The NFL has become a passing league, there's no doubt about it. Quarterbacks are putting up ridiculously gaudy totals, breaking long-standing NFL records and staking their claim to the top position in fantasy football. But if you're like me, you still have a soft spot for the running backs. You miss the days of Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Davis and Shaun Alexander.
You also get absolutely giddy when a few young runners come along and make an instant impact.
That's what happened in 2012, when the trio of Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson all finished in the top 10 in fantasy points among running backs in their rookie campaigns. I admit to being a fan of all three heading into last season, none more than Richardson. Unfortunately, something happened on the way to running backs heaven ... all three of them went backwards in the stat sheets.
Martin missed most of the season with an injured shoulder, and his numbers didn't exactly jump out of the box scores when he was on the field. Richardson started slowly in Cleveland, was later traded to the Indianapolis Colts and went on to run like he had cement in his pads. Morris wasn't as bad, but he still saw declines across the board.
This got me to wondering ... were the failures of this trio circumstantial, or is this a trend that's been buried in the fantasy football graveyard and needs to be exhumed?
Let's start digging.
From 2008-2012, a total of 19 rookie running backs saw at least 150 carries. That will serve as our baseline to determine who is eligible for this research piece. Now, let's break down the backs starting with their rookie campaigns and how their numbers increased or declined as NFL sophomores. I can promise you this ... these totals are not for the faint of heart.
Matt Forte had 316 carries, scored 244 fantasy points (16 games) and became one of the top runners in fantasy land as a rookie. He started all 16 games in his sophomore campaign, but his rushing attempts, receptions, yards, touchdowns and fantasy points all declined. ... Steve Slaton was a huge sleeper, posting 168 carries, 50 catches, over 1,600 scrimmage yards and 10 total touchdowns. He saw his numbers drop across the board the following season, missing five games while also battling a sudden case of fumbilitis. He never made a major impact in fantasy football again.
Chris Johnson had a nice rookie season with over 1,500 scrimmage yards and 10 total scores, but he was even better in 2009 with 2,006 rushing yards and 342.90 fantasy points as the league's top runner. CJ2K had the biggest increase in fantasy points from his first to second season since 2008. ... Kevin Smith had 238 carries, 39 receptions, over 1,200 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, but he missed three games the following year and experienced a 30-point decline in standard leagues. Injuries would hinder him for most of his NFL career. ... Jonathan Stewart had a solid rookie campaign with 836 rushing yards and 10 scores. He was even better in 2009, seeing upticks in carries, receptions, scrimmage yards, total touchdowns and fantasy points. That was due in large part to the absence of DeAngelo Williams, who missed time due to injuries.
Knowshon Moreno was the top-scoring rookie running back in 2009, posting 247 carries with 947 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns. Had he not missed three games the following season, the Georgia product would have bettered his rookie totals almost across the board. Instead, he finished with a 2.90-point decline. ... Remember Beanie Wells? He had all the talent to become a fantasy starter, and he showed it as a rookie with 176 carries, close to 950 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. Not bad when you consider he split time with Tim Hightower. Injuries were partially to blame for his sophomore slump, as Wells missed three games and experienced a near 60-point decline.
LeSean McCoy might have been third in fantasy points among rookie runners in 2009, but he's become the biggest star. He no longer shared the backfield with Brian Westbrook in his second pro season in Philadelphia, which allowed him the chance to shine in the stat sheets. He did just that, recording personal bests at the time. McCoy, a top-five pick in all 2014 drafts, has now finished second in fantasy points among runners in two of the last three seasons.
Jahvid Best showed a whole lot of potential as a rookie, posting 58 catches, over 1,000 scrimmage yards and six total touchdowns. Unfortunately, he missed all but six games the following season and had to retire after just 22 NFL contests due to concussion issues. ... LeGarrette Blount was an undrafted rookie out of Oregon who emerged past Cadillac Williams as the best fantasy runner in Tampa Bay in 2010. In fact, he posted 1,007 yards and averaged a solid five yards per attempt despite playing in just 13 games. Blount experienced a slight decline in production the following season, though, and became irrelevant during the rest of his time with the Buccaneers. He's now a backup to Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh.
As much criticism as Ryan Mathews has received from fantasy fans, he's one of the few backs to produce better numbers as an NFL sophomore. Despite missing two games, he rushed for 1,091 yards, caught 50 passes and found the end zone six times. That equated into a near 70-point increase in fantasy production compared to his rookie totals. Mathews will enter the 2014 campaign as a legitimate No. 2 fantasy runner.
Ben Tate was drafted in 2010, but injuries cost him his entire rookie campaign. His first season of action came in 2011, when he rushed for 942 yards and four touchdowns despite being second on the depth chart in Houston behind Arian Foster. He saw close to an 80-point decline the following year, as Tate missed five games and was all but irrelevant behind Foster. Now in Cleveland and with limited wear and tear on his body, he figures to be a popular breakout candidate in 2014. ... Roy Helu was a nice sleeper as a rookie, recording 49 receptions and over 1,000 scrimmage yards while sharing the backfield work with Hightower. Unfortunately, Helu lost his starting job to Morris the following year and has been mostly an afterthought since.
