Fantasy Football: The Pass-Catching RB & What We Know for 2019

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Last month, I wrote an overview piece, Projecting Offenses & Who Owns the Targets in 2019, to give a 10,000 ft. view of how teams distributed their targets in 2018 and what inferences we could make given their preferences. The goal was to visually show that there is no direct pattern as the diffusion of team targets seem to be immune from correlating to the total passing volume. In other words, the number of total passing attempts is agnostic and basically, we must go position by position in order to truly understand where these targets end up and why.

Let’s dive into how offenses distributed their targets to the RB position compared to the rest of their pass catchers from 2018, see what trends emerge, and begin to siphon out some meaningful data to help make projections for 2019.

Assessing 2018 Data

For those unfamiliar with the term market share, we are simply looking at the raw percentage of a team’s adjusted passing attempts by a specific position. These pass attempts are “adjusted” by taking out throwaways, spikes and the minuscule, abnormal targets to players such as O-Lineman and QBs. To give an easy example, if we add up the New York Giants backfield from 2018, Saquon Barkley, Wayne Gallman, and Elijhaa Penny saw a combined 152 targets which equated to 26.5 percent of the team’s overall adjusted passing volume.

Here is the league-wide target distribution sorted by team RB market share with a couple observations.

  • We cannot make any overarching team success statements about throwing the ball to the RB position. 6 of the bottom-10 teams in terms of % of targets to RBs were playoff teams. In fact, only 4 playoff teams were in the top half of this category with the Patriots, Saints and Chargers pacing the league at almost 30%.
  • Overall passing volume had almost ZERO to-do with RB market share. In fact, it seemed like the teams that were the most pass-happy were adamant about spreading the ball around to other positions. Check out the top-7 teams in terms of PAs and how often they threw to their RBs:
  • To stretch this point of data out further, of the top-15 teams in terms of PAs, only 3 of them (the Patriots, Panthers, and Giants) had their RB1 see more than 15% of their team’s targets. To put this in context, here were some less than compelling fantasy pass-catchers that saw 15% or more of their team’s targets in 2018: Josh Doctson, Jordan Reed, Jermaine Kearse, Mohamed Sanu, Donte Moncrief, Willie Snead, and Trey Burton.
  • Shown below are the top-12 teams in terms of RB market share. Those 3 elite teams show up again… the Patriots, Saints, and Chargers. However, if we look at the rest of this top-12 we can see some major discrepancies from high RB market shares and overall fantasy finishes in 0.5 PPR scoring. Obviously, fantasy rushing TDs weigh heavily as many of these teams had to throw the football because they were behind much of the season and did not see the same red-zone rushing work as others. The Jaguars, Raiders, and Cardinals RB groups massively underperformed despite seeing a plethora of their team’s targets. (David Johnson owners are currently kicking themselves… and I’m among them.)
  • We must remember not all targets are created equally especially for the RB position. Because RBs are so involved we have to assess the value of their carries compared to their targets. As discussed on the 10 Shocking Stats from 2018 episode from earlier this offseason, there were 10,995 “RB” rushing attempts in 2018. On average, a RB rushing attempt yielded 0.627 fantasy points per rush. In 0.5 PPR, a RB target was worth almost DOUBLE (1.88x) at 1.17 fp per target. In full PPR, a RB target was worth 2.5x at 1.56 per target. That number dropped slightly from 2.75x in full PPR from 2017.
Assessing Five Year Trends

It also is worth surveying the landscape of RB targets over a period of time to see if a team is consistent in their usage and what types of spikes in market share teams experience. Please realize the five-year average can be misleading when we see a change in offensive personnel, injuries, and more importantly, scheme changes with offensive coordinators.

