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Where Have All the Elite Fantasy Football Running Backs Gone?

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The early rounds of fantasy football drafts are usually dominated by elite-level running backs, and for good reason: landing the biggest and most dynamic running back in any season can be like a cheat code to win the league. We saw this with Todd Gurley in 2017 and 2018 (averaging 25.6 and 26.6 PPRs per game respectively), Christian McCaffrey in 2019 (29.5), Alvin Kamara (25.2), and Dalwyn Cook (24.1) in 2020. Last year, if Jonathan Taylor (21.9) was on your list, chances are you did pretty well.

But actually determining who this next league winner, the running back, will be is still difficult. The combination of injury volatility and the league’s reduced reliance on three-down defensemen makes using your first round running back like a roll of the dice. And quite predictably, the group of first-round runners this year scored a lot of 2s, 3s, and 12s (I had to google bad throws in craps to complete the analogy).

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Taylor entering the season like RB1 from ADP (and first overall pick) is currently RB22 averaging just 12.6 points per game in PPR formats. He is also being treated for an ankle injury that will see him miss Thursday’s Colts game. McCaffrey, who was ADP’s RB2, has so far put together a solid, if unimpressive, RB5 record this year (18.0 PPRs per game). Austin Eckeler (RB3 preseason) is RB3 in four weeks scoring (19.5), so it was a neutral experience for drafters, and Derrick Henry (ADP RB4) is RB9 in PPR points per game (16.4), fair result. a return for the intrepid compilers who took him in the first round. Meanwhile, the rest of the first round runners looked pretty disastrous at the moment: Dalwyn Cook was RB6 by the ADP and is currently RB25 in scoring (11.4); Naji Harris was drafted RB5 and is now RB26 (11.3); Joe Mixon was a preseason RB7 but is ranked RB15 four weeks later (14.3); and Alvin Kamara, who was drafted as RB8, now ranks as RB44 in points per game (7.5) – and he missed two games with a rib injury.

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Even if you get lucky in the second round and pick one of Saquoon Barkley (current RB1) or Nick Chubb (RB2), returns won’t be as sharp as in years past. It’s true that Barkley is doing just about everything he can to put the Giants on their backs and lead them to a shocking 3-1 record during the first month of the season, and he dominates nearly every usage metric fantasy drafters are looking for (leading every current spins in terms of snap speed, rushes and share the first place in the total number of touches).

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But despite all that delightful, delightful volume, Barkley scored a relatively disappointing 86.0 PPR, averaging 21.5 points per game. Barkley only scored twice, and the result (according to Ryan McDowell of Dynasty League Football indicates that) is that it boasts the lowest four-week RB1 fantasy overall score since the 1997 season. (That’s 25 years old!) For context, since 2000, the average overall RB1 has averaged 106.9 fantasy points in the first four weeks of the season. This is a huge shortage of points.

In other words, if you thought there weren’t many good runners this year, or rather zero elite players, you’re absolutely right.

So what gives? There is no single reason why top fantasy running backs have had such a bad start this year, but rather a confluence of factors that have contributed to the fantasy recession in that position. In fact, it’s a trend that has been slowly developing over the past few seasons, which has seen both a decline in the overall number of super high performances by running backs and a decline in the total number of top few running backs in fantasy. Let’s break down a few of the most important variables causing this trend.

Teams use running back committees.

It’s pretty obvious: Teams these days rarely rely on a single running back to be the backbone of their offense. Going back to the early to mid 2000s, 15 to 20 runners in a league typically carried the ball over 250 times a year. These days, we usually see four to six players cross this landmark, and sometimes fewer.

Looking only at the league’s raw numbers, we saw 53 individual running backs dwarf TruMedia’s 35 percent scoring rate in 2022, the highest four-week rate in any of the last five seasons. There’s definitely some noise in this number (of course, injuries are a big factor), but it reinforces the notion that committee running is the new standard in the NFL. It’s also a perfectly logical strategy for teams: a backfield rotation could keep the backfield star’s feet fresh throughout the year, it could help reduce the number of hits they get, and, theoretically, it could help prolong their careers.

