Nothing Has Really Changed With Fantasy Football Running Backs
"Running backs are garbage."
"So much has changed at the running back position."
"What matters at running back now is so much different than it used to be."
"Running backs are no longer valuable."
These are some comments that you might here about the running back position in fantasy football.
It's now somewhat "trendy" to trash running backs.
It's also kind of wrong.
I wanted to see just how much the running back position has actually changed over the last 15 seasons. If you recall from my regression analysis of running backs, the two numberFire metrics we care about with respect to running backs and fantasy scoring are Rushing Successes and Reception Net Expected Points.
On every play, there's an expected point value an NFL team has for the drive based on yard line, down, and distance. What happens on that play can change the expected point value on said drive. What NEP does is aggregate the values gained or lost on every play into a single, net number. That's Net Expected Points.
You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
A Rushing Success is any rush attempt that yields positive NEP. This matters more for running backs than Rushing NEP because rushing plays are generally inefficient, so we'll often see workhorse runners with negative Rushing NEP.
Meanwhile, Reception NEP is simply the expected points gained through catches.
I compiled the Rushing Successes and Reception NEP for all top-12 fantasy running backs in PPR leagues (RB1s for a 12-team league) from 2000 until 2015. Let's see if the results can tell us anything useful.
The graph below summarizes the findings -- blue bars represent the total Rushing Successes for RB1s in a particular year, while the red bars represent total Reception NEP. The black and brown lines are trend lines for Rushing Successes and Reception NEP, respectively.
As you can see, there does appear to be a downward trend (2015 is listed first on the x-axis) in the requisite number of Rushing Successes to be an RB1, but I'll address that in a minute.
What was most interesting to me at first glance is the relatively flat trendline for Reception NEP. In other words, this concept of drafting quality pass-catching running backs shouldn't be as novel as it typically is played up to be.
This isn't to say that the people who push that aren't smart, just that we collectively probably should have been on that idea years and years ago. Running backs who are going to be RB1s, especially high-end ones, need to have some receiving chops.
The Myth About Running Backs
To see that the above trendline for Rushing Successes may be a farce, it helps to view the data in another form. Take a look at the same data from above, but in line graph form.
There's definitely a drop-off in the number of Rushing Successes between 2000 and 2005 or 2006 to now for RB1s, but it looks as though the requisite number of Rushing Successes from 2006 to 2014 was relatively static. In other words, to be an RB1, a running back wasn't playing any worse in 2014 than he was in 2006. That's nine seasons!
Then 2015 happened.
2015 was just a crazy outlier year, as our own JJ Zachariason has already pointed out. Between major injuries and poor diets (I'm looking at you, Eddie Lacy), the running back position completely bottomed out.
To put into perspective just how bad it was, the 1,067 combined Rushing Successes of RB1s in 2015 was 203 fewer than the next lowest total (16.9 per RB1), and 343 fewer than 2014's total (28.6 per RB1). That doesn't seem anywhere near sustainable, and we should see rushing production for running backs increase in 2016.
With the exception of last season, RB1s have played at about the same level for the last decade. They are no less valuable than they have been, and the requisite playing style hasn't necessarily changed at all.
Spinning this forward for drafts, you should still consider drafting running backs early, as JJ pointed out a couple of years ago. And since the market could very well over-correct itself in 2016, I've already gone on record to declare 2016 The Year of the Running Back.
Don't fall for the running back myth. Because nothing has really changed.