2014: Year of the Sophomore Running Back
February 16, 2014 | Rich Hribar
When looking back on the running back position from a Dynasty perspective, it’s important to get a good grasp on the current landscape of the position as a whole. The bulk of backs currently providing production at the position are on the lower end of the recent age of decline, 22 of the top 30 scorers last season (.5 PPR) were all at age 26 or older last season. Of those remaining eight players, three were 25 exactly (LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray) while the remaining five were all rookies.
We haven’t quite gotten there yet this season, but the upcoming NFL draft isn’t anticipated as providing a great influx of surface talent at the position either. Surely there will be rookie runners who come into workload opportunities and rise into our weekly lineups, but as a whole we are in a massive transition stage at the position. When going back to last season and looking into early trends provided by the fantastic folks at Dynasty League Football, the only clear risers at the position outside of Shane Vereen are all year two running backs.
|Player||2013 Startup ADP||Early 2014 ADP|
It’s pretty jarring that four guys immediately jump into the top ten based on early 2014 returns and seven year two runners make the top 24 picks at their position. This doesn’t even include players who had basement level ADP last year like Khiry Robinson, Michael Cox and a few others that are on the radar this season to make an impact. This got me to thinking about year two running production from a wider scope and wanted to look more into recent year two running back fantasy output.
2013 was the season of the second year wide receiver. Five sophomore receivers had 1,000 yard seasons, tied for the most ever in a season with 1989. It’s known that receivers are likely to break out now in year two or three, but year two is also a fantastic time to get in and buy on runners. I went back and collected data from both the top 100 rookie and second year seasons from 2000 through 2013 to see what I could find on the matter.
|Output||Rookie RB||Year 2|
All this tells us for now is that players in their second year are better fantasy producers, which is no real revelation. We still want to find out if there’s a big jump in production on an individual player level. To scale that down, I went back through those same seasons and filtered for any running back that posted a 100 point season in either their first or second year in the NFL (minus the rookies in 2013 since we don’t have a year to compare yet).
The reason we chose 100 points isn’t because it’s a nice round number, it also correlates to the average finish of RB36 in standard scoring settings over the same time frame. So we’re looking at startable and first level replacement fantasy seasons from a cumulative standpoint.
Over the past 14 seasons, there were 84 different players that qualified for a fantasy relevant season in their first or second season. Of those 84, 38 did it in both seasons. Since both Vick Ballard (year two) and Mikel Leshoure (as a rookie) had a full season on the shelf in either their first or second year, we’re going to remove them for the comparison going forward, leaving us with 82 different players with two seasons worth of production to compare. Everyone else played snaps in both seasons.
55 of the 82 players increased fantasy production in year two, and 38 of those players increased their output by 50 or more points in year two. So while two thirds of the group was improving, nearly 70 percent of that group was making a significant jump. These were the best of the best with the biggest increase in year two since 2000.
|Player||Rookie Year||Rookie Pts.||Year 2 Pts.||Pt. Diff.|
Johnson in 2009 was the highest scoring sophomore season in the NFL since 1970. It was so good that he still makes the list despite scoring over 200 points as a rookie, something only 33 rookies have done over the past 44 seasons. He and Travis Henry were the only two sophomores who built on already above replacement level rookie seasons.
The rest of the group didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, although a few did. Shipp was a special teams player as a rookie, playing in 11 games but didn’t accumulate a single touch on offense. Mendenhall and Johnson were both first round picks who missed 10 games or more games as rookies.
The Sophomore Slump?
51 different rookie seasons qualified, with 28 of those seasons coming as a top 24 scorer for that given year. Of those 51 backs, 38 of those posted a follow up campaign of at least 100 points scored as well. 22 of those 38 increased their fantasy output in their second season, with ten of those backs scoring 50 or more points in the sophomore season. All in all, three fourths of all rookie qualifiers repeated with just under two thirds of all of the rookie producers improved their second year fantasy totals.
|Player||Rookie Pts||Year 2 Pts||Year 3 Pts|
Looking at the 16 backs that declined in production in year two but remained fantasy relevant to an extent, nine continued to decline in year three with only five getting some points back. Forte and Jones-Drew (who didn’t start his first two seasons) bounced back in year three but only DeMarco Murray had more points in year three than in his rookie season after dropping production in year two.
Portis and McGahee were just fine career wise, but never produced a fantasy season as good as their rookie one again. Ironically, both Moreno and Blount resurfaced this year. That’s quite a mixed bag of long-term results but a not very supportive for Morris and Richardson to ever equal their rookie seasons down the line.
Caddyshack II – Epic Fails in the Sequel
|Player||Rookie Year||Rookie Pts||Year 2 Pts.||Year 3 Pts|
Out of the 13 backs that failed to repeat in their second year, only three got back over 100 points in their third season, and only one (Beanie Wells in 2011) provided a top 24 season, his last useful fantasy campaign. Only Wells and Leon Washington failed to score 100 points in year two and eclipse their total points from year one in their third season. This isn’t a flattering list that doesn’t provide much encouraging news for Doug Martin hopefuls.
Also, it’s pretty noticeable that Mike Shannahan’s fingerprints are everywhere here. I don’t want to just blindly lump Alfred Morris in with all of these other guys that have popped and then declined, but there’s a clear pattern of consistent decline from runners attached to Shanny. Only Portis sustained a strong fantasy career, and like we noted, he never reproduced a season like year one.
Elite Rookie Déjà Vu
|Player||Year||Rookie Pts.||RB Finish||Year 2 Pts||RB Finish|
Since 2000, there have been 17 rookie runners who finished inside the top 12 fantasy scorers during their inaugural campaign. Of those 17, only six duplicated the feat in year two. Of the six that did, only one didn’t come with established elite pedigree as an elite talent coming out of college. Clinton Portis was the only non-first rounder (round two, pick 51 overall) to finish in the top 12 in both of his first two seasons to start his career. Three of the remaining five were considered elite franchise changing prospects. Tomlinson, Peterson and James were all selected within the first seven selections of their respective drafts while Johnson and Addai were later first round picks.
Only two players completely fell off of the fantasy planet, though. In 2001, Rhodes was playing for an injured James, and we all know what playing with Peyton Manning can do for a running back of any talent (as evidence by three players listed above). When James returned to form in 2002, the job was his again. Did we already mention that Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson were both year two backs attached to Manning in 2014?
The other is Martin, who missed 10 games last season. Richardson, Slaton and Anderson ultimately let us down, but they remained on the dance floor at least. This leads to the conclusion that we can anticipate Lacy likely won’t maintain his rookie dominance, but if he’s healthy, he’ll still be plenty of service.
Year two appears to be greatest time to buy in on recent running backs, even ones who did little or nothing for your team as a rookie. If you’re in a startup, guys mentioned above should be on your radar as well as a few others to take in the later rounds. With so many older backs producing coming into 2014, there will surely be opportunities that open due to performance decline and injury.
*Stats and tables taken with data from ProFootballReference.com