Fantasy Football: Red Zone Touches and Targets – Running Backs
The red zone is the area of the field between the 20-yard line and the goal line. It’s not generally marked on the field and has no official meaning during play, but that’s where the majority of the touchdowns occur. And scoring touchdowns is what it’s all about. It’s what makes us fantasy players sit on the edge of our seats.
It’s hard to predict where the touchdowns will come from on a year-to-year basis, but we can get a better understanding when looking at red zone data from the previous seasons. Who gets the goal line carries, who is targeted, which teams like to run or pass in the red zone, who runs the most red zone plays, and which teams are most successful when they’re there.
This is part one of a four-part series, and here we’ll focus on which running backs dominated in the red zone last season. Some are likely to repeat the recent success they had, while others are not. We’ll also see some new faces climb up the ranks. When drafting runnings backs, it’s important to target as many three-down RBs as possible, while looking at which backs will get scoring opportunities. Red zone rushing attempts are especially important when playing in standard leagues, as the majority of your success will be based on how often your players find the end zone.
The highlighted players below are the ones we’ll focus on. The numbers are from Pro Football Reference.
Inside the 20-yard line – Rushing Attempts:
Todd Gurley – 62 ATT – 12 TD
Le’Veon Bell – 61 ATT – 9 TD
Melvin Gordon – 49 ATT – 7 TD -> Also finished in top 4 in 2016 despite missing three games.
Latavius Murray – 48 ATT – 7 TD
Carlos Hyde – 41 ATT – 8 TD
Ezekiel Elliott – 40 ATT – 6 TD
Kareem Hunt – 36 ATT – 5 TD -> Spencer Ware won’t steal any red zone carries.
LeSean McCoy – 36 ATT – 3 TD -> 2 of 3 RZ TDs came inside 5-yard line. Getting older, but still workhorse.
Dion Lewis – 35 ATT – 6 TD
Devonta Freeman – 34 ATT – 7 TD -> Out carried Tevin Coleman 87-45 last two years and 30-9 inside the 5-yard line.
Inside the 10-yard line
Todd Gurley – 32 ATT – 11 TD
Carlos Hyde – 28 ATT – 8 TD
Le’Veon Bell – 27 ATT – 8 TD
Melvin Gordon – 27 ATT – 6 TD
Latavius Murray – 22 ATT – 7 TD
LeSean McCoy – 21 ATT – 3 TD
Devonta Freeman – 21 ATT – 7 TD
Ezekiel Elliott – 20 ATT – 5 TD
Dion Lewis – 20 ATT – 6 TD
Mark Ingram – 19 ATT – 8 TD
Inside the 5- yard line
Todd Gurley – 18 ATT – 9 TD
Carlos Hyde – 16 ATT – 5 TD
Melvin Gordon – 14 ATT – 5 TD
Devonta Freeman – 14 ATT – 6 TD
Latavius Murray – 13 ATT – 6 TD
Mark Ingram – 13 ATT – 8 TD
Jonathan Stewart – 12 ATT – 3 TD
LeSean McCoy – 11 ATT – 2 TD
LeGarrette Blount – 10 ATT – 1 TD
Leonard Fournette – 9 ATT – 6 TD
Latavius Murray & Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings
Latavius Murray finished with the fourth most rushing attempts in the red zone and the fifth most inside the five-yard line last season. Just about all of his production had to do with the fact Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Murray suited as a better red zone back than Jerick McKinnon. At least on the ground. We can expect Cook to get a similar number of touches in the red zone this season, as the Vikings will yet again be one of the highest scoring teams in the league. They finished with the fourth most red zone opportunities in 2017. Cook picked up 10 red zone rushing attempts in his four games and scored twice. At least we know what to expect with Murray should something happen again to Cook. Let’s hope not; the kid can play!
Carlos Hyde – Cleveland Browns
Carlos Hyde is unlikely to finish in the top 10 in red zone rushing attempts this season as he moves from San Francisco to Cleveland. Before the draft, it was looking like Hyde could potentially build on a great 2017 fantasy season that saw him finish as an RB1, but the Browns went and drafted Nick Chubb. You’ll notice Hyde’s 16 rushing attempts inside the five-yard line was the second most in the NFL. It’d be surprising if he finished inside the top 10 in this category next season, as Chubb has a chance of being the goal line back in Cleveland. Duke Johnson Jr. is also in the mix but more so in the passing game than on the ground.
From a fantasy standpoint, Hyde has the highest ceiling of the three, but you can expect some regression in what is a crowded backfield with new weapons all over the field. The good thing is it won’t cost you much to find out, as his early ADP, according to FantasyPros, is RB23 in standard formats, and it’d be lower if it weren’t for my RB18 ranking of him. To me, there’s no debate Hyde is the most talented back in Cleveland, but they didn’t draft Chubb for him to just sit there. Plus, he’s pretty good. Follow this team throughout camp. That’s right, follow the Cleveland Browns throughout camp and preseason, as they are one of the more intriguing teams heading into 2018.
