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5 Year Fantasy Analysis - Running Backs
by David M. Dorey
July 9, 2003
 
Quarterback Running Back Wide Receiver Tight End Kickers Defenses

  1998 Pts 1999 Pts 2000 Pts 2001 Pts 2002 Pts
1 T Davis 369 M Faulk 310 M Faulk 372 M Faulk 337 P Holmes 365
2 J Anderson 323 E James 308 E James 332 P Holmes 269 R Williams 317
3 M Faulk 290 S Davis 250 E George 284 A Green 256 L Tomlinson 299
4 G Hearst 274 E George 246 M Anderson 252 S Alexander 255 C Portis 281
5 F Taylor 274 E Smith 223 A Green 246 C Martin 236 S Alexander 267
6 E Smith 247 D Levens 215 F Taylor 240 C Dillon 225 D McAllister 262
7 R Watters 228 C Garner 203 R Smith 240 L Tomlinson 212 T Barber 258
8 C Martin 226 R Watters 196 R Watters 232 R Williams 211 T Henry 251
9 R Edwards 224 C Martin 194 C Garner 231 A Smith 208 C Garner 249
10 B Sanders 209 D Staley 184 C Martin 231 S Davis 185 E George 222
11 E George 204 C Dillon 178 L Smith 224 G Hearst 180 F Taylor 214
12 R Smith 201 J Stewart 177 S Davis 223 D Rhodes 180 A Green 212
13 D Staley 196 T Wheatley 172 T Barber 218 A Thomas 172 J Lewis 211
14 A Murrell 188 O Gary 169 J Stewart 210 T Barber 164 M Faulk 205
15 P Holmes 175 M Alstott 166 W Dunn 201 L Smith 159 D Staley 199
16 C Dillon 167 J Bettis 159 J Lewis 197 S Mack 158 C Dillon 196
17 A Smith 167 T Allen 150 C Dillon 194 M Alstott 154 M Bennett 192
18 M Alstott 161 C Enis 148 R Williams 191 C Garner 152 C Martin 184
19 W Dunn 157 T Kirby 143 J Bettis 184 E George 145 G Hearst 179
20 J Bettis 152 E Rhett 139 T Wheatley 175 D Staley 141 W Dunn 177
21 Abdul-Jabbar 149 W Dunn 127 E Smith 175 J Bettis 136 M Shipp 175
22 G Brown 146 L Hoard 126 J Anderson 171 M Pittman 132 J Stewart 167
23 L Hoard 135 R Smith 125 M Pittman 158 W Dunn 130 A Smith 164
24 N Means 130 J Linton 123 J Allen 152 M Smith 129 E James 149

Rank 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
1 369 310 372 337 365
2 323 308 332 269 317
3 290 250 284 256 299
4 274 246 252 255 281
5 274 223 246 236 267
6 247 215 240 225 262
Top 6 1777 1552 1726 1578 1791
7 228 203 240 212 258
8 226 196 232 211 251
9 224 194 231 208 249
10 209 184 231 185 222
11 204 178 224 180 214
12 201 177 223 180 212
7 - 12 1292 1132 1381 1176 1406
13 196 172 218 172 211
14 188 169 210 164 205
15 175 166 201 159 199
16 167 159 197 158 196
17 167 150 194 154 192
18 161 148 191 152 184
19 157 143 184 145 179
20 152 139 175 141 177
21 149 127 175 136 175
22 146 126 171 132 167
23 135 125 158 130 164
24 130 123 152 129 149
13-24 1923 1747 2226 1772 2198
Total 4992 4431 5333 4526 5395

Now this is where it gets interesting.

Like no other fantasy position, runningbacks have the sharpest decline and the greatest disparity between the best and worst of the top 12 in their position. While most positions see only a 20 to 50 point difference in those dozen players, runningbacks see 130 to 150 point differences. That is a definite advantage that is hard to overcome.

Last season was the highest scoring for the top six and top twelve in the past five years. In almost all years there are two 300 point runningbacks and after the steep decline of the top three or four, the drop becomes less from player to player. Still, it is the most significant of all positions and supports why owning more than one great back is such a major advantage.

There is a consistent trend of every other year being higher and then lower in scoring and partially this can be explained by injuries and returning players. If that remains true, 2003 would be another lower season and that is hard to see during the summer when there appears to be a strong set of candidates for the top dozen spots. Regardless, even if the spike up and down holds true, the position is no less valuable. Consider that their scoring overall declines rapidly and remember that most leagues use at least two in starting lineups. Only the top dozen quarterbacks matter for starting rosters, but 24 runningbacks are used each week.

Those critical top six runners that make such a big difference have been consistent at only returning two players back to the Top Six the following season. Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes did it last season. Marshall Faulk and Ahman Green were the duo the previous season. What is notable is how often those Top
The Next Year a Top 6 became:
  98 99 00 01 Avg
Top 6 2 3 2 2 2.3
7-12 0 1 0 1 0.5
13-24 0 1 0 3 1
Duds 4 1 4 0 2.3
Six players change. Over the course of the past five seasons, only Marshall Faulk has more than two showings in the Top Six. If you disregard Faulk, then the top six has undergone surprising change each season.

