2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs: Consistency vs Schedule

by Michael Tomlin
2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

I have always had an issue when looking at previous seasons’ statistics for Fantasy Football research. I’ve written before about whether year-end point total or weekly consistency is more important. However, I wanted to make a 2019 Fantasy Football running back database to assess how the top running backs fared in both consistency and point total relative to their schedule.

One of the biggest problems in researching and preparing for a Fantasy Football season is that not all Fantasy Points were gained equally. Did a player have two massive weeks and 14 duds? Did he happen to breeze through an easy schedule? Would you rather have the guy that gives you 15 points half the time and five the rest or a consistent player with 10 points every week?

So I embarked on a task of compiling data on both the top 16 running backs as well as every defense in the league. I wanted to see how each running back fared against each defense relative to the rest of the season.

Defensive Statistics

Another mistake that Fantasy Football analysts make (including me) is using overall Fantasy Points against a defense as a tool. On the surface as a quick statistic it is fine. But for teams in the NFC East or NFC South last year that had six games against the top four running backs, it hardly seems fair to compare their stats to those numbers against other defenses.

The type of Fantasy Points given up by a defense is another factor that gets overlooked. Whether they were receiving or rushing totals gained by running backs (although that is a serious factor) is not just what I'm saying. Whether the totals were accrued by a committee or a single workhorse back is what we need to differentiate.

So I went about going game-by-game with each team in the league. I pulled out the total statistics allowed to the other teams’ primary back, as well as the secondary option(s). This differentiation allows you to more accurately compare a player’s weekly totals with the average and whether or not he was achieving a more productive game.

Obviously, there are flaws in this research still as teams like New England use such a rotating committee. However, I did my best to use which statistics more fall in line with what the starting back would get as opposed to the secondary guys.

Running Back Statistics

Now that we have our defensive metrics understood, we need to figure out what exactly we want to compare with each running back’s statistics.

Obviously, the comparison will need their rushing and receiving yards along with touchdowns. I only play in Points Per Reception (PPR) leagues so I need receptions. I figured adding targets in would help show how much a defense was allowing the short passing game to backs.

My toughest decision was about carries. Game flow means more to how many carries a back gets more than anything. I decided that for this exercise, Yards Per Carry would be a better comparison tool. Remember, we are looking at how these running backs face against the defenses, now how the offenses utilize their player.

Lastly, I added a formula to calculate .5PPR Points. I know, fumbles are not included. The randomness of losing fumbles has no bearing on my thought process.


Once I had all of the numbers compiled, I needed to see the best way of comparing the different sets of data. By using some Excel formulas I was able to pull the defensive averages in each category to subtract from each running back’s total against the same defense.

While the easy and simplest way to look at all of this would be just the .5PPR Point total that can also be the most misleading. We all know that touchdowns can be lucky, fluky and random in a single data point.

Take Todd Gurley’s outing against Seattle last year. It was not an impressive overall performance. Compared to the average against the Seahawks, he was negative in almost every category. However, he crossed the goal line three times on the ground and made it look like a monster day.

I do not want to depend on three touchdowns from my stud to win the week. (Especially not with the ever-worsening news surrounding Gurley’s knee.) So I made sure to show each meaningful category and how the running back performed as opposed to the average against that defense.

Displaying the Data

The biggest problem I had was displaying the data. After stepping away from it all for a bit, I had an idea to make it look similar to a Kirk Goldsberry Sprawlball chart or a baseball player’s hitting spray chart.

The sheet was extremely busy looking and hard to grasp as is. By adding a color-coding gradient, a quick look can tell you how the running back performed versus the average in each statistical category.

I then needed to figure out the color coding and ranges for each category. Personally, on charts/research like this, I think there should be some average showings. By that, I mean that there should be some white areas where the back just met at or around the average against that defense.

