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Way back in 1977, the final year in which NFL teams played a 14-game schedule, seven different running backs handled at least 300 touches. Lydell Mitchell of the Baltimore Colts led the league with 372, averaging 26.6 per game.
In 2021, the first year in which teams played a 17-game regular season, only four running backs reached 300 touches, led by Najee Harris at 381 (22.4 per week).
During the intervening years, we collectively witnessed — and eventually developed fantasy strategies in response to — something like a golden age of high-volume running backs. Between 1994 and 2007, 10 or more NFL players topped 300 touches each year, reaching a peak of 19 in 2000. (Nineteen! There haven't been 19 individual 300-touch seasons over the past three years combined.)
Back in the day, when you and all your league-mates opened your drafts with a pair of running backs in the first two rounds, followed by another pair in rounds 3-5, you weren't necessarily making some colossal mistake. Rather, you were making a reasonable choice given the availability and importance of every-down backs.
And then, of course, our dissatisfaction with RB-heavy drafting led to the increased popularity of PPR scoring and its various horrors, as we've previously discussed. That was unfortunate. However, today's purpose isn't to revisit old arguments about ridiculous scoring setups. Instead, our simple goal is to reach those of you who are still — despite all the available data and multi-year trends — firmly dedicated to RB hoarding in your drafts, regardless of format. It's always been a bad approach in full-PPR; it's become almost indefensible in standard-scoring leagues as well.
Of the 51 players who eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season, 26 of them were actually non-running backs. Jonathan Taylor may have led the NFL in total yards (2,171), but the guys who finished second, third, fifth, seventh and ninth were all wide receivers. Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews finished 12th.
We are simply no longer managing our fantasy teams at a time when RBs dominate the yardage leaderboard.
Running backs aren't the end-all, be-all anymore
If you've been a football fan since the prime years of Lydell Mitchell, then you've been around long enough to see the league's run-pass ratio flip dramatically. Back in '77, an average team attempted just 25.0 passes per game and ran the ball 37.4 times. Last season, NFL teams put the ball in the air 34.4 times per game while averaging 26.6 rush attempts. The final year in which carries outnumbered passes league-wide was 1983 — which also happened to be the season in which John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were drafted.
Only three teams finished with more rush attempts than passes last year: Tennessee, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Barring some unimaginable shift in offensive philosophy across the league, we are never going back to run-heavy offense. In fact, we're probably never going back to what many people think of as run-pass balance. As Mike Leach once astutely observed, "There's nothing balanced about 50 percent run and 50 percent pass, because that's 50 percent stupid." And, clearly, there's nothing particularly balanced about an offensive system designed to feed the ball to a single player 300-plus times.
If absolutely everything went according to the preseason script for every franchise in 2022 — no injuries, no suspensions, no disappointments — how many teams would even produce a 300-touch back? The full list probably looks something like this:
Indianapolis Colts, Jonathan Taylor
Minnesota Vikings, Dalvin Cook
Carolina Panthers, Christian McCaffrey
Tennessee Titans, Derrick Henry
Pittsburgh Steelers, Najee Harris
Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Mixon
New Orleans Saints, Alvin Kamara
New York Giants, Saquon Barkley
Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott
Chicago Bears, David Montgomery
Los Angeles Rams, Cam Akers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Leonard Fournette
We're being generous with a few of those names, too.
Austin Ekeler just missed the cut, because he was shy of the necessary pace last season in a year in which everything went as well as anyone could have expected. Nick Chubb continues to have a Kareem Hunt problem. Josh Jacobs and Antonio Gibson are expected to find themselves in backfield committees. If either Javonte Williams or Melvin Gordon were to suffer an injury in Denver, then the other guy would be a strong candidate for a huge workload. But, again, we're thinking of best-case scenarios for each team.
So we're looking at no more than a dozen backs who could possibly have shots at full, featured workloads, assuming no health or discipline complications. It should go without saying, however, that there are definitely injuries and other issues ahead for several of these players. Kamara could be facing a suspension following his arrest in February. The only guys on the above list who didn't miss a game last year were Taylor, Harris and Zeke (who was widely viewed as a disappointment, a player in decline). Three of the players above — Henry, McCaffrey and Akers — appeared in less than half of their team's games.
The most likely outcome, once again, is that we're going to see no more than 4-6 running backs reach a workload level that used to seem thoroughly unspectacular. Fred Taylor handled 300 or more touches in four of his first six pro seasons — with a high of 393 in 2003 — and people referred to him as "Fragile Fred." (Easily the most disrespectful and unwarranted nickname of the era. Taylor was phenomenal.)
In the current era, if you're still chasing running backs with every early draft pick, then you're ignoring some very basic and obvious changes in the game.
Your odds of landing a high-volume every-down back with any pick in any round have never been worse.