RB Workloads: A Study of Heavy Workload
vs. Future Production
The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense
of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check
is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s
a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information.
This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s
potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining
the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines
that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.
Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic,
he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and
help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep
a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This
way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider,
or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast
as you can!
In 2006 and 2007 I worked with Tony San Nicholas to provide one
of the more compelling fantasy football studies of the RB position
available anywhere. Tony’s research shows a relationship between
a runner’s decrease in future productivity after a high workload
threshold of touches the previous season. This point of no return
is 370 f/carries, a combination of rush attempts and receptions.
For a greater explanation of f/carries, check out 2007’s
Speaking of 2007’s analysis, Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson,
and LaDainian Tomlinson were three players who surpassed the 370-f/carry
threshold and we warned owners that all three would experience
a significant decrease in productivity. We advised owners who
wished to play it safe to stay away from Johnson and Jackson altogether.
We also told them to expect Tomlinson to experience at least a
20%-30% decrease. We were correct on all accounts.
In 2005, Shaun
Barber, and Edgerrin
James were among the top workhorses at the RB position and
we gave similar warnings heading into 2006. All three not only
experienced a significant drop in production the following year,
but also never came close to returning to form even two years
later. Although it seemed inconceivable in 2005, the Seahawks
released Alexander a couple of years after a big payday. Barber
retired after effectively giving notice mid-season. And while
James is still an effective runner, he hasn’t come close to his
form with the Colts after signing with Arizona.
This year I’ll review what kind of decline to expect from
an RB with a heavy workload from the previous season and give
you my take on this year’s crop of runners based on this
What we’ve discovered in 2006 and 2007 remains consistent
with what Tony initially researched when he determined the f/carry
threshold to equal 370:
- The 32 RBs who reached 370 f/carries a grand total of 48
times over the past 28 years were more likely to miss time due
to injury than a typical RB in any given year.
- 35.0% (110 RBs) of the top 10 backs sampled from 1997-2007
(310 RBs total) missed at least one game during a given season.
In fact, the possibility of missing time for a back surpassing
the 370-f/carry was significantly higher.
What This Means To You: Missing
one game isn’t a big deal, but when there is a nearly a 1
in 3 chance of a heavy workload back missing at least 25% of the
fantasy season, that’s a different story. Last year that likelihood
was at 67% since Larry Johnson and Steven Jackson were premium draft
picks in 2007 that did more harm than good for a fantasy squad.
- 27 of 48 (56.25%) Heavy Workload RBs missed at least
- 14 of 48 (29%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 1-3 games
- 15 of 48 (31%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 4+ games
F/Carries And Injury For RBs Coming Off A
Here are eleven-year totals for f/carries the season after a RB
attains the heavy workload f/carry benchmark:
Overall, 23 of 29 (79.3%) RBs that didn’t miss a game in the
season after they reached the heavy workload benchmark experienced
a decrease in f/carries.
- 7 of 48 (14.5%) RBs had an increase in f/carries (In fact,
the increase was a significant gain of +17.2 f/carries)
- 41 of 48 (85.4%) RBs had a decrease in f/carries
- RBs that missed at least a game had an average decrease of
95.3 f/carries for the season. Last year the top 24 RBs averaged
4.42 ypc, so we’re talking about an average loss of 421
yards—42.1 fantasy points—in a season for missing
- Even if the RB didn’t miss a game the overall workload
decreased by an average of 29.2 f/carries
What This Means To You: RBs coming
off a season where they attained the heavy workload benchmark of
370 f/carries experienced a decreased in f/carries the following
year 85% of the time—even when remaining healthy. When doing
projections or rankings of the top tier backs it’s useful
to consider this data. Too many owners get carried away with their
expectations the year after a top back has a dominant season. Rather
than believing this player can do it again, it makes more sense
to consider this event the peak in his statistical career. That
back may still be a worthwhile top choice—LT was last year—but
not by such a large margin that you don’t consider other players.
