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Running Up the Glut
by David M. Dorey
July 29, 2003
 

The lament each season is that there are never enough runningbacks to go around. Of course this mostly means that your runningbacks have not met your lofty expectations, but the only team that is pleased with the position is likely the one with the two best. This season is showing an absolute run on the rushers in fantasy drafts perhaps like none in recent memory. And yet, and yet... I am telling you that there has never been so many good runningbacks before - at least not in theory.

The basis for runningback evaluation is most often past performance. Unlike other positions, good runners typically do not develop over time. They pretty much hit the ground running or they just do not pan out in the NFL. The position receives a good share of the injuries as well, since it is the one guy on the field that the entire defense will have a chance to blast. Maybe a couple of dozen times a game even.

But in reviewing this glut - GLUT I SAY - of runningbacks, first let's take a look at why so many backs may be due for a big year.

Just last year Yards TDs Reason why he could be big this season
Moe Williams 671 11 Short yardage and goal line master in MIN
Priest Holmes 2287 24 It was just a flesh wound. Still was a fantasy king last year.
Ricky Williams 2216 17 Found love in the Florida grass
LaDainian T. 2172 15 Because it is all LT, all the time and nary a carry to share
Tiki Barber 1984 11 When Fassel starting calling plays, he just called for Tiki.
Charlie Garner 1903 11 When opponents stop the run, he just catches the ball
Clinton Portis 1872 17 This was not even from a full season
Jamal Lewis 1769 7 Knee is all better after 2001 blowout
Travis Henry 1747 14 They want to feature him even more
Deuce McAllister 1740 16 He was everything that Ricky Williams was supposed to be
Fred Taylor 1722 8 When healthy, with a good line, he can be one of the best
Michael Bennett 1647 6 Had record 3 straight games with a 60+ yard rush. Getting better.
Shaun Alexander 1635 18 Slow start and a furious finish
Eddie George 1420 14 And you thought he was getting old.
Warrick Dunn 1304 9 Second year in system and is due more passes
Marcel Shipp 1264 9 What if Emmitt really can get hurt?
William Green 1000 6 Dud for 8 weeks and then stud the rest of the way
       
Just two years ago Yards TDs Reason why he could be big this season
Mike Alstott 911 11 With Pittman in cuffs, who else is going to step up?
Marshall Faulk 2147 21 Every star has an off year
Ahman Green 1981 11 Got dinged up but back in form now
Curtis Martin 1823 10 Got dinged up but back in form now
Corey Dillon 1543 13 Bengals finally hit bottom (again) and has a new coach
Anthony Thomas 1361 7 A-Train wants to get back on track after injurious 2002
Antowain Smith 1349 13 Only one season removed from a huge year and no competitors
Dominic Rhodes 1328 9 What if Edgerrin gets hurt again?
Stacey Mack 1042 10 Starting RB for the first time in HOU - this is his shot
       
Just three years ago Yards TDs Reason why he could be big this season
Edgerrin James 2303 18 Two years removed from knee injury
Mike Anderson 1669 15 Portis is not a big guy and may not be durable
Stephen Davis 1631 11 Carolina wants to run and run and then run
James Stewart 1471 11 Mariucci has made stars of Garner and Hearst
Lamar Smith 1340 16 Now a backup, but on another team that can run
Emmitt Smith 1282 9 Emmitt upgrades his line and sets sights on his swan song

That makes 26 teams which have a runningback that has already had a great season within the last three years. Think about it - what magic does twelve months have that would suddenly make Ahman Green and Shaun Alexander (consensus #2 and #3 last season) now suddenly be considered as the #7 and #8 (or deeper) runningbacks in the draft? Their teams have not really changed and may have actually improved.

There are five #2 runningbacks that have had big years in the past three - Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro, Lamar Smith, Mike Anderson, Marcell Shipp and Moe Williams. There are 19 players that have amassed over 1500 yards in one season over the past three seasons. There are normally only one or two receivers that get that many yards in any given year.

And still we all burn up all those early picks on backs because we all want two of them. Sounds pretty reasonable since they are more valuable than a comparable receiver and since you start two of them, why not get two of the best in that position?

What we are missing this season is the hot risk-picks for runningbacks. All the players are relatively established and there are not very many teams where there is any question at all as to who will be the #1 runningback.

We have a dozen players that exceeded 1500 yards last year, four more that had done the year before and three more than had reached it two years before. Throw in William Green, James Stewart and maybe Anthony Thomas too since you could easily build the case that they are capable of doing that and in situations that would allow it.

Reality check - no way will 22 runningbacks exceed 1500 total yards. Last season there were 16 players that did that but it was also a season that saw very few runningback injuries. Compared to prior seasons, it was almost a freak year for not having injuries. Are we overdue?

There are several aging players that may see Father Time call them home early for dinner. Emmitt Smith (34), Curtis Martin (30), Lamar Smith (33), Jerome Bettis (31), Garrison Hearst (32), James Stewart (32), Charlie Garner (31), Antowain Smith (31), Mike Alstott (30), Mike Anderson (30), Eddie George (30), Priest Holmes (30) and Marshall Faulk (30) all listened to music on cassette tapes in college. For a position that demands fresh legs, those are a lot of past successful players still wearing helmets on Sunday instead of just trying to cash in on their name as broadcasters. Life is not supposed to begin at 30 in the NFL, it is supposed to end.

But most offenses no longer use runningbacks to smash between the tackles every carry. Not even Pittsburgh does anymore. The gradual shift to the West Cost offense and its many variants has made the game a bit faster and with more finesse for runners. More offenses are going to two tight end sets not to have more receivers but so that they can trap the defensive end and get around the corner better. Against the few 3-4 defenses, it gives an extra blocker against the inside linebacker.

2002 was the highest scoring fantasy year for runningbacks in the last five years and maybe ever as offenses have increased the presence of passes to backs. Runningbacks scored more at every spot through all the fantasy starters than any other year. That is a product of two things:

A. Offensive philosophical shift to more spread offenses, increased passing to backs.

B. A very low year for runningback injuries. Either players remained healthy or took it easy since they were returning from a previous injury.

There is a glut of runningbacks, at least in potential, but the point is that you want the best two back set you can draft given that they score so much more consistently and higher than other positions in most scoring scenarios. It seems almost contrary to reason, but even with a deep pool of runners, you still want to take the best two instead of other positions. Runners are scoring better than ever and they were already the best.

The risk seems the lowest for runningbacks in recent memory because there are so many that have recent track records of success and we have not - happily - seen a career ending injury in a while either. In a year absent the normal three or four hot rookies or first year starting players, this is a season to look for backup runningbacks. All those players, especially the older ones, are not going to turn in 1500 yard seasons and it is almost guaranteed that there will be a few backups that make a difference in the second half of the season.

This should be a most interesting season indeed...