A Lament For The Veteran Running Back

Much like time in a movie montage, a running back’s career passes in a flash. If you are not paying attention, you could miss their most productive seasons. They fade so quickly in the minds of general managers that the running back is the lowest-paid offensive or defensive player… except for the fullback. The running back’s value on the field is almost entirely during their rookie contract. Which helps to explain their place in the salary structure.

Football has been evolving to a more wide-open game for quite some time. Gone are the days of running backs repeatedly crashing headfirst into a stacked box of defenders. Bell cow backs are going the way of the dinosaur. Offensive coordinators now use multiple backs who often have a diverse skillset. Yet, most fantasy leagues still require that you start two of them.

Despite the challenges, our goal is to fill those roster spots with productive players. First, by figuring out which players are “fantasy relevant”. I have defined that term as the top 24 fantasy backs plus the next 6 who had the highest points per game ( minimum 8 games). The 0.5 PPR scoring system was used for this exercise. A five-year timeframe was selected starting in 2016 and ending in 2020.

A total of 150 player performances were placed into subsets as well.

· RB1 - top 12 in a given season (60 total)

· RB2 - 13th to 24th (60 total)

· Flex - points per game outside of the top 24 (30 total)

The chart above displays the players’ season in the NFL (x-axis) and the rate at which each group is fantasy relevant that season (y-axis). The trend is difficult to ignore. Once running backs have 3 years under their belt, their collective production goes downhill. That ride may be more gradual for some, but the vast majority of fantasy-relevant seasons are between their 1st and 4thseason in the league. It’s no wonder how difficult it is for a back to get a lucrative deal. What’s more, if they wait until their initial contract is fulfilled, the team is probably well into a search for their replacement.

The orange line representing RB1 has the closest resemblance to a plateau during that critical period. 78.3% of all RB1 seasons are by players within the initial four years of their career. RB1 also has the earliest peak where 23.3% of the group was produced by players in their 2nd season.

RB2 has the highest peak among the groups with 26.7% consisting of 3rd-year players. However, the group falls off drastically in 4th-year players. RB2 also has an odd bounceback with players in their 6th season. Interestingly, 5 of the 9 players involved were in their 1st season with a new team via free agency or trade.

Overall, fantasy running backs follow a clear pattern. They show comparatively well as rookies and climb as a group for two consecutive seasons. After hovering around rookie levels during the 4th year (14%), it is a steady drop to insignificance. 70% of all fantasy-relevant running back performances are provided by 1st to 4th-year players.

"The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long."

- Lao Tzu

Yes, there are outliers. Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore (twice), and surprisingly Darren Sproles all produced fantasy-relevant seasons with more than 10 years of experience. They are great stories, but you don’t bet on exceptions regardless of how many occur. An older player maintaining a productive level of play or suddenly becoming prolific is rare. Running backs with more than 6 years of experience account for only 12% of the top 30 each season. I barely made it through fruit math in school, but that is not an encouraging rate of success.

Running backs get replaced quickly, they are most productive early in their career, and general managers value them so little that they are paid worse than every position on offense or defense except one. If the NFL doesn’t value them much, we shouldn’t either.

However, we need at least 2 running backs for our fantasy lineups! That is where it becomes a bit tricky. Everyone wants to get a running back that rarely leaves the field but scarcity is an issue. Productive veteran running backs have huge fantasy price tags as well. Regardless of format, focus on younger running backs who have “3rd down” abilities and a shot to be their team’s primary option or perhaps even the rare bell cow.

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