The Mobile QB Impact on RBs in Fantasy Football

Written by Andrew Erickson
March 25, 2020
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The Mobile Quarterback Impact

In fantasy football, the most recent trend when it comes to the quarterback position is targeting one that is mobile. Fantasy football scoring heavily favorites quarterbacks that can accumulate rushing production versus their statuesque counterparts. That trend looks to continue within the 2020 quarterback draft class that is filled with players that have rushing upside. 

However, with quarterbacks that can run, what does it mean for their running backs with who they share backfields? After all, running backs, unlike the quarterback position, are the true difference-makers in fantasy football. It comes down to a single question: Should we target running backs with mobile quarterbacks? 

By comparing 2019 rushing statistics of all NFL quarterbacks in correlation to the running backs on their respective teams, I found the answer to be a resounding no. This article outlines the data collection process, analysis, and main takeaways that fantasy football players can use with them going into the 2020 fantasy football season when considering running backs that play with mobile quarterbacks.

Quarterback Influence on Running Backs

The common theme behind the running back production in comparison to rushing quarterbacks is that the quarterbacks open up lanes for their running backs, thus improving overall production. After all, Mark Ingram was absolutely dominant on the ground for the Ravens in 2019 behind the league’s best rushing quarterback, Lamar Jackson. 

The question I was most interested in addressing was how does the rushing quarterback influence the running back’s role in the passing game? Does it limit some of the floors that we see from the running back position, especially with PPR scoring? In PPR leagues should we be targeting running backs with non-mobile quarterbacks?

At a quick glance, the 2019 Ravens and 2019 Chargers exemplify this hypothesis perfectly. Baltimore ranked dead last in targets to the running back led by the most mobile quarterback in the NFL. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Chargers led by arguably the least-mobile quarterback, Philip Rivers, led the NFL in targets to the running back position. These represent the two extremes, but looking at all of the 2019 season in terms of running back targets and quarterback rushing metrics, I was able to develop similar results. But, before sharing the findings, first I will explain the data I collected.

Data Collection 

When collecting team quarterback rushing statistics from 2019, I broke it down into six categories from Weeks 1-16 for each team. These were collected from Pro Football Focus. This goes beyond just total attempts and expands to include scrambles and yardage totals.  Once these numbers were collected, I then compared them to the running back target totals on each respective team to see if there was a negative or positive correlation between quarterback rushing and the total team running back targets. 

Key Findings

In 2019, there was a moderate negative correlation ranging from -0.39 to -0.54. Below is the order of the strongest to the weakest correlation:

  • Quarterback scramble yards vs running back targets: -0.54
  • Quarterback total rushing yards vs running back targets:-0.52
  • Quarterback aggregate attempts vs running back targets: -0.51

The strongest correlation was between quarterback scramble yards and running back targets. Quarterbacks that scrambled for more yards targeted running backs less in the passing game. In 2019, the top scramblers in terms of yardage included Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Gardner Minshew and Russell Wilson. So, for a player like Leonard Fournette who saw enormous volume in the passing game last season, he could see less passing work this season with Minshew as the projected Jaguars starting quarterback after the Nick Foles trade.  In addition, I also tested the single running back target leader for each team. The negative correlation overall was not as strong as it was when measuring total team running back targets. 

This suggests that if there was a mobile quarterback present, but the running back was not in any type of timeshare, the running back should still be adequate in terms of pass usage. The reality is timeshares are becoming ever so frequent in backfields. This also highlights caution for running backs that are in potential committees. Some examples are that Jacksonville is a candidate for potentially adding another pass-catching back, and Dallas seems primed to get Tony Pollard more involved. On the surface, these may not seem like significant additions, but when you throw a mobile quarterback in the mix, every running back target can become crucial.

The last statistic I looked at was just rushing yards. After all, mobile quarterbacks open up more lanes for their backs. Well, that may not entirely be the case, at least from 2019 data. Though the correlation was positive, unlike when you compare quarterback rushing metrics versus running back targets, it was significantly less strong: between a 0.04 and 0.09 correlation. This suggests that when running backs are paired with mobile quarterbacks they do not gain a massive amount of total rushing yards. Yards may only slightly increase. 

Fantasy Implications

So, what does this all mean for fantasy? It means that the presence of a mobile quarterback is going to take away targets from running backs in the passing game. That should be the first consideration when looking at any team’s quarterback-running back relationship. Not the “open up lanes” fallacy. It limits the upside of the running back position and the top-24 PPR running backs from 2019 support this statement. Of that group of running backs, here are some alarming truths in regards to their relationships with mobile quarterbacks.

  • 14 (58%) had a quarterback rank in the bottom half of the league in scramble yards
  • 13 (54%) had a quarterback rank in the bottom half in terms of aggregate rushing attempts

What is even more alarming is the top-8 backs in PPR. All of them except for Derrick Henry had quarterbacks that ranked in the bottom half of the league in either scramble yards, aggregate attempts, or total yardage. In the top-12, nine also fit this description, and of the top-20, just five running backs (25%) had what is considered a mobile quarterback on their team.

Conclusion

If you are looking for elite running back production in 2020, you are better off avoiding backfields with mobile quarterbacks, especially ones that scramble. Part of the reason why Christian McCaffrey finished as the RB1 in fantasy football was that none of his quarterbacks could run. That bodes for him in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater under center who rushed for just 31 yards in nine games for the Saints. 

This piece is helpful to keep in mind heading into 2020 because of the movement of both mobile and non-mobile quarterbacks to be on different teams. With Austin Ekeler as the main back in Los Angeles, we should not project him to see the same target share with Tyrod Taylor or a mobile rookie quarterback. Transversely, with Rivers in Indianapolis, we could be looking at a third-year breakout from Nyheim Hines as his role in the passing game expands. It also lessens the impact of David Johnson's ceiling as pass-catcher with Deshaun Watson and increases the likelihood that David Montgomery/Tarik Cohen is more involved in the passing game with Foles. Also, don't forget about good old Tom Brady in Tampa Bay with a sleeper pass-catching option in Dare Ogunwabale. 

We all love to have mobile quarterbacks on our fantasy teams. They are exciting and can rack up fantasy points quickly. Just remember though, that the points that they score can take away from others, especially running backs in the passing game. 


Andrew Erickson

Andrew has come a long way as a fantasy football writer. After graduating from Roger Williams University where he received a degree in marketing he began to write his own fantasy blogs via WordPress.com. He used to call himself the Fantasy Football Master. Nowadays, he is slightly more humble. He has worked with Pro Football Focus as an base data analyst along with bringing head writing experience from Gridiron Experts. He is an absolute die hard Patriots fan (humble brag) and will never forget his first fantasy football team. In his first ever fantasy football league he drafted the Bears defense in the 1st round. He then proceeded to win the entire league. #DefenseWinsChampionships