News & Analysis

Weighted opportunity: A better fantasy football predictor than raw touches

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29: Running back Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys scores a touchdown against the Washington Redskins during the second quarter at FedEx Field on October 29, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

One of the most useless stats in fantasy football is “touches.” I’m here today to give you a better alternative — something that will henceforth be called “Weighted Opportunity.”

Volume is far more important than efficiency for fantasy running backs, of course. But raw touch total is just a bad, noisy, and inferior measurement of volume, both in general and in comparison to weighted opportunity.

Here’s why:

Not all touches should be treated equally. There are two different types of touches a running back can garner (a rushing attempt or a reception) and one is worth significantly more than the other for fantasy. For running backs, over the past 10 seasons, a target has been worth 2.83 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues. (A reception, obviously, is worth even more than that.) Even in standard leagues, a target has been worth 1.43 times as much as a carry.

The methodology to calculate this was simple. In each year we totaled running back rushing fantasy points and then divided that number by total carries. For targets, we totaled all running back receiving fantasy points and then divided that number by total targets.

However, we can further improve upon this by incorporating red-zone usage. (For simplicity, we’re using PPR points in the next two charts.)

I hope at this point it’s obvious to you how worthless non-red-zone carries are in PPR leagues. All this does is bolster my confidence in a “bell cow or bust” running back strategy for 2019 fantasy drafts.

Anyway, with this knowledge at our disposal, we can better approximate the value of a player’s role than through raw touches. By multiplying a running back’s red-zone carries by 1.28, red-zone targets by 2.39, outside-the-red-zone carries by 0.47, and outside-the-red-zone targets by 1.54, we can sum up these numbers to create what I’ve been calling a running back’s “Weighted Opportunity.”

Over the past decade, among all running backs with at least 70 touches in a single season, raw touches had a 0.89 correlation to PPR fantasy points. Raw opportunities (carries plus targets), fares slightly better with a 0.90 correlation. Meanwhile, Weighted Opportunity trumped both. If using the methodology outlined in our first chart (ignoring red-zone usage), you end up with a correlation of 0.95. If you use the methodology in the second chart (including red-zone usage), you end up with a correlation of 0.97.

There are two flaws with this metric, however.

To the first point, this is true, but it matters a good deal less for running backs than wide receivers or tight ends. Over the past decade, 85% of all running back targets have come within five yards of the line of scrimmage, as opposed to just 32% of the time for wide receivers.

The second point is undoubtedly correct. Luckily for PFF subscribers, my Expected Fantasy Points metric serves the same purpose as Weighted Opportunity and incorporates both of these two missing variables. Actual Opportunity also has a stronger correlation to PPR fantasy points.

Anyway, here are 2018’s top-15 running backs by Weighted Opportunity per game:

Some notes on this:

  • Ezekiel Elliott‘s 2018 season ranks fifth-best this past decade in weighted opportunity per game (21.8). In 2018, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, and Christian McCaffrey all posted seasons ranking top-10 this past decade in weighted opportunity points per game.
  • Although Alvin Kamara wasn't a true bell cow (working in a committee alongside Mark Ingram) like many of the names listed above him, he still saw terrific volume. His 74 red-zone opportunities in 2018 ranked fourth-best by any running back this past decade. His 98 targets rank 11th-best this past decade.
  • Joe Mixon has an ADP in the early second round. Following Clint Boling's retirement and injuries to Jonah Williams and Billy Price on the offensive line, as well as an injury to star receiver A.J. Green, Mixon will need to see an uptick in targets to pay off that ADP price tag. Last season, Mixon saw just 56% of the team’s running back targets (would have ranked 25th-most) in games Giovani Bernard was active.
  • Leonard Fournette ranks lowly here, but due to injuries and a mid-game suspension played in just 26 of these 32 quarters. Adjusting for that, Fournette would have ranked sixth in weighted opportunity points per four quarters (18.4).
  • Chris Carson ranked 15th in weighted opportunity points per game. If we divided up Mike Davis’ 9.0 weighted opportunity points per game evenly among Carson and Rashaad Penny, Carson would have ranked eighth in weighted opportunity points per game (17.7).

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