Part of that is to be expected in a position that routinely sees a player nicked up for a few games a year. The worst part is that most seasons see three or four of those top six players fall out of the top 12. These are highly drafted players that are hurting their fantasy team. Your first picks alone cannot win you a championship, but they can lose it for you and these are likely the ones poking holes in the bottom of your boat. Since normally only two runningbacks repeat a Top 6 finish, that means only two from the group of Holmes, Williams, Tomlinson, Portis, Alexander and McAllister will likely repeat. Though Holmes is still a health question, it is hard at this time to imagine that most likely three of them will not even end up with a Top 12 showing. Throw in Faulk and you have the first seven picks in most drafts this summer. Several leaguemates of yours will not be happy this season.

The Next Year 7th to 12th became:
  98 99 00 01 Avg
Top 6 1 0 1 2 1
7-12 2 3 1 0 1.5
13-24 1 2 2 2 1.8
Duds 2 1 2 2 1.8

Just as frustrating is hoping that a player that ended up in the 7th to 12th best fantasy season the year before will repeat or improve. It just does not happen nearly as often as desired. In the past two years, only two of them have done as well or improved while normally four of them perform to the level of a #2 fantasy runningback or worse. Guaranteed - these guys are getting drafted before the second round is complete. More often in the first round most likely.

LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Williams made the jump up while the other four from 2001 failed to breech the Top 12 in 2002. The previous year only Stephen Davis and Curtis Martin held true. Before that Charlie Garner, Ricky Watters and Martin did not improve but held the same level.

For this season, this grouping from 2002 has Barber, Henry, Garner, George, Taylor and Ahman Green. Which four will fall? Barber, Henry and Garner come off career years. George enjoyed more TD's thanks to McNair's back and Taylor was healthy all season for the first time. Ahman Green fell off from 2001 already and now may give short yardage scores to Davenport. If the season follows form, only one of them gets better.

The Next Year a Top 12 became:
  98 99 00 01 Avg
Top 6 3 3 3 4 3.3
7-12 2 4 1 1 2
13-24 1 3 2 5 2.8
Duds 6 2 6 2 4

Overall, less than half of the Top 12 will make it back the following season in any given year but a Top 6 has the best chance of staying as good the next season. Stands to reason why they are invariably among the very first drafts picks in the fantasy draft. Last season was following the odd every other year trend where only two of the top 12 became duds the next season. If the consistent trend holds, we are due for another six duds year which seems unlikely. Then again, I am sure we all thought that in 1998 and 2000.

Fantasy drafters, and more than a few self-professed experts, love to live in the past season when they make their own rankings and draft their teams. And yet the Top 12 from the prior season usually only has slightly less than half make it back to the Top 12 the next season. And yet, these 12 will all be drafted by the end of the second round and perhaps earlier. The good news is that last season picking a Top 12 from the previous season yielded ten players that at least stayed worthy of starting by ending in the Top 24 the next season. The bad news is that the odd every other year trend says that happens only in odd-numbered years and this is 2002. Only half of the Top 12 has been sticking around the Top 24 the next year.

The Top 12 came from where the prior year?
  99 00 01 02 Avg
Top 6 2 4 2 3 2.8
7-12 3 3 2 2 2.5
13-24 2 1 2 3 2
Deeper 4 2 4 2 3
Rookies 1 2 2 2 1.8

So if players the following year have a hard time repeating, where do the top 12 players come from the prior year? The greatest number come from outside the Top 12 the year before, but it is fairly evenly distributed where they were the prior season. Of the dozen players ranked 13th to 24th in performances the prior season, only two of them rise up into the top dozen, almost the same number of rookies who splashdown well into the NFL each season.

This season appears to be a wasteland for rookie runners. There are no hot freshman runners for the first time in many years and the string may end up finally broken. If one does do well, it will have to be by replacing a top back who was injured early in the season, because otherwise they are not going to get the opportunity.

This is all good for fantasy players since merely picking a top back from the prior season is hardly a guarantee of success. By the same token, determining exactly whom will be one of the risers is not only an artform, it relies on unforeseen circumstances to pass in many cases.

This season will be different than the past in a couple of ways. There are no hot rookies to draft so previous season stats are going to be key, even if they are only mildly predictive of future production. This season has an unusual number of runningbacks playing that have had great seasons in the past, perhaps not recently, but they have shown the ability to reach the top level before and the schedule, blocking, team health and coaching will figure heavily into the fortunes of those who make it into the Top 12 for 2003.

If you select two rushers with your first two picks, the chances are favorable that you will get at least one of them right. If you make it right on both, you will be harder to beat this season and with fewer risk picks from rookies and the like, those early runningback picks make more sense than usual.

Quarterback Running Back Wide Receiver Tight End Kickers Defenses