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Understanding the RB revival of the 2016 fantasy season

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Kurt Warner. Josh Hamilton. Tommy John. Garrison Hearst. Robert Downey Jr.

What do these people all have in common? Each experienced great career revivals. Warner played in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before the St. Louis Rams allowed him a chance to be an NFL starter. He went on to greatness at the highest level of professional football. Hamilton was the first overall pick in the 1999 Major League Baseball draft, but fell into the abyss of drugs for years before making a successful comeback to the sport. John and Hearst both suffered what were believed to be career-ending injuries, but returned to play at a high level in their respective sports.

Then there's Downey Jr., who might be the poster child for the universal definition of the word "revival." After Hollywood seemed to tab him for stardom at a young age, he spent most of the 1990s addicted to drugs and even spent time in prison. Now he's one of the highest-paid actors in the world. Instead of being remembered as Derek Lutz from "Back to School," now he's "Iron Man."

Fantasy football experienced a positional revival of its own this past season ... the revival of the running back. The NFL has become a passing league, after all, and the move to backfield committees further tainted this once great position. Runners had been beaten down like Rocky Balboa after he lost to Clubber Lang in Rocky III. But Balboa came back against all odds, and in the end he took down Lang to reclaim his title as the best in the world.

That's what running backs did this past season.

Heading into 2016, countless fantasy analysts moved away from runners as attractive options in the first five rounds ... none more than the "Zero-RB" crowd. Just two running backs (Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson) scored 200-plus fantasy points during the previous campaign. Two. It was the perfect storm of sorts, as busts and injuries were rampant throughout the position. Studs like Le'Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch went down due to injuries, and 32 fantasy-relevant backs missed at least four games, all told. Other runners like Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and Alfred Morris failed to meet statistical expectations.

On the flip side, almost everything went right at the wide receiver position in 2015. While there were a number of big-name wideouts who missed time to due to injuries, we still saw six record 200-plus points, and all six ranked in the top 30 overall players. A total of 14 wideouts scored nine touchdowns, and a combined 21 put up 1,000-plus yards. Several players recorded career seasons, a list that included Brandon Marshall, Allen Robinson, DeAndre Hopkins, Doug Baldwin, Allen Hurns, Jarvis Landry and John Brown.

What did several of those players also have in common, however?

Well, their statistical ceilings had been hit that season, and the chances that repeat performances would occur in 2016 was slim to none. There was also a failure to remember regression to the mean, which suggests that "if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement." Simply put, the running back position was going to be much better than it was in 2015 ... and the wide receiver position was destined to experience a decline.

Guess what? It happened.

Nine different running backs hit the 200-point mark this season, seven of which finished in the top 30 overall. Remember, just two hit that mark in 2015. The top 25 backs averaged 184.66 points, which was a near 23-point increase compared to the previous campaign. There were 443 rushing touchdowns scored, which was 78 more than in 2015 and the most in a season since 2008. A total of 11 backs finished with 250-plus carries, compared to five in 2015, and 12 runners reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark. There were only five backs that hit that level the year before.

Maybe the most important stat from this revival is that seven of the top 11 fantasy runners were under 25 years old at the start of the season. That list includes David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Freeman, Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi. Success wasn't limited to the younger backs, either. LeSean McCoy put up one of his best years in Buffalo's run-based offense, DeMarco Murray was a stud in Tennessee despite the addition of Derrick Henry, and LeGarrette Blount ran away with the featured role in New England.

We also saw good seasons from veterans such as Frank Gore, Latavius Murray, Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller, while others like Spencer Ware, Tevin Coleman, Bilal Powell and Rob Kelley showed some major flashes for the future. Heck, the running back revival was so big that Ty Montgomery wanted in on the action (he was switched from a wideout to a runner on Green Bay's depth chart). All right, maybe that wasn't the reason for his "turn," but you get the point.

This positional resurgence coincided with the regression of the wide receiver spot.

Out of the top 10 wideouts based on points in 2015, six finished outside of the top 25 this season. That includes Robinson (28th), A.J. Green (34th), Hopkins (36th) and Marshall (52nd). Furthermore, Robinson, Hopkins and Marshall were considered three of fantasy football's biggest busts. Just three wideouts (Mike Evans, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown) scored 200-plus fantasy points, which is the fewest since 2012. Six wideouts hit that mark in 2015. The top receiver, Evans, finished 33rd in points among all players. In 2015, the top six fantasy wideouts all finished in the top 30 overall.

The list of disappointments at the position was a lengthy one. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders floundered in their first season A.P. (after Peyton), while other big names like Alshon Jeffery, Randall Cobb, Michael Floyd, Jeremy Maclin, Hurns and John Brown suffered season-long stinkers.

Injuries were also a positional downfall among wide receivers. Keenan Allen and Eric Decker missed most of the season, while Sammy Watkins, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and Donte Moncrief were all forced to the sidelines at different points in the year.

Much like runners in 2015, wide receivers experienced the perfect storm of injuries and busts.

That's the reason, as much as I have been a fan of running backs for almost two decades of fantasy analysis, that an "evening out" of the two positions is almost a guarantee for 2017. (Remember regression to the mean?) You're not going to see a lot of analysts who don't think the top three overall picks will be (in some order) Johnson, Bell and Elliott ... all running backs. But you also won't see an abandonment of wide receivers, and I'm not just talking about the Antonio Browns, Odell Beckham Jrs. and Julio Joneses of the world.

Despite what was a forgettable season at the top of the position, a total of 49 wide receivers still scored 100-plus fantasy points in 2016. That's the most in NFL history. There were also 41 different wideouts who saw 100-plus targets, which is tied for the most in a single season since targets were tracked in 1992. The NFL is still a passing league, and that's not going to change. So while runners ruled the roost in 2016, don't expect the tide to turn completely back to backs. Wide receivers, even after what was a disastrous season, will have just as much value as their brothers in the backfield.

It's almost inevitable.


Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

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