How Zack Moss’ fantasy value projects vs. similar NFL running backs

What does Zack Moss' 2021 fantasy value have to do with Frank Gore? A historical fantasy analysis on NFL running backs in similar territory.

I recently became embroiled in a heated discussion about Zack Moss’ 2021 fantasy football value as he projects to lead the Bills’ backfield in touches and could take a step forward after a lackluster rookie season. A summary of the argument for Moss is he’s entering his second season (where natural progression often occurs for NFL running backs), is set for increased volume, is on one of the best offenses in the league, and is inexpensive in fantasy football drafts.

Zack Moss’ fantasy value

The discussion got me thinking about backs akin to Moss from previous seasons. I was intrigued enough by the idea to gaze into the annals of history to pinpoint similarly situated and perceived running backs from previous seasons and assess their performance.

Here are the criteria I used to select the running backs for this exercise:

  • Needs an ADP between Rounds 5 and 9 in PPR leagues.
  • Must have been the first running back selected from his NFL team’s backfield.
  • Must have been perceived to be a worthwhile selection based on factors other than talent.

I know that the third factor requires a bit more explanation, and I openly acknowledge it creates an unavoidable level of subjectivity.

The running backs commonly viewed as talented are typically taken within the first few rounds of fantasy drafts. Any perceived “special” talent that goes later is likely buried on a depth chart or unlikely to see the opportunity to produce. Think backs like Tony Pollard or A.J. Dillon — guys that would be first or second-round picks if the starter on their respective teams suddenly vanished for whatever reason.

For this exercise, the running backs I’m looking at were not necessarily all viewed as terrible players. Mostly, they weren’t viewed as just talented players, but rather (like Moss) running backs specifically situated to possibly take control of a backfield due to lack of talent around them.

As always, I am using points per game averages and PPR scoring with eight games played minimum.

2015

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 5, RB25 Joseph Randle (DAL) 6 12.3 N/A*
Round 6, RB28 T.J. Yeldon (JAX) 12 13.0 RB13
Round 7, RB32 Shane Vereen (NYG) 16 9.9 RB36
Round 8, RB40 Devonta Freeman (ATL) 15 21.4 RB1
Round 9, RB41 Bishop Sankey (TEN) 12 4.9 RB65

*Joseph Randle was released by the Cowboys in early November 2015 due to non-football reasons.

2016

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 5, RB19 Jeremy Langford (CHI) 12 6.4 RB58
Round 6, RB26 Jonathan Stewart (CAR) 13 11.6 RB26
Round 6, RB27 Duke Johnson (CLE) 16 9.2 RB40
Round 7, RB30 Rashad Jennings (NYG) 13 10.6 RB32
Round 7, RB29 Frank Gore (IND) 16 13.5 RB18
Round 7, RB31 Matt Jones (WAS) 7 11.3 RB27*
Round 7, RB34 Chris Ivory (JAX) 11 9.1 RB40
Round 8, RB36 Justin Forsett (BAL) 13 6.7 RB55

*Finish is based on where he would’ve been had he reached the minimum-game threshold.

2017

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 5, RB21 Bilal Powell (NYJ) 15 9.8 RB34
Round 5, RB23 C.J. Anderson (DEN) 16 10.9 RB25
Round 6, RB27 Mike Gillislee (NE) 9 7.9 RB54
Round 6, RB28 Rob Kelley (WAS) 7 6.2 RB64*
Round 7, RB34 Paul Perkins (NYG) 13** 3.1 RB100+
Round 8, RB35 Frank Gore (IND) 16 10.6 RB26
Round 8, RB36 Terrance West (BAL) 5 6.0 N/A
Round 9, RB41 Jonathan Stewart (CAR) 15 8.2 RB49

*Finish is based on where he would’ve been had he reached the minimum-game threshold.

+Perkins only played seven games according to Pro Football Reference, but he only missed three games due to injury; he didn’t play in the other games as a healthy scratch.

2018

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 5, RB27 Jamaal Williams (GB) 16 7.0 RB59
Round 6, RB28 Kerryon Johnson (DET) 10 14.1 RB19
Round 6, RB29 Rex Burkhead (NE) 8 6.5 RB63
Round 6, RB30 Chris Carson (SEA) 14 14.7 RB16
Round 6, RB31 Peyton Barber (TB) 16 9.5 RB40

 

2019

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 7, RB36 Devin Singletary (BUF) 12 12.5 RB26

 

2020

ADP Player Games PPG Finish
Round 5, RB29 David Montgomery (CHI) 15 17.7 RB6
Round 7, RB35 Jordan Howard (MIA) 7 4.4 N/A
Round 8, RB41 Tevin Coleman (SF) 6 2.1 N/A

 

Since 2015, I have found 30 players that met my “Zack Moss type” criteria (I am sure at least a handful are up for debate, and I am happy to have that debate, but for the purposes of this study, let’s go with it).

Analyzing the data based on ADP vs. scoring finish

Of those 30 running backs, seven provided a significant positive return on investment –- a 23.3% success rate. Those backs were T.J. Yeldon (2015), Devonta Freeman (2015), Frank Gore (2016), Frank Gore (2017), Kerryon Johnson (2018), Chris Carson (2018), Devin Singletary (2019), and David Montgomery (2020).

An additional four running backs provided approximately par value. So, combined with the hits, 36.67% of these running backs weren’t a net negative. Those backs were Shane Vereen (2015), Jonathan Stewart (2016), Rashad Jennings (2016), and C.J. Anderson (2017).