It’s not a bad thing by any means. Heck if a player had nothing but white on the chart then that is a usable Fantasy Asset that never lays an egg on you. So I left some middle ground with each category, slightly lower/higher than the average.

I also did not want to penalize nor reward extremes. To hearken back to Gurley’s day against the Seahawks, I don’t think that should be rewarded too much when looking at future prospectus. So I thought it best to leave it at Very Bad (dark red), Bad (light red), Average (white), Good (light green) and Very Good (Dark Green).

For both rushing and receiving yards I considered the 10-30 yard-range (above or below the average) as a Good or Bad day. Anything more or less than 30 yards would then be Very Good or Very Bad respectively. For receptions and targets, I used the same type of basis but scaled back a place. Think of it as 100 receptions are equal to 1,000 yards type of production.

For both types of touchdowns, I thought a 0.3-0.7 range up or down would satisfy as Good or Bad and anything more than 0.7 would add the Very into the group.  With yards per carry I went through a few more iterations, but settled on 0.5-1.0 as Good/Bad and 1.1 or more away from the average as Very Good/Very Bad.

I also wanted to show 0.5PPR Points and thought 2.0-5.0 up/down would be fine for Good/Bad and anything more than 5.0 away from the average would be Very Good/Very Bad. I looked at it as if 10 Fantasy Points was average, for 160 Fantasy Points on the season, a Good running back would score around 50 more points and a Very Good running back would have nearly 100 more Fantasy Points.

Lastly, I added which player would be guessed the most for that chart. What player would someone think it belongs to if people looked at the heat map. I went down the heat charts with hidden names to see who I thought each one was.

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs Production Over Average

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Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • Of all of the elite running backs, McCaffrey has the most red for sure. However, he backs that up with the most consistent Very Good production on the receiving side. The main reason I am not concerned about his “Bad” production with rushing numbers: he only had one single Very Bad day with yards per carry. When he gets the ball, he produces. Cam just goal-line vultures him. His receiving prowess makes up for that and that is why he is my top overall player in formats that reward any points per reception.
  • While I wanted to keep it in there for transparency purposes, you can clearly see that McCaffrey did not have a full workload in Week 17.
  • I would be curious to see McCaffrey’s numbers against #1 receiver averages. I would bet it would still look pretty green.
  • Run CMC only had two games where he was less than 0.6 .5PPR Points than the average against that defense, taking out the Week 17 game. That is some serious consistency.
  • McCaffrey only had a single red number in the three main receiving categories (targets, receptions, and receiving yards) during the Fantasy Season last year. By the way, on that day, he still out-scored the average back in Fantasy Points by 3.5 points.

Who the Chart Resembles: McCaffrey. This is probably the easiest to guess really because of the drastic difference in receiving/rushing but with elite production still. Maybe a few would say James White or Alvin Kamara.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • The first thing that stood out to me about Barkley’s rookie season was the extremes of his rushing output. He had the most Very Good rushing yard games of anyone… but also the most Very Bad days of any of the Top-10 backs save for James White.
  • Like McCaffrey, Barkley’s receiving side looks like a blossoming forest. Receiving touchdowns for running backs are the flukiest of the fluky so I am not as worried about that. However, Barkley did only have one game with red in the other receiving categories. He out-scored the average player against that defense by 14.7 Fantasy Points that day.
  • Barkley tied with James White for the most Very Good games for receiving targets. I can only imagine that this will go up with the departure of Odell Beckham Jr.

Who the Chart Resembles: I would say, Todd Gurley. I would not have guessed without looking it up that Barkley had that many bad rushing performances, especially in yards per carry.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • The first thing that popped out to me about Zeke’s heat map is the progress he has made on the receiving end. I made quite a bit of money betting people that he would lead the Cowboys in receptions last year and he did easily.
  • A sneaky factor that will be overlooked: Zeke actually performed MUCH better in the receiving categories AFTER Amari Cooper was signed. Elliott had just three red numbers from the Tennessee game on. Two of those were touchdowns and the other was in a game he did not play the whole time.
  • In not a big surprise, with 11 green rushing yard games, Zeke led all backs.
  • In a bet that I would have lost: Elliott had more Very Good Fantasy Points days than Christian McCaffrey.

