Welcome to the world of football statistics. If you aren’t
a stats guy, then frankly, this might not be the best place for
you. But why are you playing a hobby whose livelihood is based solely
of the statistics of the football players we love?
A lot of people out there don’t like to look too closely
at the stats when preparing for the upcoming fantasy season. Many
suggest that there is too much guesswork involved with statistics,
but the irony is that careful work here is the best combatant
against speculation. Some may prefer to just go with the good
ole gut feeling on draft day. For me, I work too hard at this
hobby to just pick a flashy guy I like with a lot of upside and
hope my instincts are right. I want to know if the stats line
You see stats are everything in fantasy football. Literally everything.
You only get points if your guys get stats. A player’s intangibles
mean nothing. Your quarterback’s savvy poise and your running
back’s ability to leave a guy standing there with his jock
strap on the ground is worth exactly zero in this game. All that
matters in the end are stats.
And so I set out on a journey to see where this game of fantasy
football has been headed over the last 3-5 years from a statistical
perspective. Follow along closely. You may not like all the numbers,
but you’ll surely like the extra trophies you’ve got
over your mantle at season’s end.
Today we start by looking at the most important position in fantasy
football, the running back. We’ll look at five statistical
facts and how they affect your RB strategy for this upcoming season.
Let’s get started!
Fact #1 – Receiving Stats Have Become
An Absolutely Vital Indicator Of RB Success In Fantasy Football
Too many fantasy football players today still yearn for yesteryear
where the workhorse RBs abounded and guys everywhere were plowing
through the middle of the line for great yardage and TDs. Today’s
game still sees some backs like those, but more and more of them
are making a significant impact as a receiver now as well. Be
careful that you don’t discount receiving points for your
RB. A point is a point no matter where it comes from.
Take a look at how many of the top 5 and top 10 running backs
had at least 50 catches so far this decade:
50 or More Receptions
You’ll notice that over half of the running backs that
end up in the top 10 got a huge boost from the receiving part
of their game. A running back with at least 50 catches averages
over 3 receptions per game. This might not seem like much, but
teams are doing more and more to get the ball to their best players
in the open field, and a normal yards per catch (YPC) for a running
back is generally between 7 and 10. If you think about it, under
normal scoring that counts 1 point per 10 yards receiving, that’s
close to 1 point per catch, and 3 or more points per game for
such a RB.
also that 60% of the top 5 RBs in the last seven years, an average
of an even 3 per year, also reached this 50 receptions plateau.
Shaun Alexander has been a common exception near the top of the
list or that percentage may have been even higher. And it doesn’t
stop there—some RBs are having bigger seasons due to even
greater receiving numbers. Over that same time period, almost
2 of the top 10 RBs every year had at least 65 catches, or an
average of more than four per game. Of those RBs with 65 or more
catches, 75% of them ended up in the top 5 overall. And you wonder
why Steven Jackson and his 90 catches last year is such a hot
Maybe you’re still skeptical. If you’re paying attention,
you may have already noticed that 4.4 RBs in the top 10 each year
did not have 50 catches – almost half of them –
so maybe you’re not so concerned. Well, a RB does need
have to have 50 catches to be successful… but if he
drops below 25, then he is in real serious trouble of making it
into the top 10. Take a look:
25 or Fewer Receptions
On the positive side, you can rest well at night if you own a
guy like LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, or Frank Gore with
their good receiving numbers. Even if the rushing falters a bit,
the receiving numbers should keep them ranked pretty high. Be
careful that you do not overlook guys like Brian Westbrook, Reggie
Bush, and Maurice Jones-Drew. Although their rushing numbers may
not make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, they will make up so
much ground in the receiving game that they have a great shot
at finishing in the top 10 or higher!
On the negative side, make sure you are careful about predicting
top 10 finishes for a few guys. Rudi Johnson has never had 25
catches in a season, but he’s been an exception to the trend
each of the past three years. In fact, if you take him out, there
is an average of just 1 RB per season in the top 10 with so few
catches. So here’s a list of guys to be careful with:
None of them have had more than 30 catches at any time in the last
three seasons, and history indicates that only 1 of that group will
be sitting in the top 10 at the end of this season!
