FANTASY FOOTBALL ARTICLES

Five Year Trends in Running Backs
David Dorey
July 26, 2013
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Total

RB's With a Top 12
Season 2008 - 2012

2012 2011 2010 2009 2008
5 Matt Forte 11 11 9 12 1
5 Chris Johnson 12 9 6 1 11
4 Adrian Peterson 1 15 5 2 9
4 Ray Rice 4 1 7 3 49
3 Arian Foster 3 3 1 69 dnp
3 Jamaal Charles 9 106 4 11 54
3 Steven Jackson 17 10 12 7 15
3 Maurice Jones-Drew 54 4 13 4 3
2 Marshawn Lynch 5 6 32 45 13
2 Frank Gore 10 17 16 5 14
2 LeSean McCoy 16 2 3 32 dnp
2 Michael Turner 21 8 14 34 4
2 Thomas Jones dnp 71 27 9 5
1 Doug Martin 2 dnp dnp dnp dnp
1 C.J. Spiller 6 27 59 dnp dnp
1 Alfred Morris 7 dnp dnp dnp dnp
1 Trent Richardson 8 dnp dnp dnp dnp
1 Darren Sproles 13 5 29 27 41
1 Ahmad Bradshaw 20 19 10 31 73
1 Darren McFadden 25 36 8 51 42
1 DeAngelo Williams 27 29 66 17 2
1 Ryan Mathews 30 7 31 dnp dnp
1 Michael Bush 46 12 28 44 55
1 Peyton Hillis 71 44 2 114 51
1 Rashard Mendenhall 86 22 11 16 128
1 Ryan Grant 98 37 135 10 24
1 LaDainian Tomlinson dnp 34 15 24 6
1 Steve Slaton dnp 110 117 26 7
1 Brian Westbrook dnp dnp 49 53 8
1 Clinton Portis dnp dnp 75 57 10
1 Marion Barber dnp 49 56 23 12
1 Ricky Williams dnp 56 41 6 37
1 Joseph Addai dnp 58 46 8 39

It is all too easy every season to get caught up in the individual players. The hype, the optimism, the negativity and the indifference that is cast over the group of each year's batch of fantasy running backs. It certainly makes great sense to understand the individual players but that should be considered in conjunction with what happens to all running backs. Bottom line - pretty much the same thing is going to happen every season and only the names change. As different as every year seems, it is mildly surprising to see that generally the same thing just repeats from an overall perspective.

For the last five seasons, here are all the running backs who had at least one top 12 performance. Why top 12 instead of top 10? Because I noticed that it made a huge difference to both Matt Forte and Chris Johnson. They have always been worthy of being a fantasy starter for the last five seasons unlike anyone else. Just maybe not a huge difference maker.

Scan through the stats. This considers a standard fantasy scoring of 1 point per 10 yards rush or receive, six points touchdown. I did it with a point-per-reception as well and the difference is of course almost completely meaningless. Point-per-reception scoring mostly just lifts up some of the middle tier backs.

This is not to say a back outside the top 12 has no value, but it defines the "RB1" that should hopefully be drafted in the first round or two of fantasy drafts. Interesting that there are only 13 running backs who managed a top 12 performance more than once over the last five seasons. Only eight who managed the feat more than eight times. The best consistency over the last two years have been Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster and Ray Rice.

While interesting, this doesn't tell us that much other than there are a handful of running backs who are fixtures at the top and then others who either end their run for good or just pop up for one season. Injuries also play a role in the consistency of some runners.

In fantasy football, most teams are going to build at least a competitive squad and there are normally a clump of teams in the middle of the standings all year. In order to win more often than average, you have to have difference makers. It would be great if you could assemble an entire set of starters who are all "B" grade players and they would combine for an above average score. But there is nothing like having a true difference maker at running back who will contribute big, consistent numbers every week. Let's look at the true difference makers of the last five seasons.

Total RB's With a Top 5
Sseason 2008 - 2012
2012 2011 2010 2009 2008
3 Adrian Peterson 1 15 5 2 9
3 Arian Foster 3 3 1 69 dnp
3 Ray Rice 4 1 7 3 49
3 Maurice Jones-Drew 54 4 13 4 3
2 LeSean McCoy 16 2 3 32 dnp
1 Doug Martin 2 dnp dnp dnp dnp
1 Marshawn Lynch 5 6 32 45 13
1 Jamaal Charles 9 106 4 11 54
1 Frank Gore 10 17 16 5 14
1 Matt Forte 11 11 9 12 1
1 Chris Johnson 12 9 6 1 11
1 Darren Sproles 13 5 29 27 41
1 Michael Turner 21 8 14 34 4
1 DeAngelo Williams 27 29 66 17 2
1 Peyton Hillis 71 44 2 114 51
1 Thomas Jones dnp 71 27 9 5

Over the last five years, only five running backs turned in a top five performance more than once. Put another way, only nine times in the last five years did any runner turn in a top five performance for a second time.

