When playing fantasy football over the last half a dozen years or so, the general consensus is to draft running backs early and often. However, if that was your approach in 2022, you are likely to be sitting with a record of .500 or worse right now. Unless you worked your Waiver Wire well, traded these running backs early, or hit with a lot of late value in your drafts. Because the reason drafting running backs early and often this season is hurting your team, is purely down to the decline of elite RB performance in fantasy football in 2022.
In recent years, concerns have been swept under the carpet due to higher-than-usual injury rates. I have been guilty of using the scarcity argument to warrant taking running backs early and often in drafts. However, what if the peak for this strategy has not only passed, but instead, we are already at the heart of the decline of elite RB performance in fantasy football?
Looking at running back scoring in 2022 has left many fantasy owners underwhelmed at what their first and second-round picks have delivered for their fantasy teams. In truth, you don’t have to look much further than first overall consensus pick Jonathan Taylor, to showcase just how frustrated fantasy owners are with their teams when taking a running back at the top of the draft. However, just how bad is the decline of elite RB performance in fantasy football?
This article has decided to analyse weeks 1-6 of each of the last eleven seasons to understand a trend in the running back position.
The rise of elite RB performance
It is true that everybody sets out in the draft to get that true league-winning back. However, since 2020, the impact of the overall RB1 is in decline. This article is looking at research and statistics referring to weeks 1-6 from the 2012 season all the way through to this season. With the idea of trying to understand how the position has changed over time.
In 2018, fantasy players started to understand the value of drafting running backs early. There were more good starting running backs in the NFL. They were catching more passes than previously. And, they seemed to see a higher snap share. NFL teams who had an “elite” running back like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, or Derrick Henry, were prepared to use them over and over again. Therefore, their draft value, and ADP, rose accordingly.
As a result, their production went up accordingly. And the truly elite running backs became matchup winners and potentially league winners also. Below highlights the overall RB1 points total through weeks 1-6 that have progressed over the last decade.
Having the RB1 was game-changing. Literally. You were seeing in 2018 and 2019 owners of Todd Gurley (2018) and Christian McCaffrey (2019) storming out into huge leads in their leagues as they had a bonafide cheat code in their team. Having a truly elite RB1 was changing the landscape of fantasy football.
However, it wasn’t just at the overall RB1 that things were changing. It was also changing all through the top twelve running backs. Below is looking at the RB6 and the changes over time in the last decade.
A similar trend line occurs. In 2018 and 2019 we see this spike at the RB6 position that we have not seen previously, or since.
The same occurs when looking at the average points total of the top twelve running backs over the decade.
But not everything peaked in 2018
The only charts where this path deviates slightly are when looking at the RB12 overall and the mean score for the RB2s (RBs13-24).
In both instances, 2018 saw growth. However, it was in 2019 and 2020 that the subsequent peaks were reached.
All of these graphs are telling a story. NFL teams were keen to utilise running backs as a way of gaining significant offensive production. The reason for this is that running back are notoriously cheaper to have on your roster than most other offensive positions. So much so, the average elite running back was only earning a third of what their elite wide receiver counterparts were earning. That is because the position is seemingly viewed to be less skilled and easier to replenish talent with. Not to mention that the average career span of a running back is less than half what a wide receiver is.
The change in the NFL’s value in running backs
As a result, you saw more talent generated at the position. Saquon Barkley was taken at number 2 overall by the New York Giants in the 2018 NFL draft and quickly won Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, Rashaad Penny was drafted 27th overall and Sony Michel 31st overall by the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots respectively. In 2017, Leonard Fournette was drafted 4th overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Christian McCaffrey 8th overall by the Carolina Panthers, and Dalvin Cook 41st overall by the Minnesota Vikings.
NFL teams were willing to spend draft capital on these running backs as they seemed to bring the prospect of a better bang for your buck when it came to contract value.
That is why we can see a progression at the bottom of the RB1 conversation and also at the RB2 level which is later than the RB1 trends at the top. Because the NFL is a copycat league. Once a few teams find success, more teams will follow.
However, despite this sudden rise in value for running backs, did the bottom fall out. After seeing three running backs selected in round 1 in 2018, just one running back was selected in the first round in each of the next two NFL drafts. And, both of them were taken fairly late in round one.
So what does this mean for elite RB performance?
Whilst it is easy to argue the running back position is seeing more talent at the position than at any point over the last decade, it has also thrown up some challenges as well.
Running backs do have a tendency to get injured at a significant rate. Their injury rate is certainly much higher than at the quarterback or wide receiver positions for example. Michael Gertz of Pro Football Logic did some injury analysis by the position that shows running backs play the least amount of games per season on average, their injuries are typically for the longest amount of time (3.9 games on average), whilst also having the highest chance of suffering an injury that will keep them out of the next game or longer (5.2%).
Therefore, whilst running backs are cheaper, they tend to miss time more frequently. Over the past two years, fantasy owners have had to suffer injuries to Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler and more. All of these players missed significant time.
Therefore, whilst the NFL coaches had found a cheaper way to get production into their teams, it also carried a higher risk. This is why, despite seeing a spike in production in 2018 and 2019, there is now a significant decline occurring.
As a result, there is the decline of elite RB performance.
Where is RB performance declining?
