The Myth of Third Downs, Fantasy RBs & Where To Go From Here
“Fantasy football is kind of like one giant rabbit hole after another,” I explained to my wife.
Yes, she got the Alice in Wonderland trope; but no, the fantasy football part didn’t quite move her. Fantasy football is what it is… fake football. We try to justify the emotional and mental capital we’ve invested by finding stats and narratives that could maybe possibly in some way shape or form 48% of the time mean something. Maybe. To capture the innocence and naivety of fantasy football managers, this quote from Alice in Wonderland will do quite well, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.“
I get it. It’s my job. Fantasy football statistics and metrics can change the course of your player takes or further cement your stance and confirm your priors.
But have you ever gone down the rabbit hole about a certain statistic or theory so far you don’t know where to get out?
Third Downs & The Summer of 2023
Not sure exactly where your 2023 summer went but I’m still trying to piece mine together as we head into Week 1 of the season. The Borgognoni family moved back to Atlanta from Phoenix to take care of some extended family members and in the midst of unboxing my entire life, I stumbled upon a magic wardrobe. Ok, maybe not quite Narnia but I feel like I’m in new territory when it comes to third downs and fantasy football.
You (perhaps like me) have heard the age-old wisdom passed down from hand in the dirt fellas who know ball to the analytic freak in the spreadsheets telling us the straight truth related to the “most important down in football“. There is something about third down that… stimulates the senses.
"Big third down here" pic.twitter.com/ftlW6Z9bww
— Jeff (@TheFantasyEng) August 2, 2023
For the scope of this article (and the sake of my brain not turning into pure mush), I focused solely on 3rd downs as it relates to fantasy running backs & their production. The way I tackle research best is by asking big questions that I don’t have the answers to.
- How valuable is a third down for fantasy?
- Is someone truly the “third down back” for their team?
- How should we adjust our forecasting with this information?
To go full Morpheus and connect a semi-modern reference, you can blue or red pill this thing. “Believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
The Coveted “Third Down Back” Role
Maybe it’s important if we just get everything out in the open. Let’s name our priors regarding third downs.
For me, it seemed like the down you would want a fantasy RB to be on the NFL field. Teams likely will be passing more and we love pass-catching RBs for fantasy knowing a target is 2.5 times as valuable as a rush attempt for fantasy. Targets are gold for fantasy. For example, an RB who sees only 125 rush attempts but adds 70 targets has the same expected fantasy points as the bell-cow with 300 carries. It seems easy: whoever is the third down back for a team… gimme gimme. Bing, bam, boom. Case closed.
Our friends seem to agree as I looked up about 50 different sources regarding the phrase and definition third down back. (Yeah I went a bit too far but once I hit 25 I just kept going)
- Wikipedia– Some teams have a specialist “third down back”, who is skilled at catching passes or better at pass blocking and “picking up the blitz”, and thus is often put in the game on third down and long.
- ChatGPT– Third-down backs are typically known for their skills in pass protection, receiving, and sometimes short-yardage rushing. (Third-down RBs apparently can do it all according to our AI friends. )
- Reddit– “A 3rd down back is typically proficient at one or two things. Catching out the backfield and blocking an incoming defender (typically a blitzing linebacker). Think Shane Vereen, Darren Sproles, Dexter McCluster, etc.“
- The Huddle– “Third down is a critical part of all offensive drives and running backs tend to be the most relied on for most NFL offenses. But the importance of third-down success is hard to overvalue.“
Beyond mere definition, you will see your timeline flooded with information throughout the summer from beat writers claiming RBs have secured the team’s coveted third-down role:
- “[D’Andre Swift] might be strictly a 3rd-down running back.”
- “the third down [Samaje Perine] role has been dominated by [Chris] Evans“
- “Chase Edmonds is this team’s third down back“
At first glance, this can be seen as strictly a positive piece of news in light of the third down being a valuable role for fantasy. Swift, in his career, seems like an excellent pass-catcher and the Eagles traded for him to be a part of their backfield on such an important down. I did what any sane person would do and I looked up D’Andre Swift‘s career splits on third down. Easy peasy. Yet, I was dumbfounded to find out Swift averaged less than one third down reception per game in his career. It’s 0.78. That’s it.
“Wait, that’s it? Ok, that must be an anomaly,” I said to no one in particular.
What about Austin Ekeler? Come on, this guy has dominated fantasy football for the last two years. He has 177 receptions in that span. He’s gotta be doing work on third down, right? I threw out this poll because honestly, I personally was nowhere close to reality.
