News & Analysis

The season that was: Fantasy RB lessons from 2017

Dec 3, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how long you’ve played fantasy football, there are always some lessons to learn. The game is evolving, and your fantasy strategies should follow suit. To that end, as we review of the 2017 season and begin to look ahead to 2018, it’s important to keep an open mind.

Overall this past year saw fantasy production down across the board. NFL teams combined for 1,121 offensive touchdowns. That's down from 1,230 in 2016 and the lowest mark since 1,106 in 2007.

The running back position is probably going through the biggest change. However, the position remains the most important for fantasy purposes. We’ve already taken a look at some lessons learned at quarterback, so let’s now turn attention to fantasy backfields and discuss some key takeaways.

Don’t give up too early on a young RB

Todd Gurley was a major disappointment in 2016. He became the first back in 15 years to average less than 3.2 yards per carry on at least 275 attempts. He finished as RB19 in standard formats and RB15 in PPR leagues. That led him falling to the mid- to late-second round this past summer.

The coaching change to Sean McVay in Los Angles had a dramatic impact on Gurley’s production, however. He rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns and added 788 receiving yards and six scores through the air.

Gurley was spectacular Weeks 14-16 when the fantasy playoffs transpire as he tallied a record 123.1 total PPR fantasy points, the most by any player at any position since the 1970 merger. He also set the record for the most points ever by a player during Weeks 15-16 with 94.6 points. He will be in the conversation as the No. 1 overall pick in 2018.

There can be more than one stud fantasy RB on a NFL team

When the Saints drafted Alvin Kamara and signed Adrian Peterson in free agency, it looked like it would be tough for anybody in New Orleans to become a fantasy RB1. By time the season ended there were two top-six producers from the backfield.

After Peterson was traded, Kamara and incumbent starter Mark Ingram caught fire. The duo became the first pair of running back teammates to reach 1,500 plus yards from scrimmage in the same season. They also became the only teammates in NFL history with 1,300-plus scrimmage yards and more than 10 touchdowns in a single year.

The Saints averaged 129.4 rushing yards per game at a pace of 4.7 yards per carry. They also led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns on their way to an NFC South title. Regression is likely ahead, but both Kamara and Ingram should be treated as RB1s as we turn the page to 2018.

It’s worth gambling on an elite player, if you can get great value

Navigating through Ezekiel Elliott’s legal battle with the NFL was a tough spot for many owners to be in. The fact that he was facing a six-game suspension to start the year kept many from targeting Elliott. Those that did likely had to use a second-round pick to nab him.

Elliott nearly avoided serving the suspension altogether in 2017, but even after finally sitting out the six games he still managed to finish 10th at the position with 176 fantasy points (standard). He rushed for 983 yards and seven touchdowns while adding another 249 yards and two scores on 26 catches. Counting his replacement value, Elliott easily delivered a return on investment.

Don’t be afraid to reach for a rookie

There were four rookie running backs who finished inside the top-10 in fantasy points this year in PPR leagues — Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette. Two years ago Elliott and Jordan Howard also finished inside the top-10. Gurley and David Johnson found their way into the top-10 in 2015.

Rookie running backs can be overrated, but given the amount of upside we’ve seen recently the hype seems to be warranted. This year’s NFL draft class isn’t as deep as we saw last year, but rest assured there will be some more young playmakers coming into the mix in the season ahead.

Patriots’ backfield will cause fantasy headaches

Bill Belichick and the Patriots once again caused owners headaches trying to figure out which running back would be the one to produce each week in New England. When injuries narrowed the field, the challenge wasn’t quite as tough.

Dion Lewis was the only one of the team’s running backs to finish in the top-15 in fantasy points, but he also played 16 games. However if you go by fantasy points per game, Rex Burkhead (13.0) actually finished ahead of Lewis (12.3). With those two, James White, and Mike Gillislee, the Patriots produced a top-15 running back 10 times this season and had a top-30 runner 26 times.

Milestones and more

  • For the second straight a season, a rookie running back won the rushing title, as Hunt led the league with 1,327 rushing yards out of the Chiefs’ backfield. That is the lowest mark by league leader since Barry Sanders topped the list with 1,304 yards rushing in 1990.
  • Hunt’s elusive rating (73.1) was second only to the effort put up by Dion Lewis (73.2). He also forced more missed tackles (77) than any other running back. Melvin Gordon and Le’Veon Bell were the only other two runners to have over 60 missed tackles. During his blowup 2016 campaign, David Johnson only had 71 missed tackles with an elusive rating of 48.

  • We saw just one running back get 300 attempts, as Bell carried the ball 321 times despite sitting in Week 17. It was the third year in a row where only a single player has reached the plateau. Over the last five years the NFL has only seen a total of seven players hit that number. From 1998 to 2007, there were 93 players or 9.3 players per year who got to 300 rushing attempts.
  • There were five players — Gurley (finished as RB1 in PPR), Bell (RB2), Kamara (RB3), McCaffrey (RB9), and Duke Johnson (RB12) — who had both 50 or more rushing attempts and 600 yards receiving in 2017 as owners watched what a fantasy RB1 looks like change right before their eyes. That’s the most running backs to do that in season since five players did it in 1986.

How does this year stack up?

Here’s a look at how this year’s top fantasy producers at RB stack up recent years’ leaders:

Moving forward at RB

Clearly the focus has shifted back to running back over the past couple of seasons in fantasy. The front-line producers at the position can carry owners to a title. The first few rounds will be dominated by running backs in 2018 drafts, especially the first round, where as many as 10 running backs could go off the board.

The fact that so many of the top running backs are now younger suggests the pool of top producers is deep. LeSean McCoy is the only running back in the top 20 in Jeff Ratcliffe’s initial 2018 rankings that is 28 or older. Running backs are prone to injury through and not as predictable as wide receivers and quarterbacks. Building depth will remain important.

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