Running Backs' Red Zone Opportunities

Despite the push for more PPR scoring leagues, the big fantasy breadwinner will always be touchdowns. They turn bad games into good and good into great. A running back who scores touchdowns because the coaches give him the ball in the red zone is the core of what this game is all about. Fantasy Football Expert Stephen Englert analyzes last season's red zone touches to project them for 2014.

Touchdowns are the most valuable and least predictable statistic in fantasy football. How often have you watched your star running back rack up 40 yards on a drive, take his team to the 2-yard line, and then head to the sideline to watch a second-string back punch in the score? Those “lost” points are incredibly frustrating, even if your starter winds up with 180 total yards.

But while fantasy football is a fluky game, the owners who win championships are those who roster players with maximum opportunity. For running backs, this means touches and, in particular, red zone touches. Your guy can’t get the short touchdown every time. But if he gets frequent chances at it, he’s way ahead of the curve. Predictability is what we’re after here, and the scoring chances of a guy who consistently gets the ball at the 5-yard-line are inherently more predictable than those of a guy who has to rely on 40-yard, home-run-style touchdowns.

Even in today’s pass-centric NFL, there’s nothing more valuable in fantasy football than a workhorse running back who gets his team’s red zone touches. Alternatively, a running back who racks up yardage between the twenties but doesn’t touch the ball near the end zone can be a big liability to your starting lineup. Let’s take a look at the RBs most likely to hit pay dirt this year, and those who will leave you screaming at your iPad on Sunday afternoon.

Montee Ball

Ball had just 24 red zone touches in 2013, 31st among all running backs. He turned those opportunities into four touchdowns. But if we assume that Ball will pick up the touches that departed RB Knowshon Moreno took last year, we can fairly project at least 50 red zone touches and double-digit touchdowns for Ball in 2014. He’ll need that kind of production to justify his current draft spot; Ball is being taken sixth overall among running backs.

Joique Bell

Bell is another player who didn’t lead his own team in red zone touches last season. But he managed to turn 36.4 percent of his red zone carries into touchdowns, the highest by far of any RB with at least 20 attempts. This year, he’ll continue to battle Reggie Bush for red zone opportunities. But if Bell can convert his opportunities at the same rate he did last year, he’ll do just fine.

Le’Veon Bell

Bell handled a league-high 85.7 percent of his team’s red zone carries as a rookie. That helped him generate eight red zone touchdowns on 53 touches. But Bell’s position as the goal-line back in Pittsburgh may be threatened this season. The Steelers have added RB LeGarrette Blount to the roster, a 6-foot, 250-pound grinder who pounded in four red zone touchdowns for the Patriots last season. If the Steelers are concerned about preserving Bell’s health -- he suffered an ugly concussion on a goal-line run against the Ravens last year -- we may see Blount subbed in for goal-to-go situations. That could seriously harm Bell’s value since he did not score a single touchdown from outside of the red zone in 2013.

Andre Ellington

Last year, Ellington had just 17 touches inside the 20-yard line. That put him 49th among running backs, behind the likes of James Starks and Bilal Powell. Ellington was the victim of a vulture in 2013 as Rashard Mendenhall ate up 28 red zone carries and took eight of them for touchdowns. Ellington scored from the red zone just twice. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has talked about making Ellington a goal-line threat in 2014. If that happens, Ellington could be an RB1 in fantasy. But if, as many suspect, Stepfan Taylor or Jonathan Dwyer are put in to do the heavy lifting, Ellington’s scores will continue to be very unpredictable, making him a volatile fantasy commodity.

Matt Forte

Forte racked up nine rushing touchdowns last season. That’s a career-high number, and there’s a good reason for it: Forte took 72.5 percent of the Bears’ red zone carries last season. That represents the third-highest percentage in the league, behind only Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray. In total, Forte touched the ball 60 times in the red zone, more than any other running back. True, last season was the first time since his 2008 rookie year that he reached double-digit scores. But those close scoring opportunities are there for Forte more than any other back in the NFL. He deserves his draft spot as the fourth-overall running back, and there’s an argument to be made that he should be going even higher.

Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte & Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy

Eddie Lacy

To repeat: there’s nothing more valuable in fantasy than a workhorse RB who gets his team’s red zone carries. Lacy is one of the few players who fits that bill completely going into the 2014 season. Last year, Lacy got 53 red zone touches and converted 11 of them to touchdowns, an excellent rate among players with that volume of work. Lacy is a big, powerful runner who can take a pounding, and the Packers don’t appear to have any worries about using him for short-yardage work. If he keeps the goal-line job, Lacy will probably repeat the double-digit touchdown performance from his rookie year.

DeMarco Murray

Murray took 73.6 percent of the Cowboys’ carries in the red zone last season. He managed ten touchdowns on 44 touches, a solid 22.7 percent conversion rate. He was “vultured” just three times by his backups. Murray managed a top-10 finish among fantasy running backs and is now in a contract year. He gets plenty of scoring opportunities in this offense, and the other backs on the roster don’t come close to his ability. As a result, Murray is being taken 17th overall in drafts. Injuries will always be a serious concern for Murray, but his upside is massive if he stays healthy.

Trent Richardson

Richardson was part of a committee in the Colts’ backfield last year. Joining the team in the third week of the season, he never gained momentum and struggled with nagging injuries and an unfamiliar offense. But one area in which he did excel was red zone touches. Although the opportunities were divvied up pretty evenly between Richardson, Donald Brown, and Ahmad Bradshaw, Richardson managed four red zone touchdowns with just 16 touches. With Vick Ballard already out for the season, Brown playing in San Diego, and the aging Bradshaw perennially injured, Richardson will get first crack at the goal-line work for Indianapolis. It’s not unrealistic to expect 35 or 40 red zone touches, which could turn in to double-digit touchdowns. As the 22nd RB taken in drafts, Richardson stands as a decent value pick.

C.J. Spiller

The Bills opted for rushing plays in the red zone 70.2 percent of the time last year, far more than any other team. But Spiller saw just 17 of those carries. What’s more, he didn’t catch a single pass in the red zone and was targeted just once. Fred Jackson, who just signed a contract extension with the team, saw 45 such carries. With Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon added the roster this year, it doesn’t seem likely that Spiller’s red zone opportunities will spike. He scored just two touchdowns all of last year, and it would be irresponsible to project a serious increase in 2014 given the scant chances he receives. Spiller doesn’t see the end zone much for a player being taken as the 15th RB in fantasy drafts.

Pierre Thomas

The Saints’ backfield is probably the best-known committee in the NFL. Even with Darren Sproles now flying in Philadelphia, there are still many mouths to feed. Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Khiry Robinson will all see regular touches in the offense. But of the three, Thomas is the most dangerous red zone player and stands to get a majority of the work vacated by Sproles. In 2013, Thomas saw 33 red zone touches, more than twice that of any other Saints player, including tight end Jimmy Graham. Thomas was able to score four times from inside the 20. He won’t be a 1,000-yard rusher this year, but with all those opportunities for touchdowns in New Orleans, there’s an outside chance that Thomas will end up as a top-20 fantasy running back.

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