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RB Workloads: A Study of Heavy Workload vs. Future Production

Entering the early stages of the '07 fantasy football season, many owners are piecing together their rankings and projections. To help with the RB evaluation process, here is a study of "RB Studs," and how they perform the year after carrying a heavy workload the previous season. What percentage of these "bell cow backs," continue to put up big numbers? Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber, Edgerrin James were all big RB producers two years ago, and for the most part dropped off in ‘06. What can we expect from ‘06 studs like Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson, or Ladainian Tomlinson in ‘07? In order to answer these questions, let’s go back in time and take a look at other RBs with similar heavy workloads and see how they produced the following year.

To analyze the relationship between the number of carries in a given season and production the following year, we need some standards. We obviously need the total number of carries for each RB, but we also need to factor in receptions. Let's make things simple and go with the following equivalencies:

1 carry = 1 carry
1 reception = .5 carry

The rationale for the reception equivalency is receptions still account for “wear and tear,” but less so than carries. With a rushing attempt, it is more common for several players to tackle a RB and those players are often bigger and stronger, defensive linemen and linebackers. I used these equivalencies as the basis for my research and will refer to that total of these two types of attempts as f/carries—formulated carries.

We also need to define what constitutes a "Heavy Workload," for a RB. I tried several different numbers for this formula and settled on 370 f/carries as the benchmark. It netted 30 RBs who reached 370 f/carries a grand total of 45 times over past 27 years. The following are an update of last season, the results of data, my own conclusions, and which RBs could be impacted in ‘07.

Recent Seasons
Here are results for running backs that attained the benchmark carries in the ‘05 and how they performed the following year.

RB Workloads 2005-2006
Player Years F/Carries
Yr 1
Change Gms Missed
Edgerrin James '05-'06 382 267 356 172 -0.356 0
Tiki Barber '05-'06 384 305 356 242 -0.207 0
Shaun Alexander '05-'06 378 363 258 135 -0.628 6
Average 381 312 323 183 -0.4 3

There weren’t many players who reach this benchmark, but for those that did saw a decrease in fantasy production. Each player had a decrease in carries/receptions, a decreased ff production, or missed time. This is actually quite indicative of the overall historical trend and data for backs after attaining at least 370-f/carries in a season.

Here’s a more historical perspective that includes the above RBs in the overall data:

Games Missed For RBs Coming Off A 370-F/Carry Season
For comparison I looked at the top 30 fantasy runners over the past 10 seasons. There were 108 backs (a total of 36.0% of the 300 backs sampled) that missed at least one game during a given season. The likelihood of a back reaching the heavy workload benchmark is significantly higher in his following season:
  • 25 of 45 (55.5%) Heavy Workload RBs missed at least 1 game
  • 12 of 45 (26.6%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 1-3 games
  • 13 of 45 (28.8%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 4+ games
What It Means: The data suggests that RBs coming off a 370-f/carry season are more likely to miss time due to injury than a typical RB in a given year. They are over 1.5 times more likely to miss 1 game (55.5% vs. 36.0%) and nearly as likely to miss over 4 games as the rest of the sample was to miss a single game.

F/Carries And Injury For Rbs Coming Off A 370-F/Carry Season
Here are the ten-year totals for f/carries the season after a RB attains the heavy workload f/carry benchmark:

  • 7 of 45 (15.5%) RBs had an increase in f/carries (In fact, the increase was a significant gain of +17.2 f/carries)
  • 38 of 45 (84.4%) RBs had a decrease in f/carries
  • RBs that missed at least a game had an average decrease of –87.6 f/carries for the season
  • Even if the RB didn’t miss a game the overall workload decreased by an average of –29.2 f/carries
    Overall, 22 of 28 (78.5%) RBs that didn’t miss a game in the season after they reached the heavy workload benchmark experienced a decrease in f/carries.
What It Means: RBs coming off a season where they attained the heavy workload benchmark of 370 f/carries experienced a decreased in f/carries more than 8 out of 10 times—even when remaining healthy. When doing projections or rankings of the top tier backs it’s useful to consider this data. The difference may seem nominal even if you deduct just 24.8 f/carries from a 370-f/carry back for this year—a conservative estimate—but it will likely yield more accurate projections for your draft.

RB Fantasy Production Following A 370-F/Carry Season
During the past twelve seasons, an overwhelming majority of heavy workload backs from the previous year see a drop in production. Here’s the breakdown:

Dropping Like Flies
Production Change Total Rbs Met Criteria Pct. Of Rbs Resulting Fantasy Production
Same or better 45 7 15.5% At least 300 fpts
Drop of 1%-10% 45 5 11.1% 270-299 fpts
Drop of 11%-20% 45 2 4.4% 240-269 fpts
Drop of 21%-30% 45 12 26.6% 210-239 fpts
Drop of 31%-40% 45 6 13.3% 180-209 fpts
Drop of 41%-50% 45 6 13.3% 150-179 fpts
Drop of over 50% 45 7 15.5% At most 149 fpts

What It Means: Only 12 of 45 (26.6%) running backs either met or experienced only a slight decrease (10% or less) in their previous season’s production. In contrast, 33 of 45 (73.4%) backs during that same period of time experienced at least a 20% decrease in their fantasy production.

