Fantasy: Dynasty Slants – The Hillis Factor 2012 and Breakout Running Backs

| July 12, 2012

Two seasons ago, Peyton Hillis went from unheralded backup running back to Madden cover athlete, which led me to ask whether his breakout season could have been predicted using statistical indicators.  Using key metrics found only at Pro Football Focus, I developed the Hillis Factor to identify other breakout running backs.

To recap the Hillis Factor, Hillis’ statistics before the 2010 season seem to indicate that fantasy points alone are not a good barometer to finding breakout players.  What is more important is how efficient a running back is on a per play basis and if they can create positive plays on their own.

 

With a limited role, here is how Hillis fared in his first two seasons:

 

Year Pos Name Team Games Snaps FP FP / SN* FP / Opp** Att. Yds YPC TD Yco / Att. ***
2008 HB Peyton Hillis DEN 10 336 101 0.30 0.47 68 343 5.0 5 3.1
2009 HB Peyton Hillis DEN 12 81 17 0.21 0.52 13 54 4.2 1 3.2
  • *Fantasy Points per Snap
  • **Fantasy Points per Opportunity (Rushing Attempts and Pass Targets)
  • ***Yards after Contact per Rushing Attempt

Using this data as a baseline, I created the Hillis Factor for running backs using the following criteria:

  • Less than 110 fantasy points.
  • Greater than 0.21 fantasy points per snap
  • Greater than 0.39 fantasy points per opportunity
  • Greater than or equal to 2.5 yards after contact per rushing attempt (league average)

 

The goal of the Hillis Factor was to find running backs that excelled in a limited role. With the benefit of our exclusive data, I could go beyond the box score to see detailed snap data and identify running backs that were able to gain yardage on their own after contact. The players who would have qualified based on their 2009 season included standouts such as Arian Foster, Mike Tolbert, Michael Bush and of course Peyton Hillis.

The six running backs I highlighted last season were not in the same class as the list of players the year before. Only Isaac Redman became a household name as he split time with Rashard Mendenhall. Javon Ringer regressed and struggled gaining yardage on his own, as did Joe McKnight. Chris Ivory and Derrick Ward were injured and did not make a fantasy impact. Tyrell Sutton was a late training camp cut and did not play a snap in 2011.

 

Pos Name Team Games Snaps FP FP / SN FP / Opp Att. Yds YPC TD Yco / Att.
HB Isaac Redman PIT 16 331 90 0.27 0.40 110 479 4.4 3 3.1
HB Javon Ringer TEN 12 240 70 0.29 0.36 59 185 3.1 1 1.7
HB Chris Ivory NO 6 116 43 0.37 0.42 79 374 4.7 1 2.9
HB Joe McKnight NYJ 12 110 40 0.37 0.42 43 134 3.1 0 2.1
HB Derrick Ward HST 5 63 27 0.43 0.46 45 154 3.4 2 2.1

 

With the mixed results from last year and Peyton Hillis struggling himself last season, I considered abandoning this metric all together.  Ultimately, I decided to give it another shot for the 2012 season.

 

Hillis Factor 2012

Using the Hillis Factor baseline, here are the running backs who qualified for the 2012 season:

 

Pos Name Games Snaps FP FP / SN FP / Opp Att. Yds YPC TD Yco / Att.
HB Kendall Hunter 15 278 95 0.34 0.40 112 473 4.2 2 2.5
HB Isaac Redman 16 331 90 0.27 0.40 110 479 4.4 3 3.1
FB Marcel Reece 12 318 81 0.25 0.47 17 112 6.6 0 3.9
HB Kahlil Bell 7 227 76 0.34 0.43 79 349 4.4 1 2.6
HB Leon Washington 16 145 46 0.31 0.39 53 248 4.7 1 3.2
HB Chris Ivory 6 116 43 0.37 0.42 79 374 4.7 1 2.9
HB Brandon Saine 6 67 24 0.36 0.47 18 69 3.8 0 2.7
HB Phillip Tanner 4 48 18 0.36 0.42 22 76 3.5 1 2.6
HB Dion Lewis 10 42 17 0.40 0.53 23 102 4.4 1 3.5
HB Shane Vereen 3 24 12 0.49 0.65 15 57 3.8 1 4.3
HB Taiwan Jones 8 29 12 0.41 0.51 16 73 4.6 0 4.0

 

Kendall Hunter – SF

Hunter was a popular dynasty stash earlier in the offseason. Then the 49ers added LaMichael James in the NFL Draft and Brandon Jacobs in free agency to compliment Frank Gore. As a result, Hunter’s ADP has dropped over 26 spots to HB42 since April. It is not all gloom and doom for Hunter though. His 17 rushing attempts in the Red Zone were tied for the 36th highest among running backs despite playing a part-time role. He also showed promise in the passing game with 11.1 yards after catch. Working to his advantage is his age (24 years old this season) and Gore’s impending decline.

