The Legendary Profile: How To Find League-Winning Running Back Seasons
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In my last article, I used PPR best ball win rates from 2015-2020 to illustrate that “legendary” seasons like Todd Gurley’s 2017 and Christian McCaffrey’s 2019 have been the driving force behind high running back win rates and fantasy scoring in the early rounds. These legendary seasons haven’t been small wins, they’ve been landscape altering fantasy football epiphanies--producing absurd 20%+ win rates and 23+ PPR points per game.
I believe that selectively searching for these legendary seasons should be the driving motivation behind drafting any running back in the first few rounds of managed leagues. The reason being, running back selections in the early rounds have been incredibly risky overall. Since 2015, 40% of running backs drafted in rounds 1-2 have been outright busts. Considering the immense risk involved, loading up on early round running backs seems borderline self-destructive. But even if we limit ourselves to one early round running back per draft, we’re still exposing our overall redraft season to a huge amount of risk, unless we narrow down our target list.
To be clear, not every sub-legendary outcome will hurt our teams. Derrick Henry had a very strong 2020. Ultimately he fell short of a legendary win rate, and scored less than 21 PPR points per game. His fantasy managers were nonetheless delighted to have him. Hitting on Derrick Henry in 2020 wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was awesome. He’s called The Big Dog for a reason. But betting on a running back at the very top of your draft whose ceiling is 2020 Derrick Henry is extremely risky. Given Henry’s limited receiving role, 2020 was almost a perfect outcome for him, yet you still didn’t need to draft Henry to win your league.
If you’re aiming for an Alvin Kamara 2020 season (24% win rate, 25.2 PPR points per game) and instead land on a Derrick Henry 2020 season (15% win rate, 20.8 PPR points per game), that’s terrific. But given strong early options at wide receiver and the enormous historical risk in drafting early round running backs, searching for 2020 Derrick Henry outcomes is likely to be a losing bet over time. Instead, we want running backs with a realistic path to producing a truly legendary fantasy season. [[ad:athena]]
Is It Possible to Beat the Market In Search of Upside?
If we’re going to proceed with a plan of targeting high upside running backs and avoiding lower upside options, it would be helpful to know if we can reliably tell the difference ahead of time. Is it even possible to beat ADP in identifying upside at running back?
I’ve gotten some smart pushback on the idea that this is achievable.
Moreover, several of the sharpest drafters I know take a portfolio based, upside agnostic approach to their early round running back selections. They’re comfortable with the idea that many of their teams with early running backs are unlikely to win. However, they will ultimately have exposure to whoever the league winning running back(s) end up being that year.
To some extent, I think this is a prudent approach. We don’t want to get too caught up dialing in a running back’s upside to the exact point. We’re never going to be that precise. This is football.
However, I do think that it’s possible, and profitable, to narrow down our target list. And I also think we can beat ADP in search of running back upside---at least in the current market. The reason for this is straightforward: not everyone agrees that we’re looking for running back upside in the early rounds. If everyone agreed that legendary upside was the key to early round running back selections, then we’d have a very difficult time beating ADP. But we know the market does not work that way.
Projections continue to be the primary driver of ADP at all positions. And while projections are a tremendous tool, they condense a range of outcomes to a single point. This is not conducive to identifying upside.
A running back who is locked into a projectable role, but whose profile does not match previous legendary seasons can project similarly to a running back whose role is more uncertain, but who has the profile to win you your league if things break right. We want the latter--every single time. And currently, your opponents may not agree.
If you’re looking for bankable production, draft a wide receiver. Draft a running back if you’re looking for legendary upside.
The Legendary Profile
To generate the profile of a legendary season, I analyzed all running backs who have played at least 12 games and averaged at least 23 PPR points per game over the last 21 NFL seasons. These 36 running back seasons provide some clear guidance for finding league winners at a higher rate than our opponents.
Let’s start with the most important part of the profile right away: receptions. In the modern NFL, it is very difficult to post a league winning season at running back without being heavily involved in the receiving game.
This wasn’t always the case. From 2000-2009 there were 10 legendary seasons from running backs who averaged less than four receptions per game. From 2010-2020, there has been just one.
