Contributed by: David Grey
The running back position is considered the key to a successful fantasy season, and with good reason. While the typical quarterback will outscore most running backs, supply and demand makes running backs more valuable in most scoring systems. When you consider that most leagues require one starting quarterback and at least two starting running backs, you can begin to see why the runners are more valuable.
We aren’t here to sell the importance of running backs, but in short, running backs are catamount to a shot at a championship. The purpose here is to help you identify potential breakout running backs. There is no steadfast rule on predicting success, but you can never have too much information to help you on the road to a fantasy championship.
In today’s fantasy football world, a successful fantasy running back in league A isn’t necessarily successful in league B. The reason is heavily tied to scoring systems. A player that puts up huge yardage but is pulled at the goal line may not be a good option in a league that heavily favors touchdowns. And on the other end of the spectrum, a yardage heavy league doesn’t bode well for most goal line running backs that rarely put up much, if any, yardage.
Since yardage and goal line guys heavily rely on the coaching philosophy and other running backs on the roster, a yardage guy could become a touchdown vulture himself in the right situation, ala Willie Parker in 2006. Thus, we are going to require both yardage and touchdowns to be considered a breakout running back. The 1,000-yard barrier is considered a significant yardage number (In 2006, 22 running backs exceeded 1,000 yards), so we will use that as our minimum yardage number. For touchdowns, that’s a little tougher as there are too few runners that break into double digits, but we don’t want to open the floodgates by setting the number too low. Having looked at the data, seven touchdowns appears to be a happy medium (19 running backs scored seven or more times) and doesn’t flood the channels. Most fantasy owners would agree that 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns would be considered a successful fantasy season for all but the top of the line runners. In 2006, there were 11 running backs to rush for over 1,000 yards and score seven rushing touchdowns.
To have a good sample of data, we are going to look at running backs who entered the league in the last 10 seasons (1997-2006). The findings are below and they will show how many years it took for the running backs to breakout.
Joseph Addai (2006) – 1st round, 1,081 yards, seven TDs
Mike Anderson (2000) – 6th round, 1,487 yards, 15 TDs
Domanick “Davis” Williams (2003) – 4th round, 1,031 yards, eight TDs
Corey Dillon (1997) – 2nd round, 1,129 yards, 10 TDs
Robert Edwards (1998) – 1st round, 1,115 yards, nine TDs
Olandis Gary (1999) – 4th round, 1,159 yards, seven TDs
Priest Holmes (1998) – Undrafted, 1,008 yards, seven TDs
Edgerrin James (1999) – 1st round, 1,553 yards, 13 TDs
Willis McGahee (2004) – 1st round, 1,128 yards, 13 TDs
Clinton Portis (2002) – 2nd round, 1,508 yards, 15 TDs
Dominic Rhodes (2001) – Undrafted, 1,104 yards, nine TDs
Fred Taylor (1998) – 1st round, 1,223 yards, 14 TDs
Anthony Thomas (2001) – 2nd round, 1,183 yards, seven TDs
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001) – 1st round, 1,236 yards, 10 TDs
Shaun Alexander (2001) – 1st round, 1,318 yards, 14 TDs
Frank Gore (2006) – 3rd round, 1,695 yards, eight TDs
Travis Henry (2002) – 2nd round, 1,438 yards, 13 TDs
Priest Holmes (1998) – Undrafted, 1,008 yards, seven TDs
Steven Jackson (2005) – 1st round, 1,046 yards, eight TDs
Deuce McAllister (2002) – 1st round, 1,388 yards, 13 TDs
Antowain Smith (1998) – 1st round, 1,124 yards, eight TDs
Ricky Williams (2000) – 1st round, 1,000 yards, eight TDs
Ahman Green (2000) – 3rd round, 1,175 yards, 10 TDs
Larry Johnson (2005) – 1st round, 1,750 Yards, 20 TDs
Rudi Johnson (2004) – 4th round, 1,454 yards, 12 TDs
Willie Parker (2006) – Undrafted, 1,494 yards, 13 TDs
Tiki Barber (2000) – 4th year, 2nd round, 1,006 yards, eight TDs
Warrick Dunn (2000) – 4th year, 1st round, 1,133 yards, eight TDs
Thomas Jones (2005) – 6th year, 1st round, 1,335 yards, nine TDs
Lamont Jordan (2005) – 5th year, 2nd round, 1,025 yards, nine TDs
Brian Westbrook (2006) – 5th year, 3rd round, 1,217 yards, seven TDs
Since 1997, there have been 171 running backs selected in the NFL draft, 30 taken in the first round. In those 10 seasons, 30 running backs have produced a breakout season during their first three years in the league. Of those 30 breakout running backs, 14 were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Thus nearly half (47%) of the breakout running backs were former first round picks. So we should closely examine first rounders when trying to identify potential breakout running backs.
