The current common thought process for fantasy football production for running backs returning in year one (Y1) is to immediately fade that back until they return in year two, assuming that fantasy production will regress as an absolute. The majority of these takes bring up data, presenting it as if it conclusively proves that no running back can return to the field in Y1 and produce league winning weeks.
Let’s dive in to pick this data apart.
Sample of Running Backs Y1 ACLR
Two of the backs included in the sample are tough to truly include, as Willis McGahee and Todd Gurley both suffered their ACL tears in college so that fantasy points don’t quite add up. Other than that, at first glance, the data does not look good, as you can see the production regression on the far right column in %Change. The majority of players regressed by at least 10-15%, except for two players: Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis, who both actually increased their fantasy points per game in their first year returned. Truly remarkable.
Other aspects that stand out: Deuce McAllister tore his ACL towards the end of his career as a top back, very similar to a name not listed here in Reggie Bush (tore his at age 30 as his career was fading). His numbers skew the data a bit, as does Dion Lewis (who tore his ACL while performing in a drastically increased role as a surprise, scoring 16.8 fantasy points per game pre-injury and returning to a limited role the following season. Jamaal Charles’ second ACL tear also skews the data, as that one occurred at age 28 as he was declining and he struggled to return due to persistent knee swelling, leading to a post-injury drastic decline in production.
Edgerrin James had quite a remarkable Y1 RTP in terms of volume, one that I would wonder if the Colts would redo if they had the chance (though it certainly didn’t limit James’ ability to play another eight years after his injury with many elite years for fantasy). Quite interestingly, James actually produced 19.57 PPG in weeks 1-4 prior to per touch regression and a hamstring strain, and then produced 19.35 PPG in weeks 9-12 before regression hit again. He then went on to score 16.5, 15.8, and 17.8 PPG over the next three seasons absorbing mass volume.
Now what do we do with all of this information? I felt the need to keep diving deeper into what could separate these running backs into tiers of potential production upon return, and it led me to look at athleticism metrics to see who truly stood out.
Measurables for Running Backs RTP ACLR
First off: the highlighted (yellow