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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Running With Purpose: RB Usage After 3 Weeks
All Out Blitz: Volume 123

One of the many oddities that has puzzled me about football for years is the relative lack of readily available statistics for this country's most popular game. Yards before contact, yards after contact, missed/broken tackles and a handful of other stats are among several metrics that really should be available to the masses, unless the goal is to minimize the amount of intelligent conversation fans can have with each other or their favorite fantasy analyst. Or perhaps the goal is to make sure fans can't have those conversations.

If I sound a bit cynical about this topic, it's because I am. It would be one thing if all the information was available to the masses and we just had to search for it in several different places. Unfortunately, a good percentage of the metrics that allow analysts/owners to do their job well usually come with a price tag attached, while playing time - which is so readily available to those who are interested in basketball, baseball and hockey - is only available next-day to those who know where to look. (Imagine if people had to pay an annual fee to find out how many minutes a basketball player played in a given game.) Knowing how many snaps a player is getting, how involved he is and how much opportunity is receiving shouldn't require a great deal of searching online. Unfortunately, the vast majority of fantasy football novices probably can't tell you where to find this information, leading to a number of disgruntled owners with no answers for their questions about why a certain player stunk up the joint in a given week. (Much to the dismay of the one percent of fans who send angry tweets to players about their most recent poor performance, it's not always their fault.)

While I won't be delivering those advanced analytics this week, I feel like I may be providing something just as useful this week, as we are nearing the end of the preseason portion of the regular season. (This is a reference to the Steve Young quote I have mentioned several times before, in case you are wondering what I'm talking about.) While three weeks still gives us a relatively small sample size from which to work from, patterns - if not trends - are starting to develop. Anything that helps owners make more sound decisions when it comes to setting lineups and trades is well worth our time, and I believe the information I will provide over the next two weeks (I'm planning on taking a look at targets next week) can help in that regard. This week, I'm going to take a deeper look into backfield workloads. Hopefully as a result of doing this, we can dispel some myths and present some hard evidence to some truths that may be getting brushed under the rug by others with some agendas in this industry.

Generally speaking, there are misconceptions about what constitutes an every-down running back. Each team tends to run slightly north of 60 offensive plays per game (the NFL average through three weeks this season is 62.7 with four teams tied for the most at 69 per game), which works out to about 1,000 snaps per season - plus or minus roughly 50 on each side. David Johnson logged 964 plays in 2016 (83.8 percent of his team's snaps), 102 more than second-place DeMarco Murray (81) - both marks are far higher than the norm. In 2015, Devonta Freeman led the way with 766 offensive snaps (67.3).

Despite some of the usage rates you will see below, Freeman's league-leading percentage from two years ago is much more common. What it means, among many other things, is that a running back with an average of roughly 40 snaps per game is still clearly "the man" in most cases.

The reason I wanted to begin in this fashion is to prepare each of you for some of the numbers you are about to see. I must admit despite the fact I am monitoring snaps, snap shares and a host of the other numbers you see below this year more than I ever have, some of the metrics are still eye-opening. Do you think Kareem Hunt's start has been based on volume? Did you have any idea Christian McCaffrey has been on the field nearly as much is Dalvin Cook? Is it possible Derrick Henry has seen only one more snap than Chris Ivory?


Snap % - percentage of total snaps played
Rush % - percentage of snaps played with a rushing attempt
Tar % - percentage of snaps played with a target
Touch % - percentage of snaps where the player touched the ball (via pass attempt, run or reception)
Util % - Percentage of snaps where the player touched the ball or was targeted

Note: Running backs needed at least 10 snaps per game to qualify. Fullbacks who met this requirement were removed.

