Fantasy Football: LeSean McCoy And Matchup-Proof Running Backs

LeSean McCoy
LeSean McCoy
Kim Klement USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football owners, before they take the first or second round plunge and invest in one of the game’s elite running backs, should know which guys are more matchup dependent than their top-end counterparts.

We’ve already looked at which top-flight quarterbacks are immune to bad matchups, and which quarterback streamers pick on the NFL’s worst coverage units. Examining how the 10 most highly drafted running backs perform against solid run defenses — top-16, to be exact — is perhaps more important, since running back production is less replaceable than signal caller fantasy points.

I don’t think the below analysis should sway anyone to eliminate any of the top running backs from their draft day queues, but knowing which guys avoid a significant drop-off in carries, yardage, and touchdowns against stiff competition could serve as a tiebreaker between runners projected for similar 2014 production.

If you end up with any of the 10 backs listed below, you’re going to start them every week, no matter what. And that’s OK, especially if the sudden obsessions with drafting elite wide receivers in the first and second rounds holds this summer and pushes a few of these runners to the bottom of the second round, or even the start of the third.

Fellow XN Sports scribe Rich Hribar has conducted mind-bending research into how game flow impacts running backs usage and production. It’s a critical look at how game script — however unpredictable — drives a running back’s opportunities.

Hribar’s game flow study, in other words, looks at which guys are dependent on their team gaining and maintaining a lead (here’s looking at you, Alfred Morris) and which runners only thrive when their teams are climbing back from a deficit and switch to aerial mode (hey there, Shane Vereen).

Below are 2014’s top-10 runners, according to average draft position (ADP). The “in split” column shows how many fantasy points the player averages against top-16 run defenses. The “out of split” column lists their average production against bottom-half run defenses. Context, as always, is provided below the table.

As always, I used the RotoViz Game Split app to generate the below numbers.


Player Current ADP In Split Out of Split
LeSean McCoy RB1 18.1 18.1
Jamaal Charles RB2 15.9 17.5
Adrian Peterson RB3 15.6 19.1
Matt Forte RB4 13.6 17
Eddie Lacy RB5 14 16
Marshawn Lynch RB6 12.2 14
Arian Foster RB7 17.6 20.5
Montee Ball RB8 7.6 6.4
DeMarco Murray RB9 16 14.2
Le’Veon Bell RB10 15.3 14.9


  • I mistakenly tweeted this week that Charles was the only elite runner to average more points against top-16 run defenses than against lesser opponents. I had my data mixed up. Apologies for that. I think it’s important to remember that Charles’ numbers include his 2010 campaign as backup to Thomas Jones (and the fantasy gods wept). He had six games with 12 or fewer carries that year. Charles, since taking over as the lead back in Kansas City in 2012, has averaged an astounding 19.5 fantasy points per game against top-16 run defenses and 17.3 points against bottom-16 units. I’m more than comfortable labeling him matchup proof.
  • McCoy’s consistency is quite amazing, but a little deceiving. Shady’s rushing totals plummet against top run defenses — about 25 yards less, on average, than he posts against the league’s worst run defenses. His involvement in the passing game spikes against the best run defenses. McCoy, over his career, has caught an average of 1.5 more passes and gained 11 more yards against those units. It’s a great sign: even though McCoy doesn’t shred top-16 units on the ground, he typically makes up for it with passing game involvement. McCoy, like Charles, is immune to matchups.
  • Then there’s Peterson, the marvel of modern science who has the knees of a newborn. Those baby knees haven’t saved him from unfavorable matchups, however, as his in-split drop-off is something close to alarming. The problem here is not Peterson’s opportunities — Purple Jesus has seen 20.2 carries in and out of this split — but rather on-the-ground production. Peterson averages almost 20 fewer yards against top-end run defenses. Take a bow, Christian Ponder. New offensive coordinator Norval Turner’s running backs have averaged 70 targets per season, though that might be a tad on the optimistic side for Peterson in 2014. I’d be careful not to write off the above splits as some sort of an aberration that tarnishes an otherwise perfect player.
  • We shouldn’t draw much from Ball’s 2013 stats, as he compiled much of his yardage and touchdowns when game script went berserk and the Broncos ran 10 million plays with big second-half leads. Knowshon Moreno, during his season as Peyton Manning‘s bellcow back, scored 17.5 points out of this split, and 15.7 in the split. I think the Sponge Effect will, in the end, make Ball a safe option in any matchup as long as Manning is under center. Be the sponge.
  • Bell’s numbers, based on a small sample size, are hopeful. Pittsburgh coaches have said that the offense will lean on the no-nonsense runner in 2014, despite the constant talk of a timeshare backfield. Bell’s receiving prowess kept him afloat in games against top-half run defenses, as he averaged 10.3 more receiving yards in those unfavorable matchups. Bell notched .75 touchdowns in the split and .4 touchdowns out of the split. Here’s how significant that is: the former would give Bell 12 rushing scores in a given season, while the latter would put him at six rushing touchdowns. This should assuage growing fears that Bell could be a preeminent bust candidate in his sophomore season as a centerpiece of the Steelers’ offense.
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C.D. Carter Fantasy Football Analyst
C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.