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The Death of the Fantasy Running Back, and How We Can Save the Position from Extinction

rockcartwright

After looking at the title of this article, my first at RotoViz, I’m sure more than a few of you said something like, “What in the world is this guy talking about,” and it’s understandable. Running backs are the single most drafted position in the first two rounds of any fantasy draft. However, I would posit that the position is dying a slow death and that much of the fantasy world just hasn’t realized that sad truth yet.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade or so you’ve likely heard someone say, “The NFL has become a passing league.” While true, this has been true for a very long time. Not since 1942 has the league run as many rush plays as they have pass plays. From that point forward passing has ruled the day.

The Trends

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For some context refer to the chart above. First, the faint arrows are trendlines which show, given the graphed data, what we can expect in any given year. Since 1980 the trendlines have been fairly accurate for the most part, never deviating more than one or two percentage points from the actual outcome. Second, the red dashed lines are important as they signal thresholds that correspond directly to the number of plays traditionally used for offensive purposes (i.e. first through third down). Should either rushing or passing plays dip below 33.3 percent then an imbalance occurs. This imbalance manifests itself more prominently in fantasy terms due to the fact that players dependent on that play type could potentially see no action for extend lengths of time in the case of “three and outs”.

As you can see in the graph above, the rushing play type is in serious trouble. We first crossed this threshold in the modern era in the years 1994 through 1996 and again in 1999. We crossed the threshold again in 2007 and the change appears permanent, as the league stayed below that threshold for six of the next eight years. The last two years have seen the lowest rushing percentages in history (30.9 percent and 30.7 percent), and the trendline is signaling even further drops in the future.

The impact of this trend could theoretically be offset by advances in rushing yards totals but those are continuing to slide as well.

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As a final effort to explain why the data thus far is showing such a decline, maybe the top running backs are simply becoming more effective at running the ball. In this explanation, there would be less of a need for several running backs in a game because the primary ball carrier is shouldering the weight effectively.

This, too, appears incorrect as the last two seasons have produced the fewest 100+ yard games in recent history, and the league is trending towards fewer than 100 such games next season. The difference in the high and low values is roughly 40 percent, an astounding drop by any measure. Even this effort doesn’t appear able to explain the decline in running back usage.

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As it turns out the running back position is in a wholesale decline even if we set the focus completely on reception heavy players. With the knowledge that the NFL is gradually moving away from the rushing aspect of the game, I decided to look at the top 25 receiving running backs over the past ten years and determine just how much, on average, they were contributing to their team’s passing game. As it turns out, even the top receiving running backs are witnessing a decline in the amount of work they’re getting. Two of the past three years have seen the top receiving running backs produce less than 20 percent of the average NFL team’s offensive output, the lowest two years in the data set and the only times that total fell below 20 percent.

The trend however points to this decline continuing at just around one-third of a percentage point per year moving forward. That doesn’t seem like much at first but over a decade that comes to around a three percentage point decline, which is slightly less than the decline the rushing game over that same period, which saw roughly a 0.4 percent drop year over year. The strategy of seeking out running backs featured in their team’s passing game in an effort to insulate a fantasy team against the declining value of running backs appears not particularly fruitful, given the data we’ve examined.

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Implications

Before proceeding it should be noted that this information affects fantasy formats differently. Dynasty owners will need to have a very forward looking view of this information, whereas redraft owners will need to reassess this information yearly.

So what exactly is going on here? Thus far, most of the information I’ve shared is well-known to fantasy footballers. The question is how can we either insulate our teams against this trend or benefit from this information? The immediate answer that would come to the minds of many reading this, and which I initially pursued, was to seek out running backs who are heavily involved in their team’s passing game.

Instead, perhaps a more useful strategy would be to discount running backs entirely. Shawn Siegele’s treatise “Zero RB, Antifragility, and the Myth of Value-Based Drafting” laid the groundwork for this strategy. In that piece the argument is laid out that the running back position is extremely volatile due to injuries. That reasoning is certainly correct and goes a long way towards explaining running back churn in season and between seasons, however, it’s hard to deny that the position itself is in deline. Taken together, this information points boldly towards a complete reexamination of running back values in the fantasy game.

Lessons from the NFL

To what ends though? Perhaps we can glean some insight into the position by examining the NFL itself.

