How 2016's running back results will impact 2017 Fantasy Football drafts


Don't mistake the improvement in Fantasy point totals by guys like David Johnson , Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell as "the return of running backs." It's cool they stayed healthy and exceeded expectations, but the play of those three don't speak to the general direction of the group.

What direction was that? Believe it or not, running backs as a whole ran 201 fewer times in 2016 than in 2015. But they gained only 171 fewer yards, meaning that they ran for a smidge more yards per carry than the season prior.

The real bump, however, happened in the end zone.

Running backs ran for 360 scores in 2016, up 67 scores from last year and a seven-year high. This number was helped along by the amount of stud running backs who managed to stay healthy for most/all of the season as well as by the number of lowly run defenses that fell apart because of injuries, bad coaching, bad talent, etc. That's why running backs were more tolerable in 2016.

All data is based on CBS Sports standard scoring (one point per 10 yards rushing/receiving, six points per touchdown, non-PPR).

13.7

That's the average non-PPR Fantasy point total for the top 12 running backs in 2016, a huge increase from the 10.8 the top 12 averaged in 2015.

The number is a little out of whack, though. Five running backs averaged at least 15.0 Fantasy points per game and three in the top 12 averaged under 12.0 Fantasy points per game (one as low as 10.3 per game). This is a case where the monster seasons from Johnson, Elliott, Bell, LeSean McCoy and Melvin Gordon really did mean something as they tipped the top 12 average higher than it has been in years.

9.0

This is the average Fantasy point total for No. 2 running backs -- the guys who finished 13th to 24th in overall points. This number is also up from 2015, but barely -- just 0.9 points per game.

It's interesting that the top 12 running back average went up so much but this group didn't. The explanation is that running backs were and should continue to be top-heavy. The best guys will handle the most touches, rack up the most yardage and score the most touchdowns. The next-best guys played fewer games ( Carlos Hyde ), didn't score as many times ( Todd Gurley ) or simply weren't as good ( Jeremy Hill ).

The 200 club

Fantasy owners waited a long time for running backs to put up numbers like this. After just two rushers topped 200 Fantasy points last year, seven did in 2016 (and another had 199).

David Johnson 313 DeMarco Murray 231
Ezekiel Elliott 280 LeGarrette Blount 218
LeSean McCoy 238 Devonta Freeman 216
Le'Veon Bell 231 Melvin Gordon 199

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that of these eight backs, seven scored 10 touchdowns and six had 1,500 total yards. That's what you're looking for from an elite level Fantasy running back -- if you can't see a guy getting 1,500 total with double-digit scores, you better not take him with a top-20 pick.

Doing the most good

I could detail just how inconsistent and awful running backs were last year, but you probably already know. But I bet you don't know just how good things were for us Fantasy folks in 2016.

With the idea that 10 Fantasy points made for a successful week in non-PPR leagues, here's who was the most consistent:

Ezekiel Elliott 100.0% Jordan Howard 60.0%
David Johnson 93.8% C.J. Anderson 57.1%
Le'Veon Bell 91.7% Lamar Miller 57.1%
Melvin Gordon 83.3% Carlos Hyde 53.8%
DeMarco Murray 81.3% Latavius Murray 50.0%
LeSean McCoy 80.0% Devonta Freeman 50.0%
LeGarrette Blount 75.0% Isaiah Crowell 50.0%
Frank Gore 62.5% Doug Martin 50.0%
Tevin Coleman 61.5%

The list doesn't include running backs that played in six games or less, guys like DeAngelo Williams , Matt Jones , C.J. Prosise or Ameer Abdullah , each of whom hit the 50-percent mark of consistency.

But it's a pretty solid list, particularly compared to a dreadful 2015 in which only 11 running backs played in at least eight games and had a 50 percent-or-better success rate.

Tops in production, frequency

Is there nothing better than having a no-brainer, must-start Fantasy running back? Having two would be better, and three better still. But the pinnacle of Fantasy lineup-setting nirvana is a running back who performed well often.

Nine running backs finished in the top 12 in Fantasy points and consistency in 2016.

Ezekiel Elliott LeSean McCoy
David Johnson LeGarrette Blount
Le'Veon Bell Frank Gore
Melvin Gordon Jordan Howard
DeMarco Murray

Most of those nine guys are young and capable of coming through with positive seasons again in 2017, but capable and "guaranteed" aren't the same.

Last year's group of reliable backs was small: DeAngelo Williams, Adrian Peterson , Matt Forte , Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley. None of them repeated in 2015. And only Bell and Murray were in the high-standard categories in 2014.

So, yeah, expect turnover, though given the young backs dominating the league, maybe it won't be 100 percent turnover. It's also worth noting that a Steelers running back played well for Fantasy each of the last three years, yet another reason why Bell is worth the top pick in Fantasy drafts in 2017.

Most inconsistent in top 12

Mark Ingram and Jay Ajayi scored enough Fantasy points to finish as top 12 running backs, but they weren't consistent. Ingram hatched 10 or more points 43.8 percent of the time and Ajayi made it happen 40 percent of the time.

Mark Ingram RB / New Orleans Saints (2016 stats)
ATT: 205 YDS: 1,043 TD: 6 TAR: 58 REC: 46 REC YDS: 319 REC TD: 4

Ingram's known as a fairly reliable Fantasy running back, earning good stats in 23 of 41 games over his past three seasons. Perhaps he should have been more consistent in 2016, but Sean Payton's fumble-induced doghouse and the subsequent up-and-down distribution of carries made Ingram's season tough to handle. The contract he signed in 2015 should keep him with the Saints in 2017, and unless they add another big-time back, should make Ingram a top-40 pick come drafts this summer.

Jay Ajayi RB / Miami Dolphins (2016 stats)
ATT: 260 YDS: 1,272 TD: 8 TAR: 35 REC: 27 REC YDS: 151 REC TD: 0

Ajayi is a completely different story. Once he took over the Dolphins backfield in Week 5, he notched six games with 10-plus Fantasy points. That includes a whopping 33.3 percent of his 2016 Fantasy points in Weeks 6 and 7 when he had back-to-back 200-yard games. It's those games that propped up his year-to-date numbers.

We know Ajayi will begin 2017 as the Dolphins' lead back. We think the Dolphins offensive line will be a huge plus. We're hoping the passing game takes a step forward to further occupy opposing defenses. But above all, we're taking a leap to believe Ajayi as a reliable Fantasy rusher. He'll be a polarizing second-round draft choice.

Conclusions

The bump in touchdowns from running backs this year was nice, but if you believe in regression, you can't help but feel uneasy.

It's not like teams changed their offensive philosophies. Shoot, they ran less this year than they did last year. Efficiency rose a hair, but that touchdown jump is what saved running backs (and hurt receivers).

If we're to judge this past year as an outlier based on other recent annual returns, we could see a reduction in scoring in 2017.

Yet at the same time, the league just saw a rookie running back help lead his team to the No. 1 seed in his conference by tearing through defenses behind a stout O-line. And this is a copy-cat league. You can be sure the two teams that spend top-15 picks on Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook in April's draft will dedicate their backfields to their investments. That will help the running back talent pool a little bit.

Throw in an otherwise solid running back rookie class that will likely create some sleepers and we should be fine when it comes to collecting rushers in drafts next summer.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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