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Pay or Fade Series – Part I – Satellite Backs and Why You Should Fade Them

I don’t think it’s a stretch by any means to say that points per reception (“PPR”) scoring is now the norm in fantasy football. Whether it’s full or half PPR, the concept of standard leagues is quickly fading into oblivion… much like Eli Manning’s wet-noodle-arm-throwing career. Honestly, though, it must suck being the second-best passer on your team while you are the starting quarterback. Shoutout to OBJ DA GAWD. Anyway, back to the subject matter at hand. One of the main reasons why PPR has risen in prominence (aside from people fiending for more ways to accumulate points like toddlers on Twizzlers) is that it expands the pool of fantasy assets substantially. RBs are more scarce than WRs given there’s typically only one RB on the field at a time compared to 2-3 WRs. However, in recent years, there has been a huge shift in the NFL towards incorporating RBs into the passing game. Why? Because succeeding in the NFL is a matter of understanding and winning individual match-ups. And the best coaches know that one of the biggest mismatches available is RB vs linebacker. The best offensive minds in football, and coincidently, some of the most productive NFL backfields take advantage of this match-up regularly (Payton, Shannahan, McVay, Reid, Belichick/McDaniels). They’ve proven its success and the rest of the NFL have been following suit. 

Now, what does this mean for fantasy? It means that the pool of viable starting RB options increases given the weekly PPR floor. Satellite backs that were typically TD or bust in standard scoring now offer a decent floor/ceiling combo in PPR. What is a satellite back? To me, it’s basically a receiver that lines up in the backfield and carries the ball on occasion. But that’s just a subjective definition and here at the #FantasyBatCave, we’re always trying to bring you actionable insights for your dynasty leagues. And that’s exactly what I plan to do with this first installment of a multi-part #PayOrFade series where I dig deep into the numbers to see whether satellite backs are the real deal or just the great big con. For this analysis, I limited the scope to RBs who have 50+ targets and less than 120 carries. I chose to start with 2014 as this is when the prominence of pass-catching backs took off and became a staple for every fantasy team. After summarizing the stats assuming full PPR, these are the results:

What can we take away from the above? Well, the most obvious thing is that repeated success for satellite backs is extremely rare. Only 2 out of 7 were able to repeat their success from prior season (Kamara and CMC). If we look at the first average line in blue, the RBs plummet in value from an average of RB11 in their breakout season to RB36. Part of that is due to injuries the following season to Woodhead and Sims but we can see that even on a fantasy points per game (FPPG) basis, the dropoff was still there.

Source: FantasyPros

What if we adjust by removing injuries from the equation? That’s what the second average line in red shows. In this instance, the gap is closed from RB12 to RB19. Still a noticeable decline but not as significant due to league winning performances by CMC and Kamara. How did they succeed when others failed? For starters, they were able to lead their respective backfields the following season and substantially increase their total touches (carries + receptions). In the case of CMC, he became a true workhorse by increasing his touches/game to 21.3 in 2018 from 13.9 in 2017 and finished as the RB2 behind #BAEQUAN. He has established himself as one of the elite RBs in the league and has a strong case for the RB1 in 2019. As for Kamara, he is one of the most efficient RBs in NFL history on a fantasy points per touch basis. @ScottBarrettDFB put out a great piece on Kamara’s efficiency in May so I encourage you all to check that out and follow him if you don’t do so already. He’s one of the best analytics guys out there. In addition to heroic levels of efficiency, Kamara also increased his touches/game in 2018 to 18.3 from 13.5 in 2017. If we adjust for these two fantasy unicorns, we get the third average line in green. This leaves the remaining RBs who were unable to shed their satellite back role for a more lucrative lead back role. And in this instance, we can see that the dropoff is drastic. Falling from RB16 in the breakout year to RB38 the following year. In case you weren’t counting, that’s a fall RB2 to RB4 in one year. Just like that, the fall from grace is so sudden and drastic for some of these players you almost feel bad for them. From prom king to basement-dwelling troll. A tale as old as time.

So what’s the moral of the story here? Do not pay for satellite RBs on the backs of a top 20 finish. Especially ones that don’t have a path to lead their backfield going forward. That would be like going out and buying a TV at retail the day before a Black Friday sale. If you were to do that, then in the words of Antoine Dobson, “you are so dumb…you are really dumb… fo’ real.” J/k! This is just my opinion after all and there are analysts out there much smarter and knowledgeable than me who do recommend drafting players like White or Cohen. I’m just not one of them because I’m all about playing the odds and in this instance, the odds do not seem to be in their favor. Just ask Duke Johnson owners how much fun they had last season or Theo Riddick owners the year before that. Remember that the Austin Ekeler and Nyheim Hines of the world are much more likely to turn into Duke Johnson than Kamara.

Does that mean you should avoid all RBs who fit my screening criteria? Of course not. As you saw in the above, that would have meant you missed out on Super Kamario or CMC who are two of the most valuable fantasy assets around today. So how do you know which ones to go for and which ones to avoid? That’s exactly what I’ll be covering in Part II of my #PayOrFade series. In 2018, there were a total of 3 RBs in the top 20 who fit the 50+ targets and <120 carries criteria: James White (RB7), Tarik Cohen (RB11) and Kenyan Drake (RB14). And in the next installment of this series, I’ll be putting them on trial one by one so stay tuned to find out who you should be paying for or fading this season!

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