Finding Elite Fantasy Football Running Backs and Tight Ends

New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles
New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles
Dec 23 2012 Arlington TX USA New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles 43 runs the ball during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium Tim Heitman USA TODAY Sports

From Ray Rice in 2008 to Marcel Reece in 2012, from Jimmy Graham in 2011 to Dennis Pitta in 2012, we believe the nascent Fantasy Points Per Route Run (FPPRR) metric would have been a great help in predicting fantasy football breakout players, and will prove valuable to fantasy owners in 2013.

If you’ve been following along with fantasy football writers at Sports Jerks Network, we’ve been looking into FPPRR data pretty heavily over the past couple of weeks, using the metric to pinpoint tight ends and running backs who have posted high per-route fantasy production and are slated for an uptick in usage in 2013.

Read more about FPPRR projections and how it can help your fantasy football team…
Finding Predictability in Tight End Route Running
Running Back Receiving Efficiency 

The number crunchers and arithmetic wizards at Pro Football Focus have collected five years of route data for us to apply to players that can have a multitude of assignments on any given play. PFF’s stat keeping has proven invaluable, as per usual.

It’s because tight ends and running backs can have a range of assignments on any given snap, we’re using this metric to project those positions, not wide receivers. Judging how those two positions produce on a per-snap basis — instead of a per-route basis — gives us a skewed view of which guys we can depend on.

Here’s a quick example: Martellus Bennett was asked to block on 18.7 percent of his 2012 snaps, while Jermichael Finley blocked on just 7 percent of his snaps.

Judging these two tight ends on a per-route basis — especially since Bennett will play a potentially prominent role in the Bears’ pass happy offense this season — will prove a more accurate gauge of their efficiency. Bennett’s FPPRR was .22 and Finley’s was .17 in 2012. Any FPPRR above .21 in standard scoring leagues is a good predictor of fantasy success, given adequate route running. The gap between those two FPPRR scores is hard to overstate.

Today, we’re going to share with you what we call the FPPRR History.

Beating a Bad FPPRR Score

Since we care about you, dear degenerate, we want to put all of the cards on the table here.

You can still be a good running back or tight end and have a bad FPPRR score. It’s a metric, a stat, not a magic wand. There is no crystal ball here that is going to guarantee fantasy football success beyond your wildest dreams. There is, however, a definite probability that FPPRR can be used along with your other powers of fantasy football prognostication.

Any fantasy metric should be used as a tool, not a crutch. The same certainly goes for FPPRR.

There are two groups of backs that can overcome a low FPPRR score in PPR leagues: guys who are heavily reliant on all of their rushing statistics to carry them, and players who rack up a consistently high number of snaps. Guys like Adrian Peterson and Alfred Morris are still going to finish as top performers in PPR leagues even if their value is slightly dinged for not catching many passes.

A back like the Patriots’ Stevan Ridley is still going to be a top-25 finisher despite the likelihood of catching 10 balls this season, if not fewer. Remember, the FPPRR metric is based on receiving points only.

The second group of guys are extreme volume plays, like Arian Foster in 2012. Crazy amounts of usage still makes up for lack of effective scores in any fantasy football metric. Just like yards per carry and yard per catch, points per target and a dozen other stats, you can have a low score but have tons of volume that makes your totals sparkle at the end of the season.

Volume to that degree rarely, if ever, goes unnoticed in the degenerate fantasy community, where we track everything, always, forever. Those guys with extreme usage are owned and started regardless, and for good reason.

That doesn’t mean you will score high overall in fantasy, but 50 nickels still adds up to greater amount than two dollar bills. Trust us, we did the math.

Darren Sproles 335 0.55
CJ Spiller 241 0.42
Joique Bell 245 0.41
Ronnie Brown 218 0.39
LeSean McCoy 280 0.39
Fred Jackson 159 0.39
Danny Woodhead 275 0.37
Jacquizz   Rodgers 267 0.37
Ryan Mathews 173 0.37
Pierre Thomas 220 0.37

*100+ Snaps in Route

Fantasy Points Per Route Run (FPPRR) Success Rate

An above average FPPRR score in a season has an 80 percent hit rate in creating a fantasy relevant running back.

Put simply, that means all above average scores in a season over the past five years correlates with a player who finished as a top-48 back or higher that season. I used all backs (removing fullbacks) with just 100 snaps in route (only 6.25 pass routes per game) over those five seasons in creating the baseline, so players like Mewelde Moore, Kenneth Darby and a few non-fantasy entities have sneaked onto the dance floor.

