There's a New Era of Fantasy Football Running Backs
For the last seven to nine seasons, the elite tier of fantasy football running backs has been rather static, with the same handful of names repeatedly showing up among the top scorers at the end of the season.
Five backs in particular have ruled the first round of fantasy drafts for years, with owners clamoring to get a top pick in order to secure one of these sure-fire RB1s. I’m talking about Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch.
Dating back to 2007, the five aforementioned backs have combined for 18 top-five fantasy finishes at their position in standard fantasy leagues. When we include top-10 finishes, that number gets a solid bump up to 23 total.
In terms of Success Rate -- which measures the percentage of positive runs (per Net Expected Points, or NEP) made by a running back -- all of the above players have career averages either above or fewer than one percentage point below the average rate of 41.45% for running backs with greater than 200 rush attempts dating back to 2007 (Peterson and Lynch’s rookie year).
All of these backs will be at least 30 years old by the time the 2016 campaign wraps. So with that said, there’s no better time than now to take a prospective glimpse into the future to see which young backs could replace them as mainstays in the elite conversation going forward.
Changing of the Guard
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Arguably the best all-around back in the NFL, Bell is a candidate to be the top consensus pick in all fantasy drafts in 2016. In the six games he played in last season, the Pittsburgh back averaged more scrimmage yards per game (115.3) than any of the top-15 running backs in fantasy. Bell’s career Success Rate in three seasons is 42.86% with an average of 215 rush attempts per season -- that puts him nearly one-and-a-half percentage points above the average.
One could make a case for someone like Todd Gurley or David Johnson as a better long-term investment in fantasy, but it’s hard to deny Bell’s top-shelf value in Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense that's showing no signs of sputtering out any time soon.
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Hindered by poor coaching decisions in Miami, some believe Miller has yet to reach his full potential. Now with Houston, fantasy enthusiasts hope to see him excel in a feature-back type of role.
In his last three seasons with the Dolphins (discounting his rookie year in 2012), Miller has averaged approximately 195 carries with a Success Rate of 41.66% in that span. He's basically right on par with the average rate, a good sign for his future outlook especially now that he’s in a much better situation.
Houston’s running backs combined for 2,230 total yards last season. So to be conservative and say Miller projects to produce half of that by himself, he’s trending in the right direction as far as elite running backs go.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman surprised pretty much everyone with his insane Pro Bowl campaign a year ago, finishing as fantasy’s RB1 with a 41.67% Success Rate on his 264 carries. The average Success Rate among running backs with over 200 carries in 2015 was 38.89%, so the fact that Freeman registered 2.78 percentage points higher than average highlights just how valuable he was to the Falcons offense.
Freeman’s role as a receiver (73 receptions) helps his case as an elite running back candidate and is a testament to his versatility, but his reception total could regress some. It’s also possible that second-year back Tevin Coleman sees more opportunities this year. Coleman’s rookie campaign was riddled with injuries (ribs, head), but don’t forget that he earned Atlanta’s starting running back job to open the season. It’s going to be difficult for Freeman to improve on his RB1-worthy season, but his toughness and versatility should keep him in the elite conversation.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
In the 13 games he played in during his rookie year, Gurley averaged 99.54 total yards per game. But compared to the rest of the backs in this article, he had an awful Success Rate of just 36.34% on his 229 rush attempts.
As I mentioned with Freeman, it’s worth noting that the average Success Rate for running backs with greater than 200 carries in 2015 was 38.89% -- the lowest mark dating back to the start of my research in 2007. So while below average, Gurley’s Success Rate in his rookie season doesn’t seem so significantly poor when you consider that it wasn’t a great year for backs overall with similar volume.
With rookie quarterback Jared Goff at the helm, there's little doubt that Gurley’s volume will be consistent as his young quarterback adapts to the NFL. Gurley is arguably the most talented running back in the league, but the one thing that could keep him from reaching elite status is the lackluster state of the offense he is a part of, one that was worst in football last year according to our metrics. The hope is that the Rams’ offense will improve over time, but fantasy owners who invest in Gurley must be willing to be patient and believe that the second-year running back’s talent can transcend his current situation.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson had an insane Success Rate of 50.40% on his 125 carries during his rookie campaign -- that’s nearly 10 percentage points higher than the mean for backs with 125-150 rush attempts dating back to 2007. Johnson flashed shades of Beast Mode in the second half of his rookie season after taking over the feature back role for the Cardinals high-powered offense. As far as situation goes, he might have the biggest advantage among this group of new elite running back candidates.
While sample size may be a concern (approximately 54 percent of Johnson’s fantasy points were scored in Weeks 13-17 when he was finally given a shot as the starter), it shouldn’t take stock away from his raw talent and ideal situation -- factors that place him among the highest ranked backs in all fantasy formats.
Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
The de facto heir to Lynch's vacant throne in Seattle, Rawls posted a 45.58% Success Rate last season on his 147 rush attempts. That’s nearly five percentage points above the mean for backs with 125-150 rush attempts dating back to 2007. He averaged a ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry average for the season, higher than any fantasy-relevant running back in 2015, save for Karlos Williams and Spencer Ware (both were at 5.6 as well).
Rawls comes with concerns about his broken ankle suffered late last season, but if reports are positive during training camp that he's in good enough shape to shoulder a full workload for Seattle, Rawls will be a valuable asset. Fantasy owners should keep in mind that the Seahawks picked up three running backs during the draft. That may lead one to believe that the team is not all-in on Rawls, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent a year ago, so proceed with caution.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
We obviously don’t have any professional-level stats to use in a statistical analysis of Elliott, but what we can do is forecast his success based on magical thought bubbles that I pulled out of a hat. All kidding aside, the table is set in Dallas for Elliott to feast on opposing defenses and make contributions to fantasy teams like no rookie running back has in recent memory (or distant memory for that matter). After all, the Cowboys have been a top-10 team in Adjusted Rushing NEP in each of the last two seasons.
Zeke is already considered a first-round pick in redraft formats, and he could potentially help to usher in the new era of elite fantasy running backs in an age where versatility is more valuable than size and toughness.