The Brief History of Running Backs

The Brief History of Running Backs

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The Brief History of Running Backs

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Each year we rightfully obsess over players and especially what they did last season. Seems reasonable enough. But often a player’s performance won’t match the previous season for a myriad of reasons. Nevertheless, many fantasy footballers start out with the end of the season rankings and figure a bit of tweaking is all that needs. It feels great when your roster looks like it would dominate the previous season. At least until you have to use it this year.

Is there anything to glean by taking a step back? Instead of solely focusing on last year, what about what happens to top NFL players over their career? If a high percentage of top players show consistency in any aspect, it is definitely worth considering for your draft picks this season.

This review only considers running backs who ended with a Top 20 performance considering standard performance scoring . Any further back and you get into a time when different sorts of players were popular, injuries were much more catastrophic and offenses were different. It is a good duration too as it is long enough to show the ups and downs of many players. Top 20 backs are all used on fantasy teams and the Top 10 backs are the difference makers.

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Where the Top 20 ranked the previous season

Top 20 2014 2013 Top 20 2013 2012 Top 20 2012 2011 Top 20 2011 2010
Le’Veon Bell 1 15 Jamaal Charles 1 9 Adrian Peterson 1 15 Ray Rice 1 7
DeMarco Murray 2 6 Matt Forte 2 11 Doug Martin 2 LeSean McCoy 2 3
Matt Forte 3 2 LeSean McCoy 3 16 Arian Foster 3 3 Arian Foster 3 1
Marshawn Lynch 4 5 Knowshon Moreno 4 36 Ray Rice 4 1 M. Jones-Drew 4 13
Eddie Lacy 5 8 Marshawn Lynch 5 5 Marshawn Lynch 5 6 Darren Sproles 5 29
Arian Foster 6 46 DeMarco Murray 6 26 C.J. Spiller 6 27 Marshawn Lynch 6 32
Jamaal Charles 7 1 Reggie Bush 7 14 Alfred Morris 7 Ryan Mathews 7 31
Justin Forsett 8 100 Eddie Lacy 8 Trent Richardson 8 Michael Turner 8 14
Lamar Miller 9 36 Chris Johnson 9 12 Jamaal Charles 9 107 Chris Johnson 9 6
Jeremy Hill 10 Adrian Peterson 10 1 Frank Gore 10 17 Steven Jackson 10 12
C.J. Anderson 11 146 Fred Jackson 11 34 Matt Forte 11 11 Matt Forte 11 9
LeSean McCoy 12 3 Danny Woodhead 12 24 Chris Johnson 12 9 Michael Bush 12 28
Joique Bell 13 14 Giovani Bernard 13 Darren Sproles 13 5 Reggie Bush 13 58
Mark Ingram 14 65 Joique Bell 14 23 Reggie Bush 14 13 Fred Jackson 14 21
Matt Asiata 15 78 Le’Veon Bell 15 Stevan Ridley 15 74 Adrian Peterson 15 5
Giovani Bernard 16 13 Pierre Thomas 16 32 LeSean McCoy 16 2 Michael Tolbert 16
Alfred Morris 17 19 Ryan Mathews 17 30 Steven Jackson 17 10 Frank Gore 17 16
Fred Jackson 18 11 Frank Gore 18 10 Mikel Leshoure 18 Jonathan Stewart 18 44
Andre Ellington 19 26 Alfred Morris 19 7 Shonn Greene 19 20 Ahmad Bradshaw 19 10
Frank Gore 20 18 Zac Stacy 20 Ahmad Bradshaw 20 19 Shonn Greene 20 43

You should discount the results of last year. For the previous eight seasons, there had never been more than four running backs return to a Top 10 performance and usually just three did. But five repeated in the Top Ten in 2014 and even the 11th through 20th best backs contained six players who repeated as a Top 20. 2014 was the most consistent year for running backs in over a decade.

Look at the Top 10 from 2014 above. Know that five or six of those players will not be Top 10 and at least three of them won’t even end up in the Top 20 this season. Arian Foster is an obvious casualty with his groin injury but who else? Le’Veon Bell, Justin Forsett, Lamar Miller and Jeremy Hill had never been in the Top 10 before.

It is easy to see just how changing the running back position is as the Top 20 players will always be fantasy starters. There are just a lot of them each year who were not fantasy starters the previous season.

The Top 10 is where the difference makers lie. It would be really rare for a fantasy team to win without at least a few premier players. Drafting a “solid” team that contains no elite players is another way to just donate your league fee to someone else. Those top players are where your championship is won.

