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Where Have All the Elite Fantasy Football Running Backs Gone?

If you feel like your RBs have been a disappointment this season, you aren’t alone—halfbacks are in a rut, and we have the numbers to prove it. What will it take for running backs to rebound?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first rounds of fantasy football drafts are typically dominated by elite-tier running backs, and for good reason: Landing the highest-volume and most dynamic running back in any given season can be like a cheat code to winning your league. We saw that with Todd Gurley in both 2017 and 2018 (he averaged 25.6 and 26.6 PPR points per game, respectively), Christian McCaffrey in 2019 (29.5), and Alvin Kamara (25.2) and Dalvin Cook (24.1) in 2020. Last year, if you had Jonathan Taylor (21.9) on your roster, odds are you probably did pretty well.

But actually identifying who that next league-winning running back is going to be remains a crapshoot. The combination of injury volatility and the league’s waning reliance on three-down foundation backs make using your first-rounder on a running back feel like a roll of the dice. And predictably, this year’s opening-round running back group has landed plenty of 2s, 3s, and 12s (I had to google bad rolls in craps to finish this analogy).

Taylor, who came into the season as the RB1 by ADP (and first overall pick), is currently the RB22, averaging just 12.6 points per game in PPR formats. He’s also now nursing an ankle injury that will force him to miss the Colts’ game on Thursday. McCaffrey, who was the RB2 by ADP, has managed a solid if unspectacular RB5 effort on the year thus far (18.0 PPR points per game). Austin Ekeler (preseason RB3) is the RB3 in scoring through four weeks (19.5), so that’s been a neutral experience for drafters, and Derrick Henry (RB4 by ADP) ranks as the RB9 in PPR points per game (16.4), a satisfactory return for the intrepid drafters who took him in the first round. Meanwhile, the rest of the first-round running backs have looked fairly disastrous to this point: Dalvin Cook was the RB6 by ADP and currently ranks RB25 in scoring (11.4); Najee Harris was drafted as the RB5 and now ranks as the RB26 (11.3); Joe Mixon was the preseason RB7 but ranks as the RB15 through four weeks (14.3); and Alvin Kamara, who was drafted as the RB8, now ranks as the RB44 in points per game (7.5)—and he’s missed two games to a rib injury.

Even if you got lucky in the second round and picked one of Saquon Barkley (the current RB1) or Nick Chubb (the RB2), the returns haven’t been quite as league-shifting as we’ve seen in years past. It’s true that Barkley’s doing just about everything he can to put the Giants on his back and carry them to a shocking 3-1 record through the season’s first month, and he’s dominated in almost every utilization metric fantasy drafters are looking for (leading all running backs in snap rate, rushes, and tied for first in total touches).

But despite all that delicious, delicious volume, Barkley has scored a relatively underwhelming 86.0 PPR points, an average of 21.5 points per game. Barkley has scored just twice, and the result (as Dynasty League Football’s Ryan McDowell points out) is that he boasts the lowest points total for fantasy’s overall RB1 through four weeks since the 1997 season. (That’s 25 years!) For context, since 2000, the average overall RB1 has averaged 106.9 fantasy points over the first four weeks of the season. That’s a huge points deficit.

In other words, if you’ve been thinking that it feels like there aren’t very many good running backs this year—or more precisely, zero elite ones—you’re absolutely right.

So what gives? There’s no one reason why fantasy’s top-end running backs are off to such a bad start this year, but rather a confluence of factors that have contributed to a fantasy recession at the position. In fact, it’s a trend that’s been slowly developing over the past few seasons, which have seen both a downturn in the total number of super high-end running back performances and a weakening in the total output of the top few running backs in fantasy. Let’s break down a few of the most important variables causing this trend.

Teams are using running back committees.

This one is pretty obvious: Teams these days rarely rely on one running back to be the foundation of their offense. Going back to the early and mid-2000s, it was common for anywhere from 15 to 20 running backs across the league to carry the ball 250-plus times a year. These days, we typically see between four and six players cross that benchmark, sometimes fewer.

Looking just at the raw numbers across the league, we’ve seen 53 separate running backs eclipse a 35-percent snap rate in 2022, per TruMedia, the highest number through four weeks in any of the past five seasons. There’s definitely some noise in that number (injuries are a big factor, of course), but it backs up the notion that running-back-by-committee is the new standard in the NFL. It’s also a completely logical strategy for teams to take: Rotating the backfield can keep a star running back’s legs fresher as the year drags on, it can help mitigate the number of hits they’re taking, and, in theory, it can help extend their careers.

But it’s not just that teams are rotating backs and spreading out touches to their backfield players …

Teams are running less often.

Through four weeks this year, teams are averaging just 26.4 rush attempts per game—a tick lower than the league’s average in 2021 (26.6) and well off its number from 2020 (26.9). At this rate, we’re on pace to see teams average the fifth-fewest rush attempts per game in Pro Football Reference’s 91-year database (and it’s worth noting that all of the bottom-ranked seasons have come in the last 10 years).

