Using Elusive Rating to Dig for Running Back Gold
There are many traits that teams look for in a good running back. Catching balls out of the backfield, an ability to pass block, short yardage power, and a nose for the end zone are just a few examples. These are all attributes of a complete three-down back, which is a rarity in today’s NFL. At the end of the day, however, a running back’s primary duty (and thus means of fantasy production) is gaining yards. The characteristic that allows a running back to effectively gain yards with the football in his hands is the ability to evade tacklers.
Luckily for us, we have a signature statistic that quantifies a running back’s ability to avoid tacklers quite nicely. It is called Elusive Rating. This statistic takes into account every play that a running back touches the ball, whether it be rushing or receiving. It tells us how a runner performs independent of the help of his blockers and takes into account the number of missed tackles forced and yards after contact. Being elusive allows a running back to maximize every opportunity that he gets with the ball in his hands, something that is crucial to staying on the field in the NFL and thus in fantasy lineups.
While I am not advocating that a running back’s Elusive Rating is a precise indicator of fantasy success, it is a nice metric to consider because it shows a back’s ability to make the most out of every occasion he touches the ball. There are many backs that had as few as single-digit carries that skew the top of this list, so it not perfect. However, by browsing the list of the top-ranked backs in terms of Elusive Rating, I was able to find some undervalued assets that are an increase in touches away from being fantasy contributors.
We rank 172 NFL running backs in terms of Elusive Rating, and by looking at the top of this list I can find players that have been very effective on a per-play basis but haven’t been given many opportunities. These are players that you should be targeting in your Dynasty leagues while their value is still relatively low. There certainly seems to be a loose correlation between Elusive Rating and top-end fantasy production. The top forty of the rankings is littered with fantasy studs, including arguably the top-5 Dynasty running backs in CJ Spiller, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy, and Trent Richardson.
There are certain players that I have chosen to omit despite a high Elusive Rating for specific reasons. For example, I am not including Jacquizz Rodgers (17th-ranked back) as a target to acquire because the Falcons are already rumored to be going after Steven Jackson in free agency, a move that would clearly indicate the organization does not think he can handle the workload that Michael Turner is leaving behind. I have also left out Kendall Hunter (45th) and LaMichael James (25th) because I believe for the near future they are going to cancel each other out in terms of fantasy production while fighting for Frank Gore’s scraps.
Below are players who have a chance to break out if given the opportunity. (Elusive Rating and Rank out of 172 in parentheses)
Chris Ivory (146.2, 4th) – Ivory is a restricted free agent, meaning that he has a chance to escape the quagmire that is the Saints’ backfield. They incredibly have four backs in the top 42 of this list, including the hopelessly trapped Mark Ingram. We have seen that Ivory can run through tacklers as well as almost anyone in the league and that he has some speed to burn, both of which are evidenced in his stout 5.4 yards per carry average for the season. In fact, he has a yards per carry total north of 5.0 for his career. Now might be an opportunity to buy him cheap before he potentially ends up with a starting job and his price skyrockets.
Isaiah Pead (101.5, 8th) – Pead was my favorite back in the draft last year outside of Trent Richardson and Doug Martin. When I watch him I see LeSean McCoy. In fact, they had very similar measurables at the combine and film guru Greg Cosell stated that there was “very little difference” between the two coming out of college. Pead forced four missed tackles on just 10 rookie carries, which is impressive. With Steven Jackson leaving, this is the guy to own going forward in the Rams’ backfield.
Bernard Pierce (75.7, 13th) – Overshadowed by the Ravens’ Super Bowl run and the Ray Lewis retirement party has been the fact that Bernard Pierce gradually started eating into Ray Rice’s workload as the season wore on, and he looked good doing it. His snaps per game went from just fewer than 10 for the first eight games of the season to over 19 from Week 10 on, including the playoffs. Rice has seen a ton of carries the past few years and the Ravens want to protect their investment in him. Pierce will keep gaining a bigger share of that backfield until he becomes the starter himself in a few years time.
Bryce Brown (59.7 19th) – Bryce Brown was an explosive player in his rookie year. In the four weeks (12-15) that he saw starter’s snaps, he had 71 rushes for 387 yards (5.45 YPC) and had 4 touchdowns to go along with 11 receptions. He has fumbling issues, but that is coachable. You can’t teach the speed and lateral agility that this kid has. With Chip Kelly in tow, I think he is a great buy candidate in Dynasty. Kelly loves to run the football and is a big fan of a two-back system. It’s possible that Brown could produce like a flex option depending on his usage with the upside for much more should anything happen to LeSean McCoy.
DuJuan Harris (39.2, 40th) – Harris performed admirably down the stretch for the Packers. He had a beautiful 18-yard touchdown run in Green Bay’s divisional round loss to the 49ers and their intimidating run defense. In the four regular season games he played for the Pack, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 34 carries. He also showed his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in the first round of the playoffs against the Vikings, where he hauled in five passes for 53 yards in the win. It’s clear based on his play calling that Mike McCarthy wants to have a solid running game to complement Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. Unless Green Bay brings in a proven starter via free agency or the draft, Harris stands to be the lead back in this explosive offense.
David Wilson (39, 41st) – There isn’t much to be said about David Wilson that hasn’t been said ad nauseam in the fantasy football media since the season ended, but I have to put him on here. Ahmad Bradshaw has been cut, and Wilson appears primed to be a feature back in an offense with a high-powered passing attack. In a roller coaster rookie season that started with a benching for fumbling, Wilson managed to average just over 5 yards per carry. It shows a lot about his character that he was able to get out of Tom Coughlin’s dog house and instill enough confidence in the coaching staff that they were willing to let Bradshaw walk. I am afraid of the sustainability of his running style long-term and it probably is too late to buy low on him, but it can’t hurt to ask.
Vick Ballard (38.6, 43rd) – On NFL Network prior to the start of last season, analyst Michael Lombardi advised fantasy owners to keep an eye on the rookie running back in Indianapolis. Turns out he was on to something. Ballard produced like a low-end RB2 down the stretch last year (21st-ranked standard scoring back from Week 9 on) and now he is the clear starter and goal line back in a potent offense. Based on trades I’ve seen, I think he is being undervalued in Dynasty circles.