Austin Ekeler tied for the 2nd MOST RB receptions in a season EVER last year with 107(!) 💪
Testing some 🧠 ⚡️… How many 3rd down receptions per game do you think he averages in his career?
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) August 5, 2023
Less than 10 % of this crew (including me) got it that Austin Ekeler, the premiere fantasy RB and the king of third downs, averaged fewer than one third down reception per game (0.85) in his career. That’s it?!?
Something had to be off and after combing through the top “third down backs” in my mind, it was time to fully embrace Lewis Carroll’s desire for imagination and an introspective look at this idiom. (That is the author of Alice in Wonderland if you haven’t fully jumped in yet. Ongoing metaphors people, stay with me.)
Third Downs: Explain This To Me Like I’m Five
This might sound a bit elementary and forgive me for this… but it is worth hammering home to begin this diatribe: third downs simply occur less than 1st and 2nd downs.
Think about it: Teams move the ball, they progress from 1st to 2nd, and so on and if they pass the sticks or a penalty ensues awarding a first down, guess what? The downs reset. Turnovers, big plays, and TDs allow teams to “refresh” things. Over the last five years, here are the four downs broken down by the percentage of plays run across the NFL thanks to Stathead.
Third in third place. Check. Got it.
Hopefully, this seems very simple and straightforward as fewer than 1/5 of all plays occur on third down. Not sure if that feels smaller than you realized but there are a couple of stats worth pointing out here.
Initially, you could deduce that 3DRBs can benefit from this for fantasy with third down being THE passing down in the league. Even Tweedledum and Tweedledee would know that third down invites an elevated pass rate and teams logically would gain more yards per play.
Fantasy Production & Third Downs
Ok, ok, ok Kyle! Get to the point!
Now that we’ve established that third downs occur less frequently than some might imagine, how valuable is it for fantasy? Thanks to FantasyData, I was able to look at every third-down RB opportunity over the last five years. Here are some of the raw numbers
- Over the last five years, a 3rd down rush attempt in half-point leagues is worth 0.72 fantasy points.
- Over the last five years, a 3rd down target in half-point leagues is worth 1.2 fantasy points, roughly 60% more.
But beyond mere targets and carries, I am grateful for Sports Info Solutions, FantasyPoints Data Suite, Pro Football Focus, and Pro Football Reference to utilize some advanced data to analyze every snap, route, and play participation from RBs over the last two years. I compared RB activity from 3rd down to 1st and 2nd down with half PPR fantasy point production.
- Among the top-50 fantasy RBs, only 13% of their total fantasy points occurred on third down.
- Among the top-20(!) fantasy RBs, they caught only 0.53 3rd down passes per game.
- In 2022, the targets per route run for RBs league-wide dropped with every impending down including just 17.3% on third downs. Thus, RBs were targeted less frequently, and less involved than previous downs.
- According to a recent Michael Salfino Athletic article, he confirms much of the research as the overall RB target share has plummeted from 19.2% on third downs in 2017 to just 16.7% last year.
Let’s bring this to a head: how well do third-down fantasy points and third-down snaps correlate with overall fantasy points? Looking at the top 50 fantasy RBs of 2022, here is their fantasy production on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down correlated with their total year-end fantasy production.
|1st Down Fpts
|% 1st Snaps
|2nd Down FPts
|% 2nd Snaps
|3rd Down FPts
|% 3rd Snaps
Wowzers. Yep, the least correlative down for fantasy … is third down. To borrow one more Alice quote, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
We put so much stock into who the third down back could be for each team but the overwhelming signal for fantasy football is early down work. Why? Early downs happen more frequently, RBs are targeted there more often, and as I’ll mention below, they run more routes on early downs than we realize.
With some help from friend and fellow Fantasy Footballers writer Matt DiSorbo, I wanted to visualize and compare the distributions for fantasy points across the four major positions just to make sure I wasn’t overtly zeroing in on the RB position alone for this.
While TE is inching close, it’s clear that RBs is the least reliant position to third down so be careful resting your fantasy conscience there.
Think 2022 was just a fluke? The correlations from 2021 tell the same story. While QBs/WRs/TEs all have very high correlations across downs, RB production on 1st and 2nd is much less correlated with production on 3rd downs. It’s still positive correlation – productive players on 1st and 2nd are still more likely to be productive on 3rd – but the relationship is way, way weaker.