Notably, this came last year, from Dalvin Cook. Cook had an incredible season, but one that was a bit of a throwback. To be clear, Cook wasn’t operating in the mold of a mid-2000s Larry Johnson or Shaun Alexander. Those backs were closer to pure rushers. But Cook’s 2020 season was more similar to an old school Clinton Portis season than to what Alvin Kamara was doing last year.
Cook demonstrated that his mid-2000s archetype can still deliver a league winning outcome. But this archetype is not something I plan to search for going forward--outside of drafting Cook himself. And even drafting Cook this year is much riskier than it may appear.
When looking at the chart above, it appears that, if anything, receptions appear to be becoming more critical to generating legendary upside, not less. Christian McCaffrey’s 2018 and 2019 seasons represent the two highest receiving averages in the last 21 years. And Le’Veon Bell’s 2016 tied LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2003 for the fourth highest receiving average since 2000. (Matt Forte’s 2014, which fell just short of a legendary season, is the third highest).
Low receiving volume legends are still possible. But 15 of 16 legendary seasons since 2010 have come with 4+ receptions per game. Any time we draft an early round running back who is unlikely to hit 4+ receptions per game, we’re swimming against the current in a big way.
On the other hand, finding running backs with big receiving roles has been highly profitable. Since 2000, there have been 96 running backs seasons with 4+ receptions per game with 12+ games played. 25% of those seasons have produced 23+ points per game. Since 2010 that percentage jumps to 31%.
Recommendation: All early round running back targets should have a path to 4+ receptions per game.
(For all of these recommendations I’m referring to managed leagues, please do not @ me with screenshots of your well-constructed Nick Chubb best ball teams).
Green Zone Opportunities
This won’t shock you, but running backs who have scored a ton of fantasy points have also scored a ton of touchdowns. The worst TD scorer among legendary running backs was Le’Veon Bell, who scored 0.7 TDs per game (11 TDs in 16 games) in two of his three legendary seasons. Double digit TDs isn’t a bad result, of course. But Priest Holmes, Todd Gurley, Marshall Faulk, Alvin Kamara and Larry Johnson all have 21+ TD seasons to their names. Bell’s 11 TDs seem almost embarrassing by comparison.
To facilitate a preposterous level of TD scoring, legendary seasons have required big time opportunity within the 10 yard line (or green zone).
As you can see, there is no old school/new school divide here. Regardless of era, running backs need to score a lot of TDs to deliver league winning seasons.
As you can see in the chart above, every single legendary season has come from a running back with at least 1.5 green zone opportunities (carries + targets) per game. And 78% of legendary seasons were accompanied by 2+ green zone opportunities per game.
As Alvin Kamara has repeatedly demonstrated, a running back doesn’t necessarily need to be his team’s exclusive goal line rusher to deliver legendary upside. However, it’s extremely unlikely that a running back can generate a legendary season without a significant goal line role of some kind.
Like with receptions, simply finding a running back with a major goal line role has been a good way to land on legends. Since 2000, 132 running backs have received 2+ green zone opportunities per game. 21% of them have averaged 23+ points per game.
Recommendation: All early round running back targets should have a path to 2+ opportunities inside the 10 yard line per game.
Ideally, we want running backs with paths to hitting both of these thresholds. If a running back falls a bit short in receptions, maybe we luck into a 2020 Dalvin Cook season. If a running back’s goal line role falls short, maybe we luck into a 2014 Le’Veon Bell season.
Obviously, when a running back hits both of these thresholds, he is very likely to be an absolute smash. Since 2000, 27 running backs have earned 4+ receptions and 2+ green zone opportunities per game on 12+ games played. 70% of them scored 23+ points per game--and all 27 averaged 19+ points per game.
This concept isn’t exactly breaking news. Ben Gretch showed us years ago how important high value touches are. But still… it’s a little shocking to see just how powerful receptions and green zone opportunities are in producing legendary seasons.
Recommendation: Strongly prioritize versatile running backs with paths to both high volume receiving and goal line roles.
If goal line work is critical, it would follow that weight is also important. As we know, a player’s size tends to influence their usage at the goal line. 4+ receptions per game is great, but when it comes from 196 pound Nyheim Hines instead of 215 pound Alvin Kamara, it’s harder to envision those receptions coming with the requisite goal line work for a legendary season.