Adrian Peterson has been the king here along with Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and LeSean McCoy. Peterson, Jones-Drew and McCoy all dropped out because of injury at least once.

What is surprising, is how many players managed to end in the top five one year and then never again. Not only falling back, but in some cases taking a very painful leap backwards.

We all love to grab a guy who was top ten the previous season and they certainly look great on your new roster in August. But let's take a step back away from the individual names and see what happens the following season for a top ten back from the last five years.


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Top 10 Became the Next Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Top 10 4 3 3 4 3
11 to 20 2 2 3 3 4
21 to 30 1 2 1 0 2
31+ 3 3 3 3 1

This is pretty consistent. Each season, only three or four backs returned to the top ten. Up until last year, three backs always fell out of the top 30 which is very painful. Overall, about six and maybe seven of the backs will end up as a top 20 scorer the next year. Maybe that won't be a difference maker but at least they do not kill you. Problem is that most drafts have their first round littered with top ten backs from the previous season. So all but three and maybe four of those are going to be taken too early.

Top 10 Were What the
Previous Season?
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Top 10 4 3 3 4 3
11 to 20 3 3 2 3 2
21 to 30 1 1 0 1 1
31+ 1 3 5 2 1
Rookie 2 0 0 0 3

Let's look at it another way. Looking backwards instead - knowing what the previous results were - where did the top ten come from? How did the players perform the season prior to their top ten season?

Again, a sort of consistency emerges that shows about the same thing happens the previous season as the next. We see the same number of top ten players repeating, and then roughly the same from the 11-20 block ending up top ten the next year. Looking at it forwards and backwards, it appears you have about a 30% to 40% chance of getting a top ten back to repeat, but at least a 70% chance that your top ten pick is not going to kill you because they end up at least top 20.

Last year was rather uncharacteristic. After three years of no rookie backs ending up in the top ten, there were three which may be a record. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and Alfred Morris were all great value picks that paid off big. Last year will play into what drafters believe this year even though it was different than any other year.

Let's apply what we just learned to the batch of top ten running backs from last year.

2012 Top Ten RBs 3 Or 4 Become Top Ten, About 3 Still Top 20 and About 3 Fall From Top 20
1 Adrian Peterson Hard to bet against him when he was just #1 and only injury keeps him from top 5
2 Doug Martin Same offense and players, schedule always better than average
3 Arian Foster Only RB to string out 3 straight top 5 seasons. Hard to bet against even with Ben Tate healthy.
4 Ray Rice Rice was top 7 for last four seasons but just won a Super Bowl.
5 Marshawn Lynch Lynch has been top 6 both seasons in Seattle and still in his prime.
6 C.J. Spiller Spiller climbed up for 3 years to be #6 last year. No real competition but new offense and QB.
7 Alfred Morris Morris ended #7 in 2013 but does Shanahan ever have same back two years in a row?
8 Trent Richardson New offense but Norv Turner loves stud runners. Richardson is a three down back.
9 Jamaal Charles New offense but how can Charles not excel in an Andy Reid scheme? Is that possible?
10 Frank Gore Old guy that every one wants to write off. Seems like the only lock to fall out of the group.

This is tough. No more than four will repeat in the top ten and maybe just three like other years. Here is how I would group them:

Best bets to repeat - Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, Jamal Charles.

Most likely to fall - Frank Gore (old) and Alfred Morris (no receptions, Shanahan). So top 20ish.

Just scares me - Arian Foster (three big seasons in a row already), C.J. Spiller (he just does)

Not feeling it - Ray Rice. No idea why because he is a constant. He has fallen in some drafts. Probably fine.

Even I still rank most of these in the top ten because rankings are not a guessing game about which three go in what tier but is a assessment of risk and reward. In the average draft, eight running backs are going in the first ten picks. Seven of them were top ten scorers last year with McCoy boosted up into the first round as well. But you better feel really good about taking that running back because the deeper into the first round you go, the more chances you are taking a bigger risk while ignoring highly reliable and productive players from other positions.

The most common reasons why running backs fall back significantly the next year is because of injury or age. Injury is always hard to call and apparently Adrian Peterson has made recovery impossible to predict. But age is a factor that is more easily noted. Frank Gore, Steven Jackson and Darrell Sproles are trying to hang on avoid THE WALL OF 30™.