Who the Chart Resembles: I would have been 50/50 on whether it was Zeke or Saquon.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • A huge reason I like doing research like this is overcoming false perceptions of last season. Case in point: I mistakenly remembered Alvin Kamara crushing it on the ground. I especially thought this when Ingram was suspended at the start of the year. It looks like I just really remember that Giants’ game.
  • I also thought that Kamara’s chart would have more light green and less red overall. It looks like that is just a testament to his overall ability. Kamara’s Very Good production almost looks like a staircase as he brings something different to the table each week.
  • This process solidified my belief that Kamara does not belong with the previous three backs in the top tier. I was torn that without Mark Ingram the Saints would rely more heavily on Kamara. As you can plainly see though, without Ingram last year there was much more red than green in the rushing categories.

Who the Chart Resembles: I would have thought this was one of the James’, either White or Conner. I definitely mistakenly remembered Kamara’s rushing prowess last season.

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • In games in which Gurley had a Very Bad rating in any category, he outscored the average player in .5PPR Points by over 12 points a game.
  • There is just not as much red as I expected. It seemed like he had an up-and-down year saved by extremely high touchdown totals. He looked like that top back he had been before he got hurt. This makes it even more difficult to figure out where to slot him in drafts this season.
  • The fact that he outscored the average by at least 7.2 Fantasy Points in each of the first eight games is ridiculous. No other running back eight such games all season.
  • The only truly bad game that Gurley had was against the Chiefs. You know, in the game that is arguably the most prolific offensive display in NFL history. *shrug emoji*
  • Ever the under-rated part of his game, Gurley’s receiving side looks as good as anyone besides McCaffrey, Barkley or James White.

Who the Chart Resembles: Like I said I have just revisionist memories on some of last season. Kamara or Barkley is who I would have guessed.

Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • I almost did not include him because it is really tough to compare an injured player’s inconsistent production when he is missing multiple stretches of games. I did just want to see how he did while he was in the lineup.
  • I’m glad I did include him, however. Gordon was the only back looked at that did not have a single game below the average scored against that defense during the Fantasy Season (excluding Week 17 in which he did not really play).
  • I thought Gordon’s receiving numbers would look like a St. Louis Cardinals’ home game because of the emergence of Austin Ekeler. However, Gordon was actually quite proficient in the passing game.
  • I’m not going to lie I was feeling down on Gordon going into 2019, but this consistency has me coming around a bit.

Who the Chart Resembles: I kind of thought it was Dalvin Cook’s on first look but the missed time kind of gives it away.

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • I’m on record as saying I think Conner will fail to live up to his lofty expectations this season. A big reason for my opinion is shown here: Conner had just one game in the entire second half of the season where he out-performed the average Fantasy Points production against that defense.
  • In 9 of Conner’s 13 games he failed to get to the average yards per carry against that defense. So he is basically reliant on an extremely heavy workload. I think Pittsburgh has learned their lesson about over-loading a running back and Jaylen Samuel and Benny Snell will severely cut into Conner’s touches.
  • I also happened to notice who Conner’s five great games were against. There were two against the young Browns who will definitely be better on defense. He had a nice out outing against the Bengals who had given up on the year by that point. Then he tore up the injury-ravaged Falcons’ defense.
  • Conner’s receiving numbers look good... but they were all before Jaylen Samuel was integrated. Conner averaged 1.17 Fantasy Points per target with a 77.5% catch rate. Samuel averaged 1.76 Fantasy Points per target with an 89.7% catch rate.
  • Don’t sleep on Benny Snell stealing carries. Snell averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in each of his three seasons in the SEC. He was also at Kentucky. He probably had the worse line than what he was facing week in and week out.

