As we continue to roll on through the offseason in preparing for the 2022 fantasy season we are taking a top-down look at the production for each position.
Last week, we kicked things off looking at how there was recoil in the 2021 season compared to the record-setting season we had across the board the year prior and what went into that regression. In conjunction with that post, we then dug into the production and fantasy landscape for the quarterback position.
Next in line, we are taking a top-down look at the running back position.
League RB Usage Since 2010
With the NFL adding a 17th game in 2021, we are going to per game output. As noted in the leaguewide trends piece that opened up this series, the 2021 season was tasked with following not only the most productive offensive season in NFL history, but one that was also played under unique circumstances which elevated that production.
With natural regression and those unique elements reduced — if not outright removed — from the landscape in 2021, it is not surprising to see running backs have some production shaved off their 2020 totals.
Despite every team having an added game last year, running backs scored just four more touchdowns as a group in 2021 compared to 2020. As a byproduct, the position scored their fewest fantasy points per game in standard formats since 2017 while collectively scoring their fewest PPR points per game in a season since 2015.
While the fantasy juice was reduced a bit, running backs did account for a higher share of leaguewide touches (54.8%) in 2021 than the year prior (53.4%). The downside in that department, however, is that usage is still well below the usage rates of the position compared to a decade ago.
Backs still account for the most collective use among all fantasy skill positions, but since so much of their volume is filled with the least effective source of fantasy production (rushing attempts), we have seen the position shed points per game from the season prior in each of the past three seasons paired with that usage decline.
With the quarterback position still carving out a significant portion of leaguewide rushing output compared to historic use, we need increased usage in the passing game for the running back position to circumvent the overall reduction of touches compared to where the game was a decade ago.
RB Receiving Usage Rates Compared to Leaguewide Usage
|YEAR||TGT%||REC%||REYD%||RETD%||RB FF REPT%|
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.
The position made some improvements across the board in 2021 league-wide usage rates compared to 2020, but those numbers still remain down compared to those apex seasons of 2017-2018 out of the backfield.
After accounting for an all-time high in rate of leaguewide targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns, and receiving points for fantasy in 2017, the position has not been able to get back to those totals again since. In what is surely no coincidence to using running backs more than ever that season, that 2017 season was also one of the worst passing seasons and lowest-scoring seasons of the modern era.
The leaguewide passing rates here where we left off in 2021 are at least comparable to where the position was at in the 2010 area. But with overall touches also coming down at the position, we are still losing overall ground.
This has impacted the fantasy position as a whole because we now have a scarcity of true all-purpose running backs for fantasy.
Jonathan Taylor was the highest-scoring PPR running back in 2021. Just 23.6% of his PPR points came from receiving output, the lowest rate for the RB1 scorer overall since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
In standard leagues, Derrick Henry (97% rushing output) and Taylor (86.8% rushing) have paced the position the past two years after the previous five RB1 scorers even in standard leagues had rushing output rates of 64.4%, 72.5%, 65.3%, 67.1%, and 70.5%.
This is how we are getting more surface area for backs with middling receiving profiles closing years as RB1 scorers, but also coming with a wide variance of weekly production when those players do not score touchdowns and catch passes. Not having strong floors at the position.
We just recently saw Joe Mixon finally break out with an RB4 overall campaign while ranking RB7 in points per game. Mixon only managed 2.6 receptions per game (the holy grail at the position is 4.0 per game) and he only ran a pass route on 27 third downs during the regular season. Mixon had nine games with two or fewer catches, averaging 11.6 points per game those weeks with one week higher than RB24. In his other seven games, he averaged 26.3 points per game with one game lower than RB4.
Dalvin Cook also fell victim to having his floor exposed a bit last season when he ran into poor touchdown luck for the first time in three years. Cook has never averaged 4.0 receptions per game in any season of his career and then bottomed out there in 2021, averaging a career-low 2.6 catches per game with a career-low 6.6 yards per grab.
