The rookie running back is a unique commodity in both real and fantasy football. If the sport of football is considered a young man's game, the tailback position is undoubtedly a key inspiration for this idiom.
Few positions in sport, if any, incur such consistent and constant physical erosion as the NFL running back. The job description is to run through and past large groups of astonishingly strong and athletic men. This means the league, and thus fantasy investors, often look to the next wave of talent at the position for replenishment of workload and production. With an eventual eye on the 2016 class at the position, let's take a look at the past decade of rookie running backs in the context of fantasy football production.
A brief history of top-flight rookie RBs
The premise that the league has continually devalued the running back position in the draft and in free agency over the past several seasons might ring true with regards to draft capital and bonus cash in free agency, yet this study revealed the fact that we've seen 19 rookie running backs tally at least 100 rushing attempts over the past two seasons combined. The past two seasons mark the biggest two-year stretch of 100-carry rookie backs over the past decade. Last year's mark of 10 such performances was a 10-year high.
From 2006 to 2013, we saw an average of 5.8 rookie backs accrue at least 100 carries. So while the sample isn't so sizable, it's interesting to consider that while the league isn't allocating draft and cash assets to the position as it once did, on-field opportunity has actually increased over recent seasons.
As a fun exercise, we compiled the top 30 fantasy seasons (ordered by standard fantasy points) since 2001. Even though Clinton Portis' rookie opus in Denver in 2002 is the high-water mark for rookies since 2001, he finished fourth at the position that season in fantasy production, while Doug Martin's 2012 netted him the highest finish (third) at the position for a rookie over the past 15 seasons.
For some context for rookie backs in the past decade, consider that 40 rookie backs since 2006 have amassed as many as 150 rushing attempts in their debut season. During the past decade, 29 professional freshmen at the position have been targeted at least 40 times in the passing phase. Just how have rookie backs translated to fantasy production?
Taking an overhead look at the league during the past decade, we've produced the production thresholds required for RB1, RB2 and RB3 seasons over the past 10 seasons. In the table below, you'll find what each tier of production in both standard and PPR leagues demands for NFL running backs (not isolated solely to rookies). It has required at least 125 standard fantasy points, for example, to finish 24th or better among running backs on average over the past 10 NFL seasons.
Let's apply these numbers to rookies at the position since the 2006 campaign.
Rare RB1 rookie seasons
Using 170 fantasy points as the threshold for producing a top-12 fantasy season using ESPN standard scoring, we find 13 rookie tailbacks since 2006 to have met this mark (rounding up Marshawn Lynch's 169 fantasy points in 2007). Using per-game production -- limiting the sample to having played at least eight games during their rookie campaign -- we find 12 backs qualify for the top-12 per-game threshold of 11.6 fantasy points per game.
In a PPR (point per reception) format, just 12 rookie backs since 2006 have produced at least 206 fantasy points (the milestone for a PPR RB1 season over the past decade), again proving generous with the inclusion of both Le'Veon Bell's and Giovani Bernard's 2013 efforts that resulted in 205 PPR points for each. Using per-game production, 13 backs since 2006 have met the requirement (14.3 FP/G) for a top-12 PPR finish.
Rookie RB2 campaigns
For the top-24 tier, we find 12 tailbacks since 2006 have scored between 125 and 170 fantasy points -- the realistic range for an RB2 finish -- over the past decade (13 met the per-game mark of 9.1 to 11.6 points per game). Adding these tiers together, we find 25 backs have produced a top-24 fantasy season at the position in standard leagues over the past decade.
In PPR formats, 10 backs over the past 10 seasons have produced RB2 results -- between 157 and 205 fantasy points -- and nine have met the per-game requirements for RB2 consideration, averaging at least 11 PPR points. This means 22 rookie backs have totaled top-24 efforts in PPR formats over the past decade, expanding to 24 using the per-game confines of the study.
