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Fantasy Statistics that Will Not Repeat in 2022: Running Back Edition

We examine some historically high or low running back statistics to determine whether they are repeatable or not.

Najee Harris

In this series, we are going to go through the positions and attempt to identify the season-long statistics that fit more snug as outliers than sustainable.

We will start with running backs and there is a lot to cover, so let’s get into it.

Najee Harris, PIT: INSANE WORKLOAD

Harris finished his rookie campaign as the RB3 in PPR scoring formats. His 307 rushing attempts were second-most in the league while his 94 targets tied him with Austin Ekeler for first at the position. Harris was on the field for 84% of all offensive snaps and finished the season with 381 total touches; both leading the position.

So let’s assess the massive volume historically. Only 19 running backs have finished a season with 300-plus rush attempts and 80 or more targets. Of those 19, only three have achieved this feat more than once. LaDainian Tomlinson broke this threshold four times, while Edgerrin James and Priest Holmes both earned it twice.

If this list is adjusted up to 90 targets, it shrivels to just ten running backs. Modify it to only include players who have accomplished this ridiculous volume in their rookie season and only one name remains. Najee Harris.

There are two ways to digest and process this information. Option one: Harris is elite among the elite and will continue to be fed a similar amount of touches. Option two: this volume was historic and rare enough to bet against repeating it.

Let’s keep digging.

The off-season narrative has been that noodle-armed Ben Roethlisberger hyper-targeted Harris. While there is some obvious truth there, Big Ben actually hyper-targeted whatever was within 6.2 yards of the line of scrimmage, which was often Harris. What was Harris’ yards-per-reception average, you ask? Why 6.3 of course; literally the lowest of every Steelers’ pass-catcher who saw more than 18 targets during the course of the season.

Of the 663 pass attempts thrown by Steelers, 109 went to the running back position. This placed the Steelers 16th from a running back target total mark – middle of the pack from a total targets standpoint. When broken down from a percentage standpoint, the Steelers were just 26th in the NFL targeting the position just 16.7% of the time. The stark contrast between these numbers just goes to show how crazy the volume was. Whether it was carries or targets, Harris was unquestionably the guy.

Fast forward now and there are certainly some changes that should be examined. Roethlisberger is gone and the Steelers brought in Mitchell Trubisky, who spent last season shadowing Josh Allen under the tutelage of quarterback whisperer Brian Daboll. They also drafted Kenny Pickett from across the street. We have no NFL data to draw on for Pickett, so let’s continue with Trubisky.

Let’s break down how Trubisky disperses his targets. First of all, he is far more mobile than Roethlisberger and able to create a little time in the pocket when need be. This typically translates to less reliance on panic dump-offs.

In 2017, as a rookie, Trubisky targeted the running backs 28.4% of the time, the third-highest rate in the league that season. Now, to present the proper context, the Bears’ top three wide receivers that season were Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, and Dontrelle Inman – none of whom saw more than 91 targets or finished with more than 615 receiving yards. It was running back Tarik Cohen who saw the second-most targets on the team that season.

In 2018, Allen Robinson joined the team and easily anointed himself as the WR1 in Chicago. Cohen finished third on the team in terms of targets (91), second in receiving yards (725), and third in receiving touchdowns with five.

In 2019, the Bears running backs accounted for 29% of the overall targets, second in the NFL only to the Chargers. Once again, Cohen was a receiving force to be reckoned with, accounting for the second-most targets (104) and the third-most receiving yards with 456.

I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t this support the idea of Najee Harris getting a similar workload, not less with a quarterback who targeted his running back so much? On the surface, it would appear that way.

The counter would be that Trubisky had little else reliable or explosive to throw to. During that three-year stretch, who was his second-best wide receiver? Taylor Gabriel? Anthony Miller? Inconsequential. He now joins the Steelers who have Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and they just drafted George Pickens. And for the sake of nostalgia, Antony Miller is also on the roster. Trubisky will not need to rely on Harris the same way he had to rely on Cohen.