Future Career FF Production Of A 370 F/Carry RB
Once a RB has a heavy workload season (370 f/carries), what can we expect from him the rest of his career? Again, we'll turn to historical data where there have been a total of 144 seasons that occurred after these 45 backs posted a heavy workload year. This should give us an idea of whether the RB has reached his peak after such a big year.

Future Career Production
Production Change Total Rbs Met Criteria Pct. Of Rbs
200 fpts 144 107 74.3%
200-249 fpts 144 19 13.1%
250-299 fpts 144 10 6.9%
300-349 fpts 144 4 2.8%
350+ fpts 144 3 2.1%

What It Means: Only 4.9% of backs ever attained 300+ fpts again once they already produced at 370-f/carry season (approximately 2100 total yds/15tds). Even when you lower the expectations to 250+ fpts (1700 total yds/13tds) the number only rises to 11.8%. You actually have to considerably lower your expectations to 200 fpts (1500totyds/8tds) just to see 1 out of 4 (25.0%) heavy producers ever reach that workload again.

Even more startling is you can count the number of players that repeatedly reached the highest levels of RB fantasy production on one hand! Emmitt Smith alone was responsible for three of the seven seasons with 300+ points. And of the ten times where backs reached the 250-299 point-mark more than once, seven of these seasons came from three players: Walter Payton (3), Curtis Martin (2), and Eric Dickerson (2).

RBs coming off 370-f/carry seasons have a lot of statistical data working against them. But we Fantasy Footballers have heard similar, and discouraging data before: "5 of 10 players will fall out of top10 each year," and "‘WRs do poorly their first year with a new team." What’s important to note is that these statistics deal in probabilities and are not infallible from year to year.

Yes, 5 backs may drop out of top 10 in a given year. But next year it may be 3, the year after that could be 6, and then only be 3 again for the following season. The point of such data is not to say, "Don’t draft last year’s top RB(s) coming off a 370-f/carry season," but to consider the data, and be aware of the probabilities working against you when drafting one of these players. Watch and note a player’s team and individual situation and adjust draft strategy or rankings/projections accordingly.

It’s rare to have a 370-f/carry season and even more rare for a RB to repeat the feat. Most of the time there is nowhere for an RB to go but down after a 370-f/carry season. It’s not that these RBs always come back with bad years—but they too often fail to live up to expectation. You should consider that statistical history says it’s highly unlikely for RBs coming off 370 seasons to attain a similar number of f/carries. If you account for that in your projections and rankings, you may find a more realistic view of the RB landscape
In summary, here are some important points to get from this study:

  • Only 5.5% of the time in recent history has there been a heavy workload season. (45 RB seasons out of 807).

  • Only 15.5% of those 45 seasons has a RB met or exceeded his f/carries after reaching that magical number of 370 f/carries.

  • 55.5% of these RB missed games after hitting that threshold in the previous year.

  • 28.8% of these RB’s missed at least 4 games opposed to the entire range of starting quality RBs in a ten-year period that only missed a game 36.0% of the time.
Fantasy owners often say “last year’s stats are last year’s stats.” This information as it applies to running backs adds relevance to this cliché. Do not assume that most RBs will meet or increase their f/carries and continue their heavy workload. Adjust your draft strategy and rankings/projections accordingly. If you draft a RB coming off a 370-f/carry season, you may want to get the backup (handcuff) and/or draft running back reserves early. The historical data indicates you have a 1 in 2 chance of needing them for 1-3 games, and a 1 in 4 chance you will need them for at least 4 games.

Of all the information gathered from this analysis the future career production from an RB after reaching the 370-f/carry-threshold is arguably the most telling. "Not wanting to miss out on a big year," shouldn’t be your rationale for ignoring this data. Big year’s (300+ FF pts) following a heavy workload season haven’t happened that often—just 7 times out of 144 opportunities—a whopping 4.9% occurrence. What’s worse is three of them were from the NFL’s all time leading rusher and most prolific FF player. Further, what would be considered FF production validating a top-12 pick (around 250+ FF points, 1700 total yds/13tds) has happened just 17 times out of 144 opportunities (11.8%). Those are long odds for a player to achieve your expectations when he will likely cost you a high first round pick in your FF drafts.

