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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
David Dorey

Better than average: Running Backs

In today’s NFL, split backfields mean there’s precious few running backs who handle a high volume of touches. But there’s also no position that is as sensitive to schedule strength since they handle the most touches in an offense, and opponents typically focus on stopping the run and forcing their opponents to pass. So lodging the most fantasy points allowed by a defense is an impressive feat, and much more so when facing tougher defenses.

The top-8 fantasy performances allowed by each defense were arrayed and each  running back was recorded for how often their fantasy points were in the top-8, the top-4 and highest allowed versus that specific defense last season.

Adding up those numbers yields a “better than average” (BTA) score since they are better than the “average” running back that faced a defense. It also weights the performances since a No. 1 placement also counts as a top-4 and a top-8. The addition of the extra game for every team now means that all eight games are all truly over the average.

Better than average: QB | WR | TE

Bottom line: This is about how well a player did against a defense relative to all the others in his position did when they faced them. This is a true measurement of how effective running backs were with the schedule influences removed.

TM Running Backs BTA score Top 1 Top 3 Top 8
LAC Austin Ekeler 24 4 8 12
IND Jonathan Taylor 22 3 7 12
PIT Najee Harris 14 0 5 9
ARI James Conner 13 2 4 7
TB Leonard Fournette 13 2 4 7
MIN Dalvin Cook 12 1 3 8
CIN Joe Mixon 11 0 4 7
NO Alvin Kamara 11 0 3 8
TEN Derrick Henry 11 2 4 5
CLE Nick Chubb 10 1 4 5
GB Aaron Jones 10 1 3 6
JAC James Robinson 10 1 3 6
ATL Cordarrelle Patterson 9 1 3 5
DAL Ezekiel Elliott 9 1 3 5
DET D’Andre Swift 9 0 3 6
WAS Antonio Gibson 9 0 3 6
CAR Christian McCaffrey 8 0 4 4
NE Damien Harris 8 0 1 7
CHI David Montgomery 7 1 1 5
LVR Josh Jacobs 7 0 1 6
SF Elijah Mitchell 7 1 1 5
BUF Devin Singletary 6 1 1 4
CLE D’Ernest Johnson 6 1 2 3
CLE Kareem Hunt 6 1 2 3
LAR Darrell Henderson 6 0 1 5
MIA Myles Gaskin 6 1 1 4
SEA Rashaad Penny 6 0 2 4
ARI Chase Edmonds 5 0 1 4
DEN Javonte Williams 5 1 1 3
DEN Melvin Gordon III 5 0 0 5
KC Darrel Williams 5 0 1 4
MIN Alexander Mattison 5 0 1 4
NYG Saquon Barkley 5 1 2 2

Austin Ekeler and Jonathan Taylor were both significantly better than the other 2021 running backs though Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey were injured for much of the season. James Conner came through with almost half of his games in the top-8 and a healthy one-in-four in the top-4 allowed by their opponents. Leonard Fournette ended with the exact same numbers.

The bigger surprises were Saquon Barkley, who ranked lowest, and the duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, who effectively cancelled each other out in terms of having big games against their opponents. And Gordon is back again.

Elijah Mitchell always seemed so productive when healthy, but fell in the metric even below expectations even considering missing games. Ezekiel Elliott muddled through a PCL injury last year and had one of his least effective seasons. Antonio Gibson may lost some touches this year and that would drop him even further behind.

James Robinson ended well but tore his Achilles plus deals with Travis Etienne showing up, but it was encouraging that he had the workload to accomplish a very respectable score in this metric.

TM Running Backs Top 1
LAC Austin Ekeler 4
IND Jonathan Taylor 3
ARI James Conner 2
TB Leonard Fournette 2
TEN Derrick Henry 2

Ekeler and Taylor again shined as the only running backs that logged more than two games with the most fantasy points allowed by that defense. Conner already managed two “best games” versus the defenses that he faced and doesn’t have Chase Edmonds there this year.

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