This is why a player like Christian McCaffrey is still so regarded in fantasy after missing essentially two seasons. We just do not have enough all-purpose running backs available while elite running back scorers still carry so much positional leverage. This is also how a player that may not be intoxicating from an explosive play stance such as Najee Harris carries so much appeal. He simply does not come off the field, which is a scarce resource at the position.
No running back in the league accounted for at least 15% of his team targets after just two did so in 2020. It was the first season since targets were tracked in 1992 by Pro Football Reference that no running back reached that arbitrary 15% target share for the year.
Harris led all backs with 14.4% of his team targets. From a games played perspective; Alvin Kamara accounted for 19.7% of the New Orleans targets when he did play, but only appeared in 13 games due to injuries.
Not one single running back last season was in the top-10 in both rushing points and receiving points per game at the position, while both James Conner and Austin Ekeler were the only backs to rank in the top-12 in each category.
2020 was likely the position bottoming out in the receiving department, but the dead cat bounce was not enough a year ago to leave us feeling good about backs out of the backfield paired with their overall reduction in touches. With the league still emphasizing using compartmentalized backfields, increased usage for more wideouts in the passing game, and the continued rise of quarterback mobility, there is also a good bet that we don’t back those 2017-2018 usage rates for backs in the passing game, leaving those very few three-down backs a valuable and scarce resource for fantasy.
A Young Man’s Game
We touched on this a bit in the Dynasty Tiers for running backs, but the league has massively skewed towards production coming from younger and younger backs.
Over the past 30 years, 66.1% of all PPR RB1 scoring seasons have come from backs 26 years old and younger. That has skewed younger over the past decade, with 70.8% of the RB1 scoring seasons over the past 10 years coming from those backs younger than 27.
When looking at the pantheon of the position each year, there have been just 14 running backs over age 27 to turn in a top-three scoring fantasy campaign in a given season over those 30 years, with the last time coming in 2015.
The last time a back over the age of 27 was even a top-six scorer was Mark Ingram back in 2017 at age 28.
The last time a back over the age of 27 was the highest-scoring running back came back in 2007 with Brian Westbrook.
The last back 30 years old or older to pace the position was Priest Holmes in 2003, which is also the only 30-year-old to finish as the RB1 overall in that 30-year sample.
The past eight running backs to lead the position in seasonal scoring have all been 25 years old or younger.
In 2021, we only had just four running backs among the top-24 in points per game at age 27 or older.
We have always considered age at the running back position, so this isn’t new. But what is interesting in context of this season is that we have a number of fantasy stars approaching this area of their career.
Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and James Conner all will be 27 years old or older when the season kicks off. All also carry ADP within the top-20 running backs. Nick Chubb will turn 27 in December.
I would never suggest a black and white rule for not drafting any of these players because they all have not only been great and nearly all carry the projection to retain high usage in their offenses.
Members of this group are surely going to challenge pushing back on the age cliff for top-end fantasy production because part of the reduction in the age cliff itself in recent seasons has been because the core group of producers has been in that age apex window. The last thing that needs to be mentioned in this context is that not every player needs to be a top-three or top-six performer to be considered a success.
The oldest player here in this group is Henry, who will turn 29 in January. Prior to Henry’s injury, he was the highest-scorer per game at his position, averaging a career-high 29.6 touches per game.
We could have just had a running back kick down this door a year ago. Of course, on the other hand, his injury in relation to his workload and age certainly will be used against him as well, as on top of those points, Henry was also averaging a career-low 4.6 yards per touch prior to injury.
We walk a fine line shutting anything down at an arbitrary marker, but also the window for elite running back production is inherently fleeting in our game, widening a player’s range of outcomes at a point in their career.
I’m not reading all of that…
- Rate of running back touches compared to the league remains down compared to a decade ago.
- Lack of leaguewide passing game involvement paired with that touch reduction has made all-purpose backs a valuable and scarce resource for fantasy.
- Age cliffs at the running back position have been significantly reduced in recent years while a significant portion of the position in current draft cost is pushing against that cliff.