RB Fantasy Production Following A 370-F/Carry
During the past thirteen seasons, an overwhelming majority of heavy
workload backs from the previous year see a drop in production.
Here’s the breakdown:
| Dropping Like Flies
||Pct. Of Rbs
||Resulting Fantasy Production
|Same or better
||At least 300 fpts
|Drop of 1%-10%
|Drop of 11%-20%
|Drop of 21%-30%
|Drop of 31%-40%
|Drop of 41%-50%
|Drop of over 50%
||At most 149 fpts
What It Means To You: Only 12
of 48 (25%) running backs either met or experienced only a slight
decrease (10% or less) in their previous season’s production.
In contrast, 36 of 48 (75%) backs during that same period of time
experienced at least a 20% decrease in their fantasy production.
So when you you’re looking at list of backs that surpassed
370 f/carries, you have a 75% chance of drafting one who will see
at least a 20% decrease in productivity and nearly a 44% chance
they have at least a 30% (or much greater) drop.
Future Career FF Production Of A 370 F/Carry
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 145 seasons that
occurred after these 48 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
||Pct. Of Rbs
What It Means To You: Only 4.8%
of backs ever attained 300+ fpts again once they already produced
a 370-f/carry season. If you project that those stat totals would
be for a back, expect approximately 2100 total yds/15tds as the
“uh-oh” point when considering them the next year. It’s
still not too promising when you lower the expectations to 250+
fpts, which is 1700 total yds/13tds because there’s only an
11.8% chance of repeating. If you want a 25% chance—still
not too good--you actually have to considerably lower your expectations
to 200 fpts, or 1500 total yds/8tds).
You can literally 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 eight seasons where
a back repeated his 300+ points. LaDainian Tomlinson just had his
first repeat year. Of the ten times where backs reached the 250-299
point-mark more than once, seven of these seasons came from four
players: Walter Payton (3), Curtis Martin (2), and Eric Dickerson
Just take a look at the past six backs who reached this 300 f/carry
number. The future prospects for LJ, SJax, and LT don’t look
| RB Workloads 2005-2007
RBs coming off 370-f/carry seasons have a lot of statistical history
working against them. But we already have heard the common axiom
that 5 of 10 backs will fall out of top 10 each year. What’s
important to note is that these statistics deal in probabilities
and are not infallible from year to year. I still believe in the
gut feeling, but it’s usually when I’m thinking about
a player on the rise and not the players people often take for granted
as front runners.
Last year we said the point of the 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.’ Well, based on what
I saw with two young, healthy backs in LJ and SJax in addition to
the stats, I’m more inclined to tell you to avoid any player
tabbed as an early pick who reaches that mark if you want to play
RBs fail to live up to expectation after
a 370-f/carry season.
We’re seeing that most of the time there is nowhere for an
RB to go but down after a 370-f/carry season. These RBs don’t
always come back with bad years—but they fail to live up to
expectation far too often. 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.
The most important points to take
from this data:
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 3 chance you will need them for at least 4 games.
- Only 5.9% of the time in recent history has there been a
heavy workload season. (48 RB seasons out of 810).
- Only 14.5% of those 48 seasons has a RB met or exceeded his
f/carries after reaching that magical number of 370 f/carries.
- 56% of these RBs missed games after hitting that threshold
in the previous year.
- 31% of these RBs missed at least 4 games compared to the
entire range of starting quality RBs in a ten-year period that
only missed one game 35.0% of the time.
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 8 times out
of 147 opportunities—a whopping 5% 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 production worthy of a top-12
pick (around 250+ FF points, 1700 total yds/13tds) has happened
just 17 times out of 147 opportunities (11.5%). 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 Is On The List For 2008?
The good news is that we didn’t have any runners surpass
the 370 f/carry threshold in 2007. That means there are a lot
of candidates with a chance to peak in the next 2-3 years, especially
with the recent influx of rookies getting the chance to start
in the past two years. I mentioned my belief in a cyclic upswing
in RB fantasy points in last year’s projection
article despite what people have been saying about the dreaded
running back by committee.
