Over the past four fantasy football seasons, there has been a precipitous drop off in running back value year-over-year.
Per MyFantasyLeague average draft position data, a total of 10 running backs are currently being drafted inside of the top-50 overall. Last year, 12 backs were drafted in the top-50 and 14 went in the first 50 selections in 2014. Just three fantasy seasons ago, a grand total of 22 running backs were taken in the first 50 picks across all re-draft leagues.
The change in draft philosophy in such a short time frame is astonishing.
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To be clear, this article is not intended to answer whether or not the change in philosophy is warranted. Instead, we’re going to take a deep dive into the fantasy running back position and answer the million dollar question: Are fantasy running backs in decay?
A Snapshot of the Landscape
This is not new information, but running back attempts have tapered off over the past six seasons. Starting in base year 2010, there is a 19.5% decrease in rushing attempts per-game among the top-36 PPR scorers at the position compared to 2015.
Below is the average rushing attempts in a season for a cumulative top-36 (PPR) scorer. Note that the far right column indicates a percentage change compared to the base year (2010) as a frame of reference.
Average Rushing Attempts
|Year||Avg. Att.||Change in Att. Over BY|
Of course there is another side to this equation that we’ll get to, but this is still not a rosy view of the position itself. 2015 was an odd year for fantasy running backs that was headlined by key injuries. However, the four-year trend of fewer average attempts for top-36 (PPR) rushers is still in place.
On the flip side, we see a corresponding increase in the average amount of targets backs are receiving per season. It’s not as drastic of a change in attempts per season as seen above, yet it is notable nonetheless. Again, the far right column is compared to the base year (2010) in this analysis.
Average Targets Received
|Year||Avg. Targets||Change in Targets Over BY|
While top-36 scorers are seeing fewer attempts per season, running back targets are slowly on the rise. The tradeoff between attempts and targets is not one-to-one, but fantasy backs are making up some lost ground in the passing game.
Last year, Rotoviz's Kevin Cole distinguished that a reception is worth roughly 3.5 times a rush attempt. While the decrease in rushing attempts is relevant, running backs that are heavily involved in the passing game can find ways to fantasy relevancy. Danny Woodhead, Theo Riddick and Dion Lewis are prime examples of receiving back specialists that have weekly value because of the targets, not the attempts, they receive.
So, with the recent change in opportunities (rushes and targets) per season, do we see a corresponding change in output per week?
Weekly Scoring Trends
To gain a better understanding of the positional change, we’re going to take a look at fantasy rushers from a week-to-week perspective. Cumulative fantasy points scored serves as a nice proxy, but since fantasy football is a weekly game, we need to go beyond traditional points metrics.
In this study, I compiled fantasy running backs’ PPR scoring output from 2010-2015. The data spans each relative season’s Week 1-16 and omits Week 17 because some teams that have locked up playoff spots tend to rest some of their starters in the NFL’s final week.
This data is completely agnostic to players, meaning we’re taking a high-level view of how many points fantasy backs are scoring on a week-to-week basis.
Among fantasy RB1’s (top-12), notice there really isn’t a sizeable difference in weekly output. There was a tangible decrease in the first three years, but it has since rebounded and normalized in the following three seasons. Compared to base year 2010, there was a 0.66-point decrease in RB1 production in 2015, but the importance is negligible.
In this six-year sample, the average top-12 rusher scores 22.71 PPR points per-game. Even though it felt different due to all of the mayhem, last year wasn’t too far from the norm in terms of sheer fantasy output.
The same principle applies for running backs in the RB2 (13-24) and RB3 (25-36) ranges. We see a 0.50-point dip among RB2’s from 2010-2012, but after that three year span, there isn’t much change. 2015 scoring was right in line with the sample average for top-24 backs (13.72 PPR points per game).
The 2015 season was also an average year for rushers that just crack the top-36 on a weekly basis. In the past six fantasy seasons, RB3’s historically score 9.30 points per contest.
What Can We Learn From This Data?
Even though weekly running back scoring has not changed much, if at all, over the past six seasons, we know that 2015 was an outlier year for running backs. numberFire’s Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason wrote a detailed explanation about how last fantasy season was an aberration.
Still, last year’s injury carnage can’t be exaggerated. A great deal of running backs that were selected early -- LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, C.J. Anderson, and Le’Veon Bell -- and missed time due to injury.
Just how out of the norm was the madness?
The graph below counts games missed among top-36 PPR scorers over the past six seasons. To qualify, a back must have played in six or more games.
What makes this graph even more compelling is this analysis doesn’t include notable injuries among fantasy’s historically elite. If included, Jamaal Charles (11 missed games) and Arian Foster (12 missed games) would have increased the total missed games among top-36 scorers in 2015 to a staggering 128. The sample average during this six-year span is 79 missed games.
On the whole, top fantasy running backs are seeing fewer rushing attempts per season. In terms of value, 2015 was a down year due to all of the compiled injuries. While rushers aren’t being fed on the ground as often, their weekly scoring output has remained unaltered over the past six seasons. Despite some fluctuations and variance, running backs have maintained comparable weekly output year-over-year thanks to increased roles in the passing game. That is the key takeaway here.
Running backs may be devalued in fantasy due to the dearth of top-scoring wide receiver options. Even so, the demise of the fantasy running back -- on a week-to-week basis -- has been vastly overstated.