 Running Back Activity - 2017; Weeks 1-3
Player Tm Snaps Snaps/G Snap % Rush % Tar % Touches Touch % Util %
Ty Montgomery  GB 204 68 89 20 11 59 29 31
Le'Veon Bell  PIT 173 58 87 30 10 65 38 40
Ezekiel Elliott  DAL 166 55 86 33 8 67 40 42
Lamar Miller  HOU 163 54 75 30 4 55 34 34
Devonta Freeman  ATL 115 38 62 45 6 59 51 51
Todd Gurley  LAR 155 52 85 41 11 76 49 52
C.J. Anderson  DEN 153 51 71 35 5 59 39 40
Carlos Hyde  SF 146 49 78 34 11 61 42 45
LeSean McCoy  BUF 137 46 70 35 15 66 48 50
Dalvin Cook  MIN 142 47 69 43 9 71 50 52
DeMarco Murray  TEN 132 44 64 27 5 39 30 31
Christian McCaffrey  CAR 131 44 68 19 18 52 33 37
Duke Johnson  CLE 127 42 59 5 14 17 13 19
Melvin Gordon  LAC 126 42 66 35 13 56 44 48
Isaiah Crowell  CLE 125 42 58 31 5 43 34 36
Chris Carson  SEA 117 39 57 32 4 41 35 36
Leonard Fournette  JAC 116 39 57 49 10 65 56 59
Kareem Hunt  KC 116 39 66 41 8 56 48 48
Jordan Howard  CHI 110 37 56 41 10 53 48 51
Javorius Allen  BAL 109 36 57 39 12 53 49 51
James White  NE 105 35 47 16 13 29 28 30
Andre Ellington  ARI 99 33 45 7 16 17 17 23
Jay Ajayi  MIA 97 49 74 40 5 43 44 45
Tarik Cohen  CHI 96 32 49 25 26 50 46 51
Ameer Abdullah  DET 93 31 46 49 8 52 56 57
Frank Gore  IND 92 31 49 53 4 51 55 58
Mark Ingram  NO 90 30 49 31 16 39 43 47
Darren Sproles  PHI 88 29 41 17 14 23 25 31
Chris Thompson  WAS 87 29 43 16 22 29 31 38
Tyler Ervin  HOU 85 28 39 5 13 24 14 18
Matt Forte  NYJ 85 28 48 27 11 29 35 38
Theo Riddick  DET 82 27 40 12 23 23 28 35
Jonathan Stewart  CAR 80 27 41 56 6 48 60 63
Paul Perkins  NYG 79 26 44 29 9 29 37 38
Chris Ivory  JAC 77 26 38 27 10 27 35 38
Bilal Powell  NYJ 76 25 43 37 11 33 43 47
Tevin Coleman  ATL 75 25 41 27 17 29 39 44
Giovani Bernard  CIN 75 25 40 20 11 20 27 31
Mike Gillislee  NE 75 25 34 60 0 45 60 60
Joe Mixon  CIN 72 24 39 49 10 42 58 58
Wendell Smallwood  PHI 72 24 33 26 7 26 31 33
Marshawn Lynch  OAK 71 24 41 51 7 39 55 58
Shane Vereen  NYG 67 22 37 10 22 21 31 33
Alvin Kamara  NO 65 22 35 15 28 24 31 43
Robert Turbin  IND 63 21 34 16 6 13 21 22
Dion Lewis  NE 32 11 14 25 13 17 38 38
Kyle Juszczyk  SF 62 21 33 2 8 4 6 10
C.J. Prosise  SEA 60 20 29 13 18 14 23 32
Jacquizz Rodgers  TB 59 30 48 41 0 24 41 41
Mike Tolbert  BUF 57 19 29 46 5 28 49 51
Samaje Perine  WAS 56 28 40 71 4 42 75 75
Terrance West  BAL 52 17 27 63 8 35 67 71
Branden Oliver  LAC 51 17 27 29 14 19 37 43
LeGarrette Blount  PHI 51 17 24 51 4 28 55 55
Rob Kelley  WAS 49 25 37 45 2 22 45 47
Chris Johnson  ARI 48 24 33 48 4 24 50 52
Jerick McKinnon  MIN 48 16 23 17 21 23 33 38
Charles Sims  TB 47 24 38 9 9 7 15 17
David Johnson  ARI 46 46 61 24 20 17 37 43
DeAndre Washington  OAK 45 15 26 22 24 20 44 47
Jeremy Hill  CIN 39 13 21 49 8 22 56 56
Adrian Peterson  NO 39 13 21 59 8 25 64 67
Charcandrick West  KC 38 19 31 8 8 6 16 16
Jalen Richard  OAK 37 12 21 35 11 22 46 46
Matt Breida  SF 37 12 20 30 16 15 41 46
D'Onta Foreman  HOU 36 12 17 58 8 23 64 67
Orleans Darkwa  NYG 35 12 19 37 9 16 46 46
Marlon Mack  IND 28 14 23 57 7 18 64 64
Elijah McGuire  NYJ 23 12 19 57 9 14 61 65
Dwayne Washington  DET 21 11 16 43 0 11 43 43
Derrick Henry  TEN 78 26 38 42 1 34 44 44
Thomas Rawls  SEA 16 16 20 31 0 5 31 31
Peyton Barber  TB 16 16 23 63 0 10 63 63