It’s no secret that the NFL has discounted the running back position in recent years, especially through the draft. Over the past two years there hasn’t been a running back selected in the first round of the NFL draft, the only instances in the modern era that has occurred. It isn’t because there hasn’t been a running back worthy of a high draft pick either. In the past two years we’ve seen such talented running backs as Le’Veon Bell, Carlos Hyde, Andre Ellington, Tre Mason, CJ Anderson and Jeremy Hill just to name a few. These running backs and several others have performed at extremely high levels yet not one was selected in the first round,and  more than a few weren’t even drafted in the first two days of the draft. Intuitively many readers may find this odd or confusing at least.

As it turns out the average top 25 receiving running back’s draft position has been creeping deeper and deeper into the draft over the past ten years with a huge jump this season. Roughly a third of 2014s top 25 receiving backs were undrafted when they entered the league. On average, over the past ten years, top 25 receiving backs were drafted at the top of the third round in the NFL Draft (Pick 96), or at the top of the eighth round in a typical 12 team fantasy draft.

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Shifting back to fantasy, this is clearly a far cry from traditional strategy, wherein an owner would draft a running back, or two, in the first two rounds of their fantasy draft with the expectation that the player(s) would produce at or above their draft position. ADP data over the past ten years reveals that, on average, we’d expect more than 12 running backs to be drafted in the first two rounds of a typical fantasy draft.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, running backs aren’t appearing among the leading fantasy scorers at a rate commensurate with this draft strategy. In order to achieve a return in which 12 running backs (essentially one per team) appear among the top 50 fantasy performers, a fantasy league would need to draft running backs through four rounds, a result that would take twice as long as traditional draft strategies suggest, which promote at least one running back per team through the first two drafts of a fantasy draft. What is even more telling is that the number of top producing fantasy running backs is decreasing at a fairly rapid pace, roughly a decline of one running back every two to three years. Within a decade it would be entirely reasonable to expect that only six running backs will appear in the top 50 fantasy players, provided current trends hold true.

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What to do

Now that we know that running back production is declining statistically across nearly every observable measure, how do we prevent the position from becoming marginalized for fantasy purposes within a decade? The question itself is tricky but strikes right to the heart of the matter and requires an answer sooner rather than later.

The most obvious answer would be to adjust fantasy scoring to account for this new reality. Pursuing this option creates several more questions however. Do we increase points for receptions? Maybe increase points for rushing yards? Should rushing touchdowns count for more points? Maybe a combination makes the most sense?

I’ve compiled a table of outcomes given several scenarios. Each scenario adjusts one or more of the widely accepted PPR scoring system’s inputs: 0.1 points for each rushing yards, six points for rushing touchdowns, one point per reception, 0.1 point for each receiving yard and six points for receiving touchdowns. The table uses the year 2014 as a baseline while increasing passing yards, passing touchdowns, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and receptions by 0.44 percent each season and reducing rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by that same amount to simulate the previously discussed trends. Additionally, the 2014 baseline of nine running backs appearing in the top 50 fantasy players is used to gauge how many years each scenario adds to the fantasy relevance of the running back position. This exercise will help determine how long RB irrelevance can potentially be postponed.

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Conclusion

One option is to simply do nothing. In this instance the lack of any substantive action is an action in itself. By understanding the changing dynamic, but refusing to act, the fantasy game will undergo a period of intense change. This change will require new fantasy strategies to account for the new realities in the NFL. Simply ignoring the changing dynamic isn’t going to solve the problem.

As you can see, each of the scoring modifications provides an additional ten plus years of running back relevance. Scoring changes are often not well accepted by the fantasy community. The last widely accepted change to fantasy scoring was PPR scoring which is now generally considered “standard” in high stakes leagues and would probably be the dominant format overall if ESPN wasn’t still using non-PPR scoring. Other variations on scoring include “Tight End Premium” and reducing passing touchdown points from six to four to help account for a marked increase in quarterback production. Scoring changes can help keep the balance in the fantasy game and account for changes in the NFL game.

The trick when deciding upon a scoring change, which the data suggests is necessary, will be attempting to walk a fine line between buoying the running back position and not flooding the fantasy market with a pumped up position. As such, the scoring changes which propose an increase in points per rushing yard to 0.125 points and running back receptions to 1.5 points per reception address the problem best, don’t overly inflate running back values and are easy to enact.

The declining use of the run as an offensive option is a very real and serious issue looming on the horizon for fantasy football. Whatever the outcome of this transformation ends up being, the fantasy football game will be dramatically different in the coming years. So, too, the NFL will look quite different than what many of us grew up watching. No matter what the collective decision ends up being, those looking to win their leagues need to be acutely aware of the issue hand.

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