Fantasy Football Fake News: RBs and the Myth of the Athletic Glass Ceiling

By Alex McCarthy
Alex McCarthy The media, as we all know, is overrun with fake news. It’s a huge problem- HUGE. This being the case, why should our sports media (or more specifically, our fantasy football media) be any different? The answer, of course, is that it’s not. Sports media is as susceptible as any other sort to groupthink and is just as likely to push false narratives (except here at FootballDieHards, of course- our prognosticating is without peer). Fantasy Fake News aims to debunk false narratives with in-depth statistical analysis and uncover the truth, starting with what I believe to be the fallacious idea that to be an elite RB you must also be an elite athlete.

Traffic Problems
If I asked you to build a perfect NFL running back, chances are you would make them able to cut on a dime, outrun defensive backs down the sideline, and shrug off tacklers with unnatural strength. In other words, you would make them athletic- and certainly those traits help, but if they were enough by themselves then Christine Michael would be a perennial All-Pro. What is even more essential is something that can’t be measured, usually referred to as “vision”. Vision can compensate for a lack of physical tools and turn even a below-average athlete (by NFL standards) into an elite football player. The estimable Matt Waldman of Rookie Scouting Portfolio breaks vision down into four components- decision-making, patience, anticipating the defense, and taking good angles. I compare it to cutting across traffic.

Imagine you’re at a stop and your destination is on the other side of four lanes of moving traffic, two going in each direction. Now, what is more important- the physical capabilities of the car, or the timing of the driver in deciding when to accelerate through an opening? Certainly if you’re driving a Ferrari it makes it easier to take advantage of a small gap, and if you’re driving a stair-car your margin for error is limited (plus you’re gonna get some hop-ons). But if the Ferrari driver mistimes his shot it can easily end in catastrophe, and the driver of the stair-car can get where he’s going safely if he anticipates the traffic (and looks out for bridges and homecoming banners). The vehicle represents the physical tools of a running back (athleticism), and the driver his ability to efficiently utilize them (vision).

Fantasy football Data Is Beautiful

To determine to what extent vision can compensate for athleticism I compiled data on NFL RBs who have had consistent success in the modern era, which I defined as the past ten years. I defined an elite RB as one who finished as a fantasy football RB1 (top-12 in standard scoring) at least three times in their career, and found that there have been sixteen such RBs in the NFL over the past decade. I also included David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, Lamar Miller, and DeVonta Freeman in the data, as they have all finished as RB1s in two of the past three seasons and seem likely to accomplish the feat again before retiring.

No single figure can capture the nebulous concept of athleticism, but the SPARQ-x (an acronym for Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, and Quickness) scores on are a decent approximation. They also helpfully provide a percentile score as well. I divided players into tiers by percentile, with Tier Five (Bad Athletes) being 1-19, Tier Four (Average Athletes) being 20-39, Tier Three (Good Athletes) being 40-59, Tier Two (Great Athletes) being 60-79, and Tier One (Elite Athletes) being 80-99.

Note: SPARQ-x data could not be found for four players who met the criteria- Chris Johnson, Michael Turner, Joseph Addai, and Brian Westbrook. Another player, LeSean McCoy, has a SPARQ-x score that is likely skewed low due to illness on the day of the NFL combine. None of these players were accounted for in my conclusions.

Fantasy Football Tier One (Elite Athletes)

David Johnson- SPARQ-x: 134.9 Percentile: 95% Career RB1 Seasons: 2

Lamar Miller- SPARQ-x: 126.2 Percentile: 85% Career RB1 Seasons: 2

DeMarco Murray- SPARQ-x: 125 Percentile: 84% Career RB1 Seasons: 3

LaDainian Tomlinson- SPARQ-x: 123.5 Percentile: 81% Career RB1 Seasons: 8

Adrian Peterson- SPARQ-x: 123.5 Percentile: 80% Career RB1 Seasons: 8

Ray Rice- SPARQ-x: 123.3 Percentile: 80% Career RB1 Seasons: 4

Fantasy Football Tier Two (Great Athletes)

Matt Forte- SPARQ-x: 123 Percentile: 79% Career RB1 Seasons: 6

Steven Jackson- SPARQ-x: 122.6 Percentile: 77% Career RB1 Seasons: 3

Le'Veon Bell - SPARQ-x: 118.8 Percentile: 68% Career RB1 Seasons: 2

Fantasy Football Tier Three (Good Athletes)

Maurice Jones-Drew- SPARQ-x: 114.2 Percentile: 57% Career RB1 Seasons: 4

Jamaal Charles- SPARQ-x: 111.5 Percentile: 46% Career RB1 Seasons: 5

Marshawn Lynch- SPARQ-x: 110.1 Percentile: 41% Career RB1 Seasons: 5

DeVonta Freeman- SPARQ-x: 110 Percentile: 40% Career RB1 Seasons: 2

Fantasy Football Tier Four (Average Athletes)