As you can see above, the market’s usual lack of enthusiasm for smaller running backs is warranted. Only two running backs who entered the NFL sub-200 pounds went on to post a legendary season: Chris Johnson and Jamal Charles. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two running backs are arguably the best breakaway runners of the current century.
Moreover, only Christian McCaffrey, Brian Westbrook and Clinton Portis have produced legendary seasons after entering the NFL sub-210 pounds. The other 29 seasons (81%) have come from running backs who weighed 210+ pounds when entering the league.
Small running backs are certainly not off limits. McCaffrey, this year’s consensus 1.01, entered the NFL at 202 pounds. However, we’d generally prefer our running back targets to be at least 210 pounds---especially if there is any question about their goal line duties.
Recommendation: apply additional skepticism to smaller running backs whose goal line roles are ambiguous.
Since 2000, 64% of legendary seasons have come from players 25 or younger, including all 11 legendary seasons since 2013. Clearly, young running backs have an edge here.
But young players aren’t everything. Over one-third of legendary seasons have come from players 26 or older. Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson are two such examples. They first posted legendary seasons as young running backs and simply kept dominating after turning 26. But we’ve also seen Priest Holmes, Ahman Green, Brian Westbrook, Larry Johnson, and Jamaal Charles emerge in their age 26 seasons or later.
I do think it makes sense to concentrate our fire on younger running backs to some extent. It makes intuitive sense that young players will have the exceptional athleticism necessary to generate extreme efficiency on a massive workload.
However, it’s important to consider how many repeat performers are on this list. We have 36 legendary running back seasons; those have been produced by just 23 running backs. With that in mind, I think we should prioritize player archetype over age. If you offer me two running backs with equally strong paths to elite receiving workloads and goal line usage, I’ll happily take the younger of the two. But I’m not going to write off a running back with the right archetype simply because he’s 27 years old.
Nevertheless it’s important to keep in mind a major contributing factor in the lack of recent age 26+ legendary seasons: the early collapses of David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. While those collapses aren’t necessarily indicative of what future age 26+ seasons will look like, these cautionary tales are worth keeping in mind. This is especially true this season, with four of the five consensus top-5 running backs entering their age 26 or 27 season. (Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry).
Overall, unless a player has shown signs of decline, I would still prefer to bet on a 26+ year-old with the right profile than a young player who lacks a path to elite receiving and goal line work. But I would avoid being heavily exposed to any running back above the age of 25.
Recommendation: Preference for young players who fit the receiving and goal line profile, with additional skepticism for running backs 26 and older.
Another reason not to get too carried away with age, is that historically, rookies have not been good bets for legendary seasons.
Despite strong results from young players, only one of the 36 legendary seasons since 2000 has come from a rookie: Saquon Barkley.
Legendary seasons have required extreme usage in the two most important facets of playing real life NFL running back: passing downs and scoring opportunities. Given the high leverage volume required, it is not surprising that rookie running backs have struggled to immediately become legends.
Recommendation: Unless overwhelmingly confident in a rookie’s receiving and goal line role, avoid drafting rookie running backs in the first 2-3 rounds.
Second year breakouts
We want to be cognizant of not over-spending on rookies. But the following year, these former rookies suddenly become incredible bets. That’s because second-year running backs offer a critical and sometimes underpriced element: increased volume in an otherwise stable situation.
Second year running backs who have played at least 12 games and scored at least 13 PPR points per game (the type of players we’d generally be considering in the first three rounds of drafts the following year), have increased their green zone opportunities and receptions on average. This is not something we’ve generally seen for running backs in other years. While we have seen small increases in green zone carries in years four and six as well, the effect is over twice as strong for second year players. And the second-year effect is especially clear when looking at receptions per game. Excluding year two, average receptions per game have declined in every single season for productive, healthy running backs. But in year two they’ve increased by an average of 0.25 per game.
This reception effect is especially interesting because teams have a good deal more control over reception volume than green zone opportunity. After all, every team has ample opportunity to throw to their starting running back, but not every team is regularly operating within the 10 yard line.