Isaac Redman – PIT

Redman qualifies for the Hillis Factor again on a technicality, because he did not get a chance to start until the Wild Card game at Denver when Rashard Mendenhall was lost to a torn ACL. Redman forced a time-share even before the injury to Mendenhall, earning 331 snaps to Mendenhall’s 443. Redman is not particularly flashy, but for the second consecutive season, he had a rushing average of over 4.4 yards and over 3.1 yards after contact. Redman could have a short shelf life as a starter on your dynasty squad (turning 28 years old) – though you could do much worse.

Marcel Reece – OAK

It is unlikely there is a better candidate than Marcel Reece to be the next Peyton Hillis. Reece, the jack-of-all-trades for Oakland, played 63% of his snaps at fullback but also saw time at running back, slot receiver, wide receiver and tight end. He was more efficient with less than half the carries he had in 2010 – with an impressive 3.9 yards after contact. Reece has also maximized his efficiency in the passing game. He has been targeted an impressive 28.7% of the time he runs a pass route and has five receiving touchdowns (two in the redzone) in the last two years. Reece is going undrafted and makes an interesting stash in deeper leagues.

Kahlil Bell – CHI

Bell showed he could be an adequate fantasy starter with his 23-carry 121-yard performance in Week 16 against Green Bay – including 70 yards after contact. Bell also displayed efficiency in the Red Zone with a rushing touchdown on five attempts and scoring a receiving touchdown on his only Red Zone target. Bell turns 26 years old this season, so he could still have a few productive years if given an opportunity to play regularly.

Leon Washington – SEA

Washington turns 30 years old this August and inherits the change of pace role from the departed Justin Forsett. Washington has never been a feature back and has played less than 150 snaps despite being active for all 16 games the last two years. He offers receiving value in PPR leagues (targeted on 21.9% of his pass routes) and gains rushing yardage after contact consistently (over 3.0 yards 3 of the last 4 years). Marshawn Lynch will handle the feature back duties with rookie Robert Turbin backing him up – meaning Washington is closer to seeing significant action than most are giving him credit for. He is going undrafted in our Dynasty ADP.

Chris Ivory – NO

Ivory, like Redman, makes his second straight appearance on this list. He did not play a snap until Week 8 and played in six less games than in 2010(69 less snaps). His yards per carry were still impressive, but a lack of touchdowns caused the biggest drop in his fantasy production. Ivory scored just one touchdown in 2011 after scoring five in 2010 – including four Red Zone scores on 27 attempts. His road to playing time in 2012 is unclear, where he figures to open as the fourth tailback on the roster.

Brandon Saine – GB

Saine did not see any action until Week 12 last year. He struggled behind the Green Bay line in a part-time role, but still posted an adequate 2.7 yards after contact. Most of his value came as a receiver. He caught 10 passes for 69 yards on 11 targets – including three receptions on three Red Zone targets.

Phillip Tanner – DAL

DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones both struggled with injuries in 2011, giving Tanner a shot to see action in four games. Dallas trusted him with goal line work – he scored his first NFL touchdown on just five attempts in the Red Zone. Most of Tanner’s yardage came after contact, so there is room to improve on his 3.5 yards per carry if he can see better running lanes in the Dallas offense.

Dion Lewis – PHI

Dion Lewis is the favorite to be LeSean McCoy’s primary backup this season, although that is now in doubt with his recent arrest. You would not know that Lewis is a smaller running back based on his yards after contact (3.5) and success in the Red Zone (1 rushing touchdown on 7 attempts). If McCoy were injured, Lewis would help replace his role in the offense. Lewis will turn just 22 years old this September.

Shane Vereen – NE

Shane Vereen impressed in the three games he played in as a rookie. Injuries limited him to just 24 snaps, however, when he was on the field – he finished in the top-five among running backs in fantasy points per snap (0.49) in PPR leagues. Vereen led the entire league in rushing yards after contact per attempt (4.3). He could flourish with an increase in playing time. Vereen is the early favorite to be the top fantasy performer from this list at the end of the season.

Taiwan Jones – OAK

Jones is a potential lottery ticket this year. In a limited role (29 snaps), Jones ran 16 times for 73 yards (64 yards after contact) and was targeted three times on just 7 pass routes run (42.9%). Mike Goodson is a potential roadblock to more playing time this year, though the Raiders figure to get Jones more snaps to utilize his game-breaking speed.


Conclusion

The results from last year were inconclusive. This metric still needs more time and research to come to any significant conclusion. It is quite possible when reviewing the 2009 season that it was a fluke that several fantasy mainstays would have been identified. Regardless, there is still a strong possibility that one of these under the radar running backs could be the next Peyton Hillis.


Editor’s note: Dynasty Rankings Updated

After several requests to update the dynasty rankings the past two months, an update was published last week.

Click here for the July 5, 2012 update and see where these running backs are ranked overall.

Ask Bryan Fontaine for dynasty league advice on Twitter: @Bryan_Fontaine

Find more of our Dynasty Content here.

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