You Should Care About Running Back Snap Rates in Fantasy Football
Sometimes, we can be faced with too many options in life.
Go to a grocery store and try to find a box of cereal. Unless you just want to go with the GOAT cereal (Berry Berry Kix) time and time again, you'll have a whole aisle full of options. You can throw out the garbage cereals (Fruity Pebbles and Cap'n Crunch) and still have too many viable options left over (Frosted Mini Wheats, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Raisin Bran, for example).
That same phenomenon can apply when making fantasy football decisions.
Unless you already have one or two no-brainer running backs on your shelf, you need to figure out who to plug in each week. Hopefully you have at least some solid options in case you ran out of Berry Berry Kix. Same goes for making daily fantasy football lineups.
Not only do you need to figure out who to play, but you need to figure out how to decide between them. And even that process has a lot of options. You can dig into projections from your favorite site (cough, cough), implied team totals, point spreads, opponent strength, pace, and a lot of other variables to find your rusher.
Or you can just look for the back who will play the most snaps.
There's not a whole lot to this experiment. Simply, we're looking at how many offensive snaps a running back played in a week and comparing that snap count (as well as snap rate -- the percentage of snaps played) to fantasy football performance.
We're relying on the 2016 and 2017 seasons, giving us 34 weeks of data to examine.
For our purposes, we'll be looking at PPR points scored per game and using that as a reference point for an expected weekly performance. For example, the RB12 in these 34 regular season weeks averaged around 17.0 PPR points that week.
Here's the snapshot of the information if we examine raw snap counts in a single game. Snap counts will benefit players whose teams see a higher number of offensive plays in a week and hinder those whose teams don't run many plays that week.
The table below lists snap count ranges, the number of backs who fit that snap range, their average PPR points, and their "expected finish" -- which is where that average PPR score would have ranked them, roughly, in a given week during the past two seasons.
|Snap Count||Count||PPR Points per Game||Expected Weekly Finish|
|55 or More||133||22.15||RB7|
|45 to 54||260||16.81||RB12|
|35 to 44||399||13.19||RB20|
|25 to 34||573||9.65||RB29|
|Fewer than 25||1964||3.01||RB59|
So, what we can see from this table is that a running back who played at least 55 snaps in a week averaged 22.15 PPR points since the start of 2016. The weekly RB7 has averaged 21.88 PPR points in that span, meaning a back with that heavy of a workload, on average, will return a top-eight type of performance.
If we bump that down to 45 to 54 snaps -- still a strong snap count -- we're looking for an RB12 type of week, on average.
Once we get into the range of backs who fail to hit 35 snaps, we're looking at low-end RB3 territory -- or flex options -- for the week. Backs with small snap counts, below 25, just don't have enough opportunity to perform for our fantasy teams.
I know. I know. This isn't exactly groundbreaking. But if you're truly stuck between a few running backs, snap count could be a successful tiebreaker. That's the whole point here.
What about snap rates, which are a little easier to predict? Do those do the trick, too?
|Snap Rate||Count||Avg||Expected Finish|
|80% or Higher||170||20.75||RB8|
|65 to 79%||269||16.06||RB13|
|50 to 64%||428||12.59||RB21|
|30 to 49%||834||8.42||RB34|
Yup. We can see pretty clearly that rushers with a stranglehold on offensive snaps -- getting 80% or more of them in a game -- will, on average, return a top-eight week.
Those who still play the majority of snaps but have competition -- so running backs in the 50% to 79% snap rate range -- will generally give us an RB2 week (somewhere between the RB13 and RB24 in a week) over a large sample.
Backs who don't play the majority of snaps but still play around a third of their teams' offensive plays have flex appeal, similar to what we saw with raw snap counts.
Isn't This Obvious?
In a way, yes, but do you really let snap counts drive your decisions each week? My guess is no. I don't always let it. I'm looking for touches and yardage and scoring opportunities in addition to every other aspect of predicting performance when deciding between non-guaranteed starters.
Finding backs with a guaranteed 80% snap rate is rare. In fact, that rate was achieved just 73 times in 2017, and only 9 backs had at least 3 games with a snap rate that high. Just three had more than six games with an 80% snap rate (Le'Veon Bell (13), Todd Gurley (10), and Ezekiel Elliott (9)).
But you don't even need to find a true bellcow to rely on snap rate for your running back decisions when seeking upside. Check out these rates for backs with at least 50% of offensive snaps played since 2016.
|Single-Game Snap Rate of at Least 50%||Count||Percentage|
|Top-6 PPR Score||170||19.88%|
|Top-12 PPR Score||312||36.49%|
|Top-24 PPR Score||550||64.33%|
|Top-36 PPR Score||713||83.39%|
|Outside Top 36||142||16.61%|
If you're starting a back with at least a 50% snap share in a week, you're more likely to get a top-six week than an unworthy flex performance (outside the top 36).
Yes, that bakes in the true studs who are netting big snap rates week in and week out, but a 64.33% chance at a top-24 week just from starting a back who sees the majority of snaps? That's a good bet if the alternative is guessing right at a low-volume, committee back.
If we're looking solely for top-12 weeks, know that the median snap rate for such backs over the past two seasons has been 66%, meaning that if you let snap rates account for the majority of your decisions, you'd be in good hands.
Also know that only 16.18% of top-12 weeks came from a back who failed to play at least 45% of his team's offensive snaps. Yes, you can get a big week from a spell back, but you shouldn't bank on it week after week.
Hopefully, you aren't disappointed with the takeaway that you should be looking for running backs who play a lot of snaps for their teams. But it can be a nice reminder throughout the season, and when deciding between two or three backs with similar salaries in daily fantasy football we should strongly consider weighting snap rate as much as or more than matchup and expected offensive success.
Running backs, unlike receivers and tight ends, can't generally rack up big totals on a handful of touches, and that's why snap rates -- as well as touches in general -- matter more at the position.
If you don't already, it's time to start relying on snap counts when making your decisions at the running back position.