One of the big debates among fantasy football experts is whether elite running backs have the value in fantasy football that they did 10-20 years ago. The strategy in fantasy football used to be that owners should draft a running back in the first and second round, as that position dominated fantasy football. Quarterbacks and receivers were considered important, however they were secondary in value to starting running backs. It was considered foolish to draft an elite wide receiver or quarterback in the first or top part of the second round and sacrifice quality at the running back position.
There are three reasons that the running back position dominates fantasy football. 1) Running backs are a duel threat. Not only can they run the ball, but they also can catch the ball. Therefore, running backs usually lead the team in touches and the more a player touches the ball, the more opportunities to score fantasy points. 2) There are only 32 starting running backs in the NFL. That is half the number of receivers and equal to the number of starting quarterbacks. 3) Unlike the quarterback, you usually have to start two running backs per week, where as quarterback you only have to start one. The demand for running backs is high, the supply is low and they receive the most touches of any position on the team. Therefore, in theory, a starting running back has the most value in fantasy football.
While the position still scores a ton of fantasy points, individual running backs have not been doing as well. According to ProFootballReference.com, only 13 running backs cracked the Top 50 among fantasy scorers in 2011 with only five of those cracking the Top 20. In 2000, 20 running backs cracked the Top 50 and of those 20 backs, nine of them were in the Top 20. Here are three reasons why the star running back in fantasy football is becoming less prevalent.
1) The Tight End and Spread Offenses Have Devalued the Running Back – In 2004, the league began enforcing the no contact after five yards rule more strictly. The results are that receivers are more open faster and teams are throwing the ball more than ever.
In 1992, there were 28 teams in the NFL; 12 of those teams had more rushing attempts on the season than pass attempts. The average team had 439 rushing attempts versus 478.9 passing attempts per season. By 2000, there were 31 teams in the NFL; passing attempts had slightly increased to 526.5 per season to 441.2 rushing attempts. Nine teams ran the ball more than they passed the ball. In 2011, there are 32 teams in the NFL; the average team passed the ball 544.1 times and rushed the ball only 436.6 times per season. Only three teams ran the ball more than they passed the ball and the Detroit Lions threw the ball almost 2 times for every time they ran the football.
Here are a couple other good illustrations that show how much passing numbers are up since 2003. Tight ends are becoming an integral part of the passing offense. Eight tight ends were targeted at least 100 times in 2011. That is much different than before the rule changes. In 2003, Kansas City Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez led the NFL in receptions by a tight end (71). This year there were seven tight ends with at least 71 receptions. The New England Patriots had two tight ends on their roster that tallied more than 71 receptions.
In addition to more involvement from the tight end, teams are running more three wide receiver sets. In 2011, Danny Tuccitto of Football Outsiders wrote a very good article: Formation Analysis: Number of WRs Part I. In 2010, 43% of plays had three wide receivers and an additional eight percent had four or five receiver sets. Teams are not hiding the fact that they are going to pass the ball; they are utilizing formations with more receivers and tight ends to take advantage of the league emphasizing the pass interference rules.
The result is that running backs are not seeing as many rushing attempts as they did in the past. The game was naturally progressing toward more passing and the 2004 changes have increased that acceleration. Teams have replaced running plays with short passes to the wide receivers and tight ends, which has caused the number of workhorse running backs to decrease.
2) Running Backs have a short shelf life – Running backs just do not play very long compared to other positions. A good NFL running back has about 2,000 carries and can play until he is about 30 years old. After that, the decline is fierce.
To illustrate this point, let us revisit the 2005 NFL Draft. Three of the top five picks in that draft were running backs. The Miami Dolphins selected RB Ronnie Brown, the Chicago Bears selected RB Cedric Benson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected RB Cadillac Williams. While none of those running backs had Hall of Fame careers, all three of them had at least one 1,000-yard season. All three of them are also considered too old to be featured running backs. Brown is a back up in San Diego; Williams and Benson are free agents looking for work.
Compare that to the quarterback and wide receiver position. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was the 24th pick in that draft and most people project him to be the top quarterback in the NFL for the next decade. WR Roddy White was selected with the 27th pick. While people expect his role to decrease this year with the emergence of WR Julio Jones, nobody is talking about White being a backup player. People expect him to still put up huge numbers.
Players cannot become unrestricted free agents until they have been in the league for four seasons. Quarterbacks and wide receivers are not even in their prime yet; an elite running back is about half way through his career at that point. That makes teams hesitant to take running backs in the first round and the result is that teams are taking more quarterbacks and receivers with their first round pick. Teams are shying away from building around a star running back, which is creating more teams that feature the passing game.
3) Teams Are Moving to Running Back by Committee – The rules favor passing the ball and running backs have a shorter shelf life. Both factors favor using a back that specializes in rushing and a back that can be a threat in the passing game. It puts the best personnel on the field and limits touches for running backs. The result is that carries are down for starting running backs and more backs are seeing the field.
In 2000, there were eight running backs that had 300 plus carries, 16 running backs that had between 200 and 299 carries and 14 running backs that had between 100 and 199 carries. In 2011, there were only two running backs that eclipsed 300 carries, 17 running backs that had between 200 and 299 carries and 32 running backs that had between 100 and 199 carries. The days of the 300 to 400-carry workhorse are gone and in its place are a slew of running backs that see between 100 and 200 carries per season. That makes the supply of elite running backs lower, but the supply of serviceable running backs higher.
