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According to the Data: Pass-Catching Backs Are More Consistent

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. In addition to RotoWire, Jonathan also provides content to the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, DallasCowboys.com, and NBC.

Week-to-Week Consistency, Part II

Last week, I published an article that attempted to explain the possible illusion of week-to-week consistency. As I wrote there, I think the majority of what people perceive as consistency is simply the result of a limited sample of games.

While certain players possess more season-to-season consistency than others, the short NFL season makes over-analysis of each game unavoidable. When a baseball player goes 1-for-10 over a two-game period, we often chalk it up to being unlucky. Meanwhile, when a quarterback turns in two poor performances in a row, the sky begins to fall in fantasy land.

Imagine cutting up the MLB season into 16-game segments. Each player would have a few segments of really poor play and a few periods of outstanding play. Over the course of the entire 162-game season, those peaks and valleys tend to even out, which is why baseball players have such consistent stats from year to year.
Well, the NFL season is too short for those tendencies to always even out. Thus, we often place more emphasis on individual games than we should because, well, it's all we have to analyze. We label Player X as 'consistent' and Player Y as 'injury-prone,' not realizing we're really just looking at the equivalent of one of those little 16-game slivers that MLB players participate in 10 of each season.

For the most part, I think that's why we see trends in weekly consistency that don't actually exist. I used my article last week to show that, studying the stats of big-play receivers (high YPC) versus possession receivers (low YPC).

Examining 50 players over the past two seasons, I wrote:

The fact is that the big-play receivers were actually slightly more likely to have consistent play than the low-YPC receivers. That's after I adjusted for stat totals (the top 25 in YPC averaged 1,189 yards and 8.96 TDs per season, compared to 942 yards and 5.12 TDs for the bottom 25 in YPC). On average, the big-play receivers posted games with at least 6.0 percent of their final yardage total just over 9.5 times per year. For the low-YPC players - the ones who many consider to be very consistent on a week-to-week basis - the number was just under 9.5. The results are close enough to conclude that weekly receiving consistency, at least in terms of YPC, doesn't exist.

My point was that even if consistency is valuable, it's quite unpredictable in regard to wide receivers. Among running backs, however, that might not be the case.

Going into this study, my hypothesis was that running backs who catch passes might be more consistent on a weekly basis than non-pass-catching backs because they have more ways to beat defenses. Like Percy Harvin - one of the few receivers I deemed as possessing weekly consistency - running backs who can contribute as receivers necessarily have a lesser degree of volatility because they can score points in two ways.

To take a look at my hypothesis, I sorted all running backs with at least 750 rushing yards over the past two years by the number of receptions they recorded. The top 25 running backs in terms of catches turned in an average of 10.3 "quality starts" per season. I defined a "quality start" as posting at least 6.0 percent of their year-end yardage total in any given game (and thus controlling for differences in talent and system). The pass-catching backs in this group included just who you'd imagineóArian Foster, Ray Rice, Peyton Hillis, and so on.

On the other hand, the bottom backs in terms of receptions - think Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, and Cedric Benson - recorded an average of only 9.0 "quality starts" per season. Remember, backs needed to turn in just 6.0 percent of their own year-end yardage total to obtain a "quality start," so the total production from each running back was irrelevant.

Thus, even in non-PPR leagues, I think you need to at least consider drafting pass-catching backs over comparable players who don't haul in many passes. That might seem obvious, but I think the idea stands even if you have players projected for the same number of points. For example, suppose you're deciding between the following two players:

Player X: Projected 750 rushing yards, 75 receptions, 600 receiving yards, 4 total touchdowns

Player Y: Projected 1,000 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 50 receiving yards, 9 total touchdowns

Both players are projected for 155 points in non-PPR formats, but Player X is probably the superior option. Even without the same red-zone prowess and on what is likely fewer carries, he'll probably be more consistent than Player Y on a week-to-week basis. This makes him less volatile, and thus probably more worthy of your selection.

During the season, this information might be valuable for close calls regarding who to start in a given week. If you're the favorite in your matchup, and you're deciding between players similar to Player X and Player Y, the former is the better option because he's safer. As the favorite, you want to minimize risk. If you're the underdog, however, you might actually want to consider Player Y (in non-PPR leagues only, of course) as you'll need that upside as the underdog to win your matchup.

Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He also runs the "Running the Numbers" blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.