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2019 Regression Candidates - RBs

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 6/11/19 |

Year in and year out, fantasy owners are vexed when a breakout player from a season ago cannot come close to replicating his production from the previous year. Why does this happen so often?

Perhaps the best place to start is realizing scoring touchdowns is an opportunity-based statistic and not a talent per se. That's not to say talent doesn't play a huge role because it obviously does. There are countless examples every season in which a player's unique talent helped him score on a play that 95 percent of the rest of the players at his position probably could not have. Talent gets a player on the field. It helps a running back find a crease in the line of scrimmage or break a tackle. It helps a receiver create separation and attract more targets. Among many other factors, scoring touchdowns is by and large a combination of talent, coaching/scheme, some luck and opportunity - the last of those factors likely being the most important.

In a vacuum, it would probably be fair to say the longer the distance a player travels to score a touchdown, the more likely talent played a role in it. Let's take one of the more obvious cases from last year. Saquon Barkley scored five of his 15 offensive touchdowns last season from 20 or more yards (33.3 percent). Across the league, 334 of 1,286 offensive touchdowns last season were scored from 20 or more yards (29.9 percent). Most would agree talent played a huge role in that and would probably be correct.

However, if talent was the primary and only (as some seem to believe) factor in getting into the end zone, how do we explain Ezekiel Elliott scoring only nine total touchdowns on 381 offensive touches? In the 82 instances a running back compiled that many touches in a season in league history, 46 (56.1 percent) scored at least 13 times. While it's only one example, it should be pretty clear there's a bit more to the equation than talent.

There's more to fantasy than scoring touchdowns obviously, but I felt the preceding paragraph would be helpful for settling into the discussion I wanted to begin this week. In other words, what is repeatable and what is not? Regression to the mean is a topic that gets some discussion in the fantasy community but not near enough.

This week's focus will be on the running backs. In the first two sections, I will talk about which players are most likely to see a decrease or increase in touchdown scoring this season, based on any number of reasons. The last two sections will deal with players who are likely to see either their abnormally high or low efficiency marks (yards per carry, yards per reception and yards per target for the purposes of this article) decrease or increase. What I've done for each player is supplied their efficiency marks going as far back as the 2015 season (if applicable) as well as the league average for running backs who recorded at least 100 touches (including 50 carries). I settled on those benchmarks mainly because I concluded it is difficult for a back to be relevant in fantasy for any length of time if he does not exceed those totals in a given season.

I think most of the column headers below are self-explanatory, so I'll explain only two: Touch/TD is how many offensive touches (carries plus receptions) a player needed on average to score a touchdown, while Yds/Tgt refers to how many receiving yards a player averaged for every target - a number that will obviously be slightly different than yards per reception.

Next week, we will cover receivers and tight ends.

Likely candidates for touchdown regression

Todd Gurley, LA Rams

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
Gurley 2015 10 0 25.0 22.9 110.6 N/A N/A N/A 7.2
Gurley 2016 6 0 53.5 46.3 147.5 N/A N/A N/A 5.6
Gurley 2017 13 6 18.1 21.5 100.4 14.5 10.7 131.3 9.1
Gurley 2018 17 4 15.0 15.1 73.6 20.3 14.8 145.0 7.2
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

Gurley is a candidate for touchdown regression for obvious reasons, most notably his well-publicized knee "injury" that has his many of his dynasty owners scrambling to trade him away and hoping for 75 or 80 cents on the dollar. Regardless of whether the panic will end up being justified or not, the fact of the matter is the 24-year-old is due to take a hit at some point after joining Alvin Kamara as the only two qualified backs to average a touchdown on fewer than 20 touches in each of the last two seasons. For starters, the Rams will need to place both guards and their center from 2018. Los Angeles is also publicly stating it will be a priority to reduce his workload, which coincides nicely with the addition of third-round draft pick Darrell Henderson. While in theory it's possible that fewer touches could actually end up making Gurley more efficient scoring touchdowns, it's hard to improve much on one score every 15 touches, which is exactly the level he reached last season.

2017 Offensive TDs: 21
2018 Prediction: 14

James White enjoyed his best fantasy season as a pro in 2018 including 12 TDs on just 181 touches.

