There's no doubt about it ... the NFL has become a passing league with quarterbacks putting up massive totals. Heck, we saw more field generals throw for 30 or more touchdowns this past season than ever before. You could have won your league with Kirk Cousins, who was undrafted in most leagues, easier than with Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. This trend of passing success has helped the value of wide receivers too, as you can see in the first of my offseason mock drafts.
The position that's taken the biggest hit though, is running back.
That's right, the same position that was once considered the most important in fantasy football now comes with the most risk. Gone are the days of superstars such as Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander and Emmitt Smith (to name a few) dominating the touches and filling the stat sheets. Now fantasy fans are forced to take chances on younger running backs with upside who might see featured roles and could make an impact. Often times, those backs flashed major potential as rookies and are heading into their second NFL seasons.
In 2015, we saw the emergence of Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Jeremy Langford, T.J. Yeldon and Thomas Rawls in their first NFL campaigns. In fact, all five of them are now considered top-50 overall picks in next season's fantasy drafts. In the case of Gurley, Johnson and Rawls, we're looking at potential top 15-20 selections. It's a lot of faith to have in players with very small sample sizes at the pro level, but fantasy owners have gladly made similar decisions with ease in recent seasons.
Unfortunately, often times those decisions have resulted in more headaches than league championships.
In an effort to better educate you, I looked back at the last 10 seasons and found the rookie runners who finished in the top 20 in fantasy points at the position. Then, I compared the numbers those runners produced as NFL sophomores. Would I find a trend? Well, I did ... and you need to know about it.
Let's start in 2005, when Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was the lone rookie runner to finish in the top 20 in fantasy points among running backs. He saw a decline of 53.5 points in his second season. Maurice Jones-Drew and Joseph Addai both ranked among the top 10 backs as rookies in 2006, while Reggie Bush ranked in the top 20. In their second pro campaigns, Jones-Drew and Bush both saw declines ... MJD finished with 57.2 fewer points and fell out of the top 10, while Bush fell out of the top 20. Addai did see an increase in his numbers, however, scoring 49 more points the following season.
As you'll see, these are a few of the exceptions in our research.
The 2008 campaign saw four rookie running backs (Matt Forte, Steve Slaton, Chris Johnson, Kevin Smith) finish in the top 20. Furthermore, Forte and Slaton both ranked in the top 10. The lone member of this quartet to improve on their rookie totals was Johnson, who blew up for 345.9 in 2008. Slaton was a massive bust while scoring 102.5 fewer points, and Smith (143.2 points) missed more than half the season due to injuries. Even Forte fell victim as an NFL sophomore, scoring 82.5 fewer points.
Over the next three seasons (2009-2011), we saw just one rookie running back (Knowshon Moreno) finish in the top 20 in points. Remember, LeSean McCoy (2009), Arian Foster (2009) and Ryan Mathews (2010) didn't break out until their second NFL season. As for Moreno, he would score 5.9 fewer points in his second season. It was a slight decline, but a decline nonetheless.
Moving forward to the last four NFL seasons, things get a lot more interesting.
The 2012 campaign saw Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson finish in the top 10 among rookie running backs. All three were touted as first-round picks the following year, and all three experienced major statistical declines. Martin missed all but six games and averaged just 9.3 points when he was on the field. Richardson saw a decline of 93.8 points. Morris finished in the top 20 as a sophomore, but he dropped 71.7 points and wasn't worth his first-round price.
The following season was a good one for rookie backs, as Eddie Lacy finished in the top 10 while Le'Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard and Zac Stacy all ranked 11-20 at the position. Lacy made good on his rookie totals, scoring 23.1 more points as a sophomore and once again finishing in the top 10. Bell exploded for 287.5 points, 115.6 more than his rookie year. Bernard did rank in the top 20 as a sophomore, but he scored 22 fewer points and failed to meet heightened expectations. Stacy was a complete disaster, scoring 110.9 fewer points after a promising rookie season.
Then there was Montee Ball, who didn't put up huge numbers as a rookie but was touted as a potential top-20 pick in his second season.
Yeah, we all know how that ended.
The final season in our research is 2014, when Jeremy Hill finished in the top 10 in fantasy points as a rookie and was the lone first-year runner to rank in the top 20. Based on his success, Hill was on the first- or second-round radar the following year. He would go on to score 155.3 points, or 28.6 fewer than he did as a rookie. Hill also rushed for 330 fewer yards.
So ... let's take a look at what we found.
Since 2005, a total of 19 rookie running backs have finished in the top 20 in fantasy points at the position. Of those backs, 13 (68 percent) saw a decline the following year. The average decline among those 13 runners was 69.6 points. Even if we eliminate Martin's 206.4-point drop off in 2013 (he missed 10 games due to injuries), the average decline is still 58.2 points. The average increase in production the other seven runners saw was 48.6 points ... but much of that uptick was the result of Johnson's (+138.1) and Bell's (+115.6) statistical explosions. In fact, three of the remaining four backs saw rises of 23.1 points or fewer. Lynch (+9.4) and Peterson (+4.6) saw increases of fewer than 10 points.
Now, let's go a step further and look at the 10 rookie runners who finished in the top 10 alone.
Of those 10 runners, three (Peterson, Addai, Lacy) saw their totals increase the following year. The average increase among the trio was 25.6 points. Among the seven decliners, the average drop was ... 91.8 points. Again, even if we remove Martin's injury-riddled 2013 campaign, the average decline is still 72.7.
Johnson started the last five games of his rookie season, averaging nearly 20 fantasy points a game. If you project that total over a full season, he would finish with 306.56 points. Keep in mind, that projection includes a 40-point performance, so that final total could be unrealistic. If he sees the average decline in fantasy points of the last 10 rookie runners to finish in the top 10, he would score 214.76 points. If we eliminate Martin's totals from the average, D.J. would score 233.86 points.
Not bad, but would you take Johnson in the first round if you knew he would score 215-235 fantasy points? Maybe, but only because the position is so weak. Heck, 18 different quarterbacks scored more fantasy points than the top-scoring running back in 2015, Devonta Freeman. Also keep in mind that based on this trend, 70 percent of the top-10 rookie runners experienced statistical declines the following season. And of the three that saw increases, the average rise was 25.6 points (or 1.6 a game).
We can do the same sort of drill with Gurley, Rawls, Langford and Yeldon, but you get the point. There are no guarantees in fantasy football, and the percentage of failure among the best rookie runners in their second NFL season is downright scary. And remember, this is coming from someone who loves the trio of Johnson, Rawls and Langford heading into 2016.
The question is ... are you willing to take a second-year back in the first round who is far more likely to be the next Slaton than the next Lacy? Or in a passing league where wideouts are putting up huge totals, does it make more sense to take a receiver and wait a round or two to go after runners who would be less of a risk the longer they're on the board?
That's one of the biggest questions fantasy fans will face in 2016.