Historically, there’s nearly a 75% chance none of these
players will attain a 200 fantasy-point season! If you’re
projecting 1500 total yards and 8 tds for any of these five players,
the likelihood you miss the mark is very high. Edgerrin James
won’t be regarded as a top 10 pick and Shaun Alexander is
still looking for a team as of this writing, but the first three
on this list are players most owners will consider in the first
round. Again, consider the data and odds of success before drafting
But there are some backs that are still starting runners who recently
had 370 f/carry seasons and your peers will be counting on them
to return to their dominant form:
Here is my list of backs to be wary of sustaining a level of production
worth their average draft value based on this information. If you
want to play it super safe, avoid drafting these players as a first
round pick, and for all practical purposes scratch them off your
draft list because they won’t likely fall to you in round
two. All but one reached the 370-f/carry season in 2006, and that
one player I’m referring to came close to what the threshold
represents in terms of yardage and scores (2100 total yards/15 scores).
Jackson had 391 f/carries in 2006 and his follow up season amounted
to 1273 total yards and 6 scores. A far cry from dominance, but
once he returned from injury his stretch run was solid. Due to the
presence of Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, and most importantly Orlando
Pace and the addition of Jacob Bell I think Steven Jackson has a
better chance to return to dominant form than Larry Johnson, but
not enough for me to pick him as a top 3 runner.
In fact, I think the Rams are also a team still in transition
and while I like Jackson to see plenty of touches, I believe projecting
anything more than a 1500 total-yard/8 score season is risky.
Plus he’s having issues with his previous injury. When all
is said and done, I think Jackson is plausible as a top 5 pick,
but with that injury issue I’d rather bite the bullet on
him in the 8-12 range of the first round, which is probably too
low for a back with his corresponding ADP.
The #2 overall back in fantasy football didn’t surpass the f/carry
threshold, but did have 2104 total yards and 12 scores. That’s pretty
close to that 2100-yard/15 score total that signals the beginning
of a player’s fantasy decline. The question is whether this means
he’ll peak in 2008 or begin his slide. The argument against Westbrook
is the fact he’s never played a full 16 games, he plays in a pass-first
offense, and his coach is always looking for ways to lessen his
load. This year Lorenzo Booker is showing enough promise to cut
into Westbrook’s carries. Plus, the Eagles were winning more games
when Westbrook wasn’t the dominant producer in the offense.
The argument in favor of Westbrook is the fact he’s entering his
athletic prime which usually comes between the ages of 28-30, he
hasn’t reached the workload threshold, and he’s only had two 1000-yard
rushing seasons. His workload has been dynamic, but not super-high
for a starting running back. I don’t think the Eagles believe they’ll
win more games if they use Westbrook dramatically less than they
have the past two years. It is more about executing their game plan
more effectively and gaining consistency with their young receivers.
Most important is keeping Donovan McNabb healthy.
I believe Westbrook’s 2008 production will hover around the
same level as 2007 and that’s top 3 worthy.
Johnson: In 2006 LJ had 437 f/carries. Here’s what we said
about Johnson heading into 2007:
“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 later rounds.”
Based on all the information I just reviewed, I don’t like Johnson’s
chances of ever returning to the top 3. If I over-think his prospects,
I would tend to shy away from him altogether: the Chiefs are a team
in transition lacking an established presence at quarterback, still
recovering from the churn at offensive line in recent years, and
are very young at wide receiver. The defense just lost Jared Allen
and as much as I like Glen Dorsey, he’s not the next Reggie White.
The drafting of Jamaal Charles also signals the Chiefs desire to
have an heir apparent, which is a good lesson they learned after
watching Priest Holmes quick decline. That said, Johnson’s relative
youth and Chan Gailey’s run-oriented attack make me think Johnson
is capable of 1500 total yards/8 score season. This makes him a
top ten pick and a back I’d consider the late half of the first
round if I believed he’d hit that mark. I’m more inclined to say
he’ll be a 1200 total yard/8 score player in 2008 and that puts
him as a late first/early second round selection.