So you know all too well the Top 10 from last year. Where will they go this year? Here is where Top 10 players ended up the following season for the last ten years. The 2013 column shows what they became in 2014, 2012 shows where they ended up in 2013, etc..

What Top 10 Players became the next season

  2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Top 10 5 3 3 4 3 3 4 3 4
11th to 20th 1 2 4 3 3 2 2 4 3
21st to 50th 2 3 2 2 3 3 4 2 2
50+ 2 2 1 1 1 2 0 1 1

Look at the numbers. A Top 10 player has only a 30% to 40% chance of repeating the next year. Worse yet, usually three to five don’t even end up in the Top 20 the following season. Let’s move on to one of those immutable truths.

This is Adrian Peterson’s Decade and we only live in it

Over the last ten years, there are only 22 players who turned in more than one Top 10 season. And 35 running backs produced only one Top 10 season over the last decade. That’s roughly three or four backs per year who not only don’t repeat the next year, they never ever repeat. Adrian Peterson is a definite anomaly with six Top 10’s and likely seven had he played in 2014.

Running Backs with at least two Top 10’s over the last 10 years

Player Ranked Top 10 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Adrian Peterson 6 128 10 1 15 5 2 9 5
Matt Forte 4 3 2 11 11 9 12 1
Marshawn Lynch 4 4 5 5 6 32 45 13 16
Arian Foster 4 6 46 3 3 1 69
Jamaal Charles 4 7 1 9 107 4 11 54
Chris Johnson 4 39 9 12 9 6 1 11
Ray Rice 4 22 4 1 7 3 49
Frank Gore 4 20 18 10 17 16 5 14 7 5 41
Maurice Jones-Drew 4 99 21 53 4 13 4 3 11 8
Steven Jackson 4 28 30 17 10 12 7 15 15 2 9
Ladainian Tomlinson 4 35 15 24 6 2 1 4
LeSean McCoy 3 12 3 16 2 3 32
Brian Westbrook 3 49 53 8 1 4 11
Clinton Portis 3 73 57 10 3 37 7
DeMarco Murray 2 2 6 26 30
Eddie Lacy 2 5 8
Reggie Bush 2 42 7 14 13 58 29 27 12 9
Michael Turner 2 21 8 14 34 4 78 58 74
Joseph Addai 2 58 46 8 39 4 13
Thomas Jones 2 71 27 9 5 22 18 10
Tiki Barber 2 6 3
Larry Johnson 2 168 156 170 40 36 3 2

It is odd enough that Peterson leads all backs with six Top 10 showings. But that four seems to be the upper limit otherwise. Tomlinson totaled eight in his career and Clinton Portis had five. But those were bleed-over’s from the Decade of The Running Back (about 1997 until 2007). What is really odd is that only Peterson had more than four Top 10’s and yet Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles and Frank Gore are all starters and ready for a potential fifth Top 10 (Foster is already hurt and already a lock to slip). That hasn’t been done since NFL offenses started to change after 2007. The new NFL doesn’t use primary backs the same as they once did. Forte, Lynch, Charles and Gore are all candidates to break the five game barrier. Forte, Lynch and Charles are usually first round picks again this year. And what if Chris Johnson ends up with the Cowboys? Can two or three players suddenly do what has not been done in many years or are they about to hit a wall?

Just because it hasn’t happened in a decade (exception Peterson), doesn’t mean that any of those running backs can’t notch their fifth Top 10. But it is notably consistent. Five seasons is a long time as a difference maker in the NFL and a lot of wear and tear on a body. A Top 10 running back always has at least 250 touches a year if not 300 or 350.

If you want to see just how tough it is for any back to repeat in the Top 20 and especially the Top 10, take a gander below to view the rankings of every running back in the last ten years who had at least one Top 20 season. A few notables to think about:

1. Justin Forsett broke out in his sixth season. No one else comes close to taking that long. Kind of like Earnest Graham, Peyton Hillis, Ladell Betts or Knowshon Moreno who all played a lot of years but only managed one Top 10 and not much else that close. What Forsett did last year is almost unheard of in the NFL.

2. Mark Ingram also had one big year after three disappointments. At least he is still young.

3. Lamar Miller really improved in his third season. No other back (besides Forsett) had a more inauspicious career beginning but he was backing up Reggie Bush as a rookie.

4. Frank Gore has nine straight seasons as a Top 20 running back.

5. If you want a sense of how big the turnover is in the Top 10, remove Forte, Lynch, Peterson and Charles.

6. Last year had four different running backs hitting their first ever Top 10. That means major value lies in deeper drafted backs.