Show Me More Spreadsheets
Maybe seeing is believing for you. If we were to sort by fantasy points over the last five years, here were the top-10 best RB seasons on 3rd down in that span. This list has three different New England Patriots including Brandon Bolden, who led ALL fantasy RBs in 2021.
For 2022, here were the top-10 RBs in 3rd Down Snaps last year.
- Christian McCaffrey led all RBs in third-down fantasy points and if there is one constant third-down savior, it is CMC.
- Wow, look at Josh Jacobs! Despite seeing a career-high 404 opportunities including an impressive 64 targets and 400 receiving yards, Jacobs averaged 0.5 fantasy points per game on third down. Half a point! In fact, he had two TOTAL targets on third down the entire year. Jacobs didn’t even pace his own team in 3rd down RB snaps. That would be Ameer Abdullah by an overwhelming 119 3rd down snaps to 63.
- Among this group, four of them had fewer than 65 third-down snaps and averaged fewer than 20 % of the team’s third-down passing snaps. Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, and Jamaal Williams were TD-dependent, not exactly third-down dependent.
If we zero in on who was on third down the most, here is the top-10 list which might have a few surprises.
- After tweeting out this question, it took hours and hours for someone to finally guess correctly that Kareem Hunt led ALL RBs in 3rd down snaps in 2022. Yes, my mind was blown too considering he averaged 1.2 fantasy points per game on third downs. If you had Hunt in fantasy last year waiting for him to help your team, it never came.
- Jerick McKinnon makes a ton of sense showing up on this list. He was a dynamite pass-catcher for Patrick Mahomes down the stretch ending the year with an absurd nine receiving TDs. Yet he finished with a mere 2.6 fantasy points per game on 3rd down? Despite catching three third down TDs, only 1/4 of his fantasy points came on third down. I’ll mention McKinnon more later because he is one of the few true RBs left in the league that highlight third downs and a clearly defined receiving role.
- Dalvin Cook finished as a top-10 back powered and saw the 4th most 3rd down snaps but there is a very odd orange blot on the right side of his row. Only 7.7% of his fantasy points came on third down. Was he just that good on 1st and 2nd? I had the same question but the answer I received led me to another conclusion.
- Saquon Barkley was incredible last year finishing as the RB6. He saw the 3rd MOST overall snaps & 6th MOST on 3rd down in 2022. But averaging fewer than one fantasy point per game on 3rd downs and just 14.9 fantasy points total on 3rd down?!?
- There is only one RB who showed up on all three lists: Christian McCaffrey. He registered the most 3rd down fantasy points over the last five years, the 3rd most 3rd down snaps of 2022, and the 2nd most total fantasy points at the RB position on the season. He isn’t human.
- Ezekiel Elliott is an intriguing name on this list given the public perception that Tony Pollard is clearly a better RB. Over the last two seasons, Pollard (42.9 fpts) and Ezekiel Elliott (90.8) had very different outcomes on third down although most would assume Pollard was a better third-down player.
Over the last two seasons, Ezekiel Elliott had more than DOUBLE the amount of 3rd down fantasy points as Tony Pollard.
90.8 > 42.9 🤔
Oh, and Zeke & Pollard played the exact same # of 3rd down snaps (110) last year.
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) August 31, 2023
I’ll highlight one more player who is rightfully gaining some steam this off-season, Bills RB James Cook. When he entered the league, Cook was dubbed as a legit “third down back” for this team and many noted how he excelled in that role last year. This year he looks like the main RB in Buffalo and whether you believe his frame will hold up to a goal-line role or not, it might actually be his third down work that needs the most boost.
- On the season, he saw just 16.6% of Buffalo 3rd Down Snaps, frighteningly behind Devin Singletary‘s 67.4%.
- He caught three TOTAL receptions on 3rd down. That’s it. Three.
- He was physically on the field for 24 TOTAL 3rd down passing snaps.
- He averaged fewer than 1 fantasy points per game on 3rd down.
I use Cook as an example not to belittle his fantasy prospects but simply to highlight how far we are removed from seeing how third downs work in fantasy. And I’m calling myself out!
But… What About 3rd Down Pass-Blocking?
You might object to some of this third-down nonsense and say, “He’s a good RB. The coaching staff trusts him on 3rd downs to pass protect. He is in there on third downs”.
The pass-blocking argument for any player is always a bit subjective. More snaps is always a good thing especially when the snap rates at the end of a game tell us a lot about our fantasy outlook. But keep in mind the snaps an RB gets “pass-blocking” are registering ZERO fantasy points. Nada. Zilch. We can all agree that you cannot catch a pass by not seeing a target and you don’t see a target if you’re not running a route and you’re not running a route if you’re pass-blocking. Get it?