We want to let these players in though, because we are also looking for predictive value if a player is in line for more opportunities, or an anticipated workload increase, whether it’s for a season or just one week. Spotting guys who put up above-average FPPRR numbers will be critical in spotting players in-season who could post big fantasy numbers given a spike in opportunity.

That happened last season in Oakland, and it was glorious.

Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece
Dec 4 2011 Miami FL USA Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece 45 hurdles Miami Dolphins safety Reshad Jones 20 in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium The Dolphins defeated the Raiders 34 14Kirby LeeImage of Sport USA TODAY Sports

FPPRR: The Reece Effect

Coming into last season, Marcel Reece had already posted two well above average FPPRR scores of .66 in 2010 and .45 in 2011. Both numbers were posted with very minimal usage, of course. Even so, Reece’s score jumped out of all the reams of FPPRR data we’ve collected.

When the Raiders backfield fell apart last season, with Darren McFadden once more ruining the lives of a million fantasy degenerates, Reece was a waiver wire gem. We have no doubt that the FPPRR metric would have made Reece stand out like a 10 million-watt sign on the Vegas strip as you perused your waiver wire in the middle of last season.

In an Oakland offense that was among the pass happiest in the league, Reece would’ve been a PPR no brainer and an FPPRR golden child.

When Darren McFadden missed time, Reece finished as RB4, RB18, RB11, RB1, RB22 in Weeks 8-12, all while scoring 63 points receiving (12.6 fantasy points per week) over those five weeks. Reece pushed quite a few savvy fantasy owners into their respective postseasons.

There are examples of this every season, so Reece is not an exception.

Green Bay running back Brandon Jackson  in 2009 ran only 140 pass routes but finished with an above average score in FPPRR (.33). The next season when Ryan Grant went down, Jackson got his chance to play, and maintained his FPPRR (.36). With his increased usage (229 snaps in route), he finished as the 24th highest scoring RB in 2010.

That same season (2009), McFadden scored above average as well (.33) but only ran 133 routes, not registering as one of the top overall finishers in fantasy points. In 2010, when he stayed relatively healthy, he finished as a top-eight back overall with an insane above average FPPRR of .59, on his way to 115.7 receiving points.

That 2009 FPPRR of .33 — way beyond the average — would’ve served as an indication of McFadden’s pass catching prowess.

Want more predictive value? Keep reading.

Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling in 2009 was forced to play for an injured Michael Turner and proved more than useful in sharing time with Jerious Norwood. He was above average that season (.31 FPPRR on 198 routes) and actually finished as the 37th highest scoring runner that year.

The next season, even without starting any games and seeing a similar snap count in pass routes (225) Snelling finished as RB36 with another above average season (.41) on his way to 92 receiving points.  He was also an above average scorer in 2011 and 2012 (.37/.50) but has never regained the same amount of playing time as he did filling in, but still has had over 50 receiving points each season.

If Steven Jackson were to miss time in 2013, owners will surely go bananas over the rights to Jacquizz Rodgers. We guarantee Snelling will have a role to play in that scenario. That would allow you (who now knows Snelling is actually more effective per snap than Rodgers) to fly in snatch him at minimum cost. That, of course, doesn’t mean Rodgers won’t have serious and immediate value if and when Jackson goes down.

Remember CJ Spiller’s rookie season — when, in the preseason, he was snapping off big plays — and we all got excited to the point of delirium?

In that disappointing campaign when he hardly played (running only 110 routes), he still registered a plus FPPRR score (.42). The following two years he finished as RB27 and RB6 overall with two more plus scores(.32/.42) and is now one of the most coveted players coming into 2013, and rightfully so.

If you are playing in a PPR league this season, FPPRR can affect how you play the waiver wire, and has already proven a valuable commodity in acquiring players who have late season success with new-found opportunity. Like anything else in fantasy football, elite potential sans opportunity is worthless. You must have both.

Rob Gronkowski 324 0.61
Jimmy Graham 520 0.46
Heath Miller 455 0.45
Dennis Pitta 396 0.43
Tony Gonzalez 568 0.41
Aaron Hernandez 317 0.41
Jacob Tamme 294 0.41
Greg Olsen 463 0.40
Owen Daniels 438 0.39
Brandon Myers 479 0.38

*150+ snaps in route

FPPRR Consistency

Those examples are a mixed bag of under-the-radar players and a few that have become budding stars. What it doesn’t show is how consistently good the best PPR backs are in this stat.

