It is no secret that the running back position has changed in fantasy over the last ten years.  I remember preparing for drafts not too long ago, where I would make it a point to avoid those few situations where the dreaded running back by committee approach was likely to be employed.  Nowadays, running back by committee is the norm, and it is an easier task identifying the few instances where there is one true workhorse back.

While I was aware of the changing NFL philosophy regarding running backs, I wanted to quantify the changes.  Perhaps, by fully understanding the changes that have occurred, I would be able to make more intelligent decisions while drafting and managing my teams.  

The first step in this endeavor was to determine how many running backs were receiving the bulk of their team’s carries.  This graph is a ten- year breakdown of the number of running backs who receive a certain percentage of their team’s total carries.  All numbers highlighted in red represent values higher than the ten-year average.

This graph paints a pretty clear picture.  Fewer and fewer teams are allowing a single running back to handle the bulk of their carries.  I expected to see a steady decline in running back usage over the last six to seven years.  That is not the case.  As this graph and all subsequent graphs will show, the change occurred suddenly, after the 2006 season.  It seems as if there was a philosophical shift that occurred in the NFL that year.

I still felt that this only told part of the story.  The NFL has become a passing league recently, and running backs are a big part of that attack.  With PPR becoming the predominant format for fantasy leagues, I needed to examine what percentage of overall offensive touches running backs were handling.  Here are the results of that analysis:

Once again, it is pretty clear that teams are less likely to put the bulk of the work on one running back’s shoulders.  So we have confirmed that the trend is statistically real.  Knowing that fewer running backs were getting heavy workloads, I then needed to look at performance in a fantasy context.  Here is a chart that shows the number of running backs who reached the listed benchmarks of fantasy points scored.  Scoring rules used for this are as follows:

                1 point per reception

                .1 point per yard rushing

                .1 point per yard receiving

                6 points per rushing / receiving touchdown

There is nothing earth-shattering here.  With fewer backs getting the bulk of the carries, there will be fewer backs scoring chunks of fantasy points.  You would think, with the dispersion of carries, the number of players in the lower tiers, particularly 150 fantasy points, would increase.  That is not the case.  In order to understand this, it was necessary to take a look at total running back touches over that ten-year span.  Here is the data.  In the second row, numbers in red parenthesis are negative values.

That makes a little more sense.  Over the last five years there has been a steady decline in overall running back touches on the whole.  That explains the reduction in fantasy-relevant backs.  Let’s take a look at what these players are doing with their touches.  Here is a chart showing total fantasy points scored, the variance from the average, as well as the fantasy points scored per touch.

The difference in fantasy points per touch is negligible.  The collective pool of fresher legs is not showing a significant increase in per-touch performance.  Part of this can possibly be attributed to lesser talented running backs getting more touches.  Fresh legs can’t make up for lesser talent. 

All of the charts support a significant change that occurred after the 2006 season.  I’ve researched to find some sort of explanation, but I was unable to find anything definitive.  The closest thing to an explanation I can find is that, after the 2006 season the league instructed officials to call defensive holding more strictly.  Could it have been the transition to the pass game that reduced the number of carries?  Yes, but that does not explain the division of labor at the running back position.  It may have prompted more pass formations, utilizing the third down or back more often.  It is interesting to contemplate the potential explanations, but ultimately, I am focusing on how to improve our fantasy teams today and tomorrow and this really doesn’t factor into that.

With the reduction of overall running back touches, the reduction of the bell-cow back, and the consistency of scoring on a per-touch basis regardless of work load, it would seem safe to conclude that the running back position is losing value in the fantasy landscape.  But before we dethrone running backs as fantasy football kings and start changing our draft boards, they need to be examined in comparison with other positions.  In order to do that, we must enter the realm of Value Based Drafting.  VBD analysis takes place in the deep end of the pool and will require some explanation and many more colorful graphs.  We will dive into those waters in Part II of this article.