Dion Lewis – Tennessee Titans
Dion Lewis finished in the top 10 in red zone rushing attempts inside the 20 and 10-yard line in 2017. Lewis wasn’t thought of as a goal-line back in New England to start the season, as they gave most of those opportunities to Mike Gillislee. Throughout the year, Rex Burkhead also took a few red zone, looks away from Lewis, but it was Lewis who emerged as the primary red-zone back. Lewis will unlikely hit the 35 attempt mark again with Tennessee as Derrick Henry is quite capable of pounding them in from in tight. However, it’s encouraging that Lewis is also capable of finding the end zone when given the chance. Henry had 27 red zone rushing attempts last season compared to 20 from DeMarco Murray. It’s looking like another split backfield in Tennessee this season.
Mark Ingram – New Orleans Saints
Mark Ingram owners grew frustrated in the past with Sean Payton’s running back usage, but 2017 was a really good season for Ingram in the red zone. Not only did Ingram finish in the top 10 in red zone rushing attempts inside the 10-yard line, he finished with the sixth most carries inside the five-yard line. It was a nice surprise for owners considering New Orleans started the season with Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara, who also had tremendous success last season. It’s not that Kamara can’t handle red zone rushing attempts (25 last season); it’s that he had only 13 inside the 10 and four inside the five-yard line. This tells us the Saints are more likely to use Ingram than Kamra when inside the five. A few numbers below will also project in Ingram’s favor. However, keep in mind that the former Alabama running back is suspended for the first four games of the season, so it’s quite possible Kamara takes over the role of red zone back. He definitely will over the first month of the season.
Jonathan Stewart & Saquon Barkley – New York Giants
There’s no chance Jonathan Stewart finishes in the top 10 in carries inside the five-yard line in his first season with the New York Giants. Saquon Barkley is a freak of nature and will likely finish in the top 10 in all three red-zone categories, while also getting targets in the passing game.
LeGarrette Blount – Detroit Lions
LeGarrette Blount has been a red zone beast over the past couple seasons, especially inside the five-yard line where he finished with 10 attempts in 2017. He also finished with the 11th most rushing attempts in the red zone. Detroit has struggled inside the red zone over the years, and they specifically brought in Blount to help them in that category. Blount’s 71 red zone rushing attempts and 16 touchdowns in 2016 led all running backs. He also led with 42 carries inside the 10 and 24 inside the five where he scored 12 touchdowns. Blount by no means will be a starting running back for your fantasy team, and he isn’t worth a pick in PPR leagues. However, he’ll be the goal line back in Detroit, and that has value. It’s at least enough for me to be hesitant to draft anybody else in this backfield in redraft formats, including rookie Kerryon Johnson. This is an example of a good real-life signing for a team, but it makes for an avoidable fantasy situation.
As for the Eagles, Jay Ajayi will likely get the majority of rushing attempts inside the 20, but Corey Clement and Darren Sproles will be involved in the passing game, as Carson Wentz is more likely to throw the ball than hand it off.
Alex Collins – Baltimore Ravens
Alex Collins didn’t make this list, but he emerged as the lead dog in Baltimore and could very well find himself as the permanent goal-line back this season. He had 27 red zone rushing attempts compared to 32 from his teammate Javorius Allen, but Collins had six touchdowns compared to Allen’s four.
New England Patriots
You’re playing a dangerous game trying to predict red zone rushing attempts from a New England running back, as they still have Gillislee and Burkhead on the roster. They also brought in Jeremy Hill and drafted Sony Michel in the first round. We can laugh all we want about Hill, but he’s been a red zone machine over his four years in the NFL. Michel is the guy you want because the truth is, this team scores and they lean on their backs more times than not when inside the red zone. Lewis, Gillislee, Burkhead and James White (still on the roster) combined for 91 red zone rushing attempts and 16 touchdowns last season. We also noted on the success Blount had in this offense above. New England’s 62.5 scoring percentage (TD only) in the red zone ranked third in the NFL last season behind Philadelphia and Jacksonville. The Patriots’ 4.4 red zone scoring attempts per game ranked first in 2017. It’s likely Hill or Gilleslee is cut by the time the season begins.
Top 5 Red Zone (RB) Targets:
Alvin Kamara – 17 TGTS
Le’Veon Bell – 16 TGTS
LeSean McCoy – 15 TGTS
Christian McCaffrey – 13 TGTS
Mark Ingram – 12 TGTS
Kamar caught 14 of the 17 balls thrown his way for four touchdowns. However, only two of his targets came inside the 10-yard line, as the Saints handed it off to Ingram inside the 10 more often than not. Ingram also chipped in with 12 red zone targets himself.
Christian McCaffrey caught 11 of his 13 red zone targets for four touchdowns, as well. He may not get many carries inside the red zone with the addition of C.J. Anderson and Cam Newton calling his own number, but he’ll be used in the red zone. McCaffrey’s eight red zone targets inside the 10 led all running backs last season.
Top 5 Red Zone Scoring Attempts Per Game:
Pats – 4.4
Rams – 4.3
Steelers – 3.9
Vikings – 3.5
Saints, Falcons, Eagles – 3.5
We can expect all of the teams above to finish near the top again in 2018. All seven teams also finished in the top seven in red zone scores per game with the Eagles finishing third behind the Pats and Rams.
Bottom 5 Red Zone Scoring Attempts Per Game:
Jets, Bears, Raiders – 2.1
Dolphins, Browns, Giants, Titans – 2.1
We can expect a little more offense in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago this season. Barkley, Jordan Howard, and Chubb/Hyde are your goal line backs heading into 2018.