But it’s not just about teams switching back and hitting their defenders…

Teams run less often.

Over the course of four weeks this year, teams averaged total 26.4 rush attempts per game— a notch below the league average in 2021 (26.6) and well below the 2020 average (26.9). At this rate, we’re getting closer to having teams average the fifth-lowest rush attempts per game in the 91-year Pro Football Reference database (and it’s worth noting that all last-ranked seasons have been in the last 10 years). .

Pass included. Running is off. It doesn’t seem to matter much that teams are averaging an impressive 4.4 yards per throw this year, the best of all time. Passing is simply more effective, and teams have begun to replace runs with quick shots, sweeping passes and screens.

Teams aim for fewer touchdowns.

The decrease in the overall volume of quick landings also led to a decrease in the volume of quick landings. Across the league, teams average just 0.8 touchdowns per game, the lowest since the 2017 season.

Clearly, rushing touchdowns play a big role in fantasy scoring, but there seem to be fewer of them, a problem exacerbated by teams’ approach to running back and the fact that quarterbacks are vultures. these touchdowns with seemingly increasing speed. About it …

Quarterbacks and receivers use rushing opportunities.

Runners have hit a total of 75 rushing touchdowns this season. At the same time last year, that number was 80, and the previous year it was 100. Naturally, the decline in total rush points has hurt the bottom line for fantasy running backs, but it doesn’t help that quarterbacks are stealing some of the points. opportunities at the goal line too. Quarterbacks have been on the ground 25 times in four weeks this season, which means they’ll throw a total of 106 rushing touchdowns in a year. Last year, in the league’s only other 17-game season, the quarterbacks hit 94 rushing touchdowns.

Also, although it’s not such a big variable, quarterbacks also steal urgent yards. QB counted 168 scheduled runs this year, up from 165 in four weeks in 2021, 152 in four weeks in 2020, and 115 in four weeks in 2019 (all numbers taken from TruMedia).

Yes, by the way, receivers also steal urgent products. In four games this season, wide receivers have recorded 116 rushes for 641 yards and four touchdowns, according to TruMedia. All three are higher than last year (81 rushes, 438 yards, 3 touchdowns). They are comparable to 2020 (104 rushes, 693 yards, 4 TDs) and much higher than the first four weeks of 2019 (77 rushes, 484 yards, 3 TDs).

Teams go to runners at a lower rate.

Running backs aren’t just losing when it comes to ground play, they’re also seeing a lower target this year than they did in 2021. In four weeks, the teams converted 22.1 percent of their passes. 22.5 percent in 2021. This is slightly higher than in 2020 (21.5 percent) but well below the completion rates teams gave to runners in 2019 (23.9). 2018 (24.0) and 2017 (25.4).

Passes to running backs are less effective.

In total, the running backs have amassed 626 catches for 4,271 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. In four weeks last year, they caught 661 passes for 5,247 yards and 27 points. In 2020, runners had 695 catches for 5,375 yards and 33 touchdowns. Not only are we seeing a decline in total catches and yards (and touchdowns from 2020 to 2022), but runners’ hitting performance has plummeted from previous years as defensemen average just 6.8 yards. per catch this year compared to 7.9 in 2021 and 7.7 in 2020. Oddly enough, there seem to be far fewer big games from running backs in the passing game this year.

Combine all this with a general offensive decline…

Finally, runners are still feeling the pain of a global offensive downturn in 2022. Over the four weeks this year, teams are averaging 21.9 points per game, which is a pretty significant drop from the 23.0 points per game average in 2021 and a far cry from the 24.8 points per game average in 2020. year. As you’d expect, total touchdowns average up to 2.45 per game, well below 2021’s (2.61) and 2020’s (2.88) numbers. Passing is even lower in most key categories like quarterbacks…


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