Who Are We Talking About In ‘07?
Okay, let’s ‘get down to brass tacks’ as they say…who are we talking about in ‘07? Some fantasy footballers are expecting productive years from the following players who at one time reached the 370-benchmark:

  • Ahman Green
  • Jamal Lewis
  • Deuce McAllister
  • Edgerrin James
  • Shaun Alexander
The historical data suggests there is a 74.3% chance (107 of 144) that these players will not even attain 200 fpts (1500 total yds/8tds)! Last year Ahman Green and Deuce McAllister were among these RBs who attained the 370-benchmark in 2005 and were on this list. Although both performed up to standards as a starting #2 FF RB, neither attained 200 ff points (Green 172 ff points, McAllister 184 ff points) and performed consistently this tendency. So again, not to say ‘do not draft these players, period’, just consider the data and the cost, value, odds of success when drafting them.

The RBs listed below had 370-f/carry seasons last year and are among the consensus top-3 picks in most leagues. I want to reiterate the point of this collected data and analysis: It is not to say conclusively that you shouldn’t draft a RB coming off a 370-f/carry season, but consider the data and be aware of the odds when drafting one of these players. Watch and note a player’s team and individual situation, and adjust draft strategy or rankings/projections accordingly.

For example, last year, in one of my league’s Alexander fell to me at the #3 pick. I did not receive trade offers for the pick or for Alexander that I liked during draft. So, despite this data I personally collected and analyzed, I did pick Alexander. Because, considering his value at the 3rd pick, would have been a waste to do otherwise. I then ‘watched his individual situation closely’. When he failed to do well early in season, I saw it as a sign that other factors were pointing toward a down year for Alexander. So I traded him before his injury for solid value at that point in season.

Here are the backs that reached the 370-f/carry, threshold last year:

Larry Johnson 416 carries / 41 recs = 437 f/carries
Attaining a 400-f/carry season does not bode well for Johnson. Attaining an actual, 400-carry season is even worse. Only 3 of 19 times (15.7%) has a RB coming off a 400-f/carry season met or only slightly decreased in ff production. Only 1 of 4 RBs (25.0%) had a productive FF season after a 400-carry season, the other 3 RBs never attained anywhere close to the same level of production prior to their 400-carry seasons and they missed a total of 21 games between them the year after (Eric Dickerson, Jamal Anderson, and Eddie George). Add the recent ‘hold out’ talk surrounding Johnson and he is likely to fall significantly short of expectations. If you draft Johnson, I strongly suggest picking reserve RBs earlier and to pick Michael Bennett in latter rounds.

Steven Jackson 346 carries / 90 recs = 391 f/carries
Jackson is an intriguing case. His receptions totals put him in company with M.Faulk, P.Holmes, L.Tomlinson, but his 346 carries are actually on the low end for RBs who meet the 370 benchmark. Of the 12 times that a RB met or only slightly decreased in FF production, 8 of the times were done by players in their first 1-3 years in NFL (66.6%) These players included Ladainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith, and Eric Dickerson.

Jackson is going into his 4th year, but shared carries with Faulk early on so his actual total of f/carries is comparable to those 8 RBs. Considering this information, his talent, the Rams scheme and offense, I think Jackson has best chance from this group to meet or just slightly decrease in production in ’07. Still, I will err on side of caution and suggest that if you do take Jackson, that you also pick Travis Minor and rookie Brian Leonard in the later rounds.

LaDainian Tomlinson 348 carries / 56 recs = 376 f/carries
As most of us have seen, Ladainian Tomlinson is a physical specimen with superior talent, vision, and athleticism. He is the centerpiece of a prolific offense on an up and coming team. He is coming off a record-breaking 31-touchdown season, one of the best in FF or NFL history. With 1800 total yds and 19 tds per season over a 6-year career, places him among the all-time FF elite.

So, what’s not to like? Well, Tomlinson has now attained the 370-mark twice: His 2nd year in the league and last year. In three other seasons, he just missed the 370-benchmark, reaching the high 360’s. His 2200 career f/carries is comparable to where such RBs as Marcus Allen, Thurman Thomas, and Emmitt Smith ‘fell off’ significantly in production. How long do the elite RBs remain elite before dropping off considerably?

  • Shaun Alexander—5 years
  • Priest Holmes—4 years
  • Marshall Faulk—4 years
  • Terrell Davis—3 years
  • Emmitt Smith—5 years

Tomlinson already has 5 straight seasons that would qualify as FF elite. With all that said, I do project a decrease in production for Tomlinson, to as much as 20%-30%. Remember, Tomlinson scored 417 FF points last year. So a 20% decrease would put him at about 320 FF points—2000 total yards and 20 scores. A 30% decrease would put him at about 280 FF points—1900 total yards and 15 scores. Both estimates are still very good production for a back. Still, protect your investment in Tomlinson and grab Michael Turner in later rounds.