NFL DFS – Building Your Lineup: Running Backs
Aside from the quarterback position, running backs will be your most consistent source of fantasy production when building your lineups. Some running backs will end up getting more touches than their quarterbacks in games with run-heavy offenses when they have a lead.
All DFS sites require at least two running back spots in lineups, and many sites offer a flex spot where a running back may also be played. In this article, we’ll dive into the running back selection process, and what makes a strong play at halfback in both cash games and tournaments.
Sportsbook Odds & Game Script
As is the case with all positions in DFS, we like to select our players from games with higher totals. Although, running back is one area that we can get away from this, albeit slightly, depending on the point spread.
In our article on quarterbacks, we discussed that QBs face most dangers when their teams are double-digit favorites. It’s the opposite for running backs. The higher the favorite, the better the game flow outlook for the team’s running back.
Workload concerns, which I will get into in the next section, should always be on your radar, but when teams are winning – they almost universally run more. If they’re up by two scores or more, they typically run the ball at an even higher rate.
When a running back is a sizable underdog (more than a touchdown), it’s usually going to keep me off them altogether, particularly in cash games. Although, if they have a lot passing game involvement, they may still be a viable play.
Ideally, we want our running backs to come from favored teams, but when the game is listed as a field goal or less between opponents, their value shouldn’t take much of a hit due to the point spread.
The amount of touches a running back receives is the most important aspect when it comes to evaluation, even ahead of the matchup. Running backs that are assured 18-20 touches are going to be a lot more valuable than ones where the workload is uncertain. True “workhorse” backs are tougher to find these days, however.
Predicting touches can be difficult, but using past games is a solid baseline for your analysis. Be sure to look into how each game went and account for any injuries that may have led to an increase in touches. If it’s early in the season, look usage in last year’s contests, provided the coaching staff, and offensive scheme is the same.
Similar to the NBA DFS saying, “minutes equal money,” in NFL DFS, touches equal money when it comes to running backs. It’s ideal if the running back has a lock on the goal line carries, but that is not a requirement for rostering a running back he’s getting a ton of work relative to his salary.
Teams that run the ball a lot in the red zone are going to be the top teams to target for DFS. The more red zone carries a running back receives, the more likely he is to score touchdowns. This is an aspect many forget to consider when breaking down a matchup.
There is no better tool for determining how well a team defends the run than Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. Instead of using fantasy points allowed, which is one of the most misleading statistics around, use the best metric for determining the actual ability of a defense.
DFS isn’t about just picking guys from teams that have good matchups in games with highly projected totals. It’s about pinpointing where these points will come from regarding fantasy production.
Teams that struggle against the run, but are stronger against the pass are the ideal matchup to target. There’s no better matchup than a running back whose team is a large favorite at home facing a suspect run defense.
Passing Catching Backs
Running backs that are heavily involved in the passing game make ideal targets in DFS. The main reason for this is that they are “game flow immune”, meaning that they won’t be phased out of the game, even if their team gets behind.
The other reason is that receptions mean more fantasy points. Sites that offer a 1.0 PPR give running backs that catch passes even more value. Pass-catching running backs are going to increase their floor and upside because of their work in the passing game.
Running backs that catch passes are ideal plays for cash games because they’re always going to add a couple more points to their final score due to their receptions. These all-purpose backs in premier matchups are DFS gold.
Injuries aren’t always easy to gauge when it comes to determining where the fantasy production goes. We know that a backup will start for an injured quarterback, but when it comes to receiving production, it’s not as simple as “plug this guy in for the injured player.”
Luckily, at running back, things can be a bit easier to predict. Often when a running back goes down with an injury, the backup steps right into the starting role and takes most, if not all, of the starter’s workload.
One thing we want to avoid in DFS in a “running back by committee” (RBBC), but if you’re reasonably sure a particular backup is going to get the lion’s share of touches when a starter goes down, they almost always make for an awesome value play. Sites rarely adjust quickly to an injury in terms of pricing, so these guys are almost always going to be underpriced.
Since we want a solid floor of points in cash games, we need to stick with running backs that are getting a lot of touches and preferably those that are home favorites. Though, the latter is not a requirement, depending on the matchup and implied team total.
This isn’t the spot to roster backs that are heavily dependent on game flow if you have some trepidation on how the game might play out. Go with proven guys in strong matchups where you know their workload will be reasonably secure.
One of the biggest issues that players have when building their lineups is what to do with the flex position. Is it better to roster a running back or receiver in the flex spot? Well, I would encourage players always to roster the guys they feel have the best value in cash games, regardless of the position.
However, due to the consistency of touches at the running back position compared to targets in the passing game – running backs do have safer floors than wide receivers. This isn’t to say you need to use your flex spot(s) on a running back. But if you have similar projections for two players, and one is a running back, that may be the better route to take.
Each week your roster construction will shake out differently, and it’s likely that you will find yourself using different positions in the flex depending on the week. Just keep in mind that a receiver who might get 8-11 targets is a lot more volatile than a running back that is going to get 17-20 touches.
Tournament strategy for running backs isn’t entirely different than cash games, but it does allow us to open up our pool of players a bit wider. Touches and snap counts take a backseat to the potential for a high ceiling game.
Tournament plays still need to have merit, but we don’t have to be nearly as concerned about having a safe floor. Third down backs or selecting a particular runner that is a part of RBBC is not off limits in tournaments. We can also target talented athletes who are in perceived bad matchups.
While I advised to usually go with a running back in your flex spot, the opposite is true in tournaments. Receivers offer less consistency but more upside when it comes to producing scores that are necessary to win large field GPPs. Again, this is not a requirement but is something to consider when you’re shooting for a high ceiling.