Most of my work on NFL.com has come as a college football and NFL draft analyst up to this point, but that doesn't mean I don't dabble in the dark arts of fantasy football. On the contrary, I've been playing for a couple of decades now.
We all have opinions on player projections, keepers, sleepers and busts, but I take it a step further with running backs and the running game in general. As the son of an NFL offensive line coach (Arizona Cardinals), I pay close attention to offensive line play and running games. I've spent the past five years combining tape study with analytics to create metrics for both running backs and offensive lines that attempt to help measure their true effectiveness.
Last summer, I began digging through the tape and data in an attempt to fine-tune a metric that would help differentiate how much of the ground yardage a running back was responsible for versus how much was created for him by the offensive line. What I came up with was the Individual Production Index (IPI).
The IPI incorporates work done by the offensive line while giving a score to the running back for his ability to create yardage for himself through power, elusiveness and burst. I studied 37 running backs who carried the ball 130-plus times in 2015 and found that the average IPI for those backs was 4.81. That number represents a solid fantasy option if he gets plenty of touches, but he needs his offensive line to block it up -- think Oakland's Latavius Murray.
Gets what is blocked or creates for himself?
In fantasy football we look for two things from our running backs -- touches and consistency. The IPI helps predict consistency since it can isolate a running back who can "get his own" yardage with the aforementioned power, elusiveness and burst. Few running backs will excel in all three categories, but it usually only takes two of the three to score well.
Despite a relatively heavy workload with the Jets, Chris Ivory produced the highest IPI of any running back with at least 130 carries at 7.64. Owners who had Ivory watched him twist and spin and bull his way to newly created yardage on a regular basis. He could get his own. Mark Ingram and the Antonio Andrews finished second at 7.17 while Todd Gurley (7.01) and Thomas Rawls (6.59) rounded out the top five. They created yardage for themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Langford was abysmal at creating yardage for himself through power, wiggle or burst and he was last on the qualifying IPI list at 1.47. Right behind Langford was Jeremy Hill (2.44), whose plodding style required as much open space as his offensive line could muster. While Langford's IPI should increase with more work, I don't have much interest in drafting him or Hill this season as they are too dependent on what their offensive line can do for them.
Experts' Top 12
How to read and interpret IPI scores:
6.70 and up: Should produce at a high fantasy level regardless of offensive line play.
5.80 - 6.69: Should expect strong RB1 production
5.30 - 5.79: Solid RB1 whose production should be tied directly to touches
New city, but even better results? Yes, that should happen. Todd Gurley's combination of power, burst and wiggle can make opposing defenses weep. The Rams have invested in their offensive line, but Gurley should dominate behind average to below-average blocking. Remember that last season was his first back from an ACL tear so you can imagine what he'll do with another year removed and more touches.
Devonta Freeman's IPI was much lower last season than what he is capable of thanks to his foot quickness, agility and burst. It's worth keeping in mind that there is some continuity with Atlanta's offensive line which usually leads to big things in Year 2 of the outside zone scheme that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan favors. Even if Freeman gives some carries up to Tevin Coleman, there is no reason to believe he won't shine brightly thanks to his talents and the Falcons' scheme.
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Projected 2016 IPI: 6.59
Risk/Reward:Sky-high ceiling with moderate floor
Lamar Miller was chronically underused while in Miami, but that is unlikely to be the case in Houston. Bill O'Brien fed Arian Foster with 20-plus carries in nine of 13 games back in 2014. Miller should expect the same workload. He created his own yardage at a high level last year so his stats should skyrocket with more work. Injury issues at both tackle spots and at center (the team just lost presumptive starter Nick Martin for the year with an ankle injury) are the only things that could limit his numbers, but Miller is such a high IPI runner he should be just fine.
I trust my IPI and what it tells me about a running back, but let's be real -- Mark Ingram is simply unlikely to get enough carries in Sean Payton's offense to reach his newfound potential. In 2015, Ingram was quicker and more decisive than at any time in his career. I expect him to carry that forward as he has learned to create yardage for himself. The numbers will be good for Ingram, but he may not get enough touches to be great.
I'll admit it. I was suckered into the C.J. Anderson hype train last season and it cost me. However, after an abysmal start, Anderson started to get some momentum going in November and he finished the season with one of the highest IPIs in the league despite having lackluster quarterback play and run-blocking in front of him. He's clearly the guy in Denver and, thanks to changes, his offensive line should be much better right out of the gate.
Look, Darren McFadden doesn't have the vision, power or shiftiness that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table and that is reflected in his IPI. However, thanks to playing behind the Cowboys' maulers up front, McFadden was a serviceable fantasy option. Elliott can create for himself, but he won't have to do it until further down the field thanks to the Dallas offensive line. His IPI and final standing amongst fantasy backs will both be high.
We thought we had lost Doug Martin there for a while, but he came off fantasy life support to shock the world in 2015. Martin owns an innate ability to make defenders miss and possesses the necessary burst for explosive runs, but he was also helped out by an influx of young talent along the offensive line and a legitimate passing game. Both the passing game and offensive line look to be ascending, so even if his IPI comes back down a little he should be a safe pick.
LeSean McCoy's IPI has dipped in recent years and that is likely tied to his consecutive 300 carry seasons in Philadelphia. Here is the rub: I'm expecting McCoy's IPI to come back up this season thanks to a solid offensive line and the fear of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Nothing creates running room quite like multiple wide receiver sets and a quarterback who can run and McCoy has both. After a lighter workload in 2015, look for more work and more elusiveness from "Shady" as his IPI could jump back into the 6.0 range.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Projected 2016 IPI: 5.62
Risk/Reward:*Beware of "Ware and tear" *
Injury and age look like they might be catching up with Jamaal Charles, one of the most consistently creative runners in the league. However, the bigger concern for Charles could be Spencer Ware, who posted an insane IPI of 12.68 over his 72 carries. The Chiefs offensive line should be more consistent but still has work to do. With a potentially diminishing workload, loss of red-zone carries and advanced age, Charles is a risky proposition who could see his IPI drop from previous levels.
The addition of left guard Alex Boone via free agency gives the Vikings more toughness up front, but there has been a steady decline in the amount of yardage after first contact that Adrian Peterson gains in recent years. The tape and data indicate he may not be able to create the big, explosive carries in 2016 that he once could. What I'm saying is that I still like Peterson as a solid option, but he is becoming more dependent upon his offensive line to create for him than at any time in his illustrious career.
It wasn't that long ago that Eddie Lacy was helping fantasy owners win leagues, but now it seems like a distant memory. The run blocking up front was very average last year which haunted Lacy thanks to the excess weight he was carrying around. His inability to create led to a sub-5.0 IPI. Lacy is lighter this season, but will it translate into a return to his past performance or has he become too dependent upon the offensive line?
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Projected 2016 IPI: 5.46
Risk/Reward:Youth creates attractive option
The Cardinals run-blocking showed improvement in 2015 but David Johnson's IPI was still fairly ordinary. For context, Chris Johnson's IPI was slightly higher at 4.93. David Johnson runs hard, but he's not a big tackle breaker and he won't make a living making guys miss. His youth should help him create at a higher rate and improve his IPI, but his rushing game is more reliant upon his offensive line than others on this list. Pass-catching and red-zone carries will likely make him a fail-safe option this year, however.