If a receiver were to pass block, we would be furious for fantasy, “What is he doing out there?“. Tight ends who block are coveted by their teams but for fantasy, I want guys who are out there running routes. Apologies to the Jonnu Smiths of the world… Why would we not approach the RB position the same way? RBs who are blocking on a play are obviously not running a route. Thus, we need to be paying attention to a couple of statistics for RBs and their route participation.
- Targets Per Route Run (TPRR)- A metric we have covered many times over the last few years and a subject that one of our writers (AJ Passman) highlighted in his 2023 TPRR Primer. It is simply the number of routes divided number of targets.
- Pass Block %– What percentage of pass plays was this RB asked to block? This factors in only plays the RB was present on the field, not total team pass plays. This gives us a better understanding of how often an RB is NOT participating in a called pass play.
- True RB Target Rate (TruTgt%)- This takes TPRR and goes a step further for the RB position. Instead, take their targets and divide by the number of pass plays they were on the field, not mere routes. If pass blocking for an RB highlights their lack of availability, it should be counted against them, not for them as you’ll see below.
Among the top-50 fantasy backs of 2022, here are the respective correlation coefficients with fantasy production.
|Pass Block %
Routes gave us the strongest relationship with fantasy points BUT there is a caveat… is this RB also pass-blocking a ton? This in fact had negative correlation across the board in 2022.
Former Vikings RB Dalvin Cook is the perfect example. At the outset, his usage looks tremendous. He was on the field for more pass plays than any other RB in 2022! He ran the 3rd most routes and finished as the RB8 in half-point leagues! What’s not to like?!
Yet, Cook was asked to pass block on roughly 25% of the passing plays he participated in on the field. One-fourth of his potential targets… gone! Not a chance. When you observe his 51 targets, his 12.9% TPRR looks rough. But after adding in the pass-blocking plays to the mix, his true RB target rate on passing plays was just 9.3%! Route participation doesn’t tell us the full story and blocking for a RB is a big no-no for fantasy.
Najee Harris is another RB who was asked to pass block way more than you might imagine. Despite his pass-catching pedigree, it wasn’t his third down work that translated to fantasy success in 2023. 23.5% of his passing plays were devoted to blocking thus limiting his opportunities. Najee might be giving up work to Jaylen Warren but the third downs were actually a weak spot in 2022 already. Warren ranked 15th among ALL RBs in third down snaps outpacing Harris 123-to-97 and was on the field on roughly 62.5% of Pittsburgh 3rd down passing snaps compared to just 35.2% for Harris. The RB fantasy struggle for 2023 in the Steelers backfield won’t be forged on 3rd downs but rather if Warren gains more early down favor with the coaching staff.
Keep that key point in mind: the key metrics to view in the opening weeks is not third down snaps but early down work and early down usage.
Here is one final example from the preseason to illustrate this point. In Week 2 of the preseason, Samaje Perine received headlines because he out-snapped Javonte Williams 6-to-1 on third down. The Twitter thread bros came out of the woodwork to let everyone know a simple conclusion: Perine was one of the “10 Must Have running backs you need to target in fantasy football” thanks to this one point.
While their overall snaps are similar, the third down usage for Perine was what caught a ton of attention. Notice how he received zero targets and Williams, on the other hand, was targeted five times on those early downs. HC Sean Payton recently hammered home this point that converting and running it back to first down gives Javonte more and more work. Early down usage and early down target rate are not only much more indicative of fantasy success but the signal we’ve finally come out of Wonderland proclaiming!
TLDR: Passing Downs Back
Perhaps this conversation is simply about semantics.
- Is he the third down back? The early downs back?
- The satellite back?
- The passing downs back?
- Is he the bell-cow back?
Regardless of whatever terminology you currently use, I want to suggest a slight fantasy football language correction to address this concept: who is the passing downs back? There are RBs who specialize in this role for the two-minute drill (Jerick McKinnon) including former Patriots RB Brandon Bolden, who quietly led ALL fantasy RBs in third down fantasy points in 2021. This is part of the research I plan on diving more into for the future. Two-minute drill and end-of-game scenarios can bear out production for RBs.
But we have to move from third downs being an across-the-board directive for fantasy to perhaps swinging in the other direction… I prefer the early downs!
As the season progresses, I will monitor the fantasy production for each down and hopefully see if I emerge from Wonderland with my brain intact. To quote Chesire Cat, “We’re all mad here!“