Considering the combination of these two trends, it appears many teams make an attempt to increase the workload of their starting running back in his second season. Whereas in future years, starting running backs are largely battling to maintain the status quo. This year-two role increase is backed up by research from Blair Andrews, who has shown that rookie year efficiency has led to increased opportunity. Blair’s research also indicates that efficient rookies tend to maintain efficiency in their second season. As a result, with second-year running backs we have the chance to draft an emerging superstar just as his coaching staff is realizing what they have in him.
Another interesting element of the year two breakout effect is that the averages (as usual) hide just how big the upside has been. David Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Le’Veon Bell, Christian McCaffrey, LaDainian Tomlinson, Domanick Williams, and Todd Gurley all saw an increase of over one reception per game in their sophomore seasons. Four of the seven posted legendary seasons.
Johnson and McCaffrey were also among six second-year RBs who saw an increase of over one green zone opportunity per game. Alvin Kamara, Kevin Jones, Jahvid Best and Kareem Hunt did as well, with Kamara, Johnson and McCaffrey turning in legendary seasons.
This increase in role has yielded huge dividends. As you can see in the chart below, second year players have produced the most legendary seasons of any experience level since 2000.
Second year players are in a bit of a sweet spot. We still don’t know who they really are yet--which is a good thing. Outside of a few running backs who we are highly confident fit a desired archetype, we want as wide a range of outcomes as possible for our running back targets. That means we should often prioritize players with uncertain talent levels, as long as we believe they have superstar outcomes in their range of possibilities.
At the same time, second year running backs have often gained enough NFL experience that their teams are now willing to trust them with huge workloads. As a result, second-year running backs not only offer a wide range of outcomes, they offer a range that has included more upside than downside.
Recommendation: Dreaming about a player’s hidden upside is liable to get you burned in fantasy football, but if you’re going to do it, dream about a second year player.
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If efficiency and talent are important components in the success of second year running backs, it’s likely that efficiency and talent are important for all running backs. And as it turns out, that’s exactly the case. If we’re looking for legendary seasons, we want to be drafting superstars.
The chart below uses RotoViz’s Fantasy Points Over Expectation (FPOE) metric, which uses the line of scrimmage to calculate the PPR value of each player’s workload, and then measures PPR scoring efficiency relative to that workload.
As you can see in the chart above, every legendary season since 2000 has come from a running back who produced more fantasy points than their workload was worth. Honestly, that’s not that shocking. The fact that truly elite fantasy seasons require strong efficiency is pretty obvious. Yet when you think about it, it is a little wild that this century has literally never produced a legendary season on workload alone.
Although, maybe that won’t be true for long. The efficiency required to produce legendary outcomes has been trending down. From 2000-2009, legendary seasons came with average of 4.6 FPOE per game. Since 2010, that’s dropped to 3.7. And in 2017, Le’Veon Bell nearly became the first running back to produce a legendary season on below average efficiency when he delivered just 0.2 FPOE per game.
The culprit for this downtrend becomes clear once you split total FPOE into rushing and receiving efficiency.
While there is a slight downtrend in total FPOE, the is a more significant downtrend in rushing efficiency specifically.
In the early 2000s we saw some incredibly efficient rushing seasons. That era produced three legendary seasons with 6+ rushing FPOE per game. Stop for a second to consider how much efficiency we’re talking about here. Three running backs (Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson) added rushing efficiency at the level of over a TD per game.
The last of these 6+ rushing FPOE seasons came back in 2006. But we have seen two recent seasons of 4+ rushing FPOE per game: Todd Gurley‘s 2018 and Alvin Kamara‘s 2020. However, these types of seasons used to be a fairly common occurrences in the oughts, with nine such seasons coming from 2000-2009. We’ve had just the Gurley and Kamara seasons since.
Meanwhile, despite the overall downtrend in FPOE, legendary seasons have actually been trending up in receiving efficiency.
The three most efficient receiving seasons on record are from 2000, 2001 and 2002. So at the high end the oughts are still king. However, it used to be possible for running backs to produce legendary seasons without being efficient in the receiving game. Nine legendary seasons were produced by running backs who did not have positive FPOE as receivers. This archetype now appears to have disappeared, with the last of these seasons coming in 2007. So while recent running backs haven’t been besting Marshall Faulk in receiving efficiency, being an efficient receiver now appears to be absolutely critical to producing a legendary season in the modern NFL.