This shift away from dominant running backs is also showing up in the NFL contract negotiations. In 1995, Dallas Cowboys RB Emmitt Smith signed an eight-year, $48 million deal, which included a then NFL record $15 million signing bonus. In 1997, Detroit Lions RB Barry Sanders signed a six-year, $36 million contract that included an $11 million signing bonus. They were among the highest paid players in the game. Compare that to San Francisco 49ers WR Jerry Rice, who signed a seven-year $31.6 million contract in 1996. The best running backs in the game had better contracts than the best wide receiver in the mid 1990s.
Those running back contracts are sadly comparable to running back contracts that are being signed 15-years later. This year we saw four elite running backs sign new contracts. Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice signed a new deal that pays him $40 million over five years, including $25 million the first two years and $17 million in 2012. Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte agreed to a four-year deal worth about $32 million dollars with $18 million guaranteed. Philadelphia Eagles RB LeSean McCoy signed a six-year deal worth $45.62 million with $20.77 million guaranteed. Houston Texans RB Arian Foster signed a five-year $43.5 million dollar contract with $20.75 million guaranteed.
The difference appears even greater when you compare elite player’s contracts. Here are three of the biggest contracts signed at wide receiver, quarterback and tight end this off-season. The number in parenthesis is the age of the player signing the contract.
1) Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson (26) – He signed an eight-year, $150.5 million contract. The deal guarantees $60 million.
2) New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees (33) – He signed a five-year, $100.00 million contract. The deal guarantees $40 million.
3) New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (23) – He signed an eight-year, $55.23 million contract. The deal guarantees $13.7 million guaranteed.
Compare the difference between Foster’s 2012 contract and Smith’s 1995 contract and then look at Rice’s 1996 contract versus Johnson’s 2012 contract. Nothing is more telling about the change in the running backs role over the last 20 years than those contracts. Teams are not willing to shell out big dollars for a franchise running back, they would rather have an elite quarterback and receiver and utilize a running back by committee approach.
The most important thing is what do you do with that information on draft day. The finances and statistics of football show that running backs have lost value in today’s game; old strategies of taking running backs in the first and second round are also obsolete. How do you still build a winning fantasy team if there are so few elite running backs?
Here is the easiest way to illustrate what your strategy needs to be in 2012 with a little help from ProFootballReference.com. We’ll look at 2000 vs. 2011 and compare a dilemma that a fantasy owner would have in each draft. Let us suppose that this is a standard scoring league with 10 teams participating in a snake draft. Let’s also suppose that the team picking last is in an excellent league and the first nine owners took the highest ranked running back possible.
In 2000, that 10th running back available would be San Francisco 49ers RB Charlie Garner, who tallied 1,142 yards rushing, 467 yards receiving and 10 total touchdowns. Garner was ranked 24th among all fantasy players. Had the 2000 fantasy owner taken the top ranked wide receiver instead of Garner, he would have selected Minnesota Vikings WR Randy Moss, who tallied 1,437 yards receiving and 15 receiving touchdowns. Garner actually scored five more fantasy points than Moss that season.
In 2011, a fantasy owner drafting 10th that selected the top running back available would have drafted New Orleans RB Darren Sproles, who tallied 603 yards rushing, 710 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. The top receiver that year would have been Calvin Johnson, who tallied 1,681 yards receiving and 16 receiving touchdowns. The difference is that Johnson would have tallied 265 points versus the 185 points for Sproles. An owner sticking with the old strategy of going running back in the first round would have surrendered 80 fantasy points.
In 2000, the winning play was to take Garner at the end of the first round and maybe even another running back in the second round. If you did not do that, you were giving the teams at the top of the draft a chance to construct and unstoppable backfield. Now, you are at a disadvantage taking that running back at the end of the first round and if you take two running backs, you are creating a doubly painful problem. Not only are you passing on big fantasy performers, but you are allowing teams that already drafted elite running backs to pair those running backs with an elite receiver or quarterback in the second and third round.
Keep in mind that 19 running backs scored between 100 points and 169 points last season. There are a slew of running backs that have similar value after that elite group. There is no reason to take the best running back available and miss big play receivers in the first, second and third round. You will better be able to compete with the team that owns Rice by drafting Calvin Johnson than by drafting Arizona Cardinals RB Chris Wells.
Elite running backs are still the most valuable asset in fantasy football. Last season, Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice had 1,364 yards rushing, 704 yard receiving and 15 touchdowns. Those are great fantasy numbers in any era. He led all fantasy running backs with 303 points; however, only six running backs scored 200 or more points.
I think he has more value at the top of the draft than Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, because 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards and the Top 10 scorers in fantasy football last year were quarterbacks. You can find a projected elite quarterback in the second round; you will not find a projected elite running back in the bottom part of the first round.
After those four or five elite running backs, you need to change your focus to an elite wide receiver like Johnson or an elite quarterback like Rodgers. Just as most NFL teams no longer rely on elite running backs, most fantasy teams should not either. If you cannot grab a player like Rice or Foster, you are going to have to build your fantasy team with an elite passing game. If you do not do that, your fantasy team will resemble the St. Louis Rams. You will be above average at running back and not able to keep up with the more explosive offenses in your league. If you are looking for a championship this year, the last thing you want is for your team to look like the Rams.