7. Considering the Top 10 of last year, only five were present in 2013. Only three were there in 2012 and only two in 2011. When you make a keeper decision, realize how short most running backs careers really are.

Running Backs who had at least one Top 20 over the last 10 years

PLAYER 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Le’Veon Bell 1 15
DeMarco Murray 2 6 26 30
Matt Forte 3 2 11 11 9 12 1
Marshawn Lynch 4 5 5 6 32 45 13 16
Eddie Lacy 5 8
Arian Foster 6 46 3 3 1 69
Jamaal Charles 7 1 9 107 4 11 54
Justin Forsett 8 100 72 73 40 28
Lamar Miller 9 36 83
Jeremy Hill 10
C.J. Anderson 11 146
LeSean McCoy 12 3 16 2 3 32
Joique Bell 13 14 23
Mark Ingram 14 65 42 46
Matt Asiata 15 78 149
Giovani Bernard 16 13
Alfred Morris 17 19 7
Fred Jackson 18 11 34 14 21 14 38 60
Andre Ellington 19 26
Frank Gore 20 18 10 17 16 5 14 7 5 41
Ahmad Bradshaw 22 77 20 19 10 31 73 94
Jonathan Stewart 24 93 51 18 44 15 33
Darren Sproles 25 23 13 5 29 27 41 81 129
Steven Jackson 28 30 17 10 12 7 15 15 2 9
Pierre Thomas 34 16 32 21 54 19 19 61
Darren McFadden 35 51 25 36 8 51 42
Trent Richardson 36 145 8
Chris Johnson 39 9 12 9 6 1 11
Reggie Bush 42 7 14 13 58 29 27 12 9
Doug Martin 51 56 2
Zac Stacy 66 20
C.J. Spiller 68 27 6 27 59
Ryan Mathews 69 17 30 7 31
Shonn Greene 78 60 19 20 43 65
Stevan Ridley 79 34 15 74
DeAngelo Williams 94 25 27 29 65 17 2 30 38
Peyton Hillis 95 64 70 44 2 114 51
Maurice Jones-Drew 99 21 53 4 13 4 3 11 8
Knowshon Moreno 104 4 36 81 18 18
Danny Woodhead 125 12 24 57 25
Adrian Peterson 128 10 1 15 5 2 9 5
Ronnie Brown 274 84 39 109 26 39 17 23 22 23
Mikel Leshoure 159 18
Lamont Jordan 130 70 39 57 6
Cedric Benson 68 26 17 20 43 42 42 94
Warrick Dunn 28 28 25 13
Joseph Addai 58 46 8 39 4 13
Larry Johnson 168 156 53 40 36 3 2
Edgerrin James 113 56 13 17 5
Ladell Betts 63 63 62 54 10 62
Deuce McAllister 47 118 16 54
Shaun Alexander 148 40 33 1
Steve Slaton 264 117 26 7
Chris Brown 62 46 107 20
Brian Westbrook 49 53 8 1 4 11
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 39 22 28 19 118 67
Rashard Mendenhall 31 85 22 11 16 127
Jahvid Best 43 20
Tiki Barber 6 3
Willie Parker 73 46 20 7 18
Fred Taylor 102 75 57 25 20 36
Domanick Davis 15
Tim Hightower 68 35 13 32
Ryan Grant 260 37 135 10 24 17
Michael Turner 21 8 14 34 4 78 58 74
Marion Barber 49 56 22 12 8 19 38
LenDale White 83 26 18 72
Rudi Johnson 74 50 11 8
Michael Bush 68 46 12 28 44 55
Michael Tolbert 40 37 16
Clinton Portis 73 57 10 3 37 7
Thomas Jones 71 27 9 5 22 18 10
Earnest Graham 67 69 89 44 10 126 131
Chester Taylor 89 55 40 31 19 14 34
Priest Holmes 103 31
Kenny Watson 132 14 62
Brandon Jacobs 70 161 34 30 33 18 21 40 73
Ahman Green 93 68 64 15 66
Reuben Droughns 58 34 14
Willis McGahee 63 28 25 51 30 35 9 26 16
Mike Anderson 125 79 12
Julius Jones 218 36 50 44 29 19
Ladainian Tomlinson 35 15 24 6 2 1 4
Ray Rice 22 4 1 7 3 49
Kevin Smith 78 41 82 21 16
Kevin Jones 113 27 12 32
Corey Dillon 23 17
Derrick Ward 92 61 49 20 38 113
Jamal Lewis 64 30 6 21 25
Ricky Williams 56 41 6 37 155 28

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