On Running Back Value, Waivers, more

How to consider High-Value Touches, plus who you should cut

Hey guys,

As I keep saying, I’m not sure what will become of this newsletter just yet, other than the weekly Stealing Signals columns. But it’s very cool you all have signed up either for a free account or subscribed for the paid portion, which is how you will be able to access Signals. I’m wary of sending out too many emails, and I won’t bug you guys with thoughts every time I have them. But at the same time, I want to be helpful here in the early part of the season, where so much of this deeper analysis that Signals is based on can be particularly valuable.

So when I get frequent questions or there are concepts I think could go under the radar, it’s cool I can come to you guys directly and share those thoughts. And based on some of the questions I got this week, I’m not sure I did a good job yet of describing how I view running backs and particularly the High-Value Touch stat I referenced frequently in the Week 1 Signals recap.

But I got a great question this morning that was a launching off point for that as it related to some buzzy running backs in this early part of the season. Shoutout to Nick, who asked about Antonio Gibson. I wrote the Signal on Gibson was “squeezed for routes by McKissic and green zone touches by Barber.” He asked how I interpret this, and specifically, do I “see it as a good thing that coaches are squeezing in a role for him, or is it bad that Gibson has to squeeze in for a role?”

So let’s first talk about HVT broadly. We’re looking at receptions and green zone touches, which are touches inside the 10-yard line. The ability to rack up receiving work and score touchdowns are the keys to running back upside, particularly in PPR leagues, which I should note is the default for most of my analysis.

The touchdown part of that equation is obvious, but here’s an interesting thing about the receptions — in 2019, there were 19 backs who had at least 250 touches. Six of those backs racked up that many touches without getting at least 25 receptions. Of those six, only Derrick Henry finished as a top-20 PPR back. Henry was obviously a star, but Josh Jacobs, Marlon Mack, David Montgomery, Carlos Hyde, and Sony Michel were all backs who stayed healthy enough to rack up top-20 touch counts but because those workloads leaned heavy on rush attempts versus receptions, none of those five was a top-20 PPR back. They all got out-scored by multiple backs with fewer overall touches.

And if you look at the high end of the leaderboard, you see stuff like Austin Ekeler rushing for 557 yards and four touchdowns and narrowly eclipsing Derrick Henry and his 1,540 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in full-season PPR points. Such was the value of Ekeler’s receiving role.

This is why the Week 1 route numbers for Henry and Jacobs were such positive notes — if they can catch even 30 passes, suddenly they don’t need something like 95th percentile rushing production, meaning both carries and efficiency. And we do expect both backs to see heavy rushing workloads, so that makes the route numbers give them significantly easier paths to high-end outcomes.

Broadly, we want running backs to play tons of snaps, and have the ability to get workhorse roles. Tons of touches are always a good thing — it’s the most opportunity-based position. But the High-Value Touches I reference are the nuance here. So what we definitely want is a back who racks up tons of those.

The upside of Gibson is he profiles as if he can contribute in both of those areas — he’s a good pass-catcher but also a bigger back, big enough to handle the goal-line work. But what we saw in Week 1 was he wasn’t getting all the receptions or all the team’s green zone touches. That means he might be a little ways off from big fantasy games. He’s still very much worth holding as we monitor whether that upside develops, because of how he profiles.

But let’s compare Gibson to some other trendy Week 1 backs. I was more positive about Boston Scott in my writeup than Gibson. That’s because Scott played more snaps and ran 24 routes. I called it noise that he only saw two targets — late in 2019, in the five-game stretch from Week 14 through the Wild Card Round of the playoffs where Scott played decent snaps, he averaged 18.2 routes per game and topped out at 26. With that type of route involvement, he averaged 5.6 targets per game in that stretch. So the two targets in Week 1 was, to me, variance. Or maybe more accurately, the Eagles’ whole offense underwhelming and Carson Wentz taking eight sacks and not having the time to get through his progressions and get to his check down option.