A top shelf PPR back like Darren Sproles has posted FPPRR scores of .58/.45/.56/.55 over the past four seasons he’s tallied at least 100 pass routes. Ray Rice (.42/.40/.39/.45/.34) has been nearly just as steady, a reason he has finished among the top-5 PPR scoring runners in each of the past four seasons.

Less popular backs like Pierre Thomas (.45/.47/.48/.49/.37) and Fred Jackson (.43/.23/.35/.35/.39) have been part time players throughout their careers, but score a reliable amount of points on a per-play basis. Plodders who aren’t involved much in the passing game,  like BenJarvus Green Ellis (.16/.20/.14) remain steadily sub par.

Coaching/Scheme Change

A coaching or scheme change can create an unknown drop or spike in production. A great example would be Frank Gore, who averaged 51 receptions per season for the five years prior to Jim Harbaugh taking the reins in San Francisco.

Gore had FPPRR scores of .28/.35/.39 from 2008-2010. In the two seasons under Harbaugh, he’s had 45 total catches, posting measly below-average scores of .21 and .13.

49ers’ backs have had only 34 and 40 receptions combined, disparaging numbers for anyone with the wild hopes of LaMichael James becoming the next Sproles.

On the other side, when the Carolina Panthers selected Cam Newton, it changed the entire dynamic of their offense. To begin his career, Jonathan Stewart only caught 34 passes over his first 46 games (.13/.23/.28 FPPRR scores on only 99, 135,107 routes run).

Since Newton’s arrival and offensive shift, Stewart has been well above average (.37/.32) and has 64 catches in only 25 games while playing with Newton.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice
Feb 3 2013 New Orleans LA USA Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice 27 escapes San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman 53 during the third quarter in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes Benz Superdome Matthew Emmons USA TODAY Sports

Creating an Elite Score

We took the top-48 PPR scorers over those same five seasons. Those are the 240 best PPR seasons from 2008-2012. The average number of routes run by those players was 215 per season (13.4 routes per game, a very reasonable expectation level for a starter and more than double what we used to establish the  baseline for the metric).

One hundred and ten players out of those 240 ran at least 215 routes in a single season. That’s 22 per season. These guys aren’t exactly hiding in your drafts or waiver wire.

From that list of 110 players, a .32 FPPRR score became our new above average mark for running backs – a 7.5 percent increase over our normal above average score. This combination is what truly makes for an elite PPR season in the passing game, in turn creating a strong overall scoring season.

Fifty-eight players from that list and more than half of the players that ran 215 routes (11.4 players per season) met this criteria.  Out of those 58 guys, 57 (98 percent) finished that season as RB3 or better (only 2012 Ronnie Brown, RB39, missed the cut), 72 percent (42 players) correlated with a RB2 season or better and 39 percent (22) finished as a RB1.

Ray Rice, Darren Sproles, and Being FPPRR Elite

No player has more elite seasons than Ray Rice (4) over the past five years, which has helped play a part in his PPR dominance. Sproles accounts for three of the six best FPPRR seasons. Take a look at the top 10 Elite FPPRR scores over the past five years, seven of them were part of a top 12 overall campaign.

Darren Sproles
2011 271.3 199 353 0.56 5
Darren Sproles 2012 216.1 185.7 335 0.55 12
Arian Foster 2011 303.1 126.7 265 0.48 4
Reggie Bush 2008 168.4 120 252 0.48 28
Matt Forte 2010 264.6 123.7 270 0.46 9
Darren Sproles 2010 143.7 123 274 0.45 30
Ray Rice 2011 372.64 164.4 369 0.45 1
Felix Jones 2010 183 99 224 0.44 22
Jamaal Charles 2010 282.5 109.8 258 0.43 4
CJ Spiller 2012 255.3 100.9 241 0.42 6

If you post an elite FPPRR score and get the opportunity to play — not even on a ridiculous level, but only 14 routes per game — you have a 98 percent chance of being at worst, a flex option.

The FPPRR metric has real predictive value that can help you in weekly transactions during the season and has played a part in consistent big time scorers that should get a boost during your PPR drafts this summer.

author avatar
Rich Hribar Fantasy Football Analyst
Rich Hribar is a husband, father, sports meteorologist and a slave to statistics. A lifelong sports fan and fantasy gamer. Follow @LordReebs