James White, New England

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
White 2018 5 7 15.1 18.8 85 17.6 12.4 107.3 6.1
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

To put White's TD efficiency last year in some perspective, Kamara has yet to average a score every 15.1 touches like the 27-year-old scatback. Prior to 2018, White never handled more than 99 offensive touches or scored more than six touchdowns in a season. Last year, he rewarded the Patriots with 181 touches and 12 total TDs. His seven receiving scores on a career-high 87 catches were one less than he had on 116 receptions over the previous two seasons combined. His five rushing TDs on 94 carries were three more than he had on his first 113 career rushing attempts. The reasons for his success a season ago are many, but Tom Brady's growing trust in him and Rob Gronkowski's decreased role in the offense were two of the more critical ones. The absence of dependable outside receivers certainly contributed to the cause as well. Having Julian Edelman at the start of the season figures to cut into the number of easy opportunities in between the 20s for White, while the addition of first-round rookie N'Keal Harry could take away some of his scoring chances inside the 10. A full season from Rex Burkhead could also chip away at his potential scoring touches a bit. New England's desire to become more of a power running team could also rob him of some more touchdowns. It would not come as a shock if two or more of these possibilities come to fruition, making White much more of an RB2 in PPR than the overall RB6 he was in 2018.

2017 Offensive TDs: 12
2018 Prediction: 7

Derrick Henry, Tennessee

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
Henry 2016 5 0 24.6 22 98 N/A N/A N/A 9.1
Henry 2017 5 1 31.2 35.2 148.8 17.0 11.0 136.0 8.0
Henry 2018 12 0 19.2 17.9 88.3 N/A N/A N/A 5.5
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

It's easy to forget Henry amassed 40.5 percent of his 215 carries, 55.2 percent of his 1,059 rushing yards and 58.3 percent of his 12 rushing touchdowns over his final four games of the season. Through 13 weeks of the season, he was the overall RB39 in most PPR leagues. Over the final four weeks, he was the overall RB1. It's anyone's guess whether Henry turned a corner in his career or not during that final stretch, but the point to be made here is that he took serious advantage of a Jacksonville defense that looked like it had given up in Week 14, a relatively weak Giants' run defense in Week 15 and a seriously banged-up Washington defense in Week 16. Perhaps the upgrades the Titans made to their passing game in the offseason (A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries), the return of Delanie Walker and the addition of OG Roger Saffold will be just what Henry needed to take his game to the next level and keep it there for a sustained period of time. Either way, it's going to be very difficult for him to average one touchdown per 19.2 touches again if he isn't more involved in the passing game. Given how multiple offensive coordinators have elected not to use him in that fashion, it's fair to assume new OC Arthur Smith will not either.

2017 Offensive TDs: 12
2018 Prediction: 9

Others worthy of mention (using a healthy blend of last season's efficiency numbers and common sense):

Melvin Gordon, LA Chargers (2018 TD/touch: 16.1; previous career best TD/touch: 24.6)

Aaron Jones, Green Bay (2018 TD/touch: 17.7; previous career best TD/touch: 22.5)

Tarik Cohen, Chicago (2018 TD/touch: 21.3; previous career best TD/touch: 46.7)

Likely candidates for positive touchdown regression

David Johnson, Arizona

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
Johnson 2015 8 4 13.4 15.6 72.6 14.3 9.0 114.3 8.0
Johnson 2016 16 4 18.7 18.3 77.4 30.0 20.0 219.8 7.3
Johnson 2018 7 3 30.8 36.9 134.3 25.3 16.7 148.7 5.9
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

The Cardinals are going to have some serious questions to answer after this year if Johnson, whose worst TD/touch mark in his first two full seasons is 18.7, doesn't see a huge jump from 30.8 in 2018. The level of ineptitude with Arizona's play-calling last season was startling, as former OC Mike McCoy ran Johnson inside the tackles as if he was the second coming of Christian Okoye and didn't feature him nearly enough in the passing game. New HC Kliff Kingsbury may not possess any play-calling experience at the pro level, but suffice to say his offenses at Texas Tech focused much more on outside running and made respectable use of the running back as a receiver. Kingsbury's spread offense concepts and likely frequent use of four-wide sets should give Johnson better running lanes than he ever saw last season, while the number of "gun-runs" should get him on the perimeter of the defense on a regular basis and take advantage of the fact he is one of the more explosive backs in the league.

2017 Offensive TDs: 10
2018 Prediction: 14

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
Cook 2018 2 2 43.3 66.5 307.5 24.5 20.0 152.5 6.2
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

Depending on a person's perspective, Cook has either been snake-bitten or proven why durability was a major concern of his coming out in the draft in 2017. Multiple hamstring issues limited him to 11 games in 2018 after an ACL tear ended his rookie season after four contests. What has been clear is that Cook is a dynamic talent capable of going the distance on just about any play, and he is expected to get the benefit of running in a zone-running scheme that will be the brainchild of OC Kevin Stefanski and new assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak this season. While rookie Alexander Mattison hasn't received near enough credit for being a well-rounded back, he probably doesn't give Minnesota the same temptation of replacing Cook at the goal line that Latavius Murray did. However, Cook finds himself as a positive touchdown regression candidate because it seems unlikely he will go through yet another season where he struggles to stay on the field.