- Shaun Alexander
- Travis Henry
- Cedric Benson
- Willis McGahee
- Brandon Jacobs
Fact #2 – A High Number Of Rushing
TDs In One Season Has Become A Fantastic Indicator Of Fantasy Success
The Following Season
This one seems like a no-brainer when you read it. Duh, of course
someone with a high number of TDs should be sitting pretty in
your rankings going into next season. But as this year draws near,
I am consistently seeing people discount guys like Maurice Jones-Drew
and Marion Barber III, expecting their touchdown numbers to drop
in a big way for this season. Was last year a fluke? You might
think so, but history says otherwise for these guys.
In the last three years, a RB with 12 or more rushing TDs one
season had at least 9 the following season 86.7% of the time!
Backs were only counted here if they were not injured, moved to
another team, or retired. Here are the numbers:
12+ Rushing TDs One Year - At Least 9 The Next
||9+ TDs Following Year
So of the 15 RBs in the last three seasons that had 12 TDs and
came back to the same team situation, only 2 of them did not have
at least 9 TDs the next season. Therefore this is a very good
indicator of high TD probability for the following season. In
fact, the average number of TDs for a RB in this group was 14.4
TDs the following season! And that includes the RBs who did not
make it back to nine the following year. Even if you take out
Alexander’s record breaking season in 2005 (and this isn’t
counting Tomlinson’s stats from last year yet either), the
average RB in this group still gets 13.5 TDs the following season!
There were 8 running backs that had at least 12 rushing TDs last
season. One of them was Corey Dillon who is either retired or
will be playing on a new team, so he does not count. That leaves
7, and recent history shows that 86.7% of them will have at least
9 rushing TDs this upcoming year – that is 6 of the 7!
Take a look at these names:
If history holds true, all but one of them will get at least 9 rushing
TDs this upcoming season, and the group as a whole will average
over 13 per back! And that’s not even counting receiving or
special teams TDs. So don’t be so quick to write off guys
like Barber and Jones-Drew.
- LaDainian Tomlinson
- Larry Johnson
- Marion Barber
- Steven Jackson
- Maurice Jones-Drew
- Willie Parker
- Rudi Johnson
One other note to consider here, Corey Dillon had at least 12 TDs in each of
the last three seasons. He is retired now, but he may well leave
his legacy to Laurence Maroney. If Maroney can stay healthy, he
has an excellent chance to fit into this mold as well.
Fact #3 – Non-Traditional RBs Will Make
A Huge Difference In Your Fantasy Football League – No Longer
Do You Need Those So-Called “Workhorse” RBs To Dominate
Everyone in fantasy football goes to sleep at night dreaming
about workhorse RBs who will average 25 or 30 carries a game,
run down the defense in the fourth quarter, and drag their team
through the regular season and all the way to the world of trophies
and championships. Well… everyone is mistaken.
of all, take a guess how many RBs average 30 carries a game. The
answer is 0. That would be 480 carries in a season, an absolutely
insane number. Heck, even 25 carries a game would come out to
400 carries in a season, a total that very few in NFL history
have matched. Larry Johnson was the only one to do it last year,
with an NFL-record 416 carries, and there were only four others
before him. For a quick side bar, let’s take a look at how
those true workhorse RBs fared after they topped 400 carries:
- James Wilder, TB, 1984 –
Over Wilder’s 7 final seasons, he was plagued with injury
and had over than 200 carries once and over 110 just twice.
He averaged 3.8 YPC during that span with a total of 13 TDs
- Eric Dickerson, LA, 1986 –
Through Dickerson’s first four seasons (this his 4th),
he had just less than 7000 yards and 55 TDs. After he broke
400 carries, he played just 12 games in the next two injury-plagued
seasons and had just 6300 yards in his remaining eight seasons.
He broke 1000 yards just two more times and double-digit TDs
once before retiring at age 33.
- Jamal Anderson, ATL, 1998 –
Anderson had a whopping 410 carries, an NFL record until last
season, for 1800+ yards and 14 TDs. The next season he tore
his ACL, eventually played another full but mediocre season,
injured the same knee again, and mercifully retired at age 29.
After the 400-carry year, he averaged 3.6 YPC with 8 total TDs.
- Terrell Davis, DEN, 1998 –
Davis is included with an asterisk here. He had just 392 carries
but went well over the 400 mark on the road to the Super Bowl.
