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Top-10 RBs: The Year After

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by Terry Herlihy, Special Contributor

Published, 6/30/14

In 2014, many are projecting up to seven running backs from the 2013 top 10 to again land within the same tier, for both PPR and Standard scoring. Many of the backs selected early in redraft leagues – still a popular strategy among experts and enthusiasts – are a season removed from positional top 10 finishes. Unfortunately, it appears the past is no place to look for impending success. Supporting this notion are the rather low Retention Rates for top-10 running backs from the past 10 seasons.
 
To keep the article as concise as possible, the following charts illustrate the last five seasons of the top 10 running backs, their ranks during a particular season, and the finish for each respective back in total fantasy points the following season in both PPR and Standard scoring formats.
 
The Data

PPR
2009 Rank
2010 Rank
Standard
2009 Rank
2010 Rank
C. Johnson TEN
1
6
C. Johnson TEN
1
5
A. Peterson MIN
2
5
A. Peterson MIN
2
3
R. Rice BAL
3
7
M. Jones-Drew JAX
3
12
M. Jones-Drew JAX
4
13
R. Rice BAL
4
11
F. Gore SF
5
16
F. Gore SF
5
20
R. Williams MIA
6
41
T. Jones NYJ
6
25
S. Jackson STL
7
12
R. Williams MIA
7
38
J. Addai IND
8
46
R. Grant GB
8
123
T. Jones NYJ
9
27
S. Jackson STL
9
14
R. Grant GB
10
133
J. Addai IND
10
46

PPR
2010 Rank
2011 Rank
Standard
2010 Rank
2011 Rank
A. Foster HOU
1
3
A. Foster HOU
1
4
P. Hillis CLE
2
43
P. Hillis CLE
2
40
L. McCoy PHI
3
2
A. Peterson MIN
3
8
J. Charles KC
4
103
J. Charles KC
4
97
A. Peterson MIN
5
15
C. Johnson TEN
5
16
C. Johnson TEN
6
9
D. McFadden OAK
6
34
R. Rice BAL
7
1
R. Mendenhall PIT
7
19
D. McFadden OAK
8
35
L. McCoy PHI
8
2
M. Forte CHI
9
11
M. Turner ATL
9
6
A. Bradshaw NYG
10
19
M. Forte CHI
10
15

PPR
2011 Rank
2012 Rank
Standard
2011 Rank
2012 Rank
R. Rice BAL
1
4
R. Rice BAL
1
6
L. McCoy PHI
2
16
L. McCoy PHI
2
21
A. Foster HOU
3
3
M. Jones-Drew JAC
3
52
M. Jones-Drew JAC
4
52
A. Foster HOU
4
2
D. Sproles NO
5
13
M. Lynch SEA
5
4
M. Lynch SEA
6
5
M. Turner ATL
6
18
R. Mathews SD
7
30
R. Mathews SD
7
30
M. Turner ATL
8
21
A. Peterson MIN
8
1
C. Johnson TEN
9
12
M. Bush OAK
9
43
S. Jackson STL
10
17
D. Sproles NO
10
22

PPR
2012 Rank
2013 Rank
Standard
2012 Rank
2013 Rank
A. Peterson MIN
1
10
A. Peterson MIN
1
6
D. Martin TB
2
55
A. Foster HOU
2
44
A. Foster HOU
3
46
D. Martin TB
3
55
R. Rice BAL
4
22
M. Lynch SEA
4
4
M. Lynch SEA
5
5
A. Morris WAS
5
14
C. Spiller BUF
6
27
R. Rice BAL
6
30
A. Morris WAS
7
19
C. Spiller BUF
7
27
T. Richardson CLE
8
32
J. Charles KC
8
1
J. Charles KC
9
1
T. Richardson CLE
9
34
F. Gore SF
10
18
S. Ridley NE
10
26

PPR
2013 Rank
2014 Rank
Standard
2013 Rank
2014 Rank
J. Charles KC
1
?
J. Charles KC
1
?
M. Forte CHI
2
?
L. McCoy PHI
2
?
L. McCoy PHI
3
?
M. Forte CHI
3
?
K. Moreno DEN
4
?
M. Lynch SEA
4
?
M. Lynch SEA
5
?
K. Moreno DEN
5
?
D. Murray DAL
6
?
A. Peterson MIN
6
?
R. Bush DET
7
?
E. Lacy GB
7
?
E. Lacy GB
8
?
D. Murray DAL
8
?
C. Johnson TEN
9
?
C. Johnson TEN
9
?
A. Peterson MIN
10
?
R. Bush DET
10
?