Tomlinson: The RB went from 377 f/carries in 2006 to 345 in
2007, but was still the top fantasy back in consecutive seasons.
We predicted about 2000 total yards and 20 scores as his drop-off.
LT managed 1955 total yards and 18 trips to the end zone. Pretty
Tomlinson has now had six seasons of elite production—more than
Shaun Alexander (5), Emmitt Smith (5), Priest Holmes (4), Marshall
Faulk (4), and Terrell Davis (3)—and the odds continue to be stacked
against him to return to this level in 2008.
Tomlinson’s consistently high workload
doesn’t make him the hands-down #1 back in this draft.
Michael Turner’s departure opens the door for Darren Sproles
to get more playing time, but he’s not going to wear down defenses
and help Tomlinson stay as fresh as he did with a powerful complement
in the backfield. Phillip Rivers’ late-season ACL tear will likely
mean a decrease in his production. If anything, there is more
pressure on LT to produce than in recent years, despite the addition
of Chris Chambers and development of Vincent Jackson. And I’m
now just mentioning the fact Tomlinson is coming off his first
knee injury as a pro. Although the rehab did not require surgery,
Tomlinson’s consistently high workload doesn’t make him the hands-down
#1 back in this draft.
At the same time, Emmitt Smith had a 1500 total-yard/15 score
season at age 29 and a 1500 total-yard/13 score year at 30. This
is after a two-year gap of solid seasons, but nothing like the
five prior years with at least 1700 total yards and often 15-25
scores. One can make a strong argument Tomlinson is heading towards
this level of greatness. He has the offensive line and defense
to give him the opportunities for another top-3 year. I don’t
believe he’ll ever come close to sniffing 31 scores again, but
I like his chances of reaching at least 1500 total yards/8 scores
with an upside just under 2000 total yards and 20 scores. He lacks
the upside of younger backs like Adrian Peterson, but I believe
he still has three or four seasons before we’re truly wondering
if he’s in noticeable decline. He’s an easy choice at the top
of a draft.
2008’s High Workload Candidates—Who Has
a Chance to Peak
This is a rare event, but here are the players I’m expecting
to experience a strong season with potential for a career year.
Peterson: By some accounts, QB Tarvaris Jackson is improving
and the addition of WR Bernard Berrian provides the Vikings a
vertical threat that can stretch the field for Peterson. Consider
that Peterson had 238 carries in 14 games and had only 9 starts.
He averaged 18.8 carries in his starts, but 13.6 as a guy off
the bench. If he gets similar carries as a 16-game starter, we’re
looking at a 300-carry season with 25-30 catches. This total could
get significantly higher if one of two things happens: Chester
Taylor misses significant time with an injury and Minnesota lacks
a quality reserve back to spell Peterson or the Vikings play well
enough to be in the playoff hunt, which means Peterson will be
used extensively in the 4th QTR of close and meaningful games.
Addai: The Colts starter played hurt most of the year and
still nearly doubled his TD total while maintaining a similar
yardage output as a rookie. I believe his chances of a career
year aren’t high because of the great balance with the Indianapolis
offense. But if Marvin Harrison isn’t sufficiently recovered from
his knee injury or his potential legal situation intensifies,
the Colts may decide to pound the football.
Marshawn Lynch: Lynch is expected to get more targets as a
receiver and with 280 carries as a rookie in 13 games, these
totals projects to 345 attempts at the same rate for 16 games.
He’s also in a young offense that will rely upon him a
great deal as their centerpiece. I’d say that other than
the next guy I’m about to mention, Lynch has the best
chance of the backs listed to have a high workload year. The
only thing in the way is likely that poor woman who required
stitches after his car hit her.
If you subtract Grant’s 25 carries as a non-starter and project
his carries per game as a starter in ’07 to this year, then you’re
looking at a 373-carry effort for 2008, not including receptions.
Brett Favre’s departure likely means a more balanced attack until
the team develops more confidence in Aaron Rodgers. The Packers
had no qualms about wearing out Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett
under the Holmgren era. It will be interesting to see if this