cause of death

The concern with McCaffrey is just that his 2018 season was at the highest end of his potential range of outcomes, by every measure, and nearly impossible to repeat. In 2018, McCaffrey jumped from 3.7 yards per carry to 5.0, he broke the record for most receptions by a running back (107), and he led all running backs in snaps (by 76) despite his 202-pound frame.

With more target competition this year — Greg Olsen returning from injury as well as D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel taking on a larger role — McCaffrey could see his receiving production (60% of his total fantasy points) plummet.

How likely is this?

I’m not buying it. McCaffrey is a special talent and we should have seen his 2018 breakout coming from a mile away — he was the player I was most confident in last year. Further, his head coach, Ron Rivera, has promised he won’t see any reduction in touches this year.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Likeliest cause of death

Elliott has ranked sixth (21.9), third (20.3), and third (21.7) in fantasy points per game since entering the league. 2018 was his lowest ranking of the three seasons, though he hit a career-high in the raw number and also saw the best volume of his career. He was 18 carries shy of a career-high in rushing attempts but more than made up for that by drawing more targets than he saw in each of his first two seasons combined (95 to 77).

It’s really hard to imagine Elliott busting outright (barring another suspension), but it is possible he takes a step back next year. Elliott’s likeliest cause of death is related to regime uncertainty. Elliott saw amazing usage under Scott Linehan, but with a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in 2019 (Kellen Moore) it’s possible Elliott sees a reduction in volume.

How likely is this?

It’s a legitimate concern. Elliott ranked first in weighted opportunity per game (21.8) last year, while also ranking first in snap share (90%). He has a long way to fall, of course, but anything less than his typical lion’s share of the team’s backfield snaps would hurt.

Luckily, that doesn’t seem too likely. In June, Moore was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, we want to get [Elliott] as many touches as we can.”

David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Likeliest cause of death

Will we ever see the David Johnson we saw in 2016 again? Was that a fluke? Is 2018 the “real” David Johnson?

Johnson struggled on a bad team with a lot of things out of his control working against him, but he also played terribly. Of 61 qualifying running backs, Johnson ranked 11th-worst in overall PFF grade. Among all 47 running backs to see at least 100 carries, he ranked ninth-worst in yards per carry (3.64). Among all 13 running backs with at least 50 targets, he ranked second-worst in yards per target average (5.9).

Arizona brought in a new coaching staff and crushed the NFL draft, but Vegas is still projecting them to be the worst team in the NFL next season.

How likely is this?

Johnson’s efficiency numbers are downright terrifying. However, we have a much larger sample of him being one of the best running backs in the NFL, and volume is still king for fantasy. As I explained elsewhere, Johnson is locked into a massive workload in 2019, and pretty much everything that went wrong for Johnson in 2018 should be reversed (and significantly so) with new head coach Kliff Kingsbury calling the team’s plays.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Likeliest cause of death

Gordon was utterly phenomenal in 2018. Among all running backs with at least 75 touches, Gordon ranked ninth-best in elusive rating. Among all 31 running backs to see more than 35 targets, Gordon ranked seventh-best in yards per target. Of 61 qualifying running backs, Gordon ranked seventh-best in PFF grade.

The problem is, as good as he was, his 24-year-old backup was even better. In each stat we just referenced, Austin Ekeler was better — seventh-, sixth-, and sixth-best, respectively.

How likely is this?

Unfortunately, I do think this is a concern, and enough to bump Gordon (slightly) out of the top-six.

Last season Gordon ranked just 10th in snap share when active (65%) — behind Elliott, McCaffrey, Barkley, and Johnson, and just ahead of Kamara. Given Gordon’s injury history and Ekeler’s efficiency numbers, it makes sense for the team to limit his touches in an effort to keep him at full health. Indeed, in Gordon’s last four games (including the postseason), he saw his snap share fall to just 54% though he was no longer on the injury report.

I have no doubt Gordon will continue to be the team’s lead back and don’t think Ekeler has any real chance of supplanting him outright (especially because of how poorly he performed when Gordon was inactive), but I am expecting more of a committee-approach next season. Gordon has other warts as well — he’s also our top touchdown regression candidate — but just the risk of losing full bell-cow status is enough for me to push him out of the top-six.

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