Through these first four seasons, Davis had over 6400 yards
and 61 TDs, a sure Hall of Fame pace. But like Anderson, he
tore his ACL the season after the 400 carries and struggled
to ever recover from it. He averaged 3.8 YPC with 4 TDs total
after the injury and, like Anderson, retired at age 29.
- Eddie George, TEN, 2000 –
Unlike the above runners, George is the only one to not suffer
serious injury following the season with 400 carries. Even so,
he never again broke 1200 yards despite playing healthy and
averaged just 3.2 YPC the rest of his career before retiring
at age 31 due to a broken-down body.
Now to those four (or five?) RBs with 400 carries in a season,
add Larry Johnson. Uh oh. Is he still the #3 RB on your boards?
Is he still top 5? He’s not a first rounder in mine. History
stands remarkably against him. And history doesn’t even
take account a brand new quarterback and a rapidly declining offensive
line. Let’s just say you’ve been warned. I’ll
even go so far as to say this: avoid Larry Johnson completely
this year, next year, and every year after that.
All right, back to the task at hand… do you still want
that workhorse 25-30 carry RB? I didn’t think so. Lucky
for you, that didn’t narrow down the RB pool too much.
But the fact is that the “workhorse” fantasy RB is
nothing more than just that – a fantasy. There are still
a couple stalwarts, but as a whole, running back scoring is down
in a big way. Take a look at the points per game for the #10 RB
in the league under normal fantasy scoring (at least 14 games
the #10 RB
You can see a pretty steady decline in the points per game there,
down over 3 points in the last six years! TD numbers for top 10
RBs are also down. Check out the average number of combined TDs
for RBs in the last five years, not counting the #1 RB for each
year because of some outlying statistical seasons.
So you can see that scoring is dropping within the top 10 as well.
The guys at the very top are still scoring as many points as ever
(or more than ever if your name is LaDainian), but the rest are
slowly slipping back toward the rest of the pack. In fact, just
over the last three years, the number of top 10 RBs with double-digit
TDs has dropped each year from 8 to 7 to just 6, last season.
The RBs at the top are as valuable as ever, perhaps even more
now, and the rest even by the bottom of the top 10 just aren’t
scoring as much as 10, 5, even 3 years ago! The “workhorse”
RB, as we once assumed it to be, it is all but dead. Backs just
aren’t getting nearly as many carries, yards, and TDs anymore.
of TDs On Average For a RB Ranked #2-#10
Last year this proved truer than any other season in recent history,
with more RBs than ever making a big fantasy impact without getting
a ton of carries. Coaches have learned how to diagram and use
their players in creative ways whether in passing situations,
goal line packages, or high YPC situations to maximize their RB
production. And fantasy RBs are benefiting greatly because of
this. Take a look at the number of RBs with 250 or fewer carries
who finished in the top 15 fantasy rankings at RB:
250 or Fewer Carries
||Top 15 RBs
||6th, 8th, 10th
So in 2000-2005, there were a grand total of nine RBs with 250
or less carries who finished in the top 15 and just three in the
top 10. And then last year alone, there were six such backs who
finished in the top 15 and another three in the top 10! These
numbers are staggering. And it should be pointed out that 250
carries is a fairly small number, coming out to just about 15
carries a game. Furthermore, that’s a ceiling number; some
of the RBs are getting significantly less than 15 carries a game.
One year alone is not enough to call this a trend, but it’s
clear that we need to at least be aware of RBs making a big fantasy
impact without getting a ton of carries each game.
So what does that all mean? It means that RBs are finding new
ways to do their damage, and they need fewer carries on the ground
to do it. Pair this up with the previous two trends if you want
a sneak peek at two of the biggest ways these RBs are making up
ground – it’s through receiving points and high numbers
of rushing TDs.
