Over the last few years, NFL teams have started to use more and more split backfields in their offenses. This process devalues the running back position both on the field and for fantasy managers.
The most valuable running backs will be the players that can score in all three areas – rushing, receiving, and touchdowns. The players providing three-down opportunity are few and far between. Here is a look at the top 12 running backs options in each of the last four years:
Top 12 running backs fantasy point totals (2017 – 2020)
Running Backs 1 to 12
Last year, the top 12 running backs averaged 1,466 combined yards, 44.17 catches, and 12.4 touchdowns, which works out to be about 265.03 fantasy points in full-point PPR leagues or 16.57 fantasy points per week. In 2019, the top 12 running backs averaged 291.51 fantasy points.
The top four running backs averaged 329.88 fantasy points in 2020, with Alvin Kamara leading the way with 377.80 fantasy points. They averaged about 1,814 combined yards, 50 catches, and 16.25 touchdowns.
Typically, there will be about 20 to 24 running backs in each fantasy football season that will score more than 180 points in full-point PPR leagues. Last year, 21 running backs scored over 180 fantasy points compared to 23 in 2019.
As I mentioned earlier, we all play in different types of fantasy leagues. I've been playing in the fantasy football high-stakes market since 2004.
If you want to win an overall competition, you must own two elite running backs. This is now called a Robust RB strategy and how most people played the game 10 or 15 years ago. You don't necessarily have to draft them in the first two rounds, but you will need to find a difference-maker somewhere later in the draft. As drafters trend toward this Robust RB strategy, the counter-strategy will be to create point differential by drafting an elite QB or TE. Point being, you can't be married to a strategy entering a draft and you have to make micro-adjustments with each pick.
Furthermore, you don't want to avoid a position for so long that you feel forced to select it at any given point. For example, if you don't draft a TE for 10 rounds, eventually you will feel compelled to take one and in all likelihood, reach for one.
A lot of the top players in the country will tend to cheat the RB2 position. This philosophy will work the best when a fantasy owner has an early draft position in most seasons. Since if you have a top-six pick, you'll have likely secured one elite back. The problem in recent years, again, has been injuries in the RB first tier so you'll be scrambling at the position all year long.
The RB1 roster spot has impact upside again in 2021, but trust has been an issue in back-to-back seasons due to multiple elite players falling well short of expectations due to injuries.
2017 brought value back to the running position as most winning teams added Todd Gurley in the second round plus Alvin Kamara in round nine in the live drafts in Vegas. Kareem Hunt went from a value all summer to a top-five pick for fantasy owners drafted after the opening game on Thursday night vs. the Patriots.
This year, running backs are flying off the board over the first three rounds (19 drafted) in the 12-team high-stakes market despite the top players posting the lowest combined fantasy points (16.57 per game) since 2015. In comparison, the top 12 wide receivers averaged 17.80 fantasy points.
The value at running back last year came from David Montgomery (7th round – helped by a Tarik Cohen injury), James Robinson (after round 10 in most drafts), and Mike Davis (free agent – handcuff to Christian McCaffrey).
The best running backs in the league should have a higher opportunity to score fantasy points than the top wide receivers in the game as long as they are active in the running and passing game with scoring ability.
Running backs 13 to 24 point totals (2017 – 2020)
Running Backs 13 to 24
Last year, the running backs that finished 13th to 24th averaged 187.56 fantasy points in full-point PPR leagues or 11.72 fantasy points per week. These running backs averaged 1,105 combined yards, 38.5 catches, and eight touchdowns.
The top four running backs in this group averaged 198.25 fantasy points (12.39 FPPG).
If a fantasy owner waited for two second-tier running backs in 2020, there is a good chance that they failed to score 400 combined fantasy points.
In the early days of the high-stakes market, running backs were the focus of most fantasy owners over the first couple of rounds. I remember sitting at the draft table in Las Vegas in 2004. There were 26 running backs selected over the first 32 draft picks. It caught me entirely off guard as I chose Dante Culpepper and Marvin Harrison over the first two rounds from pick 14 in a 14-team league. I gained an edge at two positions, but the aggressive play by the other players by drafting running backs hurt my chances of having success because of the two holes I created by waiting at the running back position.
Sixteen years later, the game has changed a lot in the fantasy market and on the playing field in the NFL. Running backs lost value as more and more teams were throwing the ball and splitting time at running back. Therefore, it is a lot easier to find a serviceable running back in the mid-rounds. The running back position has the highest percentage of injuries each season.
The best fantasy owners like to have one stud running back with a strong receiving core. They eliminate the decision-making at the wide receiver position, which creates the widest variance of results. When they draft this way, they are looking to find a value at RB2 plus add as many possible upside passing catching backs as possible. It is challenging for many fantasy owners to understand this thought process. A running back with pass-catching ability can rack up many more points per touch.
When I look at a player with a skill set like Damien Harris of the Patriots, I see a running back that needs a volume of carries plus a touchdown to reach a playable number in most weeks. Harris has minimal upside in catches while not being a lock to score the most rushing touchdowns in New England. He'll need many rushes to gain 80-plus yards in most games or eight fantasy points (0.4 points per touch).
In comparison, a player like James White won't look sexy at the running back position, but he may average four-plus catches per week. The average running back catch in the NFL in 2020 gained 7.42 yards, which gives White about 1.74 fantasy points for each touch in the passing game. He only needs 25 percent of the touches by Harris to match a one-dimensional rusher. This theory holds more value when you look at the weak replacement value at the backend of the running pool.
This draft season running backs regained lost value on draft day, forcing more fantasy owners to jump into the running back fray with the first few picks. The depth at the wide receiver position helps justify focusing on backs early in 2021. In addition, the running back position looks challenging from round 5 to round 8.
Each running back will have an opportunity to score points in that team's offense. We don't know how many chances he really will have until the season starts. Last year the top 20 teams in the NFL rushed the ball between 350 and 472 times from the running position.
2020 Final Rushing Stats for Quarterbacks and Running Backs
A running back that plays on a team with fewer rushing attempts may get a higher percentage of his team’s offense.
I view the running back position as similar to closers in baseball. A backup running back could have no value for multiple weeks, making him almost impossible to start for a fantasy team. On the other hand, one injury or an upgrade in his opportunity could lead to an elite opportunity.
If a running back is a free agent and he earns a starting job due to an injury, he will cost you plenty of free-agent dollars to pick him up.
The best fantasy owners in the high-stakes market typically favor the wide receiver position. It's a fine line as you cannot win without solid running backs, but it is easier to fail when you select running backs early, and they underperform or have injuries.
Every team needs to own at least one frontline running back, but you must understand the dropdowns at each position to take advantage of an edge when it is presented to you.
If a running back scores 230 fantasy points while being an early second-round pick, how much better is he than a fifth-round running back that scores 190 points? Were there better options at other positions to gain an edge in the second round? Each decision is challenging in any draft every season as we deal with player’s values that can pivot on a dime.
My first cut of the 2021 NFL Rankings & Projections should give some insight into this draft season's potential values and targets.
More Fantasy Football:
- 2021 Fantasy Team Outlooks
- 2021 NFL Projections & Rankings
- Fantasy Case Against Julio Jones: Age Chasing An All-Time Great
- Fantasy Case Against Kenny Golladay: New Team Leads to Decline
Senior analyst Shawn Childs is a multi-sport, high-stakes fantasy legend with lifetime earnings in the high six-figures. He has been providing in-depth, analytical break downs for years all while helping his subscribers to countless titles and winnings across season-long & DFS. A inaugural inductee of the NFBC Hall of Fame, Shawn can teach you how to prep like a champ!