This article is part of our DFS Football 101 series.
In DFS, we as players naturally crave reliability from our roster selections. While the NFL is viewed as one of the daily fantasy sports with lesser overall variance, it certainly still has its share of unpredictability. For example, a stud receiver can get shut down by a particular defensive scheme, a bad case of the drops, a shutdown corner, or a combination of all three, on any given week. Ditto for a tight end, who perhaps gets bracketed by a linebacker and safety throughout four quarters and only has a couple of targets directed his way.
Running backs can serve as a contrast to the uncertainty inherent in the pass-catching positions, as they often enjoy more predictable participation patterns. A clear-cut, bell-cow running back can typically be counted on to touch the ball 15 to 25 times per game on average between rushing and receiving, and even a more secondary, change-of-pace back can often be earmarked to have the ball in his hands eight to 10 times per contest in many cases.
Therefore, making the right choices at running back in daily fantasy football can often be integral to a head-to-head victory or a favorable placing in a tournament or 50/50 cash game. As with all roster positions, there are several factors to consider when conducting research on running backs for NFL DFS, which we'll delve into further:
Targeting Based on Defensive Rankings
As we covered in our previous installment on selecting quarterbacks for your DFS lineup, there is certainly overlap between NFL DFS research and the kind you might engage in when making certain lineup decisions in your season-long leagues. One of the ways this applies to the running back position is with respect to analyzing the stoutness of the defensive matchup they draw in any given week.
A look at the opposing defense's prowess, or lack thereof, in stopping the run is a logical starting point. As with pass defense metrics, a team's performance against the rush is readily available through a plethora of online sources, including ESPN.com and NFL.com, and serves to provide you with perspective on how effective a team is at limiting opposing ground attacks. Just as important, these numbers also provide you with a window into how proficient the opposition on any given week is at preventing rushing touchdowns, data which can be particularly important in helping you make your running back selections in DFS.
One additional aspect of gleaning information from a study of the opposing defense pertains to gauging how balanced that unit is in their ability to limit offenses. For example, an especially strong pass defense can very often force the hand of the opposition to focus much more on their ground game, potentially leading to a particularly productive day for the opposition's running attack.
Using Vegas as a Tool
In our installment on quarterbacks, we emphasized how looking at both projected point totals and point spreads can be an integral component of conducting daily fantasy football research. This is true as well when evaluating running backs for DFS.
As we'd mentioned when discussing quarterbacks, a team with an elevated projected scoring total should always be on your radar when making NFL DFS lineup decisions. With the relative reliability that the NFL brings in terms of outcomes week to week, projected scoring totals can really help you hone in on where you're highly likely to find abundant offense, but with respect to DFS, that's only half the battle.
This is where becoming intimately familiar with a team's offensive scheme and tendencies, particularly near the goal line, can be paramount to success and profits in daily fantasy football. Without doing full due diligence, for instance, you could tab a running back from a team projected to score plenty, and then experience the disappointment that comes with realizing that even when in the red zone, that team heavily favors the pass over the run.
Two shining examples of this can be gleaned from a look at the final team offense statistics from 2015.
While the New York Giants ranked sixth overall in the NFL with 26.3 points per game, they actually only scored a total of five rushing touchdowns the entire season, tying them for 29th in that category with the Browns and Jaguars.
An even more surprising case is that of the Seattle Seahawks, a team with a considerable reputation for pounding the football on the ground all over the field heading into last season. With a plethora of injuries slowing Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks' 26.4 points per game (fourth-best in the NFL) only included 10 rushing touchdowns, ranking them in the bottom half of the league (18th) in that category.
In the case of running backs, a game's point spread can also serve as a guide for how safe it might be to deploy a certain player. With respect to running backs, the opposite of what we emphasized about point spreads and quarterbacks is true—usually we want to stay away from backs on teams who are significant underdogs (say six points or greater) and gravitate to those who are anywhere from strong favorites to very small underdogs.
The rationale here is simple—a tight point spread in either direction should essentially guarantee that a team's running game will be viable for all four quarters, as there will be no need to inordinately focus on the passing game in order to make up for a sizable deficit.
The case can be even stronger for large favorites, as the implication is that eventually, they'll primarily turn things over to their running game in the second half to salt away the victory and avoid unnecessarily exposing their quarterback and receivers to injury.
The Benefit of Pass-Catching Running Backs
A quick final note involves the enhanced value of pass-catching running backs. When playing on DraftKings, where a point is awarded for each reception, the backs who tend to have moderate to heavy involvement in the passing game naturally see their value enhanced on most weeks.
However, even on FanDuel, where the scoring system doesn't include any points for a catch, a passing game-proficient back can help offset a lack of opportunities on the ground that may stem from a team falling behind by a large margin. In fact, these type of players often play a key role in second-half comeback attempts or even "garbage time" drives in blowouts, by amassing considerable yardage on underneath routes and dump-off passes when the opposing defense goes into a prevent mode. As a result, a pass-catching back can sometimes be the exception to the rule when it comes to avoiding teams projected as large underdogs, as they're much more apt to remain involved for the entirety of the game.