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DRAFTING: The Return Of The Running Back

From the late 1990’s to mid-2000’s, the running back position was the most valuable asset in the fantasy football world. Drafting a running back in the first round of your fantasy draft was as close to a prerequisite as it gets. In that era, the running back position was ripe with top-end talent. Running backs like Emmitt Smith, Ricky Watters, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Terrell Davis, Eddie George, Curtis Martin, Ahman Green, Tiki Barber, Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander.  The list goes on and on. The running back position was the cream of the crop and was the backbone to fantasy teams everywhere.

However, starting somewhere around 2008, NFL offenses shifted from a smash-mouth, run-first approach to a pass-happy, air-it-out plan of attack. This shift in the game caused a ripple effect throughout the league. Running backs were no longer relied upon to carry heavy workloads. Teams started utilizing two and sometimes three running backs and would use each of them in their specific way depending on their skill-set. Some running backs were pass-catching specialists; others were bruisers that handled short-yardage and goal-line work. Quarterbacks began airing it out more frequently, and as a result, the running back position slowly became less valuable in fantasy football.

That transformation was a drastic one in the fantasy football world. It wasn’t too long ago when the “Zero-RB” approach became a widely recognized and often applied strategy in fantasy football. Fantasy players would approach a draft targeting elite wide receivers and tight ends in the early rounds and wait till the middle rounds to bulk up on running backs. The reasoning behind this being a viable strategy was because of the way teams were using their running backs. A running back whose specialty was catching passes out of the backfield became a valuable fantasy football asset in point-per-reception formats. While this running back may not have had as many carries, his usage in the receiving game resulted in a steady supply of fantasy points. Those type of running backs could easily be found in the mid- to late-rounds of your draft and would provide a stable weekly floor of fantasy points. For example, running backs like Danny Woodhead, Duke Johnson, Dion Lewis, Theo Riddick, James White, Shane Vereen, Bilal Powell and Chris Thompson, all would make great starting lineup choices.

Well, I’m here to tell you that fantasy is going retro as the running back position has come back to the front once again in fantasy and for the foreseeable future, it will be a running back positioned league and why drafting a running back with your first and second round picks is the best strategy for 2018.

*These statistics are based on a point-per-reception format with 4-points for a passing touchdown

From 1998-2007 (ten seasons), here are the percentages of positions finishing in the Top-15 overall in fantasy points.

RB – 67 out of 150 (44.7%)

WR – 52 out of 150 (34.6%)

QB – 31 out of 150 (20.7%)

In those ten seasons, it was common for multiple running backs to finish in the Top-15 in fantasy points since the league was primarily a smash-mouth, “run-first” type of league and had not yet transitioned to a “pass-happy” type of league. Also, in this time frame, only once did less than five running backs finish in the Top-15 overall. Ironically, it was in 2007, when just three running backs finished in the Top-15 overall.

Conversely, from 2008-2017 (ten seasons), here are the percentages of the positions finishing in the Top-15 overall in fantasy points.

QB – 67 out of 150 (44.7%)

RB – 42 out of 150 (28%)

WR – 38 out of 150 (25.3%)

TE – 3 out of 150 (2.0%)

As you can see, there are two glaring differences from those two eras. As the NFL became a pass-first league, quarterback statistics got better and better with each passing season. With that kind of swing, another position has to suffer which was the running back position. The percentage of quarterbacks finishing in the Top-15 increased from 20.7% to 44.7%. Elite running back production decreased from 44.7% to 28% and the wide receiver position also saw a slight decline in top-end production, going from 34.6% to 25.3%.

However, with what I see as a decline in elite quarterback production and an upsurge in elite running back production, I believe we’ll see the running back position start to become the most dominant fantasy position in terms of top-end production, similar to how it was from 1998-2007.

Here’s another way to look at it when talking about the shift that’s happening at the running back position. From 2010-2013, a running back finished in the Top-15 of fantasy points sixteen times (26.7%). From 2014-2017, it was fourteen times (23.3%). In the past two seasons (2016 and 2017), it’s happened ten times (33.3%). In 2018, I’m expecting at least six running backs to finish in the Top-15 of overall fantasy points, which would be 40% of the Top-15 finishers. The average point total in the past ten seasons for the 15th overall fantasy player was 296 fantasy points. As I said, I’m expecting at least six running backs to surpass that number in 2018 and at least five running backs to do so over the next three to four seasons.

My point here is not that the running back position has more depth than ever before, but more so that the position has more elite players than it has seen in the past ten seasons. These superior running backs are just entering the league (or are still in their prime) and are going to be premier fantasy contributors for the foreseeable future.

About Evan Reardon

An avid Boston sports fan, Evan has been a Patriots and NFL fan since the 1990's. Fantasy football runs in his family. He grew up in the 90's watching his father and uncles play in a 6-team, Touchdown-only league. He has been playing fantasy football since the early 2000's and has been writing fantasy sports content since 2014.