What’s so interesting to me about these efficiency trends is how much they mesh with the opportunity trends from earlier in the article. These trends aren’t the result of statistical randomness--the game of football is changing. And as the game trends more and more toward the pass, not only are star running backs seeing more work as receivers, the running backs who become modern NFL stars are better suited to the receiving game.
Recommendation: Don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve never seen a legendary season from workload alone. In other words, prioritize talent, especially elite receiving talent, which is more likely to mesh with the modern game.
Passing efficiency and offensive line play
What about additional factors outside of a running back’s control? We’re looking for extraordinary outcomes here. What else has to go right to produce a legend?
One of the more obvious places to look is passing efficiency. Offenses that can efficiently move the ball through the air are able to score lots of touchdowns. If they involve their running back in that process, it’s pretty easy to see how that could produce a legendary season.
Unsurprisingly, passing efficiency has been a positive sign. 58% of legendary seasons have come from top 10 passing offenses as measured by Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (which factors in TDs, interceptions and sacks into the yards per attempt calculation).
But, we have an even bigger historical effect from offensive line play. 78% of legendary seasons have come from top 10 offensive lines (as measured by Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards).
The power of offensive line play is even more striking when looking at top five units. Over a third of legendary seasons have come from top five passing offenses. But over half of legendary seasons have come from top five offensive lines (as shown in the largest purple bar in the char above).
This offensive line effect does not appear to be era based.
It also appears that we still want running backs in efficient passing offenses as well, despite the fact that it’s become less common for the very top passing offenses to produce legendary running backs.
One major outlier here has been Christian McCaffrey. His 2019 season came with the 32nd ranked offense in passing efficiency and the 17th ranked offensive line. McCaffrey overcame poor surrounding units because he was an extreme usage outlier, seeing an absurd 93% snap rate, 24% target share and 7.3 receptions per game in 2019.
Recommendation: Unless a running back can be the literal engine of an offense, we want our RBs to have a good passing game and offensive line. But if given the option for only one, we’d prefer an elite offensive line.
In summation, here is the target profile for running backs in rounds 1-3 of managed leagues:
- A path to 4+ receptions per game.
- A path to 2+ green zone opportunities per game.
- Strongly prioritize versatile running backs who have paths to both high volume receiving and goal line roles.
- A path to strong, ideally elite, offensive line play.
- A path to an efficient passing offense--unless the passing offense has a chance to run through the running back.
- Be skeptical of running backs who entered the NFL below 210 pounds--unless the running back has a clear lock on goal line duties.
- Apply extra scrutiny to running backs 26 and older.
- Excluding rare prospect profiles, remain very price sensitive on rookies.
- Prioritize second-year players, and be skeptical in assuming major role increases for non-second-year players.
- Prioritize running backs who have flashed the elite talent required to deliver high end efficiency.
- Strongly prioritize running backs who have flashed elite receiving ability.
Two key points here: first, we’re not exclusively looking for players who are projected to hit the opportunity and team efficiency thresholds above. We’re looking for players who have a path to them, which can include second year breakout potential, but also depth chart shifts and contingent value.
Second, even if we’re looking for a “path” and not a projection, this profile still sets an insanely high bar. But the bar is insanely high for a reason: legendary seasons have been exceptionally rare. We’ve never seen more than five in a single season, and that 2018 peak was the first year since 2006 with more than two legendary seasons. Moreover, in the last 21 years we’ve actually seen an average of just 1.7 legendary seasons per year, with no legendary seasons at all in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2015.
As I mentioned at the top, we don’t want to get too carried away with handing out upside to some running backs and denying it to others. But in managed leagues it’s also important to remember that drafting a running back in the early rounds is a detour from the path least likely to lose you your league. In other words, running backs do not need to be selected in the early rounds. If I’m on the clock without an available running back who fits my target profile, I can simply fall back on the dominant strategy in managed leagues.
As a result, when targeting an early round running back I plan to be highly selective--by using this target profile to determine when deviating from early round wide receiver is worth the risk.
In my next article I’ll apply the legendary profile to this year’s early round running backs.