Frank Gore- SPARQ-x: 108.1 Percentile: 33% Career RB1 Seasons: 7

Arian Foster- SPARQ-x: 103 Percentile: 20% Career RB1 Seasons: 4

Fantasy Football Tier Five (Bad Athletes)


SPARQ-x Data Unavailable or Skewed

LeSean McCoy- SPARQ-x: 104.3 Percentile: 23% Career RB1 Seasons: 5

Chris Johnson- SPARQ-x: N/A Percentile: N/A RB1 Seasons: 4

Brian Westbrook- SPARQ-x: N/A Percentile: N/A RB1 Seasons: 4

Joseph Addai- SPARQ-x: N/A Percentile: N/A RB1 Seasons: 3

Michael Turner- SPARQ-x: N/A Percentile: N/A RB1 Seasons: 3

The Breakdown
Unsurprisingly, there were no examples of elite fantasy football RBs in the least athletic group. Equally unsurprisingly, six of the fifteen elite RBs were also elite athletes. What was a surprise was how evenly spread the remaining RBs were among the middle three tiers- Tier Two had three, Tier Three had four, and Tier Four had two. This would seem to indicate that a minimum baseline of athleticism is required to succeed and that truly elite athleticism makes success more likely, but that for players in the middle three tiers of athletic ability the chance of success is fairly uniform (and likely dependent on intangibles like vision).

Another interesting find was that of the fantasy football players with five or more RB1 seasons, two were elite athletes, one was a great athlete, two were good athletes, and one was an average athlete. Not only does it appear that it is possible for average or below-average athletes to consistently succeed, it seems that they are also just as likely to be among those rare talents that maintain success for half a decade or more. It is worth noting that the two most impressive resumes belong to players who combined elite athleticism AND elite vision- Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson- but it is not revelatory to say that the highest fantasy football ceiling will always be reserved for those sorts of generational talents.

So, then, how are players like Frank Gore and Arian Foster able to compete with players like Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray, who are blessed with much more impressive physical tools? What makes them so special that they are they able to overcome their physical shortcomings? To find out I studied film, athletic profiles, scouting reports, and various other analyses for three players who have more RB1 seasons than their SPARQ-x score would seem to justify.

Case Studies

Arian Foster
First up is Arian Foster. By far the least impressive athlete in the data set and thus our most intriguing subject, Foster is also the only undrafted free agent in the past decade to have more than three seasons as an RB1. His athletic profile is balanced but extremely underwhelming. His scouting profile from 2008 specifically references his “good eyes” and qualities as a “slippery runner”, but also indicts him as a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. Years later, analyst Cian Fahey would call him the best RB in the NFL and cite his “great vision… highlighted by his sense of timing with his movement behind the line” as well as “balance so natural he could change direction without ever slowing down” as some of the main reasons. Those traits can be seen in action here- Foster’s game was predicated not only on reading how a play was developing, but in using subtle hesitation moves to alter that development and respond dynamically. His ability to mentally process the chaos on the field allowed him to manipulate it without overwhelming speed or strength or agility being necessary. Most importantly, he has the kind of confidence that makes him believe he can defeat a wolf in single combat, which shows exactly the kind of heart I like to see in my players.

Frank Gore
Next up we have one of the NFL’s top ten all-time rushers, the ageless wonder himself, Frank Gore. His athletic profile is mostly unimpressive and he lacks the speed and burst most people look for in an RB, but he compensates somewhat with impressive agility. He was described coming out of college by Ourlads’ Scouting Service as having “natural instincts and feel for running the ball”, “good balance and lower body strength”, and “better than average hands”. Even then he was also followed by tales of legendary work ethic (college teammates spoke of arriving for 6 AM weights to find Gore just finishing his two-hour morning workout). He hasn’t slowed down, either- at twenty-nine he took up boxing to improve his cardio and keep his mind sharp (anticipating an incoming punch and timing a counter shares much in common with reading your blockers and hitting the hole). In a 2016 story for Bleacher Report Sean Tomlinson discusses what makes Gore great, describing him as a “football savant” who “functions as a living, breathing playbook” and reads the game effortlessly, allowing him to wait patiently and hit gaps that only appear for a fraction of a second. Watch here- His game is built on knowing exactly where the hole is going to be and using his agility to get there. He cannot be easily characterized by a physical aspect of his game, as his dedication to the game of football and the on-field acuity that it grants are what most define him. In fact, it is likely because his greatest strengths are mental that he has been able to achieve his unnatural longevity- your legs slow down long before your mind does.