But Scott had a decent enough role to be successful in the right game environment, whereas Gibson probably did not. Bad outcomes still happen, and these things can vary week to week. (But I should also note Scott picked up an injury, which I missed. And it sounds like Miles Sanders should be back for Week 2 — he’s already practicing in full — so none of this is immediately applicable for Scott. But it’s still worth discussing as we drill into how you should read these notes.)

Then there’s Nyheim Hines. Hines is a great way to discuss some more nuance here, specifically that smaller passing-down backs don’t typically have the touchdown upside. They are thought of as high-floor picks in drafts, but an interesting aside is they actually have more week-to-week variance than a typical early-down back. That’s because they don’t have a clear touch floor of 10-plus rush attempts, and if they don’t get targets in a given week, they can have big-time duds. They are more game script dependent typically, and often in negative scripts where passing volume rises and opposing defenses start to play softer with a lead, these backs do string targets together and can rack up PPR points.

But Hines is a unique case. When a back like this does have some touchdown potential, he can absolutely have a ceiling. Ekeler showed us that in 2019, specifically after Melvin Gordon returned. But there are better examples in the past decade because Ekeler did have a full role early last year. Here are a few backs in the past decade who have finished as full-season RB1s (top 12 overall) in PPR despite not even seeing 100 carries.

  • James White, 2018 (RB7; 12 TD)

  • Duke Johnson, 2017 (RB11; 7 TD)

  • Danny Woodhead, 2015 (RB3; 9 TD)

  • Darren Sproles, 2011 (RB5; 9 TD)

These are the extreme examples, but there are others like rookies Alvin Kamara (13 TD) and Christian McCaffrey (7 TD) in 2017 who both failed to reach 120 carries but were top-10 guys. The point is we want to monitor the way teams use this type of back in the green zone especially. When some touchdown potential materializes, suddenly we have a very valuable profile, and one that is almost always undervalued by the fantasy football trade market because the player doesn’t appear to have a big enough role. Fantasy players in 2020 are biased to RB touch counts.

So when we see someone like Hines getting some run in close, and we know that Woodhead in 2015 and Ekeler last year were both passing-down backs for Philip Rivers who achieved this type of upside because Rivers has an established propensity to throw to his backs in the red zone, now we’re cooking with oil. Hines is very interesting the rest of the way, and my calling his Week 1 production a spike week certainly undersold my own optimism. I merely meant not to expect 20-point games with regularity going forward, but Hines looks like a clear 2020 late-round hit.

One last piece of nuance here — team-level factors. This is, I believe, the most important element to understanding HVT, and it was the most prominent way I looked at HVT this offseason in this piece at CBS. There is a ton of solid research in there, and my two biggest takeaways for 2020 were titled “Chargers changes” and “Colts set to rise under Rivers”. As I emphasized in Signals, we clearly saw those trends in Week 1.

So these are the reasons I will look at High-Value Touches in Stealing Signals each week, and what you should consider as I frequently discuss running back routes and green zone work. Targets can fluctuate, so routes are our more stable indicator of usage and receiving upside. Green zone work is also never a large sample, and it too can fluctuate. But these are the RB signals we’re striving to identify so we can take advantage before your leaguemates.

Some more thoughts on waivers/dropping players

Another interesting thing I got asked this week was about cutting James Conner in an eight-team league. Everything is very dependent on situation, league size, starting lineups, and maybe I’ll break down how to approach lineup building in various league types — particularly how to arrange your bench — in a future newsletter.

But this specific question was a tough one for me because I don’t think Conner is just done for 2020, and I don’t think we should typically cut bait on a high draft pick this early. There were arguments in favor of him on draft day that can still be applied today.

However, this question led to me shooting out a Tweet I believe pretty strongly in, which said essentially that this season looks destined to be one where there is a ton of waiver wire churn. I’m typically really aggressive with Free Agent Budget early in the season, but I was more tempered with my bids this week. I’m not saying to hoard FAB, but I think there’s a good argument for at least allocating it more evenly from the early part of 2020 through the later stages, whereas some years I may have teams where I use up 80% or more in the first three or four weeks.

