Was 2016 Really The Year Of The Running Back?

Entering the 2016 fantasy season wide receivers were all the rage. Six wide receivers went in the first round and the top 2 (and sometimes 3) picks were all wide receivers. It made sense too, wide receivers were beginning to dominate fantasy football as the league had become more and more pass heavy. In 2010 7 teams threw the ball over 60% of the time . Fast forward to 2015 and that number doubled to 14. On top of that only one team, Buffalo, ran more than they threw the ball. The league had changed and so had the fantasy landscape.

If you played fantasy football in 2016 you likely feel like running backs had a resurgence and to a degree you’d be right. Running backs like David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and LeVeon Bell dominated fantasy leagues. Meanwhile the top wide receivers – Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones fell short of the top running backs. So is running the ball back in the NFL? Should fantasy players go back to drafting running backs early and often? Let’s delve into the numbers and see if perception is reality.

The NFL Is Still A Passing League

Though running back certainly had a resurgence in 2016 passing still dominates the NFL. In 2016, 14 teams threw the ball at least 60% of the time and not a single team ran the ball more than they threw. Dallas came the closest throwing the ball “just” 50.59% of the time.

Despite the fact that the league was pass heavier than ever running backs dominated fantasy. In standard scoring leagues running backs took the first 8 positions. Things only got a little better for wide receivers in PPR leagues as running backs took the first 3 spots and 7 of the top 12. Compare that to 2015 were wide receivers took 7 out of the top 12 in standard and 10 out of 12 in PPR.

So if teams were throwing more than ever and wide receiver dominated in 2015 what happened in 2016?

Teams Weren’t More Successful Running The Ball Either

In 2010, the leading team in terms of rushing yards per game was Kansas City with 160.9 yards. The worst team was Arizona with 86.8. The median teams (Baltimore and Dallas) each finished with 111.6. In 2016 Buffalo led the league with 164.4. Minnesota was last with 75.4 and the median team, New Orleans, had 108.2. Buffalo was an outlier this year as the second place team, Dallas, had just 149.8. Compare that to 2010 when second place Oakland had 155.9

In 2016 teams threw the ball more, ran the ball less and ran the ball less effectively. Yet we had a year that was dominated by running backs. The reason?…

The Top Running Backs Were Really, Really Good

Running back production in 2016 was skewed heavily towards the top players. David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and LeVeon Bell all AVERAGED 20+ points per game in standard scoring. In PPR leagues LeSean McCoy also averaged over 20 points per game while DeMarco Murray and Melvin Gordon averaged just under 20 per game. No wide receiver averaged over 20 in standard leagues and only Antonio Brown did so in PPR leagues.

In standard scoring leagues once you got past the top 6 running backs scoring between the two positions became very even. So unless you had one of the “elite” 6 running backs you really didn’t gain that much over someone with an “elite” wide receiver. In PPR leagues it was really only the elite 4 (Johnson, Bell, Elliott, McCoy) that outscored wide receivers on a per game basis.

Running Backs Scored More Touchdowns

In 2015 the leaders in touchdowns had just 14. Of the 4 players tied with 14 three were wide receivers (Brandon Marshall, Allen Robinson and Doug Baldwin). Out of the top 15 10 were pass catchers and only 5 were running backs. Compare that to 2016 were 3 players went over 14 (David Johnson – 20, LeGarrette Blount – 18, Ezekiel Elliott – 16) and of the top 15 only 5 were pass catchers.

Touchdowns in fantasy football are huge and can literally make or break a players week. It’s no surprise then that in a year were running backs had a resurgence they saw more touchdowns. In fact you have to go all the way back to 2012 to find another year that saw 10 running backs finish in the top 15 for touchdowns. You’d have to go back another 3 years to 2009 to see it happen again.

 2016 Was An Outlier Year For Running Backs

The data seems to point to 2016 being an outlier year for running backs. You had a handful of running backs that were really, really good and they helped skew the results. You also had teams scoring rushing touchdowns at a rate that has only been seen 3 times in the last 8 years. All signs point to running backs being drafted early and often in 2017 which should allow players who draft wide receivers early a chance at some great value.

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