Career Touch Data and RB1 Production
For running backs much is made about crossing the threshold of 30. NFL analysts and fantasy players often mark it as a death stamp for a runner. While this often may be the case, because being older can equate to years of taking a heavy pounding, but it is more important to examine the total number of career touches (rushing attempts and receptions) a running back has had, rather than just their age. My guess is most fantasy players often use age, because it is easier to access than career touches.
In this piece I will not only provide career touch data for this year’s projected top 32 running backs, but also historical data on the typical career touches a running back has had prior to their RB1 production. Because PFF’s signature stats provide seven years of historical fantasy data, the sample size will be RB1’s over the past seven seasons, meaning 84 total running backs were examined.
The chart below details how many touches a player has had prior to RB1 production, breaking it into ranges of 300 carries. I used percentages instead of the absolute number to allow for better application of the data when examining this year’s running backs.
As you can see and probably would expect, the chart slopes downward with a slight pop in the 1201 – 1500 total career touch range. What surprised me most was the significant amount of running backs that produced RB1 numbers prior to not having 300 NFL touches. A total of 29 percent of RB1’s over the last seven fantasy seasons have not eclipsed 300 total rushing attempts and catches prior to their RB1 season. Of this group, 10 percent (eight total) had zero touches, which means on average there has been one rookie running back per year that cracks RB1 territory.
It’s also compelling to see how only five percent of running backs had over 2100 total career touches before their RB1 production. This is particularly interesting when one examines some of the highest ranked running backs heading into the 2015 season and their total number of career touches being above that 2100 threshold.
The one outlier in the 2400+ category over the past seven seasons was LaDainian Tomlinson, who most expect to be a first ballot hall of famer. When expecting RB1 production from someone with over 2400 touches the player needs to be a special talent, so asking yourself if they are a hall of fame caliber player would be wise before adding them to your team.
I also decided to graph the results based on slightly larger ranges. This allows me to apply a positive (green), neutral (yellow) and negative (red) rating to the number of career touches for the top ranked fantasy running backs heading into the 2015 fantasy season.
Before proceeding, it’s important to note the use of this data should not cause you take someone of your draft board, but rather serve as a risk management exercise, so you are fully knowledgeable of the asset you are buying. The data broken up in only three ranges is below.
The results came out very clean in these ranges. As you can see, 60 percent of the running backs who posted RB1 production over the prior seven seasons had fewer than 900 total touches prior to their RB1 season, 30 percent had 901 to 1800 total touches and a meager 10 percent had over 1800 total career touches.
Clearly, this data is strong enough that it should be monitored and fantasy players should be knowledgeable of the total career touch range the running back they plan to draft falls into. To make things easier for you, I have the total career touches of the top 32 ranked running backs based on their current ADP. I used drafts after June 1st to get a more accurate gauge of where the market stands today.
What stands out immediately is the current fantasy market’s disregard for the prior research I shared, which most likely means they haven’t been exposed to the data. This provides you with a big advantage. Of the projected RB1’s for 2015, three players (25 percent) have between 2101 – 2400 total career touches.
This is much higher than the historical four percent of RB1 production that those with 2100 – 2400 career touches typically account for. In fact, if Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte all finish in the top 12, it would match the cumulative total of running backs in the career touch range of 2100 – 2400 to end in RB1 territory over the past seven seasons.
Too much is being made of what those players have done in the past and not enough focus is on the increased chance their production could begin to fall off based on the high number of touches they have had throughout their NFL careers. Forte in particular is a player to be cautious of based on his 2014 grade of -0.6 and his trailing three year PFF grade of a meager 3.3. This paired with his career touch number of 2,260 could equate to a disappointing 2014.
Only 42 percent of the projected top 12 have had fewer than 900 career touches. This is well below the historical mark of 60 percent. The 901 – 1800 crowd is in line with history, as four players (33 percent) are thought to obtain RB1 production this season.
Two interesting case studies to look back on following the 2015 season will be Justin Forsett and Frank Gore. Despite Forsett turning 30 during the season, his tires have about as much tread as second-year players Le’Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy. Don’t let Forsett’s age scare you and feel comfortable drafting him in the second round, based on his low career touch total of 741, positive PFF grade of 11.1 in 2014 and the high likelihood he will be an every down back.
Gore has had it tough recently, facing base defenses 81 percent of the time in 2014. That will change this year in Indianapolis where the Colts faced base defenses on only 54 percent of their offensive plays in 2014. As Mike Clay has pointed out, from 2012 to 2014 a running back’s yard per carry (YPC) has gone from 4.1 when facing four defensive backs up to 4.6 YPC when facing five and 5.7 YPC when facing six.
While Gore will have a tailwind from a defensive package standpoint, his 2,784 total career touches is a major cause for concern. Although Gore has had a great NFL career, I doubt he will make it into the hall of fame and would not put him anywhere near the same category as LaDainian Tomlinson. Also, Gore’s PFF grade of -0.8 in 2014 is concerning, leading me to think it’s best to not expect RB1 production from Gore this season. RB2 production seems more likely and is priced into his current positional ranking of 15.
There are many data points for a fantasy player to consider when drafting a running back and total career touches should be one of them. All things equal, the data suggests you are much more likely to get RB1 production from running backs who have not had over 900 total touches (carries or receptions) in their NFL career. Keep this front of mind when selecting your running backs for the 2015 fantasy season.