That Just Happened: Running Backs, Part I February 24, 2017  |  Scott Cedar


THAT JUST HAPPENED: RUNNING BACKS, PART I

Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years.

Sure, in 2015 running backs made tears rain down like a monsoon, but in 2016 the position reclaimed its fantasy dominance.  Rocking its peers and putting suckas in fear.

That’s the narrative, anyway.  No doubt David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le’Veon Bell led many teams to a championship in 2016.  But Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, Lamar Miller, Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, and Doug Martin—i.e., 6 of the first 12 running backs drafted—well, didn’t.  So did 2016 mark a triumphant comeback for the position, or was it just a dead cat bounce?

I think the answer is neither.  Just as 2015 was an especially bad year for running backs, 2016 stands out as an especially good year.  Meet in the middle and you get what I expect for 2017: a position that’s still the most important in fantasy, but past its prime.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at 2016.  And let’s do so without awkwardly co-opting any more LL Cool J lyrics.

2016 Performance

There’s no denying 2015 was an abysmal year for running backs.  So what was the difference in 2016?  Volume.  Volume at the top, to be precise.  Overall, teams had about the same number of total rushing attempts and yards in 2016 as they did in 2015.  The top 12 running backs in 2016, however, carried the ball a lot more than their counterparts in 2015.


There are two takeaways, which of course point in opposite directions because…fantasy football.  First, touchdowns were much higher last year.  While 2015 was an especially bad year for rushing touchdowns, the 2016 numbers are still well above the prior 5 year average of 0.60 touchdowns/game.  One explanation: 2016 saw more total plays run inside the 10 yard line and a higher run/pass ratio from that distance than in any of the 5 prior seasons.  In fact, it was the first time since 2012 that teams ran more than they passed from up close.  Expect rushing touchdowns to come down in 2017, especially among top-12 backs.

The second takeaway is that top-12 running backs played waaaaaay more games in 2016.  Here, 2015 is actually the outlier.  Since 2011, top-12 backs have averaged 169.2 games played.  In other words, one of the reasons 2015 was so bad was not loss of overall rushing volume or effectiveness—it was just an unusually high number of injuries to the guys scoring the most points.  It’s no surprise Zero RB—a strategy based largely on leveraging high injury rates of running backs—was so popular coming out of 2015.  The concept that running backs get injured more than other positions still holds, but 2015 overstated the case.

Turning to receiving numbers, my biggest takeaway is not to overrate receiving ability.  Guys like James White (RB51), Duke Johnson (RB58), and Darren Sproles (RB43) managed to dominate targets without putting up big fantasy numbers.  In fact, of the 21 running backs with at least 50 targets, 10 finished outside the top 30 in ppg.  The biggest culprit was touchdowns.  This 50+ target group averaged just 2 receiving TDs on the year.  That plus a few hundred receiving yards is a dessert, not a meal in itself.  Outside of PPR, receiving production only really moved the needle on a handful of guys (Spencer Ware, Tevin Coleman, Melvin Gordon, and Mark Ingram stand out).  Even with PPR scoring, the rankings don’t change much.  Of the top 24 running backs in standard leagues, only LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart dropped more than 5 spots in the rankings when switching to PPR scoring, while only Theo Riddick improved more than 5 spots.

5- Year Trends
Here’s how the top 36 running backs have fared since 2011, measured by points per game.


The other thing that really stands out is how good 2016 was, especially at the top.  We haven’t seen three running backs averaging above 19.5 ppg in recent history (a 4th, LeSean McCoy, essentially did this as well).  Even as you move further down the chart, 2016 running backs performed relatively well compared to recent years.Two things should stand out.  First… yeah, we overreacted to 2015.  That red line of death representing 2015 starts out well below every other recent year, and shows just how atypical 2015 was at the top.  Devonta Freeman was the #1 overall running back in 2015 with 243.40 points, which would’ve been only 6th best this year.

The reason I was never a full-blown Zero RB disciple is that huge chasm between the top handful of running backs and everyone else.  It’s such an advantage to land a true #1 running back.  Want proof?  The difference between this year’s RB1 (David Johnson) and RB24 (i.e., the last starter in a 12 team league—Jeremy Hill) was 10.1 ppg.  That’s the same difference between the QB1 (Aaron Rodgers) and QB26 (Trevor Siemian), or the difference between TE1 (Rob Gronkowski) and a tight end averaging -1.1 ppg (who doesn’t exist, though that sure felt like Coby Fleener).

We’ll get into this more in Part II, but by my count only 9 guys were solid, every-week starters in 2016.  Behind them was a glut of about 25 guys who were impossible to separate.  Case in point: 90 different running backs posted at least one RB2 week.  In other words, you should only care about finding one reliable, every-week starter.  These are rare.  If you find two, that’s great, but you can at least get by plugging in that second RB spot with whatever’s on your bench or the waiver wire.  It’s a large group with a low bar.

ADP

A thousand words and a couple charts ago I said that while the narrative was “good year for running backs,” 6 of the top 12 running backs busted.  That Gang of 6 were all 1st or 2nd round picks.  The middle rounds (3-7) produced 22 running backs, and this group fared much better.   There were still plenty of underperformers—and a lot of guys who were more placeholder than anything else—but I only counted 7 true busts in the group (Thomas Rawls, Jeremy Langford, Matt Jones, Derrick Henry, Chris Ivory, Ameer Abdullah, and Duke Johnson).

So that means avoid early round running backs?  Sort of.  The top 3 running backs in 2016 were all top 10 draft picks (Johnson, Bell, Elliott) and will be the consensus top 3 picks in 2017.  I have no issue with that, because hitting on a stud running back makes your season.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t quibble if anyone took Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. before them, and I wouldn’t shy away from going heavy on receivers early.  Even in 2016, 7 of the top 12 running backs were drafted in the 3rd round or later, including LeGarrette Blount (ADP: 80.2), Jordan Howard (202), and Jay Ajayi (101.6).  Looking one tier lower, RB13-24 included 6 players drafted outside of the top 50.  Again, even with so many top performers, there was plenty of value later in the draft.

Conclusion

Running back is going to be fire-emoji hot in 2017, especially with the influx of talent coming in through this year’s draft.  I’m fine with that.  Really, it’s fine.  You shouldn’t be scared to draft running backs early, because the upside is worth the risk.  But you also shouldn’t forget longer term trends in the age of split backfields and passing game preeminence.  There was a reason all the cool kids were doing Zero RB last year, and that reasoning still holds.

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