Fantasy Football Strategy: Searching for Touchdowns and Identifying VulturesBy Mark Dankenbring | Published: August 30, 2017 at 8:00 am
Touchdown production is a huge factor in daily fantasy football and season-long leagues as players who frequently hit pay dirt often ascend to the top of the scoring leaderboards. In fact, only five players that finished as a top 12 WR from 2013-2016 caught fewer than eight touchdowns. The numbers are similar for checking RBs and TEs, so searching for touchdown upside warrants significant attention.
A great way to identify players with touchdown upside is to look at how they’re utilized in the red zone. NFL Savant has an easy-to-use target tool that shows red zone targets for receivers and tight ends and red zone rushing attempts for running backs. Eight of the top nine touchdown producers at wide receiver finished in the top 16 in red zone targets last season. Likewise, the top 10 running backs in rushing touchdowns all finished within the top 12 in red zone carries. Therefore, red zone targets and rushing opportunities will be an important statistic to track throughout the season.
When evaluating touchdown upside for running backs, it’s important to note whether their touchdowns could be “vultured” by teammates. A vulture touchdown occurs after the starting RB does most of the rushing (or receiving) to help draw the team into scoring position, and their replacement, usually a bigger goal-line back, comes in and gets the carry to punch it into the end zone. This doesn’t necessarily make the replacements a valuable fantasy commodity, but they are “stealing” points away from the starter. This can be frustrating for fantasy owners but offensive coordinators aren’t exactly concerned with fantasy fortunes.
Here are a few candidates I believe could suffer from touchdown vulturing this upcoming season:
1. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) — Vultures: Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton
Stewart and Newton both outweigh McCaffrey by nearly 40 pounds, and Ron Rivera is comfortable using them in red zone situations. They accounted for nearly 75% of red zone rushes a season ago. It’s rare to see a QB frequently vulture TDs, but Newton possesses unique size, reach and strength, and has at least five rushing TDs in every season and averages eight per season over his career.
2. Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints) — Vulture – Adrian Peterson
Ingram had 36 carries in the red zone last season but not enough of the ones that matter most for scoring. He was also outsnapped 10 to 7 inside the five-yard line by former teammate Tim Hightower and carried the ball just 29% of the time inside the five. While in Minnesota, Peterson consistently saw more than 70% of rushing opportunities inside the five, so there’s a decent chance Sean Payton deploys AP like Hightower, once again at Ingram’s expense.
3. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) — Vulture – Latavius Murray
The Vikings saw over 80% of their goal line carries go to Matt Asiata last season. Murray enters having scored on over 50% of his carries inside the five-yard line the last two seasons (13 TDs on 24 carries), and will likely take over the goal line duties since he’s five inches taller and outweighs Cook by over 20 pounds.
4. Ameer Abdullah/Theo Riddick (Detroit Lions) — Vultures – Zach Zenner/Dwayne Washington/Matt Asiata
Quite an unpredictable mess we have here. Riddick has garnered just two carries inside the five in the past two seasons, and Abdullah saw just two in 2015. Zenner and Washington accounted for 67% of Lions goal-line carries last season, while Asiata enters after seeing 80% of carries inside the five for Minnesota last season. It’s a crowded backfield and reason to downgrade all of them on your boards and shy away for daily fantasy purposes in cash games.
While the starters listed above still have fantasy value and will find their way into the end zone every so often, having a TD vulture behind them lowers the ceiling. I would use this data as more of a tie-breaker when deciding between two running backs, as I’ll always take the one with more touchdown upside if they grade out the same in other areas. As the season progresses, I’ll continue to add links to help with weekly research, as touchdowns are equally important in season long and DFS leagues.
Mark Dankenbring (affectionately known as Dank) graduated from Miami University (OH) with degrees in Sports Management and Business Analytics. He’s been playing fantasy sports for nearly 10 years and has started to invest much of his time playing DFS since his graduation in May of 2017. He’s a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH. Follow him on Twitter @MarkDank.