Harris has already mentioned that he “won’t be out there for certain plays” as the Steelers try to dial things back for the sophomore pro. Mike Tomlin is a smart coach and certainly is aware of the price both Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley paid for their ultra-heavy workloads.

In summary, Harris is a dual-talented back who is durable. He will get plenty of opportunities, even if it gets scaled back to some degree. However, coming off of a rookie season that was historic in terms of sheer volume, it remains advisable to avoid betting on it to be repeated.

James Conner, ARI: 15 RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

For the second time in his career, Conner rose from the ashes of his ADP to lead fantasy teams to playoff berths. He finished the 2021 season as the RB5 and did so with the second-fewest rushing yards of any running back in the top 12.

Conner finished with 15 rushing touchdowns, which tied him with Damien Harris for second-most in the league and accounted for almost 35% of his fantasy production. Meanwhile, Chase Edmonds has departed for Miami. To touch on some training camp hype, Eno Benjamin still exists. So why would be skeptical about Conner repeating that many touchdowns if he is in line for more touches?

The most obvious answer is availability. Since becoming a starter in 2018, he has missed at least three games in each season he has played until his 2021 season. In his latest season, he played the most games (15), finished with the second-highest rush attempts (202), and the most rushing touchdowns of his career. Despite being the prototypical size for a workhorse type of back, he has continued to struggle with nagging injuries.

Next, let’s discuss his fantasy finish versus where he was drafted. To illustrate the larger pool of volatility, I’ll reference redraft ADP as opposed to dynasty:

  • In 2018 he had an ADP of 14.01 or the RB56 and finished as the RB6.
  • In 2019 his ADP skyrocketed to 1.06 as the RB5 and he finished as the RB35.
  • In 2020 he fell to 2.10 or the RB15 and finished as the RB27.
  • In 2021 he was going in the eighth round as the RB37 and finished as the RB5.

In essence, Conner has thus far either finished as a great value or a massive disappointment.

Now, let’s get into age, carries, and touchdowns. Since the 2000 season, only 19 running backs 26 years old or older have finished with 15 rushing touchdowns. Of those 19 running backs, 17 of them required 250 or more carries to hit that mark. Only Brandon Jacobs (219 carries) and James Conner (202 carries) were able the hit that many rushing touchdowns on so few carries. Furthermore, Conner has never sniffed 250 rush attempts.

Since the 2000 season, only 11 running backs age 27 or older have hit 15 rushing touchdowns, none of which had less than 250 rush attempts.

To be fair, Conner is in a good spot to retain a high-value goal-line back but is also paired with a quarterback in Kyler Murray who can vulture a few of those short-yardage scores, which he did less of than expected last season.

While it is perfectly fine to expect Conner to hit 10 rushing scores, do not place any high dollar bets on him hitting 15 rushing touchdowns again.

Damien Harris, NE: 15 RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

First of all, let’s check in and see what Twitter thinks about the 15-touchdown club from 2021 and which back could repeat it in 2022.

The overwhelming majority seemed to side with Conner here based, most likely, on lack of perceived competition.

When talking about Damien Harris, competition is certainly one of the foremost concerns. Rhamondre Stevenson played well enough his rookie season to have a role moving forward. The Patriots followed that up by drafting two more running backs in the 2022 NFL Draft, further muddying the carry-count waters.

If we once again consult some historical data, only 12 running backs have scored 15 rushing touchdowns with less than 250 carries. Two of those 12 occurred last season with Conner and Harris both totaling 202 carries each and 15 touchdowns each. Only one of those 12 running backs did it twice and that was Leroy Kelly back in 1966 and 1968 respectively.

The only feasible way Harris gets close to the 15 rushing touchdown total would be to increase his carry count. With the Patriots creating more ambiguity in their backfield, that’s not a bet I am willing to take.