What is the profile for one of those lower-carry RBs who finish
in the top 15? Well check out these numbers. A top 15 RB who has
250 or fewer carries this decade has an average of 52 receptions
and 10 TDs per year! No wonder they are doing well, huh? And this
is not a point-per reception (PPR) league either, but again points
add up the same from anywhere. Here was the average stat line:
- 209 rushes, 4.86 yards per carry, 13.4 rushes per game 48 receptions,
Notice again the common denominators: lots of catches, lots of
TDs, and a high, yards per carry. These are RBs who don’t
get as many touches, but they take advantage of every touch they
do get. This group of six last season included, by order of finish:
- Brian Westbrook (6th)
- Maurice Jones-Drew (8th)
- Ladell Betts (10th)
- Joseph Addai (11th)
- Deuce McAllister (13th)
- Marion Barber (14th)
You may recognize that list as a group of guys who, other than
Addai, are being overlooked time and again coming into this year’s
draft. Your buddies would rather try to draft a supposed “workhorse”
like Cadillac Williams or Marshawn Lynch or Jamal Lewis. Well,
let them. Don’t be afraid to take a guy who doesn’t
get a ton of carries each Sunday if the rest of their game adds
enough fantasy points to make up ground and keep them near the
top of your rankings.
I have Maurice Jones-Drew, Marion Barber, Reggie Bush, Jerious
Norwood, and Ladell Betts significantly higher than the average
draft position found in most rankings around the web. Even though
none of them will probably end up fitting the normal “workhorse”
picture of a RB, they are each economical with the touches they
do get. You’d be wise to bump them up on your boards as
Oh, and avoid Mr. Larry Johnson at all costs.
Fact #4 – There Are More RB2s Available
Combine everything you’ve seen so far now to understand
the real underlying theme of all this RB mumbo jumbo. The bottom
line is that there just aren’t as many great RBs anymore
but because of the rampant RBBC and use of RBs in the receiving
game, there are now more usable RBs than ever.
Consider a RB usable if he averages 10-13 points a game for at
least 12 games in a season. This makes him a pretty strong RB2
type for your team. Remember, the #10 fantasy RB in your league
last year averaged just 10.9 ppg, so a RB in this range is right
on par with that group. Take a look at the recent increase:
10-13 Points PPG
You see how many more decent backs there are now? There’s
a lot. There’s going to be a top 7 or 8 RBs and then a gigantic
tier of 10-15 (maybe even more) usable RB2s. You’ve got
several teams now (New Orleans, Jacksonville, etc) who may end
up having a pair of starting RBs each week like they did last
So how does this big shift affect your draft strategy? I’d
say it does so in two ways.
First of all, it looks like those RBs at the very top are becoming
more valuable than ever. Raise your hand if you were in a league
last year where the Tomlinson owner didn’t at least strongly
contend. It didn’t happen. Do you have any idea how good
he was? He had more points than the #9 and #10 fantasy RBs combined.
That’s not to say that he’ll repeat the task this
year. It is to say, however, that if you are absolutely positive
you are getting one of the top 2 or 3 fantasy RBs for a season,
it looks like it will probably be worth just about whatever price
you have to pay to snag them. They really do make up that much
The big switch is in drafting philosophy in the second round
and even perhaps the bottom of the first. It’s time to move
past the idea of reaching on a RB’s potential just for the
sake of taking a RB. It is no longer sound fantasy strategy to
just draft the best two RBs on your boards in rounds 1 and 2 and
go from there. It might be the case, but now more than ever you
may want to really consider getting that superstar WR in the second,
and you may want to invest that high pick in a guy like Manning
or Gates. You might be able to get a pretty comparable RB now
in the 3rd, 4th, even the 5th. Use those high picks where they
are most valuable. That simply isn’t RB anymore. Get your
superstar early, then fill out the rest of your roster and get
one of the many usable RB2s after that.
Fact #5 – On Average, Only 4 RBs From
The Previous Year’s Top 10 Carry Over From Season To Season
Yes, you read that correctly. Look at the breakdown by season:
Top 10 RBs
||Repeat Top 10 RBs
You may find this awfully hard to believe. You’re not alone.
I dare you to find a published RB ranking list out there that
doesn’t have LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Larry
Johnson, Frank Gore, and Willie Parker in it. Those guys were
last year’s top 5, and yet history says that it’s
very likely that at least one of these guys won’t even make
the top 10 this year. And even if four of them do, then the five
guys in the bottom half of last year’s top 10 are apparently
all out. It’s a cutthroat league. Fantasy stalwarts are
not what they used to be. There are no more Curtis Martins and
Eddie Georges that you can just auto draft in the first round
and chalk up for the automatic 1300 and 12 season.