And then the other side of that is players that can become roster-cloggers — injured players without clear paths to future roles, stable producers who don’t have much weekly upside that you’d rarely actually want to start — those are guys I’m going to be quicker to cut bait on this season. You’ll hear me talk about biases a decent amount going forward, and an important one in the early part of the season is the “endowment effect.” Let’s just do the Wikipedia definition thing — it’s “…the finding that people are more likely to retain an object they own than acquire that same object when they do not own it.”

This is an extremely important concept to understand in fantasy football. Because you drafted a player, that player is going to be harder for you to let go of. You can’t escape it. But I do have a simple trick I always do when it comes to these early-season roster decisions, or trade questions, or anything of the sort — I ask myself, “If I were re-drafting today for the rest of the season, who would I rather draft?”

It’s simple, obvious, dumb. But I’ve also found it to be very useful in detaching myself from that specific player, that specific roster, and the endowment effect. We make “this player or that one” decisions every year on draft day that I would argue we approach much differently than the ones in-season. That difference is we approach the draft decisions with a much fairer analysis of each player. We might think of things like floor and upside and team situation, but we’re looking at both of them and picking our favorite.

But once we’re in season, it is far easier to overvalue the player we have as a bird in hand. And then as a result, we aren’t fair or balanced in our analysis of the birds in the bush.

Kerryon Johnson and Matt Breida came to mind as guys in leagues that are, say, as deep as the typical home league. Neither is in a great offense, both appear to be in three-way committees, and neither really had a strong role in Week 1 that featured either the receiving or green zone work. The paths to me wanting to start either seem fairly narrow, and even if things break right for them there may not be much HVT upside. If I were drafting right now, today, I would not want to take either particularly high. There are players that seem kind of interesting that may have passed through waivers and are on free agent lists in a lot of leagues that I would probably draft before these two guys.

Myles Gaskin is one that went wildly overlooked in most of the waiver discussions I saw in favor of some more prominent Week 1 producers like Hines and Malcolm Brown. Interestingly, Hines and Brown were both guys who were drafted in a lot of leagues, while Gaskin’s 63% snap share in Week 1 came out of nowhere. It was a mild surprise to me the Dolphins even kept four running backs active in Week 1; it wouldn’t have thought twice if Gaskin didn’t even suit up out of the gate in favor of Jordan Howard, Matt Breida, and Patrick Laird.

So Gaskin maybe also went overlooked on Week 1 waivers compared to Hines or Brown because of what I believe would be expectancy bias or the observer-expectancy effect — I’m certainly not an expert in classifying these things — but essentially we were biased to our expectations for these players and less likely to believe what Gaskin did would actually be a real thing worth buying into relative to other guys whose Week 1 roles made a little more sense.

But Gaskin did play a ton. One thing I missed in my initial Signals writeup was Howard picked up a hamstring injury that limited him, but Gaskin ran solid routes and caught four passes. We had very little information from a lot of these shortened offseason programs, and at this stage the best information we have is that Gaskin really showed something this offseason that they liked, and he’s at least ahead of Breida and Laird. Does that mean he’s going to be a big fantasy contributor? Not necessarily. Howard dominated the short-yardage work, as I noted in Signals.

But if I was drafting today, I’d certainly rather see what Gaskin’s upside could be going forward, especially with Howard hurt, than someone like Kerryon and definitely Breida. And you can apply this line of thinking to a lot of your questions that I may not have been able to get to this week (and I apologize for that; it’s unfortunately impossible to get to as many emails and DMs as I want to).

As for the Conner discussion in the eight-team league? I OKed it. It’s a risky drop, but this season looks like it will be chaotic enough that I think I’d be able to find a solid enough contributor with that roster spot — specifically in a shallow league like the one in question — before Conner makes me regret that decision. That flexibility is key.

Thanks for reading and keep those questions coming! And if you haven’t subscribed yet, I’ll be dropping my biggest thoughts from every week on Monday and Tuesday this season in the subscription-only part of the this newsletter, Stealing Signals. It’s only $5/month to get it delivered right to your inbox!