Marshawn Lynch
Admittedly it is more than a little misleading to refer to Marshawn Lynch as merely a “good” athlete. Despite having excellent speed and burst and otherworldly leg strength, Beast Mode lands in only the 41st percentile of SPARQ-x scores due to a “flaw” in his athletic profile (relatively poor agility). Known by casual fans as a hard-running, Skittles-munching badass, Marshawn is also known by students of the game as an uncommonly savvy runner who is able to see holes everywhere on the field (and where he doesn’t see any, he’ll make some). He was described by Andrew Sharp of Grantland as someone who can “find cutback lanes where they don’t exist” and by Bill Belichick himself as having “great power, great balance, great vision, great instincts”. Note that in the latter, only two of the examples reference physical ability- though it’s easy to remember Lynch solely for his propensity to run people over, he saw his best years in a Seattle offense where he was expected to hit “dark creases” (places where a hole doesn’t yet exist but soon will). As with Foster and Gore, his ability to predict the development of the play allows him to hit gaps that barely exist, and when coupled with his explosive burst and speed it makes him a threat to take it to the house on every play (see: Beast Quake-

The Verdict
I had hoped to find commonalities in the playing styles of RBs who defied their SPARQ-x scores, or perhaps shared strengths that tend to correlate with a high football IQ. For the most part their athletic profiles vary, as Lynch has a speed and burst the other two lack, Gore is uncommonly agile, and Foster has no particular athletic gifts that stand out. I found little in common in their scouting profiles or career analyses either, as each player utilized their elite vision slightly differently based on what physical tools they were working with. So while I can confirm that vision can compensate for athleticism, I can quantify it no better than the many better-paid scouts who have doubtlessly tried before. The best advice I can give you is to watch tape. An innate feel for the game comes across when you watch players like Foster, Gore, and Lynch, and any fantasy football manager would be well-served to keep an eye out for players with their sort of football savvy.

So in the end, yes, the highest ceiling seems to be reserved for elite athletes and elite athleticism makes a player more likely to succeed. And yes, if a player is completely unathletic they are unlikely to become a consistently successful NFL RB. But the majority of NFL RBs are neither elite athletes nor completely unathletic, and for everyone in the middle what makes the difference is how you play the position. A high football IQ can turn a below-average or flawed athlete into an elite football player and poor vision is enough to prevent even the Trent Richardsons of the athletic world from seeing success. Between an elite athlete with average vision and an average athlete with elite vision, I’ll take the latter every time- and when the community sleeps on a running back because of subpar athletics, I’ll be the guy buying him at a discount. Which brings me to this week’s...

Player I’m High On (brought to you by Le'Veon Bell)

Jordan Howard.
This kid gets me higher than LeVeon on a yacht with Snoop Dogg. I believe that he is the next Arian Foster, and like Foster, his athletic profile is balanced but unimpressive across the board. Physically speaking, he is nothing to write home about. However, his scouting report from last year is downright glowing with references to his football intellect- he “consistently chooses best angles and creases for optimal yardage”, has “pro-ready vision (that) gives him outstanding feel for run lane developments at the line of scrimmage and on to the second level”, and is a “natural runner with a special feel for spatial relationships”. The tape of Howard from this past season only confirms this. Watch the first play here as he seems to disappear into a pile with no apparent gaps, only to reemerge seconds later through a hole that only he could see-

If you need concrete production stats to persuade you, Howard has those too. As a rookie in 2016 he finished second in the league in rushing yards (with 1,313) despite only starting thirteen games and playing behind an oft-injured offensive line. He had 5.2 yards-per-rushing-attempt, again second behind only LeSean McCoy among RBs with 150+ carries (and ahead of Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Le'Veon Bell). If his relatively meager TD total of six was even a little higher, Howard would be considered an unquestioned first-round pick in redraft leagues.

Many in the fantasy football community are shy on Howard because of frequent comparisons to Bengals RB Jeremy Hill, who was known for poor athletic measurables had a spectacular rookie season followed by a sophomore flop. I believe that the data we just went over disproves this comparison- Howard’s 106.8 SPARQ-x score lands him in the 30th percentile, right in the middle of Tier Four and right on par with players like Arian Foster and Frank Gore. Hill, on the other hand, has a SPARQ-x score of 96.8 that puts him in Tier Five, in the company of exactly no consistently successful RBs in the past decade. Combine this with the fact that Hill’s vision was specifically described in his scouting report as “average” while Howard’s was praised effusively (and the fact that their play in the NFL thus far has borne this out), and you have a comparison that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Players with the obvious natural feel for the game that Howard possesses do not come around very often. While he has the same inherent risk of injury as anyone playing the RB position, if he can stay healthy I firmly believe he can hold down an RB1 spot on your squad for years to come. Get him now while you still can.