****The bulk of this chart was created using information provided by FantasyPros and Pro Football Reference.

Ty Montgomery's current snap rate is one major reason owners should continue to hold onto Jamaal Williams.

I wouldn't mind shaking the hand of the person willing to bet a month ago that Ty Montgomery would be the easy frontrunner in total snaps through three weeks, yet he is outpacing Le'Veon Bell by just over 10 snaps per game (204-173). Whether or not any running back - much less a converted one - can hold up under that workload long-term is certainly a topic open for discussion, but Green Bay is being very selective about how often he touches the ball considering he is on pace to play 1,088 snaps. His current snap rate is one major reason owners should continue to hold onto Jamaal Williams, even if the rookie hasn't shown much in the way of creating yards for himself yet. It's a virtual certainty Montgomery isn't going to maintain his pace, be it due to fatigue or injury.

The next big surprise on the list figures to be Lamar Miller, who some already have losing work to rookie D'Onta Foreman. It's not hard to understand why folks feel that way when the youngster has carried the ball 58 percent, touched the ball 64 percent and been utilized (read above for definition) 68 percent of the time he has been on the field. In reality, Tyler Ervin has played more and logged more touches than he has. Foreman's role will probably grow as the weeks progress, but at the moment, this situation is playing out just as HC Bill O'Brien said it would: he wanted to cut down Miller's workload early in the season and not run him into the ground like he did last September. Foreman has yet to see more than 17 snaps in a game yet, while Miller has played no fewer than 49.

Another running back who finds himself in a remarkably similar position to Miller is a player he will watch from the opposing side line Sunday. Very much contrary to popular belief, DeMarco Murray ranks 10th on the list in total snaps among running backs with 132 (44 snaps per game, 64-percent snap share) despite sitting out most of the second half in Week 2 and supposedly playing on a bum hamstring in Week 3. At 26 snaps per game, Henry (38 percent) hasn't exactly been ignored, but his superior touch (44-30) and utilization shares (44-31) are probably the main reasons why Henry owners are having a hard time believing this backfield isn't moving closer to an even timeshare.

While it certainly doesn't carry over to every team, it would appear the coaching staffs in Atlanta, Jacksonville and Kansas City do a pretty good job of monitoring touches with their top running backs. Devonta Freeman, Leonard Fournette and Hunt have seen no fewer than 36 and no more than 41 snaps so far. Consistency like that has to be a conscious effort on the part of a team's assistants, and it also bodes well for each player's long-term health. Although Fournette's snap rate (57) lags a bit behind the others (Hunt at 66, Freeman at 62), the No. 4 overall pick has them beat in touch rate and utilization rate.