As evidenced in the graphs very few backs in recent seasons have been able to retain their top-10 ranking regardless of the scoring format. In the past 10 years, the highest annual Retention Rate was 40% for both PPR and Standard.
 
For this study, there are two methods best used to examine the top 10 retention among running backs.
 
The first is basic retention in the top [10, 5, 3 and 1] from season to season. For instance, in 2009 Chris Johnson finished #1 in PPR. In 2010, Johnson finished #6 among running backs. Johnson maintained his top 10 ranking, but failed to retain his spot in the top 5, 3, and 1 as an individual.
 
The other way to digest the data is through examining how the top [10, 5, 3, and 1] groups specifically performed the next season to identify if one area of the top 10 was stronger than another. For instance, in 2011 Arian Foster finished as the #4 back in Standard leagues. The following season, 2012, Foster finished #2 at his position. Statistically, Foster represents a “generic” top-5 running back, if we’re taking a group approach to looking at the data. While the data stemming from the two different viewpoints is similar, there are slight differences due to the group retention offering more insight into how each ranking group faired.
 
General Retention Rates
 
Basic retention rates allow for a clear representation of the total turnover from year to year for running backs. The data was broken into five and 10-year sets in an attempt to guard against any league-wide trends that may impact rushing totals.
 
PPR Overview
 
Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
32.0%
28.0%
20.0%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
37.0%
30.0%
23.3%
0.00%
 
Standard Overview
 
Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
32.0%
28.0%
13.3%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
32.0%
24.0%
26.7%
20.0%
 
There is no refuting the numbers. Over the last 10 years, a very low percentage of top-10 running backs repeats the feat the next year (around one-third). And not surprisingly, that rate drops as the rankings become more elite, to the point at which only one of the top 5 and one of the top 3 has a legitimate chance to maintain or better his ranking. Finishing as the top fantasy back almost ensures a drop-off the next season (again, not surprisingly).
 
PPR: Specific Ranking Future Performance
 
Interpreting the statistics through the scope of a ranking group allows for a better understanding on what to expect. What does history tell us to expect from elite fantasy RBs in the season to follow?
 
Previous season’s #1 remains in the…
 
PPR Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
80.0%
40.0%
20.0%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
70.0%
40.0%
30.0%
0.00%
 
It is a fairly safe bet to assume last year’s top running back, Jamaal Charles, will remain in the top 10 at the end of 2014. But, to assume he’s a guaranteed top-5 finish is risky. It may be hard to grasp in early summer, but history does not lie.
 
Previous season’s top-3 remain in the…
 
PPR Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
53.3%
33.3%
20.0%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
56.7%
33.3%
23.3%
0.00%
 
The 30 runners in the 10-year sample do not represent a fluke. The stats suggest that LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, ormaybe both, will not finish inside 2014’s top 10.
 
Previous season’s top-5 remain in the…
 
PPR Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
48.0%
28.0%
12.0%
0%
Past 10 Years
46.0%
30.0%
18.0%
6.00%
 
The trend should be apparent at this point. Retention is not easy – the data suggests only one of 2013’s top-5 backs will remain there in 2014.
 
Previous season’s top-10 remain in the…
 
PPR Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
32.0%
22.0%
10.0%
4.00%
Past 10 Years
37.0%
22.0%
14.0%
5.00%
 
This is probably the big one, and the point of the article. If you’re a glass-half-full guy, you should only expect four of 2013’s top-10 RBs to repeat in the top 10. If you’re a half-empty person, expect 3. That’s what history tells us.
 
