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According to the Data: Pass-Catching Backs in PPR Leagues

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.

Are Pass-Catching Running Backs Undervalued in PPR?

In almost all cases, I advocate a contrarian fantasy football draft strategy, i.e. going against public opinion. That's because consensus beliefs are factored into average draft position, and you can't acquire value by emphasizing traits or stats that are already a component of a player's ADP. That idea is why I'm so high on receivers Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon; after being suspended, the ADP for both players plummeted. It has dropped too far, however, and now two players who will miss at least six combined games both hold value.

With such a viewpoint as the backbone of my pre-draft thought process, I figured owners might actually be able to acquire value in PPR leagues by targeting running backs who don't catch a lot of passes. I figured the PPR market was efficient enough that not only would pass-catching backs rise substantially in PPR leagues, but they might actually move too far. If everyone is targeting Reggie Bush in your PPR league, for example, his draft spot might actually exceed his actual worth, leaving running backs who don't catch a ton of passes like Alfred Morris to fall too far.

I was wrong.

After digging through the data, it seems as though pass-catching running backs are still being undervalued in PPR leagues. I guess the public isn't as smart as I believed.

To track how much running backs "should" rise or fall in PPR rankings, I charted the 2012 distribution of running back points in both standard and PPR leagues.



Although the players change from year to year, the distribution of points remains fairly steady. That means we're likely to see a 2013 point distribution that closely matches what we witnessed in 2012 in both standard (above) and PPR (below) leagues.



To determine how many receptions the public is projecting for certain players, I first researched current ADP. By looking at ADP in standard and PPR leagues, we can assign each player a projection based on 2012 results.

Jamaal Charles' current ADP is No. 5 among running backs. Regardless of who finishes fifth among backs in 2013, however, that player will probably fall near 235 points in standard leagues. I normalized the values a bit to adjust for small quirks in 2012 scoring, but we've very quickly determined the public's projection for Charles in standard leagues.

By subtracting the projected standard points from the PPR projection, we can determine the consensus receptions for each running back. Below, I charted this information, along with how that number compares to the running back's 2012 reception total.

Player ADP (Standard) Points (Standard) ADP (PPR) Points (PPR) Receptions Projection - 2012 Receptions
Jamaal Charles 5 235 4 278 43 8
C.J. Spiller 6 222 6 255 33 -10
Ray Rice 7 212 7 251 39 -21
Trent Richardson 9 205 9 240 35 -16
Alfred Morris 10 203 10 225 22 11
Steven Jackson 11 197 12 216 19 -19
Darren McFadden 19 156 20 179 23 -19
Reggie Bush 17 145 14 207 62 27
Darren Sproles 23 130 18 186 56 -19

This confirms pass-catching running backs are still undervalued in PPR leagues. There are only three backs whose ADP suggests more receptions than they had in 2012: Charles, Alfred Morris and Reggie Bush. Charles and Bush are both in situations in which they should actually see more targets, so their ADPs are probably accurate. Meanwhile, Morris isn't dropping a single spot in PPR leagues as compared to standard formats, suggesting he's overvalued as a back who doesn't catch many passes.

To see just how much pass-catching backs should rise in PPR leagues, let's take a look at Darren Sproles. Sproles' current standard ADP is 23rd, suggesting he'll score around 130 points in standard leagues in 2013. His ADP jumps to 18th in PPR leagues - a placement that has historically netted around 186 points - so we can infer that he's being credited with 56 receptions by the public.

But that's not enough. Sproles has averaged more than 80 receptions during his two seasons in New Orleans. If that number holds steady in 2013, Sproles would score 210 points in PPR leagues (assuming his standard ADP is correct). With that total, Sproles would rank as a top-14 running back. That means his PPR ADP should be nine spots higher than his standard ADP - not the five spots we see.

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He also runs the "Running the Numbers" blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.