2014 Draft Prep: 400-touch running backs
Terrell Davis had one of the best years in NFL history in 1998. He ran for 2,008 yards and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl.
But that season likely ended his career.
Davis was a dominant force in 1998, but the Broncos basically rode him into retirement. He would hang on for three more years, but his body and ability were never the same. He had too much work, and his body likely couldn't handle it any more.
Davis had 499 total touches in 1998 (392 carries and 25 catches in the regular season and 78 carries and four catches in the playoffs). He suffered a torn ACL the following year and never returned to form. He missed the majority of the 2000 season because of a stress reaction injury in his lower leg, and he only played in eight games in 2001 because of arthroscopic surgery on both knees.
"It takes a toll," Davis said in an interview with CBSSports.com in April. "Somebody said that every back has a limited amount of touches. At some point it's going to catch up to you. The question is when."
While there's no direct correlation of his injuries to his workload, the amount of time Davis touched the ball could be a reason for his demise because 400 touches in a season has been detrimental to running backs the following year. And Marshawn Lynch could be next.
We first discussed this topic in January leading up to the Super Bowl because Lynch was on the verge of 400 touches. Following the victory against the Broncos, Lynch ended with 403 total touches (301 carries and 36 catches in the regular season and 65 carries and one catch in the playoffs). Now we're concerned for his Fantasy outlook this year.
Put aside any retirement talk or contract squabbles because that will obviously lower his value anyway. But if Lynch is in training camp on time and ready to go there's still the potential for him to struggle based on what happened last year. And the Seahawks seem to be aware of that as well.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this offseason the Seahawks "are going to be running back by committee" and talked up second-year running back Christine Michael -- one of my favorite sleepers. Coach Pete Carroll also tabbed Michael as a breakout candidate.
The Seahawks aren't going away from Lynch entirely. He's still the "Chairman of the Board" of the committee, as the Seattle Times called him, and rightfully so. But the point is clear: Lynch won't be dominating the ball like he did in 2013 when he had 43.4 percent of the team's touches in the regular season.
From Seattle's perspective, it doesn't make sense to run him into the ground as they try to repeat as Super Bowl champions, especially with someone as talented as Michael on the roster, along with Robert Turbin. But if they do overwork Lynch again, there's a definite risk of injury based on the history of 400-touch running backs.
Here's what we found back in January, and the chart below sums up the research on 400-touch running backs for the past 10 years. There were 17 running backs who had 400-plus touches on 27 occasions over that span. Of those 27 times, only five -- Edgerrin James (2004), LaDainian Tomlinson (2005), James again (2005), Adrian Peterson (2009) and Ray Rice (2011) -- produced an increase in Fantasy points the following season.
The 22 other examples where a running back hit 400 touches over that span produced negative results. Two running backs -- Tiki Barber and Ricky Williams -- retired following consecutive seasons with 400 touches. And nine times a running back suffered an injury -- Arian Foster (2013), Peterson (2013), Michael Turner (2009), Steven Jackson (2007), Larry Johnson (2007), Shaun Alexander (2006), Clinton Portis (2006), Curtis Martin (2005) and Jamal Lewis (2004) -- that caused him to miss games following a 400-touch campaign. Some of those injuries could be attributed to the heavy workload the year before.
Since we're talking Fantasy here, the bottom line when it comes to Fantasy points wasn't pretty. Of the 20 times a running back played the year after getting 400 touches and saw a decline in production, 15 had their Fantasy points drop by at least 30 percent and 10 by at least 40 percent. The worst was Johnson, who went from 329 Fantasy points in 2006 – he had 475 touches, including the playoffs, which was the highest total during the past 10 years -- to 95 Fantasy points in 2007 on 188 touches in just eight games due to a foot injury.
For some recent history, Foster, Peterson and Rice all had 400 touches in 2012 and suffered in 2013. Foster, who had 460 touches over 18 games in 2012, went from 247 Fantasy points to 86 points last season on 143 touches in just eight games due to a back injury. Peterson, who had 411 touches over 17 games in 2012, went from 293 Fantasy points to 203 points last year on 308 touches over 14 games, missing two because of a groin injury.
And Rice, despite playing 15 games in 2013 -- including dealing with a hip problem -- had just 120 Fantasy points on 272 touches after scoring 206 points the year before on 410 touches through 20 games, as he helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl. Rice actually had three seasons in a row with 400 touches (414 in 2011 over 18 games for 284 Fantasy points and 411 in 2010 over 18 games for 197 points). He went up in production after his first 400-touch campaign but declined the following season, and all the work from that three-year stretch is likely catching up with him now.
Foster and Peterson are fair comparisons to make with Lynch based on their age. Foster was 26 during his 400-touch season, and Peterson was 27 when he did it in 2012. Lynch was 27 in 2013.
On the positive side for Peterson, despite his 90-point decline in Fantasy points in 2013, he still finished as the No. 8 running back, which isn't horrible -- it's just not exceptional. You just hope Lynch has that kind of season this year and not like Foster or Rice. Both fell off dramatically in their production and didn't finish in the Top 25 at running back in 2013.
On the other hand, Lynch could end up like James, who was 27 in 2003 when he had 431 touches over 16 games and finished with 214 Fantasy points. He then came back at 28 in 2004 and had 426 touches over 18 games and finished with 254 points.
And in tying this all together, you might hope that Lynch ends up like Davis, who had three consecutive seasons of 400-plus touches from 1996-98, including a whopping 531 touches in 1997 (369 carries and 42 catches in the regular season and 112 carries and eight catches in the playoffs). He improved each season with 1,848 total yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season in 1996 to 2,037 total yards and 15 touchdowns in 1997 and then 2,225 total yards and 23 touchdowns in 1998.
The problem is it's just hard for running backs to recover after doing so much heavy lifting, and Lynch actually has 1,094 touches (1,002 carries and 92 catches) over the past three seasons. Lynch, known as "Beast Mode" for his physical style of running and absorbing contact, could definitely be in for a letdown in 2014, which is frustrating given his potential.
Could Lynch improve this year? It's obviously possible. But the workload from last year coupled with the expected improvement from Michael and the contract situation should make you nervous about Lynch.
The recommendation here is draft him in the second round where there's less risk of impacting your Fantasy team in a negative way. And make sure you handcuff him with Michael. If someone else wants to draft Lynch in Round 1 then let them make that mistake because he's headed for down year after 400-plus touches in 2013.
|Year||Age||GP||Touches||Fantasy Pts.||Year||GP||Touches||Fantasy Pts.||Differential|
* - includes playoff games
** - missed games due to injury
*** - indicates player also had 400 touches in 2002 (Tomlinson had 451 touches for 300 Fantasy points ... Williams had 430 touches for 309 Fantasy points