Fantasy Running Backs in the Age of Rotations

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]In the midst of my first 2018-19 fantasy football Mock Draft for a PPR league, I found myself in a quagmire of uncertainty. I’d drafted Alvin Kamara ninth overall and was hunting for a second running back towards the end of the third round. With pick 29, I was targeting Christian McCaffrey, figuring I would find a between the tackles runner later.

McCaffery got drafted at 25, leaving me to decide between Jerick McKinnon, LeSean McCoy, and Jordan Howard. I drafted McCoy based solely on his reputation (though I had reservations). By the time I’d come back to try and find a third running back it was pick 89. Left at the top of the board were Marshawn Lynch, Aaron Jones, Isiah Crowell, and Bilal Powell. Not exactly a dream team.

This first mock draft really got me thinking about how much the running back position has changed over the past two decades. As roles have changed on the field, so have they changed in fantasy lineups. Gone are the days of the feature back. We are now in an age of running back rotations and must alter our fantasy drafts accordingly. Lest we find ourselves stuck starting the third wheel from a three man rotation . . .

The Evolution of NFL Running Backs from 2000 to 2017

Though the concept of fantasy football has been around since 1962, 1997 is often viewed as launching point. This, of course, makes sense as it was when the first online version was introduced. By 2000, fantasy football was readily available on all the major sites. So, when discussing the evolution of the running back, the year 2000 is the perfect place to start.

In 2000, the top ten rushing leaders were: Edgerrin James (1,709 yards), Robert Smith (1,521), Eddie George (1,509), Mike Anderson (1,487), Corey Dillon (1,435), Fred Taylor (1,399), Jamal Lewis (1,364), Marshall Faulk (1,359), Jerome Bettis (1,341), and Stephen Davis (1,318). It is important to note that in 2000 there were 23 total running backs with more than 1,000 yards rushing. It also important to note that in 2000, each of these top ten running backs where the undisputed “number one” back for their respective teams.

Now let’s take a look at last season. In 2017, the most rushing yards belonged to: Kareem Hunt (1,327), Todd Gurley (1,305), Le’veon Bell (1,291), LeSean McCoy (1,138), Mark Ingram (1,124), Jordan Howard (1,122), Melvin Gordon (1,105), Leonard Fournette (1,048), CJ Anderson (1,007), and Ezekiel Elliott (983). So, from 2000 to 2017, the number of 1,000 yard rushers dropped from 23 to 9.

Of course, Elliot would have hit 1,000 yards if he hadn’t been suspended. Still, even counting him means the numbers fell from 23 to 10. That’s quite the drop off. The rise of passing and the subsequent phasing out of the fullback (giving more opportunities for screens and quick passes from 3 and 4 receiver sets) have certainly contributed to this drop off.

However, it is the rotations that have caused the biggest disruptions to the prototypical “number one” fantasy back. Take another look at the 2017 list. Kareem Hunt has to cede some carries to Tyreek Hill, the defense must adjust for his speed and Andy Reid can build some double-move deep passes into similar play designs. Patrick Mahomes should get involved in the running game a bit as well this season. Mark Ingram is on the same team as my first round target Alvin Kamara. Todd Gurley plays on a team with a vastly improving Jared Goff who was gifted a brand new Brandin Cooks this offseason, so look for deep passes cutting into Gurley’s yardage totals. Don’t sleep on the 227 pound Malcolm Brown stealing a few goal line carries, either.

Leonard Fournette’s injury trouble followed him to Jacksonville, one would have to assume T.J. Yeldon will be asked to carry more of the load this season (don’t forget his 740 yards in 12 games as a rookie). Then there’s McCoy (more on him later) on a team with an unknown quarterback in A.J. McCarron (or Nathan Peterman or Josh Allen). If I were playing the Bills, I would put 8 or 9 defenders in the box and dare any of the QBs to beat me. So, that’s five running backs with significant usage question marks. Even the infusion of Saquon Barkley into the draft pool does not come sans question marks.