We also learn that 14 of the 30 running backs (47%) had their breakout season during their rookie campaign. So you may want to closely examine the rookie running backs each season, especially those taken in the first round.
It seems that most of the running backs start producing in their first two seasons. Many of the exceptions were either primarily backups early in their career like Larry Johnson, Rudi Johnson, and Lamont Jordan, or posted good yardage numbers, but didn’t get goal line chances such as Tiki Barber, Warrick Dunn, and Brian Westbrook. Thus, by examining the situations of the young running backs, you can make an educated guess as to who could breakout in the upcoming season.
We can apply what we learned above to the remaining running backs still waiting for their breakout season and hopefully predict who may be the next big things. With so many breakout seasons coming from rookies, we will start by examining this year’s draft class:
Michael Bush – 4th round – Bush has a good combination of size and speed and would likely have been a higher pick if not for the season ending broken leg last season. But the Raiders have a crowded backfield with Lamont Jordan and free agent signee Dominic Rhodes already in the mix. Bush could be a solid late round gamble with some decent upside.
Chris Henry – 2nd round – The Titans figured they were set at running back for the future after adding rookie LenDale White in 2005. White has struggled with his weight and doesn’t appear to possess the best work ethic, thus the Titans used another 2nd round pick on a running back. Henry isn’t the most experienced running back, with only 892 career rushing yards, but he also hasn’t taken much wear and tear. If Henry can force his way into the mix, he could be primed to breakout.
Brandon Jackson – 2nd round – The Packers sent Ahman Green packing this off-season, so the rookie Jackson will get a chance to win the Packers starting job. He will also have to contend with Vernand Morency and fellow rookie, 7th round pick DeShawn Wynn. Jackson will likely be given every opportunity to win the job, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a committee approach in Green Bay.
Marshawn Lynch – 1st round – This is the case of a rookie stepping into a good situation with little competition. There is a good chance that he could find himself starting week one. He is arguably one of the best options for this year’s rookie running backs to breakout thanks to the lack of competition he will face during training camp.
Adrian Peterson – 1st round – There was little argument that Adrian Peterson was the top rated running back in the 2007 NFL draft. But he doesn’t enter the ideal situation, as he joins a backfield with Chester Taylor, who is coming off a season of 1,216 yards and six touchdowns. It appears that a dreaded running back by committee approach is expected, which doesn’t bode well for his breakout potential.
The following running backs are entering their second season and could have potential for breakout seasons:
Reggie Bush – 1st round – When you consider Bush’s 2007 receiving numbers, you could argue that he had a breakout season in 2006. Bush has big value in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues, but when you consider his rushing, receiving, and total touchdowns, he should be a strong option, even if he doesn’t quite reach the criteria set forth in this article as a breakout back.
Maurice Drew – 2nd round – Drew burst onto the scene in 2006, just missing the breakout criteria with 941 yards and 13 TDs, not to mention some solid receiving numbers. He still has to contend with Fred Taylor, but Drew should continue to post solid numbers and merit a spot on your fantasy team.