Out of the remaining 18 running backs that were definitive misses, just two were trending toward not being misses (but not hits either) before their seasons ended early. Those backs were Joseph Randle (2015) and Matt Jones (2016).

Analyzing the data based on ADP vs. PPG

Sometimes finishing position can be misleading. For example, T.J. Yeldon’s 13.0 ppg in 2015 was good for an RB13 finish, which would make him appear like a great value that year. But, if we ignore games played thresholds, four of the top five running backs in ppg that season got injured before reaching eight games played.

Historically, 13.0 ppg is typically right around the RB2/3 border, not the RB1/2 border it was in a very anomalous 2015.

To meet RB2 level production, a running back typically needs to hit the 13.0 ppg threshold. To meet RB1 level production, a running back typically needs to hit the 15.0 ppg threshold.

Of those 30 running backs, approximately six provided a significant positive return on investment — a 20% success rate. Those backs were Devonta Freeman (2015), Frank Gore (2016), Kerryon Johnson (2018), Chris Carson (2018), Devin Singletary (2019), and David Montgomery (2020).

An additional two running backs provided approximately par value –- so combined with the hits, 26.67% of these running backs weren’t a net negative. Those backs were T.J. Yeldon (2015) and Frank Gore (2017).

Out of the remaining 22 running backs that were definitive misses, both Joseph Randle (2015) and Matt Jones (2016) were trending toward par value before their seasons ended early.

What does this “Zack Moss type” data mean?

I find point thresholds to be more valuable than finishing position in determining how well a player performed. Of the eight total running backs that provided at least par value based on ADP vs. PPG, just two of them could reasonably qualify as league winners. Obviously, Devonta Freeman’s overall RB1 finish in 2015 was the epitome of league winner. What he did was a complete anomaly that hasn’t been seen since. Of course, no one is expecting that level of production from Zack Moss in 2021 (or ever).

David Montgomery’s 2020 is also undoubtedly a league-winning performance. Just four other running backs reached the RB2 threshold of 13.0 ppg. Other than Freeman’s absurd 2015 and Frank Gore’s plodding 2016, if you’re looking for a back of the type discussed today to reach that 13.0 ppg threshold, you would’ve had to have selected him in the fifth or sixth round. No running backs in Rounds 7-9 other than the aforementioned Freeman and Gore reached 13.0 ppg.

There is something to be said about securing solid RB3 production from a guy you drafted to be an RB3 — that’s not useless in fantasy. However, if your goal is plausible upside, you are going to be far better off drafting more talented players that simply lack guaranteed opportunity with the hopes that they either benefit from an injury to the starter or emerge from an ambiguous backfield.

2021 RBs that could fit the criteria

  • Chase Edmonds (ARI), Round 6
  • Raheem Mostert (SF), Round 6
  • Leonard Fournette (TB), Round 7
  • David Johnson (HOU), Round 7
  • Michael Carter (NYJ), Round 8
  • Zack Moss (BUF), Round 8
  • Damien Harris (NE), Round 9

Let me stop you right there. I know what you did when you read this list. You thought to yourself, “Fournette is a former first-round pick. David Johnson was once the best running back in the NFL. I like Chase Edmonds.” All valid points. But we’re assessing these players as they are right now.

Yes, Fournette was one of the best running back prospects in recent history, but his NFL performance, specifically the past two seasons, has shown a much more mediocre player.

I’ve always been a fan of Johnson, but at age 29, he is far closer to replacement level than he is to the guy we saw in 2016.

Edmonds is by no means a bad player, but his ADP is in the sixth round because the Cardinals let Kenyan Drake walk and replaced him with a sub-replacement level talent in James Conner — the fantasy community is buying Edmonds with the passing-down work.

General theory

I’m sure we can debate any of these guys, but the general theory behind drafting any individual one of them is the potential for leading their respective backfields in volume.

It’s worth noting what future seasons revealed. As it turns out, Freeman actually was talented. Carson remains the Seahawks’ starter three years later. Gore was once very talented, but by the mid-2010s, he was just an old plodder, but still decent enough to run forward.

Yeldon was always polarizing in that some people thought he was just a guy and others thought he had talent but never got a chance. Kerryon Johnson is the only hit from this group that legitimately just isn’t talented, but it’s entirely possible he was talented, and injuries just sapped his explosiveness.

We may very well look back on this list of running backs in January and realize I was wrong about many, perhaps all of them. Maybe all seven of these guys are talented and succeed because of their talent. The most important thing this study revealed for me is that if a back isn’t talented, he’s not worth drafting based purely on perceived situation and opportunity.

We’ve seen untalented backs produce in spurts before — that’s how most of the 30 running backs in this study ended up on this list. It’s just unsustainable. The utility of a replacement-level running back is picking him up in season when he is thrust into a heavier workload — anyone remember 2015 Tim Hightower?

What you absolutely shouldn’t do is spend a Round 5-9 pick on that same type of guy in your fantasy draft. What I’m saying is you should let someone else draft Zack Moss.

Conclusion

By no means am I suggesting that fantasy drafters should completely avoid the seven names listed above. The decision ultimately comes down to your assessment of the running backs being drafted in Rounds 5-9. If you believe they have some talent, consider drafting them. If you believe they are around replacement level or worse, you should avoid them because history has shown the ceiling just doesn’t exist.

Jason Katz is a Fantasy Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can find him on Twitter @jasonkatz13.

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