For at least the 2022 season, Harris should continue to lead the backfield and retain first-crack at goal-line opportunities. Seven to nine rushing touchdowns is a far more reasonable expectation at this point.

Austin Ekeler, LAC: OVER 200 CARRIES and 12 TOUCHDOWNS

Ekeler absolutely blew up last season and finished as the RB2 overall. He set career-highs in rush attempts (206), rushing yards (911), and rushing touchdowns (12).

His ADP has hit its apex entering his age-27 year.

Is it sustainable, though? More importantly, do the Chargers want him to attempt to repeat that kind of workload? The answer may surprise you.

From 2018 to 2020, Ekeler averaged 118 rushing attempts per season for 547 rushing yards, and 2.3 rushing touchdowns on a per-season basis. His 206 rush attempts last season represent a 74.5% increase from his average, while his rushing touchdowns represent a 421.7% increase from average.

It is not just the dramatic increases that are cause for concern here, it is the fact that the Chargers have shown their hand for the last three seasons in how they want to deploy Ekeler. Being a smaller-framed guy, he is not built for high-volume carries between the tackles and thus has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons. Therefore, the Chargers have taken bigger-bodied backs in the last three NFL drafts trying to find a suitable complement piece.

In 2020, it was the Joshua Kelley experiment. At 5-foot-11 and 215-pounds, he fits more in the body type of a between the tackles, short-yardage back. While scoring positively from a speed and strength metrics perspective, his lack of burst and shoddy hands has left him mired on the depth chart. On 144 total carries, he has more fumbles (3) than touchdowns (2).

In 2021, it was the Larry Rountree experiment, which was worse and should not have surprised anyone. Despite fitting within the prototypical size/weight criteria, he possesses the agility of a tugboat, if only he were as fast as one.

Fast forward to 2022 and the Chargers upped the anty, selecting Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round. Standing at six feet and weighing in at 217 pounds, he is a bit bigger than those who preceded him but from a metric standpoint, in the middle of the other two. While not as slow as Rountree, Kelley remains faster.

Spiller may end up doing little more than spelling Ekeler. However, the draft picks are painting a picture and the colors suggest trying to reduce the amount of contact Ekeler is facing.

Heading into the 2022 season, it is far more reasonable to expect Ekeler’s carry count and rushing touchdowns to return closer to his career average than what we saw last season. His prowess as a receiver still makes him a valuable asset for fantasy, just don’t expect the gaudy rushing touchdowns to return.

Miles Sanders, PHI: ZERO TOUCHDOWNS

To say that Sanders disappointed fantasy managers last season would be quite an understatement. He only played in 12 games and finished with the lowest amount of carries and lowest rushing yards of his career. But, where some could overlook a season of career-low marks, the most frustrating facet was the zero rushing touchdowns.

The Eagles finished with the second-most rush attempts in the NFL last season. Of their running backs, Sanders handled 137 of their rush attempts, which was only two less than their leading rusher; Jalen Hurts. Still, the major share belonged to Sanders. Boston Scott had the third-most rush attempts on the team (87) and somehow still walked away with seven rushing touchdowns while Hurts did the heavy lifting both in volume and his ability to score, crossing the goal line 10 times on the ground.

Historically, 39 total running backs have totaled at least 135 rush attempts without scoring a touchdown. Of those 39, only three “accomplished” this feat more than once.

Here is how it went down. Despite Sanders being the lead back, he saw the second-lowest number of rush attempts inside the five-yard line as the other backs in the rotation. Boston Scott led this category with 12 attempts, while Sanders had only six.

For a team whose identity is centered around running the football, expect Sanders to continue to operate as the highest volume running back and to see a few more touches in the red zone. He will not score zero touchdowns again this season and should settle back in the four to six score range that he’s accustomed to.

Fantasy Statistics that Will Not Repeat in 2022: Running Back Edition
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