  • It’s possible to make massive shifts year-to-year throwing to the RB if your coordinator can adjust. Check out the Panthers. For three straight years, Cam Newton barely threw to his backfield and many clamored when they drafted Christian McCaffrey that his usage would be minuscule considering “Cam doesn’t know how to throw to RBs“. A 14.5 percentage jump in 2017 is unreal considering how unimportant this was to their passing game. Credit Norv Turner who knows how to get the most of his RB position and has done it for years. The Bears also made a jump with Tarik Cohen seeing a ton of targets the last two years after virtually nothing for so long.
  • Two teams have been below the league average every year for the last five years: the Houston Texans and the Green Bay Packers. Seven teams have been below the league average for four of the last five years: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are an interesting case study given the fact they’ve slowly increased their RB target share each of the last four years following the overall trends of the league to showcase pass-catching RBs more and more.
  • Having an alpha WR with an elite target share didn’t bode well for targeting the RB position. Among all the teams that with their WR1 seeing a target share of 24 percent or more, all of them had RB groups with a 20 percent or less target share except the Saints and Chargers. As you’ve seen throughout this article, those teams seem to be ahead of the curve in terms of targeting the RB position.
  • Before last year, the Cowboys were averaging a 17 percent target share for the RB position, a bottom-10 rank in the NFL and an indication that Ezekiel Elliott would never be an elite pass-catching weapon. That all changed in 2018 as Elliott saw 95 targets along with leading the league in carries and rushing yards.

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  • The Eagles have one of the most curious seasons on this chart. After leading the league in 2015 with a 28.2 percent market share to their RBs, the Eagles had been below average as a team since. You can thank Mr. Checkdown Charlie (Sam Bradford) and Darren Sproles for that statistical blip.
  • The Jaguars might be a surprising team on this list as their front-office regime drafted Leonard Fournette with the notion of winning by pounding the ball on the ground, not so much his passing game work. Over Fournette’s first two seasons, the Jaguars have fifth-highest market share among RB groups thanks to backup T.J. Yeldon, not Fournette.
How to Project for 2019

Based upon the 2018 market share distribution and some of the trends we’ve seen over the last five years, here are a couple of overarching team projections for 2019 and how different teams might approach the RB position.

Positive Regression Candidates:

  • With the Falcons re-enlisting Dirk Koetter to OC duties, they should return towards being a successful screen team and involve the RB more than Steve Sarkisian’s anemic ways. The Falcons ranked 30th and 29th in RB market share in his two seasons. Expect them to be above 20 percent and a healthy Devonta Freeman to see 75+ targets.
  • The Steelers led the league in pass-attempts and yet had room to grow considering how much Big Ben hyper-targeted his two main WRs. With AB out of the picture and James Conner firmly established as the team’s starter, the team should also look more like a middle of the pack 19+ percent. Jaylen Samuels also could be an interesting buy if he’s integrated in as a legitimate pass-catching weapon with upwards of 60 targets on the table.
  • The Jets now have invested an elite pass-catching RB (Le’Veon Bell) with the freshest of legs… with just not quite as much cash as he thought he would get. Bell is averaging 6.5 targets per game in his career which puts him at 102 targets for a 16-game pace. That alone equals the entire Jets RB market share (20.3 percent) from 2018. Expect Sam Darnold to utilize the recently signed Ty Montgomery and Elijah McGuire as well.

Regression to the Mean Candidates:

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  • The Raiders overall passing pie should be served out differently with a revamped WR group (Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams) to replace a mostly ineffective 2018 group. Jalen Richard was extended in the off-season but probably won’t be seeing the sixth highest RB market share once again. This smells of an ugly platoon with Isaiah Crowell added and the strong possibility that they add a capable back in the NFL Draft.
  • The Patriots‘ absurdly high 30.9 market share is the second highest in the last five years in the NFL. James White has averaged almost 94 targets during the last three years and continues to be underappreciated in fantasy circles. That total will come down as well as more carries for playoff hero Sony Michel to balance out their RB usage. This offense might be changing with Gronk out the door and new WRs likely to be signed or drafted.
  • The Dolphins had their above average season in terms of RB market share (23.7 percent) in the last five seasons. Don’t expect positive results as newly signed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick has targeted his WRs at a higher rate than any other QB in the league the last four years. I still like Kenyan Drake as a buy but who knows with a new offense and a new QB.

“This is the New Norm” Candidates:

  • As stated above, the Cowboys saw success involving Zeke in the passing game. Expect the team to sport at least a league average market share to go with an already elite rushing attack. 80+ targets seem like a safe bet and cement Elliott in the conversation for the #1 overall pick.
  • With Patrick Mahomes at the helm, Chiefs RBs saw the ninth lowest RB market share. It’s hard to argue that the offense under Andy Reid will change it up considering how much success it had. Damien Williams will be one of the most hotly debated players going into fantasy drafts. Tread with caution or take advantage by getting Carlos Hyde in the double-digit rounds to hedge.

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