Who the Chart resembles: The first half of the season would make you think David Johnson while the second half of the year makes you think Giovani Bernard.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • Only Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley had more Very Good rushing yard days than Mixon. No one had more Very Good yards per carry games than Mixon.
  • Mixon is basically a non-factor in the passing game. A lot of that is due to Giovani Bernard being there. However, Bernard does have the penchant for getting hurt.

Who the Chart Resembles: I thought it was either Mack or Mixon as I know both missed a couple of games and are not that involved in the passing game.

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • Look at those YPC numbers. Woof. I know, his line was terrible, the quarterback was young, and coaching was horrendous. I get it. But Johnson’s whole chart is red except for one good game against the Chiefs.
  • What the chart does show that is good for DJ is that his workload percentage is almost unparalleled. He was an RB1 even though his numbers against the average were this bad.
  • Hopefully, Kliff Kingsbury can unleash the beast and DJ can finally hit the 1,000/1,000 he has been dreaming about.

Who the Chart Resembles: I sincerely thought that this was Joe Mixon’s table. I guess that shows how much I devalued his season last year.

James White, New England Patriots

  • No surprise here when it comes to the amount of green on the right side and plethora of red on the left side. White is the ultimate PPR Running Back.
  • The surprise I did see was the amount of Very Good yards per carry games that White had. It makes sense though: if White is in then it is probably a passing down so he can gash them with a draw.
  • James White’s 10 Very Good outings with targets are tied with Todd Gurley’s .5PPR Points as the most Very Good games for any back in one category. The consistency with which Tom Brady keeps White involved in the passing game makes him one of the safest mid-round picks.
  • White’s overall Fantasy Scoring did take a dip in the second half of the season. This is built for just a half point per reception. Full point PPR is where White’s value is truly seen.

Who the Chart Resembles: This one was pretty clearly James White. McCaffrey is the only one that can give you that much of a deep green forest in receiving categories, but he will not have so much red on the left.

Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • There are some in the Fantasy Analyst community that think Royce Freeman will take the lead role in the Denver backfield. This chart should be prime ammunition for them. Lindsay had only one category in which there was more green than red throughout the season.
  • However, that one category was yards per carry… so maybe he should just get the ball more? I’m still on the fence about the whole situation and will likely avoid the entire backfield at their current price points.
  • While Lindsay was not involved in the passing game too much, even when he did get a Good amount of targets he was not able to translate that into green categories for receptions or receiving yards.
  • Honestly, the fact that Lindsay only had four games where he was above average against that defense in Fantasy Points is alarming. I mean, do we think Joe Flacco will make the situation better for him?

Who the Chart Resembles: Nick Chubb is who I kind of thought this was being represented. The lack of passing game involvement and high yards per carry are similar for sure. Chubb was able to get more yardage though. Speaking of…

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

2019 Fantasy Football Running Backs

  • As I said in the setup, I broke down each defense against the top back as well as the secondary options. For the first part of the season, I used Chubb’s numbers against the secondary averages. He was most definitely not the primary option at that time. He was the only running back being looked at that had that distinction. James While and the Patriots’ backfield is such a committee that it’s hard to say who is ever the top back. I just used White as it since he scored the most points.
  • As a Chubb-believer there is a ton of red here for my liking. I can find a silver lining though. In every game that he received at least 10 carries he posted a positive rushing yardage amount against the average.
  • With the amount of options now for Baker Mayfield, Chubb will not suddenly turn into Ladainian Tomlinson in the passing game. Duke Johnson is still there. With Odell Beckham Jr. on board, targets in the Cleveland offense will be tough to come by.
  • With that said, that does not mean that Chubb can’t provide return on his second-round value. He will challenge for the league lead in rushing yards. He will also be the primary option at the goal line for an offense that will score this season. Chubb only started half the year and the offense is poised to take a massive leap so take this chart with a grain of salt.

