"The more things change, the more they stay the same."
That's a famous version of a quote from French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, who said "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" or ... "the more it changes, the more it's the same thing." Additionally, if you have the same interests as me, it's also a song from the hair metal band Cinderella (millennials, go look them up). But for the purposes of this column, it's a perfect quote for the state of the running back position in fantasy football.
Back in 2015, a change appeared to be imminent in terms of the importance of runners. More and more NFL teams were switching to confusing backfield committees, while wide receivers were filling up the stat sheets. Six wideouts scored more than 300 PPR points that season, and a total of 22 receivers recorded 200-plus fantasy points. Furthermore, 16 of the top 25 PPR flex starters were wide receivers. To compare, five running backs made the top 25. Five. Based on the numbers, it seemed as if backs were going the way of the Dodo bird ... and fantasy owners were jumping off the bandwagon at a record rate.
But something happened on the way to wide receiver "heaven," as many studs at the position experienced a massive regression.
Out of the top 10 wideouts based on PPR points in 2015, four finished outside of the top 20 the following season. That included Allen Robinson (24th), DeAndre Hopkins (26th), Brandon Marshall (48th) and Eric Decker (118th). Just three wideouts (Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans) scored 300-plus PPR points in 2016, which was the fewest number to hit that mark since 2012. As I mentioned earlier, a combined six wideouts hit that mark in 2015. This trend of dwindling wide receiver success extended into this past fantasy football campaign.
Just two wideouts (Brown, Hopkins) scored 300-plus PPR points in 2017, which is tied for the fewest since 2010, and 18 reached 200 PPR points. The last time 18 or fewer wide receivers reached 200 PPR points was more than a decade ago (2005). Hopkins was the lone wideout to post 1,000-plus receiving yards and 10 or more touchdowns this past season, which is the fewest to hit those marks in a single season since 1987 (Jerry Rice). A mere 13 reached 1,000 receiving yards alone, which is the lowest total since 1993.
How long ago is that?
Well, Jurassic Park (not World) was the highest-grossing movie in the United States. Cheers, the greatest show in the history of television (at least to me), aired its series finale. Tom Brady was 16 years old and attending Junipero Serra High School. (He'll be 41 this summer.)
On the flip side, the running back position has seen a major uptick in value.
In 2016, a total of three runners scored 300-plus PPR points including David Johnson, who finished with 407.8. In addition, 11 others recorded 200-plus PPR points while 10 ranked in the top 25 among PPR flex starters. Remember, just five hit that mark in 2015. 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 previous season.
More important, seven of the top 11 fantasy runners were under 25 years old at the start of the season.
This revival became a full-on awakening this past season, as the league was flooded with even more young running backs who thrived at the next level. Rookies Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, all under 23 years old, finished in the top 10 at the position in PPR leagues. Kamara and Hunt were both in the top five. Others such as Joe Mixon, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, D'Onta Foreman, Samaje Perine and Tarik Cohen also showed flashes of potential on the gridiron.
Overall, eight of the top 10 PPR backs were age 25 or younger at the start of the 2017 season with the lone exceptions being Mark Ingram (27 years old) and LeSean McCoy (29 years old). If we look at PPR runners No. 11-20, we'll find another five that were 25 years of age or younger. That list includes Duke Johnson (age 23), Ezekiel Elliott (age 22), Devonta Freeman (age 25) and Jordan Howard (age 22) but does not include Dalvin Cook (age 22), who looked like a superstar in limited time before missing most of the season with an injured knee.
With all of these new young running backs at the disposal of NFL coaches and offensive coordinators, the NFL's rush percentage (42.4) ranked at its highest level since 2011. Not surprisingly, we also saw pass attempt totals (17,488) drop to its lowest level since 2011. NFL offenses also finished with a combined 13,753 total rushing attempts, which is the most since 2013.
Maybe the NFL isn't a passing league anymore?
Believe it or not, but the running back position is very likely to be even better and deeper in 2018, too.
Injured runners from 2017 like Johnson, Cook and Carson (to name a few) will be back at 100 percent, and Elliott won't be limited due to a suspension. Heck, he could lead the entire position in PPR points next season. Mixon (21) should see a featured role to start his sophomore campaign in Cincinnati. Derrick Henry (24) could be thrust into a much greater role in the Titans offense. Marlon Mack (21) could move up the depth chart in Indianapolis if the team decides to part ways with Frank Gore. The Jets could allow Elijah McGuire (23) more work in the expected absence of Matt Forte.
The possibilities seem endless.
Let's not forget the incoming rookie class of 2018, one that includes Penn State's Saquon Barkley. This kid's upside is so high that there's talk he could be the first running back to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since Ki-Jana Carter (another Nittany Lion) in 1995. If he lands in the right spot, Barkley could end up being a first-round selection in re-draft leagues. Then there's LSU's Derrius Guice, who has three-back potential at the next level. San Diego State's Rashaad Penny and Georgia's Sony Michel (who some compare to Kamara) are a few others on a long list of potential prospects who could further beef up the position.
When all is said and done, we could see as many as nine running backs come off the board with the top 10 overall picks in 2018 standard and PPR drafts. In fact, I wouldn't project a non-runner other than Brown and Hopkins to be worth a first-round choice. Odell Beckham Jr. could be in that mix too, but that depends on the health of his ankle. Other wideouts such as Jones, Evans, and Green, to name a few, all seem destined to fall into the second round. Furthermore, backs could make up 40-50 percent of the top 50 overall selections.
Could we be headed back to the 2000s, when fantasy owners had a plethora of superstar backs like Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis and Priest Holmes to draft? It sure looks like that's possible, with Todd Gurley, Bell, Johnson, Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Hunt and Kamara leading the charge. For a fantasy running back truther like me, it's an exciting time.
Don't miss the bandwagon, fantasy fans!
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. Do you want the most up-to-date fantasy football news, updates and analysis? Follow Michael on both Twitter @Michael_Fabiano or Facebook!