As previously mentioned, coaches are weary of relying on a featured back exclusively. Hence the change in drafting more elite receiving talent to supplement the running back and offense.
However, that isn’t the exclusive reason why performance has declined. In order to understand why first we must look at where the performance is declining.
There are a number of key indicators that can highlight why we are seeing a decline in RB performance. They are total touches and average scrimmage yards.
Total touches were on the rise before the 2018 season, showing a peak in 2017, as well as in 2019. Weirdly, there is a downward trend in 2018. However, it is touches that only explain one half of the story.
2018 and 2019 saw a spike in scrimmage yards that have not been seen across the RB1 landscape before or since. Therefore, whilst touches were down in 2018, scrimmage yards were way up, meaning touches were more efficient on a touch-per-yardage basis.
However, in 2020, scrimmage yards fell to a 2016 level, seeing a drop of 69 yards, on average, per running back in the top twelve at the position. There are many potential reasons for this. Injuries to key personnel? Coaching adjusting to the change in tactics and becoming better at stopping running backs from gaining scrimmage yards? Incoming talent tapering off and not being at that “elite” level? A combination of all three perhaps.
What is clear however is a clear regression in production from a scrimmage yards perspective. And, whilst there had been a spike in efficiency on a yards-per-touch basis, the decline in production is clear to see.
What does the decline mean?
There has already been mention of the game-changers that 2018 and 2019 brought to the running back position. However, to truly understand the scope of the game-changer landscape, and why having a premium RB has not made as much of an impact this season, we need to look at the gap between owning an RB1 and an RB2.
Having an RB1 vs RB2 in 2018 yielded a 50.3 PPR point difference between weeks 1-6 of that season. That is an average of 8.38 PPR points per game. In 2020 that gap dropped to 4.48 PPR points per game difference. In 2022, it is currently 5.6 PPR points per game. That is still significant. But truly game-changing? And worth of so many running backs going off the board in rounds 1 and 2? Probably not. Especially as the difference between the average WR1 total and WR2 total is 5.33 PPR points per game?
What can we expect for the rest of the season?
It is becoming more and more obvious that the decline of elite RB performance is going to remain this season, and potentially beyond. This is no longer a one-year blip, or a two-year downturn. This is the third year of decline from the peak of 2018/2019. And, whilst analysts, myself included, have tried to use injuries, COVID-19, and other reasons as the explanation in the short term, it is hard to ignore the decline now.
As fantasy players, there is a need to adjust our approach. It will be much harder this season in redraft, as we have already drafted and created our teams. Therefore, there is a need to see how this plays out, confirm the decline, and adjust the process for next year.
There are some ways in which you can course correct. With each injury at the position, it does create an opportunity to trade an “elite” running back and make a pivot to a more balanced team. However, outside of that, it is a case of playing the waiver wire, looking to acquire more wide receivers, and perhaps playing fewer running backs in your flex.
Because it is unlikely there will be a reversal in the decline. Therefore, it is now a case of managing it for this season.
What are the conclusions?
There are a lot of graphs and a lot of data in this article. Therefore, it is time to review what this research is showing us.
1) The peak of the RB position was reached in 2018 and 2019. Therefore, fantasy players should not be reaching for the heights of 2018/2019.
2) Running back snap share has seen a decline of 74% in 2018 and 72% in 2019, down to 63% in 2020 and 68% in 2022. Elite running backs are on the field less than they were at their peak, therefore it is difficult to see how they replicate their volume without being on the field.
3) The decline is in its third year. Meaning this is not a blip. But a trend in performance.
4) It is unlikely to reverse without a significant change at the position. That could be new talent, better usage, better efficiency, or even better coaching.
5) As a result of the decline of elite RB performance, the gap to RB2s has shrunk, resulting in fewer game-changing players. As a result, running backs are less likely to make a significant difference than they were in 2018/2019.
What should you do going forwards?
It is time for fantasy players to have a rethink in strategy moving forward from next year. The decline of elite RB performance in fantasy football means taking running backs high and often in fantasy drafts probably is not the wisest strategy from a roster construction perspective.
In the early 2010s, quarterbacks were taken very early in fantasy drafts because they were the highest-scoring players. Therefore, everybody took quarterbacks early. However, what was soon realised is that these quarterbacks all scored very similar amounts. Therefore, taking them early didn’t make sense from a roster construction basis or from a value of drafting perspective.
As a result of this, the trend was to draft quarterbacks late. However, in 2021, this strategy was revised again, as a selection of quarterbacks such as Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen, raised the ceiling at the position and created a gap.
Fantasy football strategy has evolved at the quarterback position a great deal. However, it has yet to evolve at the running back position. There is a selection of analysts that have proposed a “zero RB” approach. And then, analysts in best ball and redraft started to look at a “hero RB” strategy, which is an RB early and then fading the position for many rounds.
In truth, more discussion and research are required. This research points to, and potentially proves those two RB strategies as the right ones. However, it appears too early to tell that it is. What is for certain is that the early and often approach at running back appears to be one that should be removed from playbooks from next year for fantasy owners.
The research in this article was provided by Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, and FantasyPros. If you would like to see the raw copies of this data, please do reach out to me on twitter at the link below. I would be happy to provide the data to anybody who requests it. If you choose to use it, please link to this article.
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– Murf (@Murf_NFL)