Who the Chart Resembles: As I already said, the Chubb/Lindsay comparison lent itself to similar chart make-ups.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

  • Cook was a massive failure to those of us that drafted him highly last season. This heat map does not even begin to describe why he failed. For starters, the fact that he had just a single game in green for rushing touchdowns is highly alarming.
  • Man, it felt like he missed way more than five games last season. However, that really is the extent of his injury-time from 2018. I guess it felt worse because there were a few other games that it was even worse than him missing because he played, you started him, and he got you nothing.
  • His receiving chops saved him from being an abject disaster, as bad as it seemed. Cook ended up with only two Very Bad overall Fantasy Point-scoring games. He was injured in one of those games. He salvaged some decent outings by the lack of red on the receiving side.
  • It used to be said that it takes a full two years to recover from an ACL injury. That includes the year missed then the year getting back into it. Adrian Peterson made people think the other way by rushing for 2,000 yards just nine months post-injury. So what I’m trying to say is there is hope that Cook comes back full strength.

Who the Chart Resembles: Once again when there is an injury it is a little easier to see who the cart belongs to. The heat map did make me think it might be James White though.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Fournette definitely had the most extreme chart of the running backs looked at. The Jaguar was at least 20 yards above or below the average in seven out of eight games. He rushed for at least 1.3 yards up or down from the average in six out of eight games. Fournette’s Fantasy Point total was at least 5.7 points above or below the average in seven out of eight games.
  • There is no accounting for an in-game injury within these heat maps. So Fournette definitely has more dark red than he really deserves.
  • However, we do have to factor in that Fournette has not played a full season of football since his sophomore year of college. He has missed 16 full games over the past three years, including parts of several others.
  • When he is fully healthy, like that three-game stretch last season, he puts up elite numbers. I’m less worried about a guy that gets hurt, but performs when on the field than a guy that plays all sixteen but lays a bunch of eggs.

Who the Chart Resembles: I thought this could have been Dalvin Cook or Melvin Gordon due to the injured weeks.

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

  • Mack might have the least consistent chart of any running back assessed. There’s some Very Good, some Good, Some Very Bad and a bit more bad. Basically, there is no rhyme or reason.
  • I guess the one takeaway that was already pretty much known is his lack of receiving production. Nyheim Hines really took the lead role as the pass-catching back. He does not seem to be looking back in that department.
  • I guess Mack’s best trait is finding the end zone. He was above the average seven of his eleven starts. If that’s your one defining quality, it does help you overall as he had four Very Good Fantasy Scoring games.
  • While it is nice to have the starting back in an explosive offense, this chart makes me even more hesitant on drafting Mack at his current price point (early Round Three in 12-team leagues).

Who the Chart Resembles: I kind of thought this was Joe Mixon’s because of the early missed games and inconsistency. As we already established, I had an incorrect belief about Mixon’s season last year.

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Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

  • It is tough to say how many games Aaron Jones was actually a lead back. He split so much time with Jamaal Williams. I can say that his array of above-average numbers in scoring touchdowns and yards per carry show that he should get the ball even more.
  • He was hurt a couple of plays in so you can toss the last game out. When you do that, his last seven games have a whole lot more good than bad showings.
  • That seven-game stretch coincides with the Packers figuring out that Ty Montgomery was not working. They figured out that Jamaal Williams was just not as good as Jones in that game. With a new coaching staff having a fresh look at the backfield, they should see this sooner.
  • My biggest takeaway from Jones’ heat-map is how much I would rather have him than Marlon Mack. Both are young, unproven backs in high-powered offenses with elite quarterbacks. However, Jones shows more consistency and explosiveness. You can also get him almost a round later than Mack in early draft Average Draft Position.

Who the Chart Resembles: The numbers made me think that it was Phillip Lindsay, although I knew his games missed were in different weeks.

Is missing out on some of the best running back production angering you? Why don't you try an auction league!

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