Fantasy: The Contrarian – Yards Before Contact

| 6 years ago

Fantasy: The Contrarian – Yards Before Contact

During the regular season, I’ll be writing The Contrarian, a monthly column that examines conventional fantasy wisdom under the lens of PFF’s advanced stats. With most fantasy drafts occurring this weekend, there’s no better time for the first article. We’ll start by looking at running back performance using an unlikely metric.

In trying to separate the performance of offensive lines and RBs, it’s become fashionable to look at individual runs and give credit for the first chunk of yardage to the line. The RB then gets credit for the rest of the yardage as a measure of his big play ability. Pro Football Focus can take this a step further due to game charting data that note the contact point on each individual run.

Pro Football Focus adherents will be familiar with the Elusive Rating, an innovative measure of a RB’s ability to break tackles and create yards after contact. Elusive runners tend to maximize what their offensive lines give them. These runners are very resilient when placed in bad circumstances and tend to explode when those circumstances improve.  Such a player is the perfect fantasy target because he has both a high floor and a high ceiling.

I’m a big believer in Yards After Contact and the breakout runners you can find by applying this simple criterion. From a contrarian standpoint, however, I wonder what we might learn from the other half of the yards per carry formula.

Yards Before Contact

Yards Before Contact is a very different animal. Achieving good numbers in this category could be the result of strong offensive line play or being used in favorable game situations. 3rd down backs will usually put up higher numbers than short yardage backs, for example. If we praise a RB for something that is purely contextual and the context changes, then we might buy high. Even if not for the unfortunate rhyming action, we want to avoid that at all costs.

Despite those caveats, it may be that achieving yards before contact is an undervalued skill. If we look at a large enough sample, we should be able to show whether or not certain backs consistently excel in this area.

Let’s do a quick evaluation of two players who have operated in a similar environment.

Player Year Att. Yds Avg. YaCO/Att YbCO/Att.
Marion Barber III 2008-2010 565 2191 3.88 2.51 1.37
Tashard Choice 2008-2010 222 1064 4.79 2.10 2.69

Barber and Choice have run behind the same offensive line, and their carry profiles mirror each other almost exactly. Their percentages of runs in both short yardage and 3rd-and-long situations are nearly identical.

The similarities end there. Choice is so bad after contact that even Reggie Bush is reportedly embarrassed by Tashard’s lack of tackle-breaking ability. That may explain the Cowboys’ reluctance to give him many carries despite good overall numbers. On the other hand, his ability to see and reach the hole is extraordinary. He probably doesn’t receive enough credit for that part of his game.

Marion Barber’s strengths lie on the other end of the spectrum. He can still run through arm tackles. Unfortunately, he lacks either the vision or the explosiveness to consistently clear the line of scrimmage without encountering defenders. Yards before contact tends to fluctuate more than yards after contact, but Choice’s worst season (1.9 yards before contact in 2010) is still far better than Barber’s best (1.6 in 2009).

Several high profile backs are even worse than Barber in the yards before contact metric.

Yards Before Contact All-Avoid Team

Player Year Att. Yds Avg. YaCO/Att YbCO/Att.
Steven Jackson 2008-2010 907 3705 4.08 2.85 1.23
Michael Turner 2008-2010 888 3944 4.44 3.17 1.27
Marshawn Lynch 2008-2010 595 2356 3.96 2.94 1.02
Cedric Benson 2008-2010 837 3117 3.72 2.43 1.29
Tim Hightower 2008-2010 439 1754 4.00 2.75 1.25

With the exception of Cedric Benson, all of these backs perform quite well after contact. Nevertheless, they lack the vision or burst to navigate the line of scrimmage unencumbered.  It’s always possible that the fault lies solely in atrocious offensive line play. On this point, Lynch’s history might be instructive. The Bills and Seahawks both struggled mightily in run blocking, yet Fred Jackson and Justin Forsett were far superior in achieving YbCO given the same set of circumstances. Lynch is a stud after contact, but he’s one of the worst runners in the NFL in terms of seeing and accelerating to the original hole.

The run environments for Jackson and Hightower have improved significantly in the offseason, forcing you to at least consider them if they fall to the favorable end of their respective ADP ranges. Turner, Lynch, and Benson should all be blotted out on your cheat sheet with a do not draft under any circumstances note in the margin. Such low YbCO numbers serve to torpedo their upside and would require a huge workload and fluky TD numbers to offset.

Like total yards per carry, a runner’s YbCO/Att. can vary widely year-to-year, but be aware that these five runners have consistently struggled over a large number of carries. This sample includes 15 individual player seasons and only Tim Hightower has put up an individual season above 1.6 YbCO/Att. (Hightower’s numbers are trending in a positive direction and much of the damage to his overall profile occurred during a thoroughly unimpressive rookie campaign.)

Stay tuned for Part II of this article where we use YbCO to evaluate the Big Five RBs you might be considering for the No. 1 overall pick. In the meantime, it’s not too late to download the PFF draft guide and get set to dominate your draft this weekend.

  • uppercut

    Very sweet article. I’m not a FF player, but I like the implications in general analysis (whether a guy is good @ reading/hitting holes, then comparing to a teammate to see if it’s the line or not). It gives a (possible) reasoning as to why someone like Lynch – who marvels fans with his “Beast Mode” – has never developed into a “true star”.