Since 2006, 255 rookie running backs have appeared in at least four games during their inaugural pro season, thus we find just less than 1 percent of such rookies have produced RB2-worthy efforts over this sample.
Rookie RB3 efforts
The group understandably expands as we lower the bar for fantasy production, as 20 rookie backs have totaled between 92 and 125 standard fantasy points since 2006, the range for RB3 production. The sample grows to 24 backs when looking at point totals in PPR formats over the past decade. When it comes to per-game production, 19 rookie backs have averaged RB3 production in standard scoring formats since 2006, which expands to 20 backs using a PPR key.
Looking ahead to 2016
Last season saw the Cardinals' David Johnson and the Rams' Todd Gurley lead fantasy teams to glory, while respectable stretches from the likes of Jeremy Langford, Matt Jones, T.J. Yeldon, Buck Allen, Duke Johnson and Thomas Rawls didn't go unnoticed. With a new crop to study, identifying the top talents in this 2016 class could prove profitable come December.
Referencing the table above, we've compiled this year's rookie class with ESPN's current fantasy football projections for 2016. Based on the research above, we have Ezekiel Elliott projected for a surefire RB1 campaign in both standard and PPR formats (more on him below).
The Titans' Derrick Henry is projected within 10 percent of the RB2 tier using standard scoring, while Jordan Howard, C.J. Prosise, Kenyan Drake, Kenneth Dixon and Tyler Ervin are set to achieve or come close to RB3-worthy production this season; all of them are within 22 percent of the RB3 scoring threshold.
My personal favorites of this rookie "possible RB3" tier would be Dixon and Howard, as I find the depth charts in both Baltimore and Chicago realistically scalable. Dixon has some LeSean McCoy to his game in both negative and positive regards; in that he can get stuffed at the line with some regularity, but then again, he also flashes Shady's rare ability to induce missed tackles from opponents. Of the Ravens' trio of backs in Marc Trestman's space-friendly system, I'll take shares of Dixon. As for Howard, he's a between-the-tackles force compared to Langford's more reception-friendly skill set, so meaningful early-down work could come sooner than later for the bruising Hoosier.
The key 2016 rookie asset to evaluate is surely "Zeke," as the Cowboys' top pick is currently going fifth on average at the position and in firmly the first round overall in ESPN drafts so far this summer. Our projection for Elliott this season, powered by the ever-accurate Mike Clay, has him set for the fourth-most carries in the league, with roughly 280. Fittingly, Brett Jepsen of the team's website has Elliott projected for 280-300 carries this season.
Elliott is also projected for the 11th-most catches at the position, with 51, netting him the fourth-most projected yards from scrimmage (1,673) among all players at the position. Converting this gaudy expected workload into fantasy numbers, we're projecting Elliott for the fourth-most fantasy points at the position in both standard and PPR formats.
From Week 6 on last season, when he began to receive feature work, the Cowboys' Darren McFadden averaged 107.8 yards per game, the most in the league over the final 12 weeks of the season. The Rams' remarkable rookie, Gurley, rushed for just 17 more yards than McFadden on 10 fewer attempts last season. Which is to say, Dallas' vaunted run-blocking line helped McFadden, in his eighth season, keep pace with the league's elite talents at the position.
Nine rookie running backs have been afforded at least 250 rushing attempts since 2006, with eight of these efforts resulting in RB1 production (at least 170 standard fantasy points). Of those nine rookie workhorse campaigns, six earned at least 40 targets and 260 receiving yards. This select six averaged 210 standard and 259 PPR points -- good for RB1 production in each of the past 10 seasons -- thanks to such voluminous workloads.
Opportunity is a monumental influence for fantasy success with rookie running backs. We are banking on Elliott to join Doug Martin and Matt Forte in fantasy lore with a top-five finish at the position as a freshman thanks to such a hefty workload. Meanwhile, savvy shares of his draft peers also could pay off given the trends we've witnessed at the position over the past decade.