Rotations Make the Most Sense

From a front office perspective, running back rotations are almost too logical. I feel bad bringing him up on Inside the Pylon, having used him as an example extensively in previous articles I’ve written, but when discussing “all purpose” running backs, my mind always wanders to Shaun Alexander. Coming off a truly impressive run in the 2000s, the Seahawks signed him to a massive extension even though the dreaded age (30) was approaching. As many of you probably recall, after signing his new deal the injuries started. Alexander was never the same after these injuries. This not only hurt Seattle because a disproportionate amount of their payroll was going to Alexander, but this move also cost them guard Steve Hutchinson, arguably a bigger loss for their overall running game.

Investing a large amount of payroll in one position that is ripe for devastating injuries simply makes zero sense economically. It’s why one rarely sees a running back go in the top ten anymore. It simply makes far more sense to assemble a rotation of backs and use this depth to carry on if one of the backs is injured. As an added bonus, this adds multiple dimensions to a team’s overall offensive attack. Even my favorite team, the Browns (please put your best Browns’ jokes in the comment section), have embraced this trend. This season they’ll have Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb splitting most of the carries with Duke Johnson moving all over the formation. If either Hyde or Chubb is hurt, they can just go with the other guy. If Johnson is injured, they can play more four receiver sets, relying on the inside ability of Hyde and Chubb. When all three are healthy, they’ll bring different things to the offense. Hyde has shown promise in zone schemes, Chubb is a great one cut, lower your shoulder back, and Johnson must be accounted for as a runner and a deep route runner whenever he steps on the field. Check out the shovel pass at the 2:04 mark:

This is extremely important to note for each team before entering any fantasy draft. Each team will use different running backs and you have to know exactly what role the runner will fill. If I had to pick one of the Browns’ runners, I would go with Johnson first, Chubb second, and Hyde third. My reasoning is this: Johnson should rack up points in PPR leagues as a receiver, plus if they are losing (which the Browns are wont to do), he’ll be the one on the field for the passing downs. Chubb is great when he lowers his shoulder, so I would expect him to get a majority of the goal line carries. Hyde, ironically enough, could get the most carries. But as he lacks big play explosiveness, too many of these carries will be in the middle of the field. While the running backs’ role in fantasy football may be changing, touchdowns will always be more valuable than rushing yards.

Some Draft Advice for 2018

Ok, so far we’ve established that running backs have had their overall numbers drop off over the past two decades. We’ve also established that these drop offs are likely byproducts of more passing, injury risks, and the versatility brought about by a diverse rotation. So, now what? What does this mean for 2018’s fantasy season? The simplest answer, dear reader, is that it requires all of us to put extra work into draft prep. Before drafting any running back, we must answer these three questions: where on the field is their team when said back gets the ball? What does the team’s passing attack look like? And, what is the injury history of both the individual back and the remaining backs in the rotation?

Returning to my example above, let’s take another look at the three backs I was choosing from at pick 29. Jerick McKinnon would have been the pick in 2000 since he was a functioning running back with a pulse playing in a Shanahan offense. In 2000, there was a guarantee McKinnon would rush for over 1,000 yards. In 2018, however, there were too many question marks. There are already rumors Kyle Shanahan has taken a shine to Joe Williams and Matt Breida in camp. Breida is a particular concern with a 4.4 yards per carry average last season and in practice number three, Williams had a nice run on a 20 yard toss sweep (a staple of the Shanahan offense). All of a sudden, McKinnon isn’t an attractive option anymore.

LeSean McCoy and Jordan Howard also did not come without questions. Chris Ivory has made a new home in Buffalo, a move that screams goal line “touchdown vulture” to me and Tarik Cohen had 53 catches last season in Chicago. I ended up taking McCoy because Ivory would not steal receptions and I’m not sure what to expect from Mitchell Trubisky in year two. Like I said about A.J. McCarron earlier, if I were an opposing defensive coordinator, I’d stack the line against the Bears until Trubisky proved he could beat me. If they start losing, Cohen would likely sub in for the desperation passing downs. As the Bears place a distant fourth in their division in terms of overall talent, this may happen quite often.

As I sit here writing and editing this piece, I’m seriously considering taking a running back with each of my first two picks in my actual drafts. The NFL has become so pass happy of late, I feel confident I can find receivers and quarterbacks in rounds three through five. I have significantly less faith finding a running back in those rounds. I’d rather grab backs with the least amount of question marks. That list that is dwindling every year.

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