The RSP NFL Lens: J. Moyer’s Sleeper Archetype for NFL Running Backs

RSP contributor J Moyer shares a sleeper archetype for NFL running backs. 

Whether it’s the actual game or the fantasy version of the game, the running back position is especially vexing. Among the myriad of reasons:

  • Significant dependence and interplay with the offensive line and offense as a whole.
  • Counting and advanced statistics that do not always reflect individual proficiency.
  • High injury rates and short careers.
  • Unpredictable coaching philosophies shifting towards committees.

These factors contribute to a modern assault on the position, complete with relatively low NFL salaries. Even the Baltimore Ravens recent asked “do running backs matter?” in a job post seeking a data scientist.

Still, we often find strong teams—in fantasy and reality—winning with a high-volume runner who often earns significant targets in the passing game. Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, and Ezekiel Elliott have all been offensive focal points for playoff contenders.

Unfortunately, knowing this only adds to the dynasty player’s frustration. The obvious blue-chip backs are typically consensus 1.01 rookie draft picks; getting Elliott on your dynasty team is usually a product of team mismanagement, dumb luck, or major assets via trade.

So, as always, dynasty managers who pride themselves on skilled player acquisition need to make moves on the margins, in the late rounds when nobody else is paying attention. We need to identify backs who are more likely to outperform their rookie ADP value. A prime example is UDFA Priest Holmes, who earned the third- and fourth-highest standard scoring seasons over the last 20 years.

Easy enough, right? After you’ve cured cancer and solved the climate change crisis to begin your morning, go find a late-round or UDFA star for your fantasy team.

Even more daunting in our search for hidden gems is the fact that running back production is a byproduct of opportunity as much as it is talent. Players drafted early received a far greater opportunity, resulting in production correlating more strongly with draft position than other skill positions. Utilizing data compiled by @JetPackGalileo for to assess backs drafted over the last five seasons, we see that, indeed, peak per game fantasy production drops off quickly with decreasing draft capital:

Fitting the data to a logarithmic regression model produces an R-squared of 0.42, a pretty good value in fantasy football, meaning you can reasonably expect peak production to travel with draft capital. However, by stratifying backs into two groups according to measured athleticism, quantified by SPARQ score (High SPARQ > 50th percentile, Low SPARQ < 50th percentile), the strength of the relationship between draft capital and production changes:

Relative to low SPARQ athletes, high SPARQ running backs produce more at the top of the draft, less later in the draft, and there is even less variability in performance relative to the log model (R-squared = 0.54). But more important for the dynasty owner looking for late-round gems is the relatively flat log model for low-SPARQ players, with a much higher degree of variability, reflected in the decreased R-squared value of 0.26.

In simpler terms, above average athletes perform predictably according to draft capital, while poorer athletes are more likely to over- or under-produce their slot.

Applied to dynasty player acquisition, this means we should scour the late and undrafted rookie crop for low SPARQ players. That’s right: slower, less agile and less explosive. While counter-intuitive on its surface, it actually makes sense that a league that covets pure athleticism will not under-draft players with flashy combine metrics.

Additionally, high SPARQ reflects athletic gifts that translate to a playing style complete with extraordinary jump cuts and highlight-reel runs that further push players up the board.

By integrating the above data with film study of prominent draft capital overachievers, I believe I’ve identified a Sleeper Archetype: unimpressive athleticism paired with a hyper-efficient running style. Specifically, backs like Priest Holmes possess elite scheme awareness, efficient footwork through the box, outstanding patience and timing within the blocking scheme, and the ability to accelerate through their changes of direction.

A hallmark of this Sleeper Archetype is a notable lack of flash. Their athletic traits and efficient running style specifically translate to a preponderance of effective plays that appear easy and underwhelming on first viewing.

There are no jaw-dropping five-yard jump cuts, extraordinary broken tackle rates or ridiculous yards after contact numbers. A more recent example is Denver Broncos 2018 UDFA Phillip Lindsay, a 5’7″, 180 lb, 30th percentile SPARQ athlete.

Lindsay stole the starting job from fellow rookie Royce Freeman, a highly touted third-round pick from the same collegiate conference. Lindsay’s best play traits:

  • Elite scheme awareness.
  • Efficient footwork through the box.
  • Outstanding patience and timing in the blocking scheme.
  • Ability to accelerate through their changes of direction.

Lindsay makes it look so easy, that the football community has written off his unlikely rookie success as the byproduct of an effective offensive line. Many believe that Freeman will take hold of the job this year.

Who else fits this Sleeper Archetype in 2019? Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick, Trayveon Williams.

He is a 34th percentile SPARQ athlete with a notably understated running style built on hyper-efficiency that, despite helping him lead the SEC in rushing last year, stands in direct contrast to those drafted well ahead of him:

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