Fantasy Football: 2015 Was an Outlier Season for Running Backs

The running back position in fantasy football was a disaster in 2015. But it was also an outlier.

Devonta Freeman. Adrian Peterson. Danny Woodhead. DeAngelo Williams. Lamar Miller.

Those are your top-five 2015 fantasy football running backs in PPR leagues. Those are the players.


The unpredictable nature of the running back position is surely going to change draft strategies in 2016. Even when you peruse Twitter today -- just days after the traditional fantasy football season ended -- you'll find tweets from fantasy enthusiasts declaring that they're "never going to draft a running back early again" and "the running back position in fantasy football is dead."

I'm not here today to explain why you should or shouldn't take running backs with your important early-round picks in fantasy football. We've got eight months to look over how the fantasy football market plays out. But to judge an entire position's value -- its existence -- after this one season?

Let's not get carried away.

Not Your Normal Year

To be candid, I'm not a huge fan of cumulative, season-long statistics in fantasy football. When a running back scores 250 points across the season and finishes as a top-five option, all that number tells us is the end result -- it fails to explain the journey.

For instance, Frank Gore finished as the 13th-best running back option in PPR leagues this season when we look at things with a season-long lens. But any Gore owner knows it wasn't a pretty, clean season -- just five of his contests resulted in weekly rankings above 20th at the running back position. In other words, Gore struggled to be just an RB2 in two-thirds of his games.

Meanwhile, Darren McFadden finished behind Gore in PPR league scoring. DMC had an additional top-20 performance, though. A key reason he didn't match Gore's season-long output was because Joseph Randle was inexplicably a thing for the Cowboys for six weeks, meaning McFadden wasn't as usable during that time. When McFadden got touches, he was solid -- or at least better than Gore -- for fantasy teams.

It's about usable starts, not just starts.

I'll be talking about cumulative numbers below because they're more simplistic and easy to digest, and the majority of fantasy owners analyze the game this way. But do know that the journey is far more important than the result.

Now that that's out of the way, let's dig into the apocalyptic 2015 season at the running back position. As I mentioned above, the top-five finishers this season came seemingly from left field, aside from Adrian Peterson. And it's even worse than just the top five backs: among the top-10 preseason ranked running backs, All Day was the only one actually to finish in the top 10.

That's right -- according to's average draft position (ADP) data in PPR leagues, Peterson was the only top-10 running back to finish the season ranked in the top 10.

No, that's not normal. Since 2010 -- using the same source for ADP data -- the fewest number of top-10 backs failing to reach that mark was four, which happened in 2010, 2011 and 2012. In 2013 and 2014, five running backs were able to maintain their top-10 value.

Crazy, right? 

We're just getting started.

Visualizing the Outlier

To help show that this season was Jessie-Spano-on-caffeine-pills crazy, I dug into the average draft position at running back over the last five seasons in PPR leagues and compared this ADP data to the post-season results. Then, because I'm a good guy, I put it all in a nice chart. Let's take a look at 2015's visualization:

2015 Running Back Results

This is actually all pretty simple. The left column shows where each running back was drafted -- RB1-5 means the back was selected as a top-five one, while RB6-10 depicts running backs who were taken 6th through 10th. The process was continued, then, through the 50th running back selected.

The top row may be a little confusing, but all it shows is the number of running backs within the five running back subset to finish the season in a particular group. So, for example, you can see a "1" in the "≥ RB5" column for running backs preseason ranked first through fifth. All this means is that one of the five backs finished, at worst, as the fifth best running back. That, as we already know, was Adrian Peterson.

As you move down the columns, you'll notice the first row doesn't change until the "≥ RB30" spot. That's because Adrian Peterson was the only running back selected in the top five at the position to finish in, at least, the top 25.

The next back? Eddie Lacy, who ranked 30th in PPR points this season.

You can look around the chart and see how dreadful the position was in 2015. Like how no running back ranked 6th through 10th in preseason ADP finished as a top-10 back, or how more running backs in the preseason RB41 to RB45 range finished 2015 as top-25 backs than the preseason ranked RB1 to RB5 backs.

Now, let's do a quick comparison by looking at 2014's ADP heat chart:

2014 Running Back Results

Totally different. Completely, 100% different.

Last season, four of the top-five running backs selected in fantasy drafts finished as at least top-15 options (the four were actually top 11). The only one who didn't live up to his preseason expectations was, ironically, Adrian Peterson, who was suspended for the majority of the season.

Among the top-five running backs last season, all were drafted within the RB1 to RB15 range.

Meanwhile, if you wanted a running back to give you sustained success across the entire year, you needed a little luck -- three backs selected outside the top 25 at the position finished in the top 10, while just two more comprised the top 15.

This isn't a whole lot different when compared to 2013, 2012 and 2011, either:


2013 Running Back Results


2012 Running Back Results


2011 Running Back Results

You can certainly take some time to digest these charts, but I do ask that you focus your attention on the top left area of them. In 2015's version, there's a lot of orange and red -- there were a lot of busts among early-round backs. In the other versions, you see more yellow and green -- there were some busts, sure, but there were also far more success stories.

The Numbers Behind the Outlier

Naturally, the numbers -- not just the visuals -- prove that things were a little wonky as well. 

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
Median Top 10 Score 142.65 215.00 198.40 199.50 245.00
Median Top 10 ADP Rank 23.5 9.5 11.0 13.0 12.0
Median Top 20 ADP Rank 24.0 13.5 21.5 14.5 16.0

As you can see, scoring was really low among the top-10 running backs this season, which makes sense with all the running back injuries. Not only are the injuries happening weeks into the season, which splits up cumulative fantasy points scored, but they were happening to high-end running backs -- without guys like Le'Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles scoring points, the position will take a hit.

But take a look at the next two rows, which show the median ADP rank among top-10 and -20 running backs this season. The average top-10 back was selected as about the 24th running back off the board in August drafts. That's historically been in the late fifth round of 12-team leagues. Last year, that back was 10th, or one in the second round.

Prior to this season, you had to use those early-round picks if you really wanted a high-quality back. You had to spend money to make money.

This year, not so much.

The 2016 Season and Beyond

Back in 2011, we saw quarterbacks break records. Aaron Rodgers threw 45 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions, Drew Brees almost hit 5,500 passing yards, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady each topped 5,000 yards, and Cam Newton, during his rookie year, rushed for 14 touchdowns.

The next season, five quarterbacks had average draft positions in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts.

We all know that was a mistake. And the source of that mistake is the fact that the fantasy football world is reactionary. Rather than taking a step back and realizing that what happened in a particular season may not be the norm, owners tend to draft strictly based on recent events. They formulate strategic opinions based on Recency Bias.

We shouldn't be surprised, then, to see running backs fall in drafts next year. And while this line of thinking isn't completely unintelligent, given that the running back position isn't as fruitful as it used to be, history has told us that the general market will overcorrect.

History has shown that the fantasy owners who only make slight shifts in strategy based on one year will end up being the ones finding the most success.