Passing is in. Running is out. It doesn’t seem to matter much that teams are averaging an impressive 4.4 yards per carry this year, on pace to tie for the all-time best. Passing is simply more efficient, and teams have taken to replacing runs with quick throws, swing passes, and screens.

Teams are rushing for fewer touchdowns.

The downturn in total rushing volume has resulted in a downturn in rushing touchdown volume, too. Across the league, teams are averaging just 0.8 rushing TDs per game, the lowest rate since the 2017 season.

Obviously, rushing touchdowns are a big part of running back scoring in fantasy, but there seem to be fewer of them to go around—a problem that’s exacerbated by the running-back-by-committee approaches teams take and the fact that quarterbacks are vulturing those touchdowns at a seemingly growing rate. About that …

Quarterbacks and receivers are vulturing rushing opportunities.

Running backs have scored a total of 75 rushing touchdowns this season. At this time last year, that number was 80, and in the year prior, it was 100. Naturally, a downturn in total rushing scores has hurt running backs’ bottom lines in fantasy, but it’s not helping either that quarterbacks are stealing some of the goal-line opportunities, too. Through four weeks this season, quarterbacks have found paydirt on the ground 25 times, a pace that’d see them score a total of 106 rushing touchdowns on the year. Last year, in the league’s only other 17-game season, quarterbacks scored 94 rushing touchdowns.

Plus, while it’s not as impactful a variable, quarterbacks are stealing some rushing production in the form of yards, too. QBs have tallied 168 designed runs this year, up from 165 through four weeks in 2021, the 152 through four weeks in 2020, and the 115 through four weeks of 2019 (all numbers from TruMedia).

Oh, and by the way, receivers are stealing rushing production, too. Through four games this season, receivers have tallied 116 rushes for 641 yards and four touchdowns, per TruMedia. All three of those numbers are up from this time last year (81 rushes, 438 yards, 3 TDs). They’re comparable to 2020’s numbers (104 rushes, 693 yards, 4 TDs) and well higher than the first four weeks of 2019 (77 rushes, 484 yards, 3 TDs).

Teams are passing to running backs at a lower rate.

Running backs aren’t just getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the ground game, they’re also seeing a lower target rate this year than they did in 2021. Through four weeks, teams have thrown 22.1 percent of their pass completions to running backs, down from a 22.5 percent clip in 2021. It is a slightly higher rate than what we saw in 2020 (21.5 percent), but well, well below the completion rates teams gave to running backs in 2019 (23.9), 2018 (24.0), and 2017 (25.4).

Passes to running backs are less efficient.

Running backs have combined for a total of 626 catches for 4,271 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. Through four weeks last year, they’d caught 661 passes for 5,247 yards and 27 scores. In 2020, running backs had totaled 695 catches for 5,375 yards and 33 touchdowns. We’re not just seeing a downturn in total catches and total yards (and in touchdowns going from 2020 to 2022), but the efficiency of those running back receptions has dropped pretty precipitously as compared to previous years, as backs are averaging just 6.8 yards per catch this year compared to 7.9 in 2021 and 7.7 in 2020. Anecdotally, it does feel like there have been far fewer big plays from running backs in the passing game this year.

Combine all that with a general offensive downturn …

Finally, running backs are feeling the pain from a global offensive slump in 2022 thus far. Through four weeks, teams are averaging 21.9 points per game this year, a pretty massive drop from the 23.0 points per game average in 2021 and a far cry from the 24.8 points per game average in 2020. As you’d expect, total touchdowns are down to 2.45 per game on average, well below marks from 2021 (2.61) and 2020 (2.88). Passing is even down in most key categories, as quarterbacks have seemed to struggle with what feels like a blight of bad offensive lines.

In other words, it hasn’t just been a bad year for running backs, it’s been a bad year for offense overall.

So, is there any hope for fantasy running backs?

It seems clear that the three-down, extreme-workload running backs of old are going the way of the buffalo. Committees, by and large, are here to stay. Additionally, dual-threat quarterbacks are far more than just a passing fad; the athletes playing the position are getting faster and faster and teams are getting more comfortable with making designed runs part of the game plan.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll never see elite fantasy running backs again. The game is always evolving and changing, so I’m not ready to declare the imminent death of big-time fantasy running backs. It’s just that the ways in which these top-tier running backs are deployed may need to change if we’re ever going to see the types of legendary league-winning seasons that the McCaffreys, Gurleys, and Kamaras of the world have put together in the past.

For starters, the pendulum could swing back league-wide toward a more run-centric approach to offense. Teams are grappling with a preponderance of two-high defensive looks right now, schemes meant to limit explosive pass plays and force opponents to matriculate down the field. That’s where running could come back en vogue, particularly if teams can produce big plays on the ground.

Another way that running backs can get back to scoring big-time fantasy points is if teams start finding more ways to get them involved in the passing attack, particularly as vertical threats down the field. The lines continue to blur between running backs and pass catchers, and the athletes who bring explosive big-play potential both on the ground and through the air will always be in demand.

For now we wait, but the dream of running backs who score 25-plus points per game is still alive in my heart.