Running QBs slipped in 2016 -- should fantasy owners be concerned?
(“Today’s Crazy Fantasy Stat” is an occasional offseason offering from PFF that highlights something that catches our eye and aids in our preparation for the 2017 fantasy season.)
You can quibble with the exact start, but for my money, the age of the running quarterback began with Michael Vick. For the sake of simplicity, then, let’s say 2000, just because that makes looking at charts easier. Of the top 10 seasons in quarterback rushing yards all time, eight have come since 2000. Of the top 20, 15 have been since 2000. Expand down to the top 30, 40, and it’s a similar ratio. Basically, the top quarterback rushing seasons of all time are 2000 or later, or Randall Cunningham, and there isn’t much else.
Last year, though, running quarterbacks had one of their worst seasons in awhile. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson put up their career-lows in rushing yards, while Alex Smith recorded his second-worst yards-per-carry mark. Tyrod Taylor led the league in QB rushing yards, with 577—the lowest league-leading total since David Garrard’s 323 led the league in 2009.
There was no off-a-cliff factor last year, to be clear. Roughly half of 2016’s top-25 fantasy quarterbacks beat the 10-year average in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and percentage of fantasy points scored on the ground. But the exceptional scorers of recent seasons saw their numbers regress. Newton has five of the top 10 QB rushing seasons of the last decade, but his 2016 season ranked 18th. Wilson has four of the top 25 seasons… and No. 72. Colin Kaepernick’s regular-playing-time seasons ranked 12th, 15th, 16th… and 25th. After a virtually uninterrupted rise in total rushing yards by the top 25 fantasy quarterbacks over the last 10 years, the group totaled 4,735 rushing yards in 2016, the lowest total since 2011.
Running quarterbacks come with a natural advantage in terms of fantasy scoring. It’s why Tim Tebow was a viable starter, and why Kaepernick was always more valuable in fantasy than he was in real football.
So, should we be scared going forward? Is the age of the running quarterback behind us? Let’s look at some of the names:
- Cam Newton scuffled mightily across the board in 2016. He put up career-worsts in total fantasy points, rushing yards, PFF grade, and basically everything else that might matter. Considering the accumulation in injuries suffered by the Carolina quarterback over the course of his career, and the news that head coach Ron Rivera wants to limit Newton’s carries in the future, you have to think his best rushing days are well behind him.
- Russell Wilson had sprains to an ankle and an MCL through the season’s first three weeks, and as a result never really got his legs going. If you assume Wilson is healthy, the Seahawks improve their offensive line (they just about have no choice), and Eddie Lacy can approximate his peak Packers self, Wilson should bounce back to viability in the running game, although the presence of Jimmy Graham in the passing game and the development of C.J. Prosise as a pass-catching running back likely combine to mean Wilson will feel the need to run less often.
- Colin Kaepernick doesn’t currently have a job in the NFL, and it’s looking increasingly like he might not get one. Even if he does, the chances he’s a starter or a guy who can really move the needle in fantasy are vanishingly slim.
- For whatever reason, Alex Smith doesn’t have the same reputation as the other guys in this space, but he has topped 400 rushing yards in two different seasons and had averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry four years in a row—more than 5.2 three years in a row—before slipping to 134 yards and 2.8 per carry last year. Considering Smith turns 33 in May and has been surrounded by rumors that he’s nearing the end of his run as a starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine he ever rebounds to what he once was as a runner.
- Aaron Rodgers bucked this trend, running for the second-most yards and the most total fantasy points of his career. All his arm skills are great, but it’s Rodgers’ legs that keep him atop the fantasy QB rankings.
- Tyrod Taylor has a questionable passing game (oft-injured Sammy Watkins and a bunch of question marks), and one of the league’s best running back/offensive line groups. He has relatively young legs despite being 28 by the time the 2017 season starts. Taylor looks like a safe bet to lead the league in QB rushing again in 2017.
- Only three quarterbacks in this year’s draft class look like there’s more than the tiniest of chances they could start in 2017: Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, and Patrick Mahomes. Trubisky, maybe the most likely starter of the three, isn’t anything resembling a running quarterback. Mahomes graded well in college as a runner, but on very limited work—he’s not going to be a runner either. Watson will carry the ball more, but he isn’t anything like the Newton/Vick/etc. mold we’ve seen.
Expecting a bounceback from Wilson and continued strong performances from Rodgers and Taylor, among others, means the age of the rushing quarterback is certainly not behind us, especially with visions of Lamar Jackson well off in the horizon. That said, the days of Newton carrying the entire position with his legs, or Tebow or Kaepernick being fringe starters despite questionable arm ability, appear to be fading.