Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 5 Running Back Touchdown Regression Candidates

Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 5 Running Back Touchdown Regression Candidates

By TJ Hernandez (Associate Editor), last update Aug 14, 2017

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TJ is a former full-time poker player who has been playing fantasy football for more than a decade. After online poker was outlawed, TJ ended his poker career and dedicated himself to fantasy football. His background in poker statistics and analytics translates to success in both daily and season-long fantasy football.

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In Part One of this series, I uncovered six quarterback touchdown regression candidates and re-introduced Red Zone EV, a metric designed to quantify how many points a player should score from red zone touchdowns based on the starting field position of every red zone opportunity. For running backs, predicting red zone production can be especially frustrating since they are compiling touches both on the ground and through the air -- methods of moving the ball that result in very different expectations. Since all red zone touches aren’t created equally, we can use regression analysis not just for opportunities (rush attempts and targets) inside the 20-yard line, but inside the 10 as well.

Calculating Red Zone EV for running backs is a little tricky, though, since rushing attempts and receiving targets do not have the same touchdown expectation, and neither do a running back's targets compared to that of a wide receiver or tight end.

More Touchdown Regression Candidates: QB | WR | TE

The following table lists the expected value for all running back red zone opportunities:

Expected Value of a Running Back Red Zone Opportunity
  Rush Attempts Running Back Targets
Starting Yard Line % Chance of a TD EV of a Rush Attempt % Chance of a TD EV of a Target
20-16 2.4% 0.14 5.6% 0.34
15-11 5.6% 0.34 12.4% 0.74
10-6 10.6% 0.64 23.9% 1.43
5-1 38.8% 2.33 46.2% 2.77

After compiling every red zone opportunity for every running back in the league from 2016, I calculated each back’s Red Zone EV and compared that number to the actual points that they generated from red zone touchdowns. The differential in those numbers will serve as an indicator for running backs that scored more often or less often than they should have in the red zone based on where each play started.


Negative Touchdown Regression Candidates

League Average Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 18.7% of touches
League Average Touchdown Rate from Inside 10-Yard Line - 31.3% of touches

LeSean McCoy, Bills

2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 26.7%; Career - 16.3%
2016 Touchdown Rate Inside 10-Yard Line - 33.3%; Career - 26.1%
Red Zone EV - 46.3; Actual Points From Red Zone Touchdowns - 72

No running back scored further above expectation last year than LeSean McCoy, who was expected to score 7.7 red zone touchdowns, but found the end zone 12 times from inside the 20. With a red zone touchdown rate more than 10 points above his career average, Shady also exceeded that number by more than any back with at least 25 red zone opportunities last year.

Considering that year-to-year red zone scoring rates for running backs have a correlation of just .06 and McCoy has been one of the most inconsistent backs in the league in that respect, owners should be wary about expecting another huge touchdown season from the Bills back, even with Mike Gillislee out of the way.


Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 28.6%
2016 Touchdown Rate Inside 10-Yard Line - 38.5%
Red Zone EV - 46.7; Actual Points From Red Zone Touchdowns - 72

In his rookie campaign, Ezekiel Elliott was one of the most efficient running backs inside the red zone, and was especially effective inside the opponent's 10, but history suggests that Zeke may have a hard time keeping up the pace of his first 42 career red zone opportunities. Since 2012, 38 running backs have seen at least 50 opportunities inside the 10-yard line and only David Johnson has maintained a touchdown rate above 35%, while no running back with at least 75 such opportunities has a scoring rate over 33%.

There’s additional concern surrounding the possible regression of the Dallas offense as a whole. In 2016, the Cowboys ran more plays than any other team in game-neutral situations (score within a touchdown either way), while being just the 13th team in the last five seasons to turn the ball over 15 times or less. Turnovers have a year-to-year correlation of just .11 -- evidenced by the fact that the teams with 15 or fewer turnovers prior to 2016 have averaged 20 the following season -- meaning that turnovers are a number that largely regresses to the league mean. Should Dallas’ turnovers climb in 2017, not only will the Cowboys and Zeke see fewer red zone trips, but because they were in so many close games, the positive game scripts that Elliott benefited from in so many wins could dwindle.


Tevin Coleman, Falcons

2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 27.6%; Career - 20.9%
2016 Touchdown Rate Inside 10-Yard Line - 50%; Career - 36.4%
Red Zone EV - 27.7; Actual Points From Red Zone Touchdowns - 48

Not only did Tevin Coleman score almost four touchdowns over expectation in the red zone last season, he posted the highest overall touchdown rate (7.1%) of any running back over the last 10 seasons (minimum 150 opportunities). In that span, 30 running backs have posted a touchdown rate of at least 4.5% and saw at least 150 opportunities the following season, averaging a touchdown rate of just 3.4% the next year.

Like Dallas, there is reason to believe that Atlanta’s offense could be more pedestrian in 2017 than the 2016 iteration. No team in the last five seasons turned the ball over less than the 2016 Falcons, and 35% of Atlanta's drives ended in a touchdown -- up from 21% in 2015, and the highest touchdown rate since Peyton Manning's 2013 Broncos (37%). None of this even considers the fact that Kyle Shanahan has skipped town to coach in San Francisco.


Positive Touchdown Regression Candidates

Spencer Ware, Chiefs

2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 12.9%; Career - 21.7%
2016 Touchdown Rate Inside 10-Yard Line - 18.2%; Career - 31.3%
Red Zone EV - 39.2; Actual Points From Red Zone Touchdowns - 24

Last season, over 73% of Spencer Ware’s red zone opportunities came from inside the 10-yard-line -- the second-highest rate among running backs with at least 25 opportunities -- but his 12.9% red zone touchdown rate ranked just 28th out of 35 qualifying backs.

Based on the starting field position of their red zone touches, Ware should have scored about two more red zone touchdowns than the aforementioned Coleman, but Coleman outpaced Ware by four touchdowns. Had these two scored as expected, the offseason chatter, and their respective ADPs, might be very different right now.


Devonta Freeman, Falcons

2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 17.2%; Career - 18.5%
2016 Touchdown Rate Inside 10-Yard Line - 26.5%; Career - 29.2%
Red Zone EV - 78.3; Actual Points From Red Zone Touchdowns - 66

It’s hard to imagine a player that found the end zone 11 times from the red zone alone is a positive regression candidate, but the Devonta Freeman saw the most red zone opportunities of any back in the league while ranking just sixth among all backs in red zone touchdowns.

As mentioned with Coleman, the Falcons could very well see far fewer scoring opportunities in 2017, but if both Freeman and Coleman see their red zone scoring rates approach expectation, Freeman might be able to maintain his high-end RB1 status on slightly less volume.


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