Expected Points Assessment: Running Backs

Justin Dunbar creates his own expected points metric to evaluate running back production.

What should we use to project future fantasy production? It’s one thing to create projections in the offseason, but to adjust in season is incredibly difficult. We wish we could just use previous fantasy production to guide us, but with how fluky touchdown production and other stats can be in such a small sample, it’s something we cannot afford to do.

That’s where expected points come into play. You’ve probably seen some form of expected points before, but the basis is that it judges players based on the opportunities they receive, in order to illustrate how many points they should score. Since it strips a lot of the “flukiness” that can come from individual games, it’s a terrific way to create the foundation for a weekly projections.

Today, let’s utilize expected points to our advantage. However, I want to do it in a different way than you may be used to seeing. Rather, I want to utilize simple variables to create a very easy-to-use metric. Thus, for every position in this series, we will be using only one statistic that correlates strongly with fantasy football production to create this metric.

For running backs, that variable is touches. Touchdowns and big plays ultimately move the needle, yet they’re quite unstable, while touches are a much more reliable metric from one game to the next. However, not all touches are created equal. Based on my research, each target was about twice as significant when it comes to fantasy production as every rush attempt.

Using weighted touches the coefficient of determination between expected fantasy points and actual points was 0.83. In other words, 83% of a running backs’s fantasy points per game could be explained by their weighted touches per game. That indicates a pretty strong relationship, and the type of reliability we’re looking for. There will be players that consistently score more or less touchdowns than others, which will allow them to overachieve or underachieve their expected fantasy output.

With that, let’s take a look at how every notable running back rates in terms of expected fantasy points:

There is a reason Najee Harris is Erik Smith’s #2 ranked running back this week; his opportunities cannot be matched by a running back not named Derrick Henry. Henry appeared poised to regress this season based on his previous opportunities, though that doesn’t look likely to be the case; I will add, though, that those numbers might be slightly skewed by two overtime games. As you can see from this ranking, being a three-down back is critical to ranking highly on this list. That’s why Nick Chubb, despite his overall talent, ranks outside of the top-20, while less-efficient running backs rank higher. Based on how closely this list aligns with actual fantasy productions, it’s clear how significant volume is when projecting fantasy points for running backs.

Buy Low

By looking at players who are underachieving their expected points total, we can find some players to potentially buy-low on:

Sell High

Conversely, by looking at players who have overachieved their expected fantasy production, we can find players to sell high on:

  • It pains me to see Austin Ekeler and Ezekiel Elliot, two of my favorite running back targets this offseason, on this list. Even with the gap in their expected points total versus their actual points , I’m not sure I’d be selling high on either. They each have seen much better roles since Week 1, are the goal-line rusher for very productive offenses, and would still be clear “RB1s” with regression. Those aren’t players to sell.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson, on the other hand, is the perfect sell high right now. He’s essentially a glorified wide receiver for the Falcons offense, and he’s only eclipsed seven carries in one game this year. With Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage expected to return after their bye week, he’ll also see less work in the passing game, which is where he’s flourished this season. While you can, SELL SELL SELL. He should be a low-end “RB2” or FLEX starter for the rest of the year, but it’s very possible you could secure a player who can be much more productive for you moving forward.
  • After rushing for 261 yards in his past two games, now might be the time to sell high on Nick Chubb, or after his outing against a putrid Cardinals run defense. He’s essentially a non-factor in the passing game (5 targets), while he’s sharing the backfield in a 50/50 split with Kareem Hunt. As the Browns face tougher run defenses, and tougher teams overall, their overall rush attempts will come down, which will cause Chubb’s production to slip tremendously. It’s a shame that two of the league’s most talented running backs can’t each have their own backfield to dominate, yet here were are.

Overview

There are a lot of flaws with using actual fantasy production to project future production, thanks to all the instabilities that can take place in any given game. That’s where expected points comes into play. By utilizing this metric, we’ve been able to find players to buy low on, sell high on, as well as some waiver wire additions to help fill in for your starting running back. At the end of the day, it’s all a crapshoot, but it’s up to us to try our best to do the impossible, right? Hopefully, that’s what this version of expected points can do for us.

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