Perhaps the single biggest surprise on this list is the fact Andre Ellington (99 snaps) has seen more playing time than the likes of Tarik Cohen (96), Ameer Abdullah (93), Mark Ingram (90) and Theo Riddick (82). While it is important to remember what players do and how efficient they are with their snaps is more important than the overall number of plays - all things being equal - it is still a hard figure to believe, especially for a player who played very little in the first half of Week 1 and is still technically a second-string player behind Chris Johnson. Ellington's 33 snaps per game doesn't exactly make him a must-start flex option like the others, however, given his lack of involvement in the red zone and the fact Arizona isn't going to be anything close to what it has been in recent years offensively.

For a player seeing roughly 25 snaps per game, Chris Ivory shouldn't be on as many waiver wires as he is. While Tevin Coleman plays in a much more explosive offense with a better quarterback, the two "backups" are being used roughly the same across the board, with the lone huge difference being how often they are being targeted in the passing game when they are on the field (Coleman - 17 percent; Ivory - 10).

Obviously, I want to go a bit deeper than just analyzing snap counts and/or snap shares, as they only tell a small part of the story.

The leader in the last two categories above - among those with at least 100 snaps - is Fournette by a fairly sizeable margin. Jacksonville drafted him with the idea/hope he would be the centerpiece of the offense and that is exactly how it has played out thus far. The LSU product is getting the ball 56 percent of the time he has been on the field, while his utilization rate is at 59 percent. The first figure is four points higher than second-place Freeman - which is admittedly a bit of a surprise given his timeshare situation with Coleman - and the second figure is seven points higher than second-place Todd Gurley. Given his punishing running style, Fournette's owners would be wise to start loading up on Ivory. The rookie is built to last, but his current workload and willingness to embrace contact is a volatile mix, especially when owners are hoping he can play 16 games.

Whereas the Jaguars are trying to keep Fournette fresh when they aren't using him (his 65 touches places him sixth in the league, while his 119 snaps rank 16th among running backs), the Rams, Vikings, Cowboys, Bills and Steelers are trying to burn the candle at both ends in regards to Gurley (155 snaps, league-high 76 touches), Cook (142, 71), Ezekiel Elliott (166, 67), McCoy (137, 66) and Le'Veon Bell (173, 65). By comparison, Montgomery has 59 touches (10th in the NFL) on his league-high 204 offensive plays. His 29-percent touch and 31-percent utilization rates are eight and nine points lower, respectively, than Bell and as much as 21 percent lower - in both respects- to the high end of that same group.

For anyone who watched Alvin Kamara and Tarik Cohen play in college and understands their current NFL situations, it's probably not surprising they lead all running backs in target percentage. The problem, however, is their rates stand at 28 and 26 percent, respectively, which is great for owners but does not bodes well for their continued efficiency if defenses can expect one of every four plays they are on the field to be a throw in their direction. With that said, it may take all of 2017 and part of 2018 for him to see the same kind of usage Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles became accustomed to, but Kamara very much appears to be the next satellite back in the Saints' offense. As for Cohen, the Bears may not have much choice but to continue peppering him with targets. Chicago beat Pittsburgh last week attempting 22 passes, two of which were targeted at receivers (both to Deonte Thompson). That level of inactivity at receiver is almost unheard of at the professional level and doesn't figure to be a sustainable trend moving forward.

Speaking of "receiving backs," Chris Thompson is making his owners proud. The fourth-year veteran ranks 14th in the league in receiving yards and is averaging 17.8 yards per reception. But wait, it gets better: Thompson is scoring a touchdown about once every seven touches and averaging about 13 yards every time he gets his hands of the ball. But wait, it gets even better: per Pro Football Focus, Thompson's 216 yards after the catch are more than any other back has in actual receiving yards (McCaffrey ranks second at 173) and his 16.6 yards after catch per reception are 2.2 more than the next closest back. To say his current level of production is unsustainable would be stating the obvious, unless of course more teams take the approach Oakland did last Sunday night and act completely oblivious to whenever he enters the game.