But let’s take this subgroup a step further. Taking away the top-5 runners and focusing solely on the 50 backs that ranked #6 through #10 over the last 10 years, we find that only 18% of those backs remained in the top-10 the next year. Not surprisingly, it’s harder for backs in the lower half of the top-10 to repeat their performance – speaking in generalities, those players are typically less “elite” in terms of skill level than the top-5 backs.
 
Standard Scoring: Specific Ranking Future Performance
 
Previous season’s #1 remains in the…
 
Standard Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
80.0%
40.0%
0.00%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
70.0%
40.0%
20.0%
20.0%
 
LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander were the only running backs to repeat as the top back in standard leagues. Outside of them, a majority of the very talented backs that finished atop the position usually landed between #5 and #10 – certainly acceptable but less than ideal for a player who is likely a consensus top-3 pick.
 
Previous season’s top-3 remain in the…
 
Standard Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
40.0%
26.7%
13.3%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
50.0%
36.7%
26.7%
6.67%
 
Much like PPR, the Standard rankings for top-3 running backs the following season offers a low-percentage return. Historically, half will remain in the top-10, with the percentages dropping as one climbs up the ranks.
 
Previous season’s top-5 remain in the…
 
Standard Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
44.0%
28.0%
12.0%
0.00%
Past 10 Years
42.0%
24.0%
16.0%
6.00%
 
Over the past 10 years, on average, only one out of every top-5 finisher upholds his ranking the following year. Short of guys like Peyton Hillis and Darren Sproles in PPR, the top-5 running backs are annually recognizable names. However, sequential seasons in the top-5 are unlikely to occur. Want a positive? This seems like it bodes very well for a guy like Arian Foster in 2014.
 
Previous season’s top-10 remain in the…
 
Standard Ranking
Top 10
Top 5
Top 3
Top 1
Past 5 Years
32.0%
32.0%
10.0%
4.00%
Past 10 Years
32.0%
17.0%
12.0%
6.00%
 
Similar to the exercise done above with PPR data, if the top-5 backs are taken out of consideration and focus shifts to the 50 running backs that ranked #6 through #10 over the past 10 years, a low retention rate of 22% is uncovered. It is even harder for the back half of the top 10 to resurface the following season.
 
However, it is important to note Adrian Peterson (2011) and Jamaal Charles (2012) came from the back half of the top 10 and went on to finish the following season the best running backs in fantasy. But at 32%, the odds are ominous for the majority of the 2013 top-10 runners.
 
Last Season’s Top 10
 
The numbers above suggest we can’t just mindlessly expect repeat top-10 performances from any RBs, including elite ones. Over the past 10 seasons, the highest percentage of top-10 retention of running backs from one season to the next was 40%, in both PPR and Standard. With this in mind, the following four running backs stand the best chance to remain in the top 10 at the end of 2014.
 
·       Jamaal Charles remains the centerpiece of Andy Reid’s offense and will catch enough balls to make up for an expected decline in touchdowns. With an 80% retention rate for the previous season’s #1 runner, Charles is one of the safest bets on the board to stay in the top 10, even if it is likely he falls out of the top spot.
 
·       LeSean McCoy is a logical choice as one of the top three running backs from the previous season. Historically, he holds a 56% chance to remain in the top 10. It made sense to add McCoy to this list, as he has fewer red flags heading into 2014 than Matt Forte. McCoy will be only 25, and is the focal point of Chip Kelly’s high-volume offense. It wouldn’t be a shock to see McCoy post some high-volume TD totals.
 
·       DeMarco Murray is the Cowboys only proven option at running back, and he should handle every major role for them unless Lance Dunbar steps up. Murray’s true feature role and diverse skill set make him an appealing choice to stay in the top 10 in 2014. He has an honest shot at finishing the season as the top ranked back in PPR… provided he can stay healthy for the first time in his career.
 
·       Adrian Peterson has only missed one PPR top-10 ranking in his first seven seasons, and he has not missed a Standard top-10. Peterson is a generational talent and safe bet to make the top 10 again. To sweeten the deal, Peterson now has Norv Turner calling plays for the Vikings. Turner’s offensive mind has been responsible for LaDainian Tomlinson’s, Ryan Mathews’, and Trent Richardson’s highest statistical outputs in a single season.
 