Laurence Maroney – 1st round – The Patriots employed a running back by committee approach in 2006, with Corey Dillon leading the way. Gone is Dillon, leaving Maroney to shoulder the bulk of the load, assuming his injured shoulder holds up. Maroney rushed for 745 yards and six TDs in 2006, with Dillon adding 812 yards and 13 TDs. With the extended carries, Maroney should have no issues breaking both the 1,000-yard barrier and double digit touchdown barrier (Dillon rushed for 12, 12, and 13 in his three seasons).
Jerious Norwood – 3rd round – Norwood showed his potential last season spelling veteran Warrick Dunn. Dunn isn’t a spring chicken anymore, now that he has turned 32. Though Dunn hasn’t been over-used, and isn’t quite as likely to breakdown yet. You can expect the Falcons to continue to employ the two-headed running back, so it may be tough for Norwood to breakout this season.
Leon Washington – 4th round – Washington showed some serious potential last season and you can expect his continued involvement in the offense. The Jets added Thomas Jones to the mix and he is expected to be the starting running back for the J-E-T-S. This will likely delegate Washington to the change of pace back, so he will be hard pressed to breakout in 2007.
LenDale White – 2nd round – The Titans running back job was White’s for the taking, but his iffy workout and affinity for food have forced the Titans to bring in competition. If White can get his weight under control and step up his work ethic, he could find himself as the Titans starting running back with a chance to be one of this season’s breakout running backs.
DeAngelo Williams – 1st round – The Panthers also employed a running back by committee approach in 2006, but Williams showed that he is capable of handling the load. With the injury history of DeShaun Foster, Williams could be the main man sooner than later. But, barring injury, we will likely continue to see the Panthers utilize both backs, though the younger Williams’ touches should continue to grow.
The following running backs are entering their third season and could have potential for breakout seasons:
Marion Barber – 4th round – Like the earlier mentioned Maurice Jones-Drew, Barber is already coming off a big 2006 season and should continue to be a strong option for most fantasy leagues. The changing of the coaching guard could open the door for more involvement from Barber and less from Julius Jones. And though you could argue that the opposite could happen as well, Barber’s 2006 numbers make it tough to believe that he would lose touches, so expect Barber to take the next step.
Cedric Benson – 1st round – Benson has been up and down during his career, but the Bears were satisfied enough with him to allow Thomas Jones to get away this off-season. This opens the door for Benson to be the starter and, considering the Bears offensive system, he should have a strong chance to breakout this season.
Ronnie Brown – 1st round – Brown has been hyped up big time during his short career, but has yet to live up to the hype. He has little competition to worry about and he has shown plenty of potential. The coaching changes do muddy the water some, but considering the system new head coach Cam Cameron is expected to employ, this should only bode well for Brown’s breakout chances.
Brandon Jacobs – 4th round – Jacobs is a big bruiser who is coming off a pretty solid season platooning the now retired Tiki Barber. While the Giants added Reuben Droughns, Jacobs is expected to be the main option, especially inside the 10. Maybe Jacobs isn’t built to be an every down runner, but you can expect him to be given his chance to prove himself this season, so he certainly merits strong consideration as a potential breakout candidate.
Vernand Morency – 3rd round – Morency will get his chance to battle with the rookie running backs for a chance to breakout himself. Though the Packers don’t seem to show much confidence in him since they drafted not one, but two running backs. Packers are likely headed for some sort of RB by committee approach, but it wouldn’t be a major upset if Morency were the last man standing.
Carnell Williams – 1st round – After just missing the breakout criteria during his rookie campaign (1,178 yards and six TDs), expectations were high last season. Williams suffered the dreaded sophomore slump, with his yards per carry falling from 4.1 to 3.5. Williams has no true threat to his job, so he should continue to get plenty of touches and hopefully regain his rookie form. If he finds his groove, he should be another good bet as a potential breakout running back.
None of the 1st round picks from the 2005 NFL draft have yet to have a breakout season. The 2002 draft, which consisted of William Green and T.J. Duckett, was the only draft in the last ten seasons that didn’t produce a first round breakout running back within the first three seasons. Considering the situations and potential of Benson, Brown, and Williams, the odds are that at least one should emerge as a breakout running back this season.