5 Big-Play Running Backs Who Could Regress in 2016

Todd Gurley had a lot of big rushes in his rookie year. Who else could regress due to a reliance on big plays?

I’ve come to really enjoy watching The Food Network lately. I know, I know: I sound like an old man who can’t figure out how to change the channel on these new-fangled digital antennae, and decides to just watch whatever’s on. It’s seriously interesting, though, and cooking holds a ton of metaphoric weight in my mind.

For instance, sometimes in life you need to stick to the basics and work on julienning your fennel. Other times, you need to risk it all and make a crème brûlèe in the final round when you’ve never done one before in your life.

I need to get out more.

Seriously, though, I am a risk-averse fantasy player in most situations, preferring a stable baseline of points over fluctuating upside/downside players. I understand that there are times you need a little more “bam” in your lineup, but I like to know if a player’s spice is substantial or a flash in the pan. That’s why we’re examining which running backs had 2015 seasons that were heavily based on unsustainable big plays.

Which running backs’ previous year profile could leave a bad taste in your mouth?

The Method

First of all, let’s define the term “big play”. A big play (some call it an “explosive play”) is any that results in a gain of 20 or more yards on offense. These plays are often fairly fluky, happening usually as a result of a broken coverage or missed tackle, and don’t tend to be consistent year-to-year. For instance, there were 337 rushing big-plays in 2015, up 4.0 percent from 2014, which was 2.7 percent less than 2013, which was 6.2 percent less than 2012, and so on.

I used the play-by-play search function of Pro Football Reference to pull up every rushing play that resulted in a gain of 20 or more yards in 2015. By comparing their production on big plays – in the form of attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns – to their production overall, I was able to find what percentage of their production was due to a big play.

I then took only the running backs who attempted at least 100 total rushes last season (39 of them) and ranked them in each category. Those with the highest average rank are our “flukiest” running backs and most likely to regress in 2016. The table below shows the average percentages of attempts, yards, and touchdowns on rushing big plays over the last five years, for reference.

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 2.51% 18.78% 13.89%

5. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 5.45% (2nd) 36.36% (1st) 10.00% (22nd)

This sure is a shocker. Watching Todd Gurley's rookie year unfold was kind of like being eating a good stir-fry: tasty cuisine, good spice, but you knew what went into it. This moment, though, is discovering that instead of water chestnuts you got tiny bits of sandpaper in your stir-fry.

Yes, Gurley makes an appearance on the list with two top-two entries in big-play attempt percentage and big-play yards percentage. Yes, both Gurley’s percentage of attempts that went for more than 20 yards and yards on those runs were double the average over the last five years. His regression candidacy adds up when you think about his running back style: he's an excellent NFL talent, to be sure, but he’s a versatile power runner. He shouldn’t have been able to break off a fifth of the field that many times. The only thing that saved him from total regression status was a slightly below-average big-play touchdown rate.

4. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 5.07% (3rd) 24.20% (10th) 25.00% (12th)

I have to ruin all of the good rookie stories, don’t I? Thomas Rawls came on midseason to take over for the ailing Marshawn Lynch, and really began to run away with the Seahawks’ backfield before he too got injured for the year. Still, he never seemed to be horrendously flashy in his production. However, you then realize that almost a quarter of his yardage came on big breakaway plays and you start having questions.

Sure, some running backs just have incredible home-run hitter ability in their speed and agility profiles, but the 5' 9'', 215-pound Rawls wouldn’t immediately appear to have that. He has more than enough agility, but his calling card seemed to be strength more than anything. That didn’t stop him from taking seven of his carries for huge gains, and doubling the average touchdown rate. Rawls picked up 847 yards on just 138 carries in 2015, but if he gets more volume in 2016, we should see that average drop a little. Just temper expectations.

3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 3.58% (11th) 25.80% (6th) 36.36% (7th)

I remember a 2015 offseason which saw people wonder whether or not Adrian Peterson's year suspended (essentially) for rather unsavory actions would have made him rusty or given him more time to rest. Interestingly, it was the latter that came true, and Peterson was able to put the entire Minnesota Vikings’ offense on his back once again. One of these days, the half-man, half-cyborg Peterson will break down, but it wasn’t in 2015.

Perhaps more shockingly than him being a competent NFL running back was him being an exceptional NFL running back. Peterson was still able to break off big chunks of yardage with ease, and score four of his touchdowns from at least 20 yards out. With the diminished talent on the Vikings’ offensive line and a non-existent passing game, though, Peterson will be mortal sooner or later. We cannot count on his sustained superlative play forever.

2. Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 4.05% (6th) 26.69% (4th) 25.00% (12th)

I’m a Lamar Miller defender just as much as the next guy: I really think he got the short end of the stick by the Miami Dolphins over the last few years by not letting him be a true lead running back, much less have a meaningful share of snaps in an offense floundering thanks to its quarterback’s learning curve. That said, when you look at Miller’s statistical profile, you have to wonder whether or not they were onto something.

Lamar Miller has always been highly efficient as a runner -- he picked up 918 yards on just 173 carries this season, and has always had big-play speed and agility. The fact of the matter is, though, he picked up almost twice the average big-play yard percentage, and definitely doubled the big-play touchdown rate. Miller has one of the less fluky-seeming profiles of anyone on this list, but with him hitting free agency soon, interested teams have to wonder if a regression will come when they offer him more playing time.

1. James Starks, Green Bay Packers

20+ Yards Rushes Yards TD
% of Total 3.79% (8th) 28.53% (3rd) 66.67% (1st)

This one is easy to understand. As much as I, as a Green Bay Packers fan, love James Starks, he had just 132 carries this year, but picked up 631 yards and three touchdowns on those runs. Two of his scores were from long range, as were 180 of his yards.

Starks has always been a capable NFL backup, but he went above-and-beyond this year in relief of Eddie Lacy. There is very little chance that he continues this kind of production rate at age 30. He is going to head to free agency in hopes of finding a starting job, but not many teams will likely want to put him in that role. Age is one reason, and so is a profile that screams regression.