So far this week, we have taken a look back at the 2020 season with an eye towards the future. We already covered how tight end production was on the rise as a whole a year ago, but the position still struggled to produce star fantasy options, how quarterbacks had their most prolific season to date through the air and on the ground through the unique circumstances orbiting the season, and how the wide receiver position bounced back after a down 2019 campaign with added contributors at the position.  

Closing things up from a fantasy perspective, we are taking a top-down view of the running back position from 2020.

League RB Usage Since 2010

YEARTOUCHESRUATTRUTDTGTRECRETDST. FF PTSPPR PTS.LG. TCH%
20201365511148385332625381029614.912152.953.44%
20191390811204352353127041039498.112202.156.30%
20181370910959354362427501189713.712463.755.40%
20171450711751307371027561079325.612081.658.90%
2016139891145636333942533959428.411961.456.30%
20151427811581293363426971119230.511927.557.10%
20141424311723324345225201009253.411773.457.20%
2013145071192234435182585849306.211891.258.10%
2012143661205733331832309619109.811418.858.00%
2011144711207532533272396719344.111740.159.20%
2010146301216634433542464729339.511803.559.90%

League-wide, we have seen the running back position produce more than 12,000 collective PPR fantasy points in each of the past four seasons, the only such seasons above that mark in the sample above. From a standard scoring stance, the position is still also thriving, producing their three highest scoring seasons in the sample over each of the past three seasons.

The interesting component here is that overall touches for running backs and their share of league-wide touches continue to trend downwards. Backfields accounted for their fewest number of overall offensive touches and lowest share of league touches above this past season. 

The biggest equalizer last season was that backs combined for 487 overall trips to the end zone, which is a high over the timeframe above. 

Quarterbacks are taking up more of the league rushing attempts than ever before as a contributing factor in touches coming down, but a big differentiator for backs in losing overall touches over previous years has been that teams were replacing rushing attempts with receiving touches. A running back target is worth 2.5 times more fantasy value than a rushing attempt in PPR formats and holds a 1.3 times edge in standard scoring.

But that receiving production took a significant step back in 2020. Running backs collectively caught 166 fewer passes than they did as a group in 2019 and received 205 fewer targets in the passing game than the year prior. Those are significant marks that took a large hit in 2020, but after seemingly hitting a crescendo as a position in targets and catches in 2017, the position has now seen fewer targets and receptions than the season prior in each of the past three seasons. 

A strong reason for this is something we touched on yesterday, and that is that more wide receivers are on the field for not only passing plays, but all offensive snaps in totality

Compared to league passing game usage and production, here is where the position settled a year ago.

RB Receiving Usage Rates Compared to Leaguewide Usage and Production

YEARTGT%REC%REYD%RETD%RB FF REPT%
202018.46%21.59%14.47%11.71%16.56%
201919.80%23.88%16.57%12.94%18.83%
201820.51%23.99%16.93%13.93%19.15%
201721.21%25.39%18.30%14.44%20.47%
201618.55%21.98%15.59%12.09%17.54%
201519.86%23.40%16.94%13.18%18.80%
201419.31%22.50%15.76%12.39%17.80%
201319.40%23.28%15.57%10.45%17.68%
201217.89%21.31%14.54%8.06%16.11%
201119.11%22.90%15.30%9.53%17.26%
201019.42%23.49%16.17%9.59%17.91%

Everything above holds up here as the rates for running backs in terms of leaguewide share of targets, receptions, receiving yardage, touchdown catches, and fantasy receiving points have all dropped each season from reaching that apex of the 2017 season. 

Just two individual running backs (Alvin Kamara and J.D. McKissic) accounted for at least 15% of their team targets in 2020, after we saw six backs reach that share of team targets in 2019 and nine do so in the 2018 season. 2018 had four backs see at least 20% of their team targets, but we have only had one back hit that threshold in each of the past two NFL seasons. 

Even from the very top of the position, the best fantasy running backs contributed less to the passing game.

Top-12 Fantasy RB Receiving Production

YEARPPR RB1 REC.PPR REYDPPR RETDST RB1 REC.ST. REYDST. RETDPPR PTSST PTSRec%ReTD%
20205304070234963834211075509.420.88%22.55%
20196905901295995340331454.173225.52%28.16%
20187977027497616543451793.7996.728.98%41.53%
20177336329336345324281563.9830.926.60%30.84%
20165324555245324555241131.5599.521.00%25.26%
20155244574205094340211101.4577.419.43%18.02%
20145764889295704722281238.9662.922.86%29.00%
20136285311335784895281357.1729.124.29%39.29%
2012500396019431334412101051021.65%31.15%
20115895214225154559221242.4653.424.58%30.99%
20106075201185734903181235.1628.124.63%25.00%

Fantasy RB1s had their overall scoring output that stemmed only from a receiving drop by 379.1 points from the 2019 season, which had a 339.6 point drop from the 2018 season. The 1,075 collective receiving points that the top-12 PPR backs produced were their fewest in a season since the 2012 season. 

Kamara led all RB1s with 83 receptions. The next closest top-12 finisher in receptions was Mike Davis with 59 with only David Montgomery (54) and Ezekiel Elliott (52) catching 50 or more passes from that group.

Receiving production accounted for just 33.9% of the RB1 scoring in PPR formats and just 19.2% of the RB1 production in standard formats in 2020. For comparison sake, those marks were 41.8%, 49.7%, and 47.6% in PPR formats the previous three seasons while they were at 26.0%, 35.4%, and 32.1% in standard formats those seasons.

That dip has given us fewer dual-purpose backs to work with for fantasy. The only running backs that were in the top-15 for both rushing and receiving points per game were Christian McCaffrey, Kamara, Aaron Jones, James Robinson, and Montgomery, with only McCaffrey, Kamara, and Robinson in the top-10 in both areas. 

We still want a back that contributes in the receiving component of the offense given the weight those touches have over rushing usage, but if the dual-threat options are going to be depressed as they have been the past two seasons, that has re-opened the door for heavy rushing-dependent backs that operate on high levels to make their mark as fantasy RB1s again such as Derrick Henry (91.5% of PPR points to come via rushing only), Nick Chubb (86.0%), Josh Jacobs (77.2%), and Jonathan Taylor (72.4%) to hang around as RB1 fantasy backs even in PPR formats. 

Despite the receiving usage dropping for backfields as a whole, we already mentioned that overall fantasy scoring remains high for backs and that the positional leverage for top backs still holds a large edge of top wideouts, but the more we move on, those 2017-2018 seasons appear to be the apex of receiving output from backfields. The real question is where does this output bottom out?

There is a good bet to be made that this past season was that point compared to the timeframe we looked at above, but with the increased talent influx at the wide receiver position (with another strong rookie class coming this April) paired with the increased usage of more wideouts in NFL passing games, there is also a good bet to be made that we do not return to those 2017-2018 seasons for backs out of the backfield in the passing game.