Running Backs: Seasonal Tires

Updated: April 8th 2016

Find a flag football field near you on a random Saturday or Sunday afternoon and you will find him.  The old  man seasoned veteran whose shorts are perilously high on the thigh, joints bound by braces and tape, and gray hair tufting from his head, shoulders, legs.   While the young guys jog around, chug water, and toss the ball with careless abandon to loosen up and shake off hangovers, the King beyond the Wall stretches methodically, mustering rebellious muscles, coaxing injuries into shape for one more battle, yet another raid on field no one will ever talk about.  Watch him during the game.  He will score, he will win his mismatch, he will breathe deeply of the thrill of victory (some call it panting for breath), his window is not shut.

Chase Stuart wrote an interesting post a few years back important in terms of dynasty franchise structure.  He makes a compelling case running back decline typically begins at the age of 26 (not 30), but more broadly understood, a running back that has the talent and opportunity to exceed a thousand yards in the NFL will most likely do so between the ages of  22 and 27.   For superlative talents the career production arc is shifted upwards, so a player like Adrian Peterson at 30 may not be AP at 25, but still outstrips his completion.  This insight, coupled with a common narrative in our fantasy community that players with huge workloads start losing “tread on the tires” lead many fantasy GMs to devalue older running backs entirely, or overvalue players that had fewer opportunities at a younger age.   While it is true that players that crossed 300 and 400 touch thresholds diminished in production following such seasons, other variables factor in heavily to statistical production, and the fantasy points did not diminish at a rate that dropped them below inferior players.  The tire analogy should be expanded in such a way to better help RSO GMs target running backs for the upcoming seasons.  Team changes (“patched tires”), coaching changes (“new driver”), the role in the offense/RB role specialization (“tire rotation”), all paint a more complex picture of aging running backs.

Redraft experts noted years ago the beginning of the end for over reliance on stud running backs.  For dynasty players this tight window of production and increased specialization of the running back position further diminishes the value.  Writers like Matt Goodwin offer insight why you might better allocate auction money and draft capital elsewhere.   However, RSO’s format narrows the dynasty window of commitment in a way that adds value to the running back position, because the RSO contract lengths of two and three years generally mirror the productive window of running backs.  A look at NFL contracts, regime stability, and backfield usage situations around the NFL running back picture might help you build your team accordingly.

At the risk of belaboring the tire analogy, Consumer Reports calls Michelin the best overall tire on the market.   Read this analysis of the Michelin Defender, and you have my assessment of the best backs in fantasy: “Michelin tires can be pricey and that holds back a lot of potential buyers. It’s too bad because if you factor in the outstanding tread wear, the Michelins might be a bargain compared to other tires with a lower price.”  Factoring for things other than just age and carries produces a different RB picture. Our 2-3 year RSO window produces exactly half the league with running backs to target based contract and opportunity stability:

All-Season High Performance Tires:  Steelers, Falcons, Rams, Texans, Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Saints, Bucs, Titans, Broncos, Packers

The twelve teams listed above have running backs that can reasonably be expected to carry the load within our three year window.   If you further eliminate RBs in this tier based on coaching changes, role specialization, and team changes you are left with a few “Defenders” worth buying despite the cost because they are in stable situations and within the window of highest productivity:  Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, CJ Anderson, Thomas Rawls, Doug Martin, Eddie Lacy, and Mark Ingram.  It should be noted that Bell and Lacy are free agents in 2017 and Mark Ingram was just restructured in a way that makes it easier for the Saints to shed his contract after 2016.  If you are an owner that seeks to set and forget your running back position, these RBs figure to appear in your lineup a lot over the next few seasons.  With Bruce Arians ready to anoint DJ one of the GOATs at the position, he represents the sneaky value in this tier.

Studded Winter Tires: Vikings, Jets, Chiefs, Bills

This category is narrower, but speaks to the heart of the issue.  Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Jamal Charles, and LeSean McCoy present the most unique RSO tier, because they can be true lead backs if you are willing to assume the fiscal burden and injury risk.  Clear succession plans provide insurance in Minnesota and Buffalo, but pay close attention to the draft.  The Chiefs appear to be locking up both Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware for a dreaded future committee.   McCoy should be paired with Karlos Williams and Peterson can be insulated with a long term speculative contract on Jerrick McKinnon as he rides his horse camel into the sunset. The Jets’ future plan is about as clear as the skies above Beijing.

The sixteen team situations listed above represent the most stability in terms of fiscal and scheme commitment to the running backs listed.  The other half of the league gets far more speculative and variable. Further posts will explore the new and shifting situations, or those mired in committees.  However, for a 2-3 year window of stability, RSO squads looking to win now with stable contributions from the running back position, the top 16 backs might look something like this (MFL average draft position listed parenthetically):

  1. Todd Gurley (6.92)
  2. David Johnson (18.50)
  3. Le’Veon Bell (8.86)
  4. Adrian Peterson (40.79) (McKinnon)
  5. Doug Martin (42.94)
  6. Devonta Freeman (25.2)
  7. CJ Anderson (63.31)
  8. Mark Ingram (53.5)
  9. Thomas Rawls (40.31)
  10. Eddie Lacey (46.00)
  11. Lamar Miller (31.,53)
  12. Matt Forte (76.93) (Powell/Rookie)
  13. Lesean McCoy (84.67) (Karlos Williams)(84.73)
  14. Demarco Murray (71.19)
  15. Melvin Gordon (66)
  16. Jamaal Charles (56.21) (Ware/West)

Note the players in bold.  They likely only represent one more year of peak production at the position.  The unlisted NFL franchises provide an interesting window in which to spend your rookie draft picks on good offenses with future backfield uncertainty (Colts, Panthers),  risk capital on more production from coaching changes (Carlos Hyde), or gambles on good RBs in committees (Jeremy Hill, Dion Lewis).  Noteworthy situations like Washington, Chicago, Oakland, and Miami offer higher upside because of their incumbent starters facing limited competition for great opportunity.   My methodology attempted to value the runners based on anticipated talent, opportunity, and production over the next three years and significantly diminished the value of age.

Luke is husband, father, doctoral student, and teacher slowly building a reality dynasty league comprised entirely of daughters. Following in the footsteps of Saint Francis, “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” CUA. Hoya Saxa.

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