Welcome back, my fellow degenerates! If you read and dared, I hoped you ENJOYED the QB edition of this series; then I think you have a rough idea of where we are heading with this article. We are diving into actual stats and data to see how much weight we can put on PFF grades when it comes to fantasy football (FF) finishes, specifically at the running back (RB) position.
Sounds simple, right? We shall see!!!
First, a super high-level TLDR recap of part I of this series. PFF (Pro Football Focus) is a high-end data provider for the NFL, NCAA, and the average consumer (i.e., you and me). Among other things, they offer a grading scale between 1-100 that encapsulates each player’s performance in a given game or season.
Every snap of every game is reviewed, and scores are calibrated and then published to the league and to us as consumers. As you can imagine, the primary focus of PFF is showing how good or bad every player’s performance is regarding real-life football.
(I think we can all agree that there are times when real-life football success does not always equate to fantasy football success.) We all know of players who are great NFL players and less-than-great fantasy options and vice versa.
I wanted to dive into some numbers and see how related PFF grades are to FF finishes. Also, can we utilize PFF as a reliable tool for scouting and researching our fantasy teams? I dug into the last five years of PFF grades and compared them to FF finishes. The outcome was pretty positive in terms of correlation at the QB position! Again, check out the original article if you want all the numbers and breakdowns! (Here)
Digging into RBs
Time for the million-dollar question…
Is this success prescriptive across positions, or is there variance from position to position? In other words, is this always going to work?!
Let us find out together!!!
I am using a similar set of data for the RB deep-dive as I did for the QB position.
We will be looking at the last five completed seasons and comparing top-12 PFF finishes to top-12 FF finishes. (2017-2021)
Then we will see what conclusions (if any) we can draw.
Each running back had to compete in a minimum of ten games in the given season to be considered for inclusion. I needed a cutoff to ensure we were comparing apples to apples as much as possible. Someone graded as a top-12 option while having only played three games would unnecessarily skew the data.
We certainly don’t want skewed data, do we?!
Again, for the sake of the PPG (Points Per Game) truthers, I will break down the difference between PPG and overall FF finishes before proceeding. Across all five seasons, if you compare top-12 FF finishes to top-12 FF PPG, there is only an average difference of 0.2 PPG per season.
In fact, out of sixty RBs that finished top-12 in FF, only five finished top-12 PPG and did not hit top-12 FF. Since we are talking around 8% over a five-year sample, I will stick with the FF finish numbers for the rest of the article. I hope you agree with me!
Quick shout out to Fantasy Pros! All FF finishes, and PPG numbers are found on their site.
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the RB numbers!!!
Interestingly but maybe not surprisingly, I found there is much less correlation between PFF grades and FF finishes for RBs than QBs.
There was 70% crossover for QBs who finished top-12 in PFF and FF. At the RB position, that number nose dives to just 53%!!!
Also, if you compared top-12 PFF graded RBs to top-12 FF RBs there is a PPG difference of 2.9 on average! (Compared to 0.78 at QB!)
The best season in the last five years was 2019 with a very healthy 75% crossover rate. However, 2017 saw only a 42% crossover rate, and the other three years sit at 50% exactly.
A couple of reasons for this immediately jump out to me. I think we all know that opportunity is king at the running back position, and that seems very evident in this study. Many players that we would not consider “elite” at the RB position finish inside the top-12 every year based on their workload. We also have to consider and factor in injuries that happen at the RB position all-too-frequently.
Searching for Trends
Similar to the QB study, I wanted to see if there were any patterns that I could identify that may help in scouting the RB position.
Warning, it is pretty tough reading at first glance!
In the last five years, not a single RB has managed to finish as a top-12 PFF graded player every single year!
Only one RB managed to finish inside the top-12 for FF every year!
(Shout out to Alvin Kamara, DAWG!)
I am sure you are all thinking what I was thinking, some RBs come into the league every year. How do their trends stack up? I’m glad you asked!
Using a similar train of thought, I compared RBs that have broken into one of the top-12 categories and then repeated every year following. (Minimum two years of repeated success.)
In this category, there are *three RBs who have maintained in the PFF top-12. The three are Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor, and Damien Harris.
*Derrick Henry would have been on this list as well but for his injury in 2021.
On the FF side, there are four who have repeated every year since breaking in. They are Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Antonio Gibson, and Jonathan Taylor.
PFF seems to be good at helping us identify potential breakout candidates before they actually “break out” for fantasy. Especially at the RB position. PFF won’t tell us who will be a top-12 back every year, but it can help identify who is actually a stud and is just capitalizing on volume.
Sadly, we cannot say categorically who will get that opportunity spike the following year. We can however look at who made the most of the opportunities they were given. Studying PFFs grades can provide insight into who was performing at the highest levels.
Players like Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, and even Chris Carson showed up in the PFF top-12 before they cracked top-12 for FF. I point this out as I think it is one of my key takeaways from this study.
Anyone can have a single top-12 or top-24 FF finish if given enough volume. We want to try and find out who is doing the best job and therefore has the best chance at repeating. Especially when we are building our dynasty rosters. The RB position is brutal, and no RB lasts forever. If you can get yourself an elite, young RB, that is a massive boost for your dynasty squad.
A couple of names worth keeping an eye on based on these parameters and previous breakouts would be; Damien Harris, A.J. Dillon, Tony Pollard, and Rhamondre Stevenson.
All four of these fellas hit the top-12 PFF grades in 2021 yet missed out on top-12 FF finishes. All four of them could be in line for bigger workloads this year and happen to be part of fairly run-heavy teams.
Honestly, there is a lot more I could dive into about these players specifically, but the purpose of this article is primarily to focus on how we can utilize PFF for our own selfish FF needs.
I have really enjoyed looking at the differences between QB and RB within these data points. I think it’s fairly straightforward that QB is an easier jump between PFF and FF. However, I have found it very interesting to see the edge we can potentially get at RB. PFF helps to distinguish the studs from the duds. It can also highlight potential breakouts to target. I am excited to dig into the WR and TE positions and see what secrets lie in store!
Hopefully, you have enjoyed this and found it interesting and not overly confusing!
Until next time.
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