Daniel Thomas was also considered a viable sleeper as a rookie, but he couldn't beat out Reggie Bush for a starting role in camp. While he still recorded over 150 carries in his first season, his impact in the stat sheets has been unimpressive. Thomas is no lock to even make the Dolphins roster next season.
The 2012 season saw three rookie runners finish in the top 10 in fantasy points at the position. Martin was the leader of the trio, posting 319 carries, over 1,900 scrimmage yards and 12 scores. He saw a huge decline in 2013, though, as an injured shoulder cost him 10 games. While he is a nice bounce-back candidate for next season, it's worth noting that Martin averaged 9.4 fantasy points in his six starts in 2013. Projected over a full campaign, he would have finished with 112.74 fewer fantasy points than his rookie total. ... Morris was a monster sleeper as a sixth-rounder out of Florida Atlantic, rushing 335 times for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. He did see a decline as an NFL sophomore, but Morris didn't fall off a cliff like Helu. He's still a RB2 in fantasy land.
Richardson grabbed the top spot in Cleveland as a rookie, finishing with 51 catches, 1,317 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns in 2012. He failed to meet heightened expectations last season, though, and was all but unstartable while in Indianapolis. Richardson's decline in fantasy production was almost 100 points. ... Vick Ballard, now a teammate of Richardson, missed all but one game in 2013 after suffering a serious knee ailment. He'll be back in time for training camp, though, and will battle Ahmad Bradshaw for the right to back up Richardson.
This data does not look good on the surface, as 15 of the 19 rookie runners who saw 150-plus carries in our timeframe experienced statistical declines. To be fair, though, four of those players experienced a decrease of 32.4 fantasy points or fewer. That isn't going to kill your fantasy team. Furthermore, you can blame injuries for two of the four runners (Martin, Ballard) who experienced a decline of 100-plus fantasy points. Of the 19 runners, then, you can argue that just four of them (Slaton, Forte, Helu, Richardson) were what we would consider enormous "busts."
This topic is relevant heading into the 2014 campaign, as four rookie running backs with 150-plus carries last season (Bell, Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy, Zac Stacy) will come with either first- or second-round price tags. Two more 2013 rookie backs, Montee Ball (120 carries) and Andre Ellington (118 carries), will also be ranked among the top 15-20 runners in fantasy land.
What are the warning signs (if any) with these young athletes?
Well, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to predict that Ball will post far better numbers than he did as a rookie. That's because Moreno is no longer in Denver and Peyton Manning keeps defenses honest. As long as he holds on to the football and performs well as a pass protector, Ball could post top-10 numbers. Ellington's arrow is also pointing upward, as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said at the NFL Scouting Combine that he wants to build Arizona's offense around him. The Clemson product is also the unquestioned top runner after the retirement of Rashard Mendenhall.
Lacy will benefit from a full season with Aaron Rodgers under center. Remember, the quarterback missed seven starts in 2013 due to injuries. The one thing that could push Lacy the wrong way is injuries, but that threat is not large enough to downgrade him. Bernard will continue to share some of the backfield work in Cincinnati with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but I'm expecting him to see an increase in rushing attempts. There's a lot to like with this athlete, including his versatile skill set and playmaking ability. Bernard also isn't going to cost owners more than a second- or third-round pick, making him less of a risk.
If I had concern with any of the five sophomore runners, it would be Bell and Stacy.
That concern has less to do with their talents and more to do with other factors. Neither Bell (3.5 YPC) nor Stacy (3.9 YPC) posted strong yard-per-carry averages as rookies, which could be a red flag. You also have to consider the addition of Blount in Pittsburgh, as he could take some of the goal-line work from Bell. Stacy should benefit from the return of Sam Bradford, but can he continue to handle a massive workload? In his final two seasons at Vanderbilt, he averaged 16.8 touches per contest.
Do the math ... that's 368 touches over a full 16 games. That total would have led all NFL running backs in 2013. While we as fantasy owners covet runners in a featured role, such a role also increases the risk of injuries for players who aren't used to the physical punishment. You might consider that a warning for Stacy, especially if he costs a first- or second-round selection.
Alright, so what have we learned from looking at all of these numbers?
Well, we can analyze statistics until we're blue in the face and still fail to predict the future of these five runners. Who saw Moreno and Fred Jackson both finishing as top-10 fantasy backs last season? Not me, and not most. But by checking out data and trends, we can assign certain intangibles to players that go beyond pure stats ... that's what we've done here. So when you're drafting Ball, Bell, Bernard, Ellington or Lacy next season, do it with the knowledge that they're all going to come with some level of risk.
If that's a risk you're not willing to take, well, there's no penalty for passing on them in favor of players with longer track records.