It should be absolutely no surprise that running backs who get the most carries inside their opponents' 10-yard line are more likely to be better options than those who don't get as many carries in that area. But are you aware of how significant the difference is?
There are exactly 14 running backs who are averaging more than 1.1 carries per game inside their opponents' 10-yard line: Michael Turner (26 carries for the season), Ray Rice (26), LeSean McCoy (21), Cedric Benson (21), Frank Gore (19), Arian Foster (19), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (19), Michael Bush (17), Rashard Mendenhall (17), Adrian Peterson (17), Maurice Jones-Drew (16), Mike Tolbert (16), Beanie Wells (15) and Fred Jackson (14). It shouldn't surprise you that nine of the top 10 fantasy running backs are on this list. The only top-10 running back not on the list is Matt Forte, who excels in the receiving game. The five running backs not in the top 10 (Benson, Gore, Green-Ellis, Mendenhall and Tolbert) are all productive fantasy backs and still among the top 25.
Now, I'm not shocked if you might feel that this is kind of obvious stuff. Good backs who get goal-line opportunities should be expected to be good fantasy producers. But are you aware that the frequency of these types of rushes has been declining since the beginning of the year?
Over the first eight weeks of the season, there were an average of 4.4 carries per game that came inside an opponent's 10-yard line. This number is in line with the 2006-10 seasons when the average was 4.2 carries per game. Over the past four weeks, that average has dropped to just 3.2 per game. While a difference of 1.2 carries per game may not seem significant, that drop would result in an annualized reduction of 272 rushing attempts in this scoring zone. When you also realize that 27.1 percent of these types of carries have been converted into touchdowns so far this season (compared to 28.3 percent for 2006-10), you realize that this trend would produce 73 to 77 fewer rushing touchdowns from this range over the course of a season.
Now, it is entirely possible that this four-week period is a statistical anomaly. However, if it is the beginning of a trend, this would represent the need for an absolute cosmic shift in the valuations of skill position players within fantasy football. This column will monitor this statistic for the remainder of the season in an attempt to keep everyone ahead of the curve.
Receiving yardage is variable because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. The variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback may greatly alter a player's value. It's important to look at the underlying target metric on a weekly basis to determine which stud performances were flukes and which dud performances can be written off to a bad day. With that in mind, the table below not only lists those players who are averaging seven targets a game, but also provides the standard deviation of the game numbers. Players with a low deviation have a similar number of targets each game, where players with larger deviations have larger swings in the number of targets seen on a game to game basis.
The following is a list of players who are averaging seven or more targets per game over the last four weeks. An "N/A" designation in the standard deviation column simply means the player's data set does not have enough points to have a standard deviation determined.
Some general observations on Week 12 games:
Jason Avant, Philadelphia Eagles (14 targets, 8 receptions, 110 yards): The boo-birds are out in Philadelphia, but the Eagles faithful should be praising the solid play of Avant. The Eagles play Thursday night, and you can expect Avant to post another solid fantasy game since Jeremy Maclin is likely to remain sidelined.
Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills (13 targets, 8 receptions, 75 yards): How Johnson could claim on Twitter that he didn't drop the potential game-winning catch is beyond me, but the important fact is that he did some real damage against the talented New York Jets secondary. It looks as if Ryan Fitzpatrick and Johnson are back on the same page, which means Johnson is good to go for the rest of the season.
Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons (13 targets, 10 receptions, 120 yards): Early this season, specifically through Week 4, White was dropping 13.3 percent of his targets. Since then he has only dropped 4.5 percent of the balls thrown his way. That change, not Julio Jones' absence, is the real reason for White's resurgence to elite status.
Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys (12 targets, 7 receptions, 79 yards): Justifiably, I was called out in the comments section following my last column after Robinson went off for two scores against the Miami Dolphins. Robinson has filled in solidly while Miles Austin has been sidelined and deserves to be credited for it.
Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers (10 targets, 3 receptions, 50 yards): Every now and then, a player receives an abnormal number of targets and appears on the radar. Forget the blip that is Brown. Between Philip Rivers' off-year and the presence of Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates, Brown is a ticket to nowhere.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears (10 targets, 6 receptions, 25 yards): The side effect of Jay Cutler's injury is that defenses will now be able to stack the box in an attempt to contain Matt Forte. While Forte's line of 12 rushes for 59 yards seems OK, he broke one run for 33 yards which means that the other 11 attempts went for just 26 yards (2.4 yards per carry). Since the majority of Forte's passing game impact comes via the screen or underneath routes, the compressed defensive box may also limit him to fewer yards per catch as well.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans (9 targets, 7 receptions, 24 yards): Some might think that the loss of Matt Schaub, and to a lesser extent Matt Leinart, will negatively affect Foster. I don't. In six of his nine games this season, Foster has more yards after the catch than he does receiving yards, which means that his average catch position for all of his catches in those games is behind the line of scrimmage. Those are the easiest throws for quarterbacks to complete and the presence of Andre Johnson should limit the ability of opposing defensive coordinators to employ eight- or nine-man fronts.
Santonio Holmes, New York Jets (9 targets, 2 receptions, 22 yards): Sometimes a touchdown can make you forget that a player just didn't bring it. That's the case with Holmes, who has just four games in which he has posted at least 10 fantasy points. For the 25th-most targeted wide receiver in the league in targets, more should be produced.
Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings (8 targets, 8 receptions, 95 yards): The Christian Ponder era is upon us and it appears that the Vikings coaching staff plans to actually utilize the offensive weapons that are present on the team to make Ponder's transition easier. Harvin is part of that equation and has received eight targets in each of the Vikings' past three games, making him a must-start going forward.
Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills (7 targets, 6 receptions, 50 yards): It might be tough to accept, but the Ryan Fitzpatrick-to-Chandler connection is clicking over the past two weeks. Those of you with Antonio Gates on your rosters would be well-served to add Chandler for your playoff run, considering that the San Diego Chargers may decide to sit Gates if they fall out further of contention.
Roy Helu, Washington Redskins (7 targets, 7 receptions, 54 yards): Not that you can trust Mike Shanahan, but you have to be impressed with the fact that the Washington Redskins' coaching staff felt confident enough not to just start Helu, but to also keep him in on passing situations. This bodes very well for Helu's long-term value.
Big plays, up close
There were 12 NFL players who totaled three or more rushes of 10 or more yards: Chris Johnson (8), Ryan Mathews (5), Beanie Wells (5), Shonn Greene (4), Cedric Benson (3), LeGarrette Blount (3), Donald Brown (3), Reggie Bush (3), Roy Helu (3), Marshawn Lynch (3), Willis McGahee (3) and Cam Newton (3).
Chris Johnson? That's a lot of production, but it's way too late and it's just one game. If a player is capable of disappearing for that long, let him disappoint someone else.
Donald Brown has a 2-1 Big Play Rush-to-Stuffed Behind the Line of Scrimmage ratio, and a 4.7 yards per carry average. Those are impressive numbers that will earn him a backup spot on another team next season. Whereever he lands, keep him on your radar, as he is not as bad as his reputation might have you believe.
Only four NFL players got three or more rushes inside their opponent's 10-yard line: Cedric Benson (6), Arian Foster (3), LeSean McCoy (3) and Ray Rice (3). Each plays for a team that is consistently finishing high in this metric. Since Foster, McCoy and Rice are also heavily involved in their team's passing attacks, it is no surprise that they represent the elite class of running backs. If the average number of inside-the-10 carries continues to decrease across the league as mentioned before, the value for these three running backs will move from elite to essential to own.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. For game-day insights, follow him on twitter @KenDaubeESPNFF.