One of the most difficult - and sometimes impossible - tasks for
any fantasy owner during the offseason is figuring out what players
have league-winning upside. Certainly, the Christian
McCaffrey's and Saquon
Barkley's of the world come immediately to mind, but we need
some pretty good luck in a traditional snake draft to land either
one of those players.
To answer this "league-winner" question better, I decided
to break down what one looks like - physically and statistically
- by taking a closer look at each player that reached a particular
fantasy-point benchmark that could be considered great or elite
over the last three seasons. By using the best of the best in
each position group over a three-year period as the basis for
what is great versus elite, we should be able to create realistic
parameters for what it takes to be a true fantasy difference-maker.
The goal of this analysis is to give readers a general idea of
what characteristics - be it physical or statistical - they need
to keep in mind on draft day. There will invariably be repeat
entries (as in certain players appearing two or three times on
the list). It's also OK to view this series of articles as something
of a correlational study, but it's more than that. My top priority
is trying to establish what benchmarks fantasy owners need to
shoot for at each position, especially considering the different
styles of players that exist in the game.
At the bottom of the sortable table, there is another mini-table
summarizing the group averages, minimums and maximums of each
category, hits and hit rate. The "hits" are how many players at
that position exceeded the average of the players in the first
table, while the hit rate is the percentage of "hits" in that
group (a "greater than x" situation). In rare circumstances such
as quarterback age, I opted for a "less than X" approach. The
text will be red in those atypical
situations. My advice to maximize the value of the table below:
sort each column and then read the analysis that accompanies that
Because we are discussing an average of the best of the best
over the last three seasons, the "hit rate" percentages will probably
be lower than some would expect Thus, anything over about 60 percent
is notable because it suggests the group is bottom-heavy. Likewise,
anything below about 40 percent suggests the group is top-heavy.
This "rule" will apply to all positions.
Fantasy point threshold - 180-plus fantasy points.
A total of 57 running backs reached this mark over the last three
Age -No Country for Old Men was an award-winning
movie in 2007, and it's also a fitting way to describe this group.
Of the 57 entries on this list, 55 of them (96.5 percent) are in
their 20s. Taken one step further, 53 of them (93 percent) were
27 or younger. It's probably also not a coincidence that 42 of the
backs (73.7 percent) are between the ages of 22 and 25. Ingram had
a great 2019 season with 15 touchdowns, but his potential to be
something more than RB27 on this list was severely hurt because
Lamar Jackson did so much with his legs. It's OK to grab an aging
back to provide some depth, but owners would be wise to take most
of their swings on the 25-and-under age group during their draft.
Height (inches) - Henry (6-3) is the only back
in the table who stands taller than 6-1, which just happens to
be the most common size of backs in the table above (16 instances,
or 28.1 percent). Cohen (5-6) is the only one shorter than 5-8,
which means 54 of the 57 entries (94.7 percent) are separated
by no more than five inches. It makes for interesting conversation,
but I'm not sure it means much in the overall scheme of things
Weight - Lindsay, Cohen and Lewis are the only
sub-200 pound backs on this list. Ekeler is right on that mark.
Even if we count Ekeler in the former group, 52 of the 57 entries
(91.2 percent) weigh at least 205 pounds. Except for McCaffrey,
the bulk of great fantasy efforts in this group are from backs
carrying at least 215 pounds, which is about the size most coaches
and evaluators seem to want in a potential feature back. It's
also worth noting the 27 highest carry totals on this list are
from backs weighing 210 or more. As was the case with height,
these are observations to keep in mind but not exactly the kind
of thing that should greatly affect decisions on draft day.
Games - It's not mandatory for a running back
to play all 16 games to qualify for this kind of list. It's a
smart move to assume at least one missed game for a back while
projecting them and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised
if they make it all the way through. Just over half of the backs
above missed at least one contest (29 of 57, or 50.9 percent).
Heck, four backs missed three games and three of them finished
among the top 31.
Carries - Now we're getting into the good stuff.
Unless owners are expecting at least 70 receptions out of their
pass-catching backs, next year's difference-maker probably isn't
going to come from a player with fewer than 120 carries. White's
19th place finish in 2018 was the result of 12 touchdowns, and
he's the only one from the group of five sub-120 carry backs who
finished higher than 29th. Forty-nine of the 57 entries (86 percent)
toted the rock at least 160 times, and it should come as no surprise
that 25 of the top 28 fantasy finishes on this list are by backs
with at least 160 carries. Ten of the top 11 (91 percent) entries
were by backs with at least 190 rush attempts.
Rushing yards - White (2019) makes this list
despite amassing only rushing 263 yards last season, and it is
somewhat surprising that 22 of the 57 (38.6 percent) didn't even
reach 900 yards on the ground. However, all but one of those 22
(95.5 percent) scored at least six total touchdowns. Unless we're
talking about Kamara or a back who makes a good living in the
passing game, it's probably best to set your sights on a back
capable of rushing for at least 800 yards.
Rushing TDs - Much as was the case with quarterbacks,
the emphasis needs to be more on total TDs (as opposed to just
rushing touchdowns or receiving scores). Only two of the 57 entries
(3.5 percent) scored fewer than six times - both instances occurred
in 2019 (Fournette and Bell). However, it's worth noting that
even the majority of satellite backs such as Cohen and Duke Johnson
managed at least three rushing scores. The best finish by a back
with fewer than six rushing touchdowns over the last three seasons
was Ekeler (12th) last season, and that's only because he scored
eight through the air. Otherwise, 18 of the top 19 efforts (94.7
percent) above came from backs with at least six rushing touchdowns.
Targets/receptions - It should come as no surprise
these two go hand-in-hand, especially with so many of the backs
posting catch rates in the 70s and 80s. Henry's performance last
season was a major exception, as his 14th place finish was the
only one of the top 22 fantasy efforts by a back with fewer than
63 targets or 49 catches.
Receiving TDs - Much of what is relevant here
was already discussed two paragraphs above. Backs like White and
Ekeler obviously need to do well here to have any hopes of making
up for their lack of rushing touchdowns. As is with the case with
rushing scores, opportunity and luck are critical. As wonderful
as McCaffrey's 2019 campaign was, he only scored once every 29
catches and 35.5 targets. Ingram finished with more receiving
TDs on only 26 catches (five), averaging one receiving score every
5.2 receptions and 5.8 targets. The point to be made here is touchdown
scoring is highly volatile, so it's not one of those areas that
owners can pencil a player in for a certain range before the season
and be comfortable believing he'll reach that mark.
Touches - Perhaps the most unsurprising finding
on this list is the fact that of the top eight fantasy-point totals
by running backs over the last three seasons, five of them recorded
at least 343 touches. Kamara (in 2017) and Ekeler (in 2019) notched
top-12 finishes despite ending up with fewer than 225 touches,
but it is a big ask for any back to enjoy the kind of TD luck
they did consistently.
Recommended baselines for running backs to approach potential
league-winner status (all totals work out to 228 fantasy points,
or roughly the equivalent of McCaffrey as a rookie - the RB33
on this list):
All-purpose (more than 160 carries and at least 49 targets):
1,000 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 420 receiving yards, six total
Run-heavy (more than 160 carries and less than 49 targets):
1,180 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 180 receiving yards, 12 total
Pass-catching specialists/miscellaneous (less than 160
carries): 60 receptions, 1,200 total yards, eight total
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.