Isaiah Crowell's request to HC Hue Jackson for more carries shortly after a Week 2 loss to Baltimore appeared to fall on deaf ears, although it's admittedly hard for a coach to stick with a struggling ground game when his team has yet to hold a lead three games into the season. The relatively large amount of negative game scripts have favored Duke Johnson as a result, and the numbers bear it out. With that said, Johnson worked out of the slot for all 50 snaps in the Browns' season opener, so the 59- and 58-percent snap shares are a bit misleading. For all of his playing time, Johnson has touched the ball on only 13 percent of his snaps and logged a total of 17 touches, so Jackson appears more comfortable with the threat of Johnson as a decoy instead of actually manufacturing touches for him. Another factor at play here could be the notion that young mobile quarterbacks (DeShone Kizer, in this case), who often bypass dumping it off to the running back in the flat in order to try and get what they can on the ground when the first or second option isn't immediately available.


Every so often, I feel the inspiration to talk about a handful of largely unowned players I believe are close to becoming regular fantasy contributors. Today is one of those days. As luck would have it, all of them are rookies I feel are on the verge of making an impact as we near the second quarter of the NFL season:

RB Matt Breida, San Francisco

I don't own Carlos Hyde in any league but have six shares of Breida across my nine high-stakes and three expert leagues, so forgive me if I am blinded by bias. Owners got a bit of a scare in Week 3 as Hyde suffered a left hip injury in the first quarter. Life has a way of providing us with warnings of impending doom, and I think that is exactly what happened here. For as great as Hyde looks so far, he has never made it through a full season at the college or pro level. So given his injury history and 20-touch average thus far, it seems reasonable to believe that streak will continue. For what it's worth (and acknowledging the limited sample size), Breida is averaging five yards per carry on his 11 regular-season attempts after impressing most observers during the preseason. While Raheem Mostert would likely steal a few touches if Hyde is forced to miss time, HC Kyle Shanahan would likely plug Breida into the same featured role he is using Hyde in right now.

RB James Conner, Pittsburgh

Much like Hyde and Breida above, I don't any shares of Le'Veon Bell but have three of Conner. Unlike Breida, Conner isn't a prospect whose athleticism jumps off the tape. What Conner does have is what every fantasy owner wants from a "stash": a clear path to a heavy workload in a very good offense and a team with a history of relying heavily on one back. Admittedly, this is not a situation in which owners can view Conner as the new DeAngelo Williams and expect low-end RB1 numbers if/when Bell is sidelined, but not every "stash" is supposed to pay off so handsomely. Running backs who carry the promise of heavy workloads are always going to be in demand. If you believe as I do that Bell isn't going to last the season, then find a way to keep Conner on your roster as I have. In leagues with shorter benches, doing so might not be feasible. In leagues with 16-man rosters, owners should be able to find space.

TE Gerald Everett, LA Rams

There's a player averaging 33.5 yards per catch that people aren't talking about? OK, more context is needed. Everett is has definitely maximized his four targets, catching each one while producing 134 receiving yards. He's done this despite running only 26 routes through three games. The No. 44 overall pick this spring could have easily enjoyed his coming-out party on national TV last week had he not been limited by a Week 2 thigh injury and forced to go on a short week. Every time I hear Everett's name, I am reminded of the investment the Rams made into him and the desire McVay must have to see him evolve into a Jordan Reed-like player. With all the weapons the Rams added prior to the season, it's unrealistic to believe the former South Alabama star will reach such lofty heights this year. Then again, no one is expecting Everett to do that in the first place. Something else to keep in mind: Reed finished with 50 catches on 65 targets for 465 yards in his first year under then-first time OC McVay (in 11 games) after amassing 45 receptions on 59 targets for 499 yards in his rookie season (in nine games). Those are reachable goals for Everett if he can stay healthy and certainly good enough to get him on the redraft radar given the current state of the position.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.