2017 Offensive TDs: 4
2018 Prediction: 9

Royce Freeman, Denver

Player Year RuTD ReTD Touch/TD Carry/TD RuYd/TD Tgt/TD Rec/TD ReYd/TD Yds/Tgt
Freeman 2018 5 0 28.8 26 104.2 N/A N/A N/A 3.6
League Average 2018 5.5 1.8 26.9 29.2 129.3 27.0 20.6 171.0 6.3

Revisionist historians will look back at last season and probably say Freeman can't be expected to play a large role in 2019 because Philip Lindsay was just that good as a rookie. People looking for more of an answer should pay attention to two key sets of numbers provided by Next Gen Stats. Lindsay ranked third (3.39) among qualified backs in terms of efficiency (which NGS defines as a number that is calculated by taking the total distance a player traveled on rushing plays as a ball carrier (measured in yards) per rushing yards gained. NGS uses this stat to determine how north/south a runner is, with the lower number being more north/south. Freeman ranked 42nd (4.27). One has to wonder if the 190-pound Lindsay can continue to absorb the punishment that goes along with running in between the tackles. The second NGS stat is even more telling: Freeman faced eight men in the box on 36.2 percent of his carries as a rookie, second only to LeGarrette Blount. Lindsay was 42nd at 14.1. What this suggests is opponents had a pretty good idea OC Bill Musgrave wasn't going to use Freeman as a receiver whenever he was on the field or ask him to do much with the ball if he ended up being the target (a 3.6 yards-per-target mark for a season is hideous). To that end, Pro Football Focus charted him with 118 routes on 308 snaps (38.3 percent). Lindsay ran 266 routes on 453 snaps (58.7).

All this comes into focus with new OC Rich Scangarello taking over for Musgrave. Scangarello has a deep appreciation for Kyle Shanahan long before working for him over the previous two seasons. It is expected he'll rely on the same outside zone-run scheme that has served Shanahan well for the majority of his career, which certainly would appear to favor Freeman based on the aforementioned efficiency statistics. It is also worth noting Lindsay has not been able to participate in offseason workouts due to wrist surgery, perhaps allowing Freeman a chance to make a solid first impression on the new coaching staff. Let's also not forget about the addition of Mike Munchak after he established himself as one of the top offensive line coaches in the league with the Steelers over the past five seasons. Factor in an improved offensive line with a more creative offensive scheme, a quarterback who can threaten defenses downfield and a team likely to play with more positive game script this season and there's every reason to believe Freeman will score more than once every 28.8 touches.

2017 Offensive TDs: 5
2018 Prediction: 8

Others worthy of mention:

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas (one TD every 42.3 touches)
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville (one TD every 25.8 touches)

Candidates for efficiency regression

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Johnson 2018 5.4 6.7 5.5
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

Of the 55 running backs that qualify for this study, Johnson finished second with a 5.4 YPC. To put that achievement in some context, Johnson joined Barry Sanders (1994, 1997) as the only Lion to reach that lofty mark since Nick Pietrosante did it in 1960. It's not that Johnson isn't capable of repeating the feat or Detroit doesn't have enough talent up front, but rather it's just a high bar to reach in consecutive seasons even in near-perfect conditions. Perhaps it helps to consider the Auburn product averaged 3.6 YPC in three of his final four contests before suffering a knee sprain in Week 11 that effectively ended his season. Making things even more difficult for Johnson is a schedule that includes the Bears and Vikings twice each, the Chargers, Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins and Broncos - all of which should have above-average run defenses if they can stay relatively healthy in 2019.

Lamar Miller, Houston

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Miller 2015 4.5 8.5 7.0
Miller 2016 4.0 6.1 4.8
Miller 2017 3.7 9.1 7.3
Miller 2018 4.6 6.5 4.7
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

Miller exploded for a 97-yard touchdown run in Week 13 against the Titans. On his other 209 regular-season carries, he averaged 4.2 yards - a number certainly more in line with the marks he posted over his first two years in Houston. The Texans brought in a tight end known for his ability to block in Darren Fells and added some help on the offensive line via the draft in Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, but the odds are long that Miller is going to get much help from the rookies right away. D'Onta Foreman's eventual return to full health also looms as a substantial threat to his ability to see enough playing time in order to pop off another big run that allows him to average 4.6 YPC again. If there is a small saving grace for either Kerryon Johnson or Miller, it is both players were well below the league average in terms of YPR last season. In Miller's case, he posted 9.1 YPR in 2017 and is at 7.5 for his career - both of which are significantly higher than last year's 6.5 mark.

Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Ekeler 2017 4.8 7.5 5.0
Ekeler 2018 5.2 10.4 7.6
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

Ekeler is not the type of player to bet against when it comes to efficiency regression, as specialty backs tend to have their strengths accentuated in their role to begin with. Still, the list of running backs since 2000 to average at least five yards per carry and 10 yards per reception (with a minimum of 40 carries and 25 catches) is a pretty small list. Ekeler is the only player to do it in consecutive seasons over that timeframe, and Jamaal Charles is the only other player who has done it twice. Thus, it is a reasonable assumption Ekeler won't be able to turn the trick in each of his first three seasons. However, there is another potential reason. Justin Jackson was impressive enough in a small sample size as a rookie last season to earn more work going forward. Will he see enough time to make a sizable dent in Ekeler's playing time? It doesn't seem all that likely, but Jackson did appear to be the better back at times when both players saw significant snaps while Gordon was hurt.

Others worthy of mention:

Phillip Lindsay, Denver (5.4 YPC)
Matt Breida, San Francisco (5.3 YPC)
Todd Gurley, LA Rams (4.9 YPC)
Derrick Henry, Tennessee (4.9 YPC)
Frank Gore, Buffalo (4.6 YPC)

Candidates for positive efficiency regression

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Kamara 2017 6.1 10.2 8.3
Kamara 2018 4.6 8.8 6.8
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

It says a great deal about the talent and expectations of a back when 4.6 YPC and 8.8 YPR can be considered a down year. There was no question he was going to fall short of matching his rookie-year 6.1 and 10.2 marks in those respective categories, especially after we learned Mark Ingram would serve a four-game suspension to begin last season and drive up Kamara's touch totals. The arrival of Latavius Murray figures to have minimal effect on Kamara's usage in that he is a poor man's Ingram at best and could get beaten out by undrafted rookie free-agent Devine Ozigbo at some point. A big reason why Kamara finds himself in the positive efficiency regression portion of this piece is the Saints signed Jared Cook in free agency, further opening up things underneath for Kamara as a runner or anytime he wants to run an option route on an overmatched linebacker. At this point of the summer, about the only potential roadblock that exists for Kamara to fall short of his rushing efficiency standards is the loss of C Max Unger, although second-round rookie Erik McCoy should be able to fill his sizable shoes (especially considering how beat up Unger said he was in 2018).

Kenyan Drake, Miami

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Drake 2016 DNQ DNQ DNQ
Drake 2017 4.8 7.5 6.0
Drake 2018 4.5 9.0 6.5
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

If owners were granted three wishes before the start of this season, a fairly high percentage of them would ask for one of those wishes to be able to get some clarity on how Drake will be used by the new regime, led by former Patriots in HC Brian Flores and OC Chad O'Shea. It goes without saying one of the more frustrating parts of last season for a number of owners was the inconsistent - and often inconceivable - usage of Drake, who still finished as the overall RB14 in PPR leagues despite averaging 10.8 touches. He'll be hard-pressed to improve on his 9.0 YPR, but his 4.5 YPC was a career low and something that shouldn't be hard to improve upon even though 2019 is expected to be a rebuilding year for the Dolphins. While Kalen Ballage remains on the roster and had his moments as a rookie, Miami removed Drake's biggest obstacle for a much bigger workload when it let Frank Gore go to Buffalo. Besides Ballage, the Dolphins figure to enter the season with either seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin or Mark Walton as the No. 3 back. In other words, Drake should be granted his first real opportunity to go over 200 touches in an offense. And for those folks who might say Miami's line won't be good enough to allow Drake to thrive as a potential bell-cow, the blocking was arguably worse in 2017 - per Pro Football Focus - when he guided a number of fantasy teams to a title with a strong final five weeks.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville

Player Year YPC YPR Yds/Tgt
Fournette 2017 3.9 8.4 6.3
Fournette 2018 3.3 8.4 7.1
League Average 2018 4.4 8.3 6.3

Everyone's favorite should-be-but-isn't fantasy stud running back is back in this section for a second straight season. The addition of OG Andrew Norwell last spring was supposed to be the final piece to building an offensive line that would allow Fournette to push 300 carries and complement the Jaguars' ferocious defense. Slowly but surely, the entire left side of the offensive line failed to make it past Week 11, Fournette couldn't complete a full game until mid-November and the defense didn't come close to matching the standard it set the previous year. At this point, his lack of durability has made him something of a laughingstock in fantasy circles. Nevertheless, a focused Fournette is so much better than his career 3.7 YPC would indicate, and the Jaguars have made two considerable upgrades this spring that figure to help the former No. 4 overall pick prove that, signing Nick Foles in free agency and drafting a very good run blocker in RT Jawaan Taylor to start sooner than later at right tackle. At the very least, Fournette should not have much of a problem improving on last year's 3.3 YPC, which is an abysmal number for a player with his ability to run through and/or break tackles.

Others worthy of mention:

Jordan Howard, Philadelphia (3.7 YPC)
David Johnson, Arizona (3.6 YPC)
Carlos Hyde, Kansas City (3.3 YPC)
Dion Lewis, Tennessee (3.3 YPC)
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo (3.2 YPC)

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.