·       On the downside… at least 60% of 2013’s PPR and Standard top 10 backs will fail to land inside the top 10. Similar to the past 10 years, some great running backs will fail to meet expectations. Which backs seem to have the highest risk factors?
 
·       Matt Forte is part of a juggernaut Bears offense. But he will be 28 when the season begins, has Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett to compete with for touches, and rookie Ka’Deem Carey has the ability to negatively impact Forte’s numbers. I do like Forte, but prefer Charles and McCoy. Statistically, it’s likely one of the three misses out, and Forte seems to have more risk involved.
 
·       Knowshon Moreno has been in the news of late for showing up overweight to Miami’s OTAs, losing first team reps to Lamar Miller, and now requiring a knee scope. No, it was not the best way to start off in a new offense. But even if Moreno was totally healthy and ready to go – there’s the whole leaving Peyton Manning part. It’d be shocking if Moreno repeats in the top 10.
 
·       Marshawn Lynch is looking to become the third running back in the last 10 seasons to remain in the top 10 for more than three consecutive seasons – LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson have been the only runners able to accomplish this feat. Lynch probably isn’t on either’s talent level, and he also has floated talk of retirement, and/or wanting a new contract. Smokescreen or not, this is discouraging when considering retention within the top 10 is so thin. Further muddying the waters around Lynch is Seattle’s endorsement of talented second-year back Christine Michael. Assuming Michael receives more playing time in 2014, and he probably should, Lynch stands to see a loss around 15-20% of his workload. Even if we’re conservative and he only loses 10% of his workload (which would be a mere 34 touches, going by last year’s numbers), this can be detrimental in both PPR and Standard scoring leagues to a back like Lynch. One more red flag: Seattle has appeared in the playoffs three of the last four years and has played in a combined seven playoff games, which amounted to an extra 129 touches for Marshawn. The pile of red flags associated with Lynch is becoming too large to confidently endorse a top-10 finish in any fantasy scoring system.
 
·       Reggie Bush will enter the 2014 season at 29. In a supplementary role and starter when Bush was injured last year, Joique Bell proved more than capable at both carrying and catching the ball. A 50/50 Bush/Bell split in 2014 could be the philosophy for Detroit, which welcomes new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi from the Saints. New Orleans has been notorious for spreading the wealth among its backfield in recent years. Look for the Loins to do the same with Bush, Bell, Theo Riddick, and potentially Mikel Leshoure.
 
·       Eddie Lacy proved to be a versatile and productive beast in his rookie season. He clearly has talent, and his opportunity is excellent. But the history for second-year running backs coming off strong rookie years isn’t great. Everything else lines up well for Lacy, which still makes him appealing early in drafts, but if he finishes in the top 10 again in 2014, he’d be bucking two trends.
 
·       Chris Johnson joins a Jets club that has found itself in a good number of low-scoring battles under Rex Ryan. While New York ostensibly improved its offense this off-season, the Jets also have power back Chris Ivory on the roster, and he figures to get most of the goal-line work instead of Johnson. Low TD totals and a lower volume of touches will probably prevent Johnson from another top-10 season in all scoring formats.
 
Conclusion
 
It’s uncomfortable to challenge what has been accepted as gospel. Indeed, this happens in fantasy football too: unless we’re talking 2-QB leagues, “running backs early and often” has been the accepted roster-building method since fantasy has existed. And if you hit on your RBs early, you’re going to have a good fantasy campaign.
 
That said, too much of what is projected for upcoming seasons, 2014 included, is based on the past. These numbers from the last decade suggest we should go against the grain to avoid mediocrity. What does that mean? Take calculated chances and look to select “cheaper” running backs on the outside of last season’s top 10, like Arian Foster or Montee Ball, over a name that implies “safety” based solely off of last season’s numbers. Taking this approach may also allow us to target surer-bet wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant or even major TE difference-makers like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas.
 
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