So let’s stay away from those cookie cutter rankings. Yeah,
we all know who did well last season. This is a new year. Think
about it this way. More of last year’s top 10 RBs will end
up missing the top 10 this year than making it again.
For some of them it will be due to injury or playing time. Others
just won’t be as good.
So who can we reasonably expect to repeat last year’s top-10
performance? Here is the list in order under standard scoring:
- LaDainian Tomlinson
- Steven Jackson
- Larry Johnson
- Frank Gore
- Willie Parker
- Brian Westbrook
- Tiki Barber
- Maurice Jones-Drew
- Rudi Johnson
- Ladell Betts.
A couple of them are easy. Tiki
Barber is retired, so he’s out.
Tomlinson is just about as easy. He has been in the top 7
since 2001, and in the top 4 since 2002. So barring some catastrophic
injury, he’s staying. Now we only get to pick 3 more RBs to repeat
in the top 10.
is almost as easy, actually. He is probably not going to show
up at the top of your list, but he better be in your top 10. He’s
been there each of the last three years and has had PPGs of 14.1,
14.2, and 13.5 in those three seasons. Those numbers put him solidly
in the top 10 by recent trends, and there’s no real reason to
expect this year to be any different.
looks like a good candidate to drop, with Portis back and at least
Ok, we’re getting there. So far we have 2 in and 2 out.
But that leaves 6 left to pick from and only 2 more spots. Are
you really prepared to have only 2 of the following in your top
10 this season: Jackson, Johnson, Gore, Parker, Westbrook, Jones-Drew?
You put up a ranking list with four of those guys missing from
your top 10 and you will be laughed out of your league. But history
shows that you are on the right track.
I’m going to go ahead and put Steven
Jackson in from that group. He can drop 100 points from last
season and still make a top-10 appearance. He is young and healthy,
his OL is improved this year, and he matches the criteria for
a top stud RB with lots of receptions and TDs.
And that leaves us one spot left for the rest of these guys.
I’ll let you make the pick here, but consider a bit of a
warning with each one:
– He is one of very few backs who have carried for 400+ times
in a season, and history is not on his side. Neither is his aging
OL or brand new QB, nor the potential hold out. Stay away.
Frank Gore – Norv Turner had a ton of success with Gore
last year, but he’s gone now. Gore has a history of knee
problems but stayed healthy all last year for the first time in
5 football seasons. He had an amazing 5.4 YPC, but how long can
he keep that up?
Willie Parker – Pittsburgh has vowed to open up the passing
game this year and let Big Ben throw to his receivers more. They
have also promised to lessen FWP’s load by giving goal line
touches to another back. Is there trouble in Pittsburgh?
– Westbrook has never played a full season in his NFL career,
and he is often injured throughout each year. His career high
in rushing TDs is just 7. And there are the health concerns for
McNabb to boot.
Jones-Drew – MJD finished hot last year and ended up with
an amazing 5.7 YPC, can he follow up? And how long will he keep
getting the TD touches in a crowded backfield and on a team with
many red zone targets? Will there be enough touches to go around?
Well, you read all of that stuff, and suddenly its not so outlandish
to have 4 of them sitting out of your top 10. Heck, you may want
to avoid them all now! If you’ve been following closely,
though, you probably have a good guess as to which of the 5 is
my best bet to repeat in this year’s top 10, and it may
come as a surprise: Maurice Jones-Drew. He is young and healthy,
has proven very difficult to tackle, and should continue to see
more touches in that offense. Furthermore, he fits all of the
criteria above for a RBBC guy who can make a big impact other
than just rushing yards by adding big points elsewhere: receiving
stats, rushing TDs, and maybe even a special teams TD. Yep, he’s
Oh and while you’re at it, don’t forget that this
also means you’re going to see a whopping 6 new guys in
the top 10 at the end of this year. Joseph Addai counts –
he finished 11th last year. You will probably want to add a healthy
Alexander back into your top 10 too.
But you get to find 4 more as well! Go ahead eat your hearts
out. And watch those trends above. You want a few hints? Make
sure you do your homework on Reggie Bush, Marion Barber, Laurence
Maroney, and Edgerrin James. And enjoy the legwork. That’s
what this game is all about!
Coming soon, we'll look at some important statistical trends
at the WR position…