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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 123
RB Workloads: A Study of Heavy Workload vs. Future Production

Rookie Scouting Portfolio 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 article.

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 Alexander, Tiki 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 statistical phenomenon.

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.

  • 27 of 48 (56.25%) Heavy Workload RBs missed at least 1 game
  • 14 of 48 (29%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 1-3 games
  • 15 of 48 (31%) Heavy Workload RBs missed 4+ games
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.

F/Carries And Injury For RBs Coming Off A 370-F/Carry Season

Here are eleven-year totals for f/carries the season after a RB attains the heavy workload f/carry benchmark:
  • 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 time.

  • Even if the RB didn’t miss a game the overall workload decreased by an average of 29.2 f/carries
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.

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 Season

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
Production Change Total Rbs Met Criteria Pct. Of Rbs Resulting Fantasy Production
Same or better 48 7 14.60% At least 300 fpts
Drop of 1%-10% 48 5 10.40% 270-299 fpts
Drop of 11%-20% 48 2 4.10% 240-269 fpts
Drop of 21%-30% 48 13 27.00% 210-239 fpts
Drop of 31%-40% 48 6 12.50% 180-209 fpts
Drop of 41%-50% 48 6 12.50% 150-179 fpts
Drop of over 50% 48 9 18.75% 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 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 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
Production Change Total Rbs Met Criteria Pct. Of Rbs
200 fpts 148 107 72%
200-249 fpts 148 19 12.80%
250-299 fpts 148 10 6.70%
300-349 fpts 148 4 2.8%
350+ fpts 148 3 2.00%

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 (2).

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 so rosy:

 RB Workloads 2005-2007
    F/Carries FPts F/Carries Fpts     F/Carries Fpts  
Player Years Yr1 Yr1 Yr2 Yr2 Change Gms
Yr3 Yr3 Gms
Edgerrin James 05-06 382 267 356 172 -0.356 0 336 185 0
Tiki Barber 05-06 384 305 356 242 -0.207 0 Retired Retired N/A
Shaun Alexander 05-06 378 363 258 135 -0.628 6 214 109 3
Larry Johnson 06-07 436 334 173 99 -0.714 8 N/A N/A N/A
Steven Jackson 06-07 391 329 256 163 -0.51 4 N/A N/A N/A
LaDainian Tomlinson 06-07 377 418 345 303 -0.286 0* N/A N/A N/A
Average 391 336 291 186 -0.45 3

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.

Steven Jackson

RBs fail to live up to expectation after a 370-f/carry season.

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 it safe.

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:

  • 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.
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.

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.

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:

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 them.

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).

Steven Jackson: 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.

Brian Westbrook: 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.

Larry 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.

LaDainian 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 close.

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.

LaDainian Tomlinson

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.

Adrian 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.

Joseph 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.

Ryan Grant: 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 carries over.