11th To 20th Became the
Next Year
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Top 10 1 3 2 3 2
11 to 20 2 1 3 1 5
21 to 30 3 2 1 3 0
31+ 4 4 4 4 3

Let's carry this sort of assessment into the next tier of running backs - the ones who ended 2012 ranked 11th through 20th. Not game breakers but rock solid part of a consistent score.

In most years, we see two or three backs move up from the second tier into the top ten. Last year it was Gore and Peterson. What normally happens though is that four or five backs will stay either top 20 or manage to slip into the top 10. So basically maybe half at best will stay the same or improve. Except last year when we witnessed seven runners who ranked top 20 remain at least that good. 2012 was just an uncharacteristic season. Three rookie backs in the top ten. and only three backs who did not perform at least in the second tier or better. Only six of the top 20 running backs from 2012 failed to get into the top 20 again and that was with three rookies shoving everyone else back down the ladder.

What you hate is that the second tier has always thrown four runners back into the 31+ region which means a disadvantage for a fantasy team. Last year has only three for the first time in years, but the four has been otherwise rock solid reliable. A second tier player has usually been only 30% to 40% likely to remain or improve but then last year was the aberration with 70% holding on or advancing.

11th To 20th Were What the Previous Season? 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Top 10 2 2 3 3 4
11 to 20 2 1 3 1 4
21 to 30 2 0 1 3 0
31+ 2 6 2 3 2
Rookie 2 1 1 0 0

Looking backwards again, we saw a high of four runners slipping from the top 10 back to top 20 and again, that probably has to do with the insertion of rookie backs into the top ten again. Whereas rookies had been only as good as one or two in the top 20, we ended up with three jumping up into the top ten. 2008 had a high of four rookie backs ending up in the top 20 but their track record took a nose dive in all successive years until 2012.

80% of second tier runners remained second tier or advanced last year for a huge aberration. Usually the number is only half that with an equal number or more falling backwards to the non-relevant 30+ area. Last season taken by itself says that you can really rely on running backs performing as well as they did last year. It was a huge percentage in 2012. The reality is that in virtually all other years, expecting running backs to remain the same or better was usually a losing proposition or at best an even bet.

Knowing that only four and probably less are going to jump from the second tier up into the top ten, let's examine the results from last season for the 11th to 20th highest scoring fantasy backs. Overall, history says the most reliable expectation is that half of these players will perform as well or better. Maybe even less.

2012 Ranked 11th to 20th Maybe Half Return or Improve, at Least 2 Or 3 Will Plummet In the Stats
11 Matt Forte As covered, Forte may not be great but he is never, ever bad.
12 Chris Johnson Another highly consistent back who flirts with top ten every year.
13 Darren Sproles Sproles a non-factor until joining NO in 2011. Turned 30 years old.
14 Reggie Bush Changes to Detroit who don't want him to be a three down back anymore.
15 Stevan Ridley NE has a great schedule, no receivers but Shane Vereen may loom... maybe...
16 LeSean McCoy New offense may be great, but always dings up and has horrible rush schedule.
17 Steven Jackson ATL best team ever but 30 YO and 2395 career carries are 450 more than #2 McGahee.
18 Mikel LeShoure Has to share with Reggie Bush this year.
19 Shonn Greene Yeah, finally over now that he is a goal line grunt in TEN.
20 Ahmad Bradshaw Only once made 16 games in his six years and his feet has failed him many times.

Best bets to repeat or improve - Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Stevan Ridley, LeSean McCoy and Steven Jackson (fingers crossed)

Most likely to fall - Mikel LeShoure, Shonn Greene

Just scares me - Darren Sproles (old), Ahmad Bradshaw (foot)

Not feeling it - Reggie Bush back in dome as a third down back. Since Barry Sanders, Detroit somehow kills every running back.

While there is nothing set in stone from this high level review, it is important to get a feel for what always happens in a position each year before deciding who is going to be the stud or dud. There has been a dramatic shift in drafts so far this year where quarterbacks have fallen like rocks to levels not seen in many years. The first round is being dominated almost exclusively by running backs who come off a very uncharacteristic season where rookies really exploded and most others were fairly consistent from the previous season.

Drafts this summer are resembling those from ten years ago with so many early running backs taken. This is in relation to last year which was highly uncharacteristic. Remember over-valuing the quarterbacks and wideouts after the pass-happy explosion of 2011? Now we have everyone on the running back wagon after this year.

Go through the top 20 from last year and decide who you think is a lock to remain or improve. Just as importantly, decide who you think is going to fall knowing that in most years (other than 2012) many backs fall backwards deeply. Most fantasy drafters are going to end up with a great team if only they could return to last year and play. The NFL always changes, and yet is consistent in the change.

Last year is over - make this year better.


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