Evaluating Running Backs Using Yards Per Touch
Evaluating the running back position in fantasy land is a touchy situation. The bell-cow back is a threatened species as offense continues trending toward spreading the field, keeping the ball in the air and quickening the pace of the game. Regardless of your draft day designs when it comes to selecting your running backs it's becoming a better idea to look at both phases of the offensive attack. Rushing and receiving yardage are typically scored the same so shift some focus away from yards per rushing attempt to yards per touch. YPT includes what a running back is doing as a receiver and also highlights overall game-breaking ability.
Heavy-usage running backs that touched the football more than 300 times last season are almost all going at the very top of your draft. Jamaal Charles sizzled past them all at 6.02 YPT on 329 touches. Next in line was LeSean McCoy (5.86 YPT) and Matt Forte (5.33 YPT), both of whom went over 360 touches to lead the regular season. Knowshon Moreno was fourth at 5.27 YPT with just 301 touches, which bodes well for the assumed breakout of Montee Ball.
Counting the postseason, Marshawn Lynch was the only running back to break 400 touches. In 2012, Arian Foster (460), Adrian Peterson (411) and Ray Rice (410) all did the same including the playoffs. Rice had done it every season since 2010 until dropping to 272 during last year's disappointing campaign. Lynch and Peterson each averaged 4.67 YPT during the regular season, just ahead of Ryan Mathews (4.64).
After lowering the bar to 200 touches, there are two tandems that immediately stand out. Joique Bell (219 touches, 5.47 YPT) and Reggie Bush (277 touches, 5.46 YPT) rank third and fourth, respectively. The new Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, will keep this successful pair rolling with the Gulf Coast offense he helped implement as the quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Fred Jackson (253 touches, 5.05 YPT) and C.J. Spiller (235 touches, 4.76 YPT) ranked 10th and 11th. The addition of Bryce Brown to the Buffalo Bills is intriguing with Jackson now 33 years old, despite the recent one-year contract extension. Spiller is unlikely to ever go it alone as a lead back after the unprecedented hype he got heading into last year that only turned the stomachs of those that reached for him in the draft.
Of the running backs with more than 90 touches, Shane Vereen (6.98 YPT) led the way with nearly seven yards per touch. Behind him was another pass-catching specialist, Darren Sproles (6.65 YPT). Obviously, running backs with good hands and a quality quarterback will have a natural advantage in YPT. In fact, Vereen and Sproles both recorded more receptions than rushing attempts last year. Not the ideal role for consistent production but certainly useful in the PPR world.
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In last year's 200-plus touch club, Bernard's 5.35 YPT ranks sixth, a hair above Forte and a tick behind Bell, Bush and DeMarco Murray. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could get Bernard into the 300-touch area, depending on BenJarvus Green-Ellis' role. Second-rounder Jeremy Hill could be a larger threat, however. Bernard got double-digit carries in each of his final eight games, including a playoff defeat, but was held to 45 rushing yards or fewer on four occasions. Jackson's rushing attack should provide more efficiency. Jackson was most recently an OC in 2010 with the Oakland Raiders. In his only useful season, Darren McFadden exceeded 1,600 yards from scrimmage and posted an impressive 6.16 YPT.
During his four-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings, Gerhart was given 353 touches and averaged nearly 5.4 yards per opportunity. Gerhart has been quite effective as a passing option, an undervalued portion of his game dating back to his days at Stanford. His career totals of 1,305 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards is what Forte did last year. Micheal Turner left the San Diego Chargers after four seasons and more than 1,200 rushing yards compiled only to explode as a first-year starter with the Atlanta Falcons. The offense in the River City is young but promising. Gerhart now has to get some serious fantasy points flowing.
Jennings got his first extended opportunity to start last season during his one-year stop in Oakland. Among the 25 running backs with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, his 5.15 YPT ranked 12th. Needing one more carry or reception to hit 200 touches, Jennings would have been a top-10 YPT running back on that list. Third-year man and speedster David Wilson was having a brutal 2013 season even before his neck injury and is suspect in pass protection, a strong suit for Jennings. Rookie Andre Williams is very raw. New OC Ben McAdoo is going to employ short passes and a quicker tempo, giving the sure-handed Jennings a solid outlook.
Of the 25 running backs that broke a grand in yards from scrimmage, Stacy's 4.04 YPT was last. Among the 200-plus touch crowd, he's 25th out of 29. Stacy came in at just under 4.0 yards per carry. He is also very limited as a receiver. Rookie Tre Mason is a far more intriguing option in passing situations. The Rams have shown they have no qualms in making big adjustments to their running back stable, leaving Stacy somewhat vulnerable and somewhat overvalued.
Despite being a marginal runner last year, Thomas finished just outside of the top-10 backs with 200-plus touches at 4.74 YPT. Where Thomas made a leap forward was in the passing game, leading all running backs with 77 receptions. Sproles caught 71 passes last year and was traded away in the offseason. Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks is also going to be a factor in the short passing game, especially with Lance Moore departing. The passing opportunities in the Bayou are bountiful, and Thomas stands above a crowded backfield in that area.
Among the 25 running backs that totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Ellington's 6.52 YPT is a half yard better than Charles. Starting in Week 8, Ellington was given at least nine rushing attempts and made two receptions the rest of the way. He averaged a league-best 5.5 yards per carry while finishing as a top-15 back in receiving yards. During the offseason, Ellington added some weight to get over 200 pounds and has proven more durable than expected. Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer may take the goal line work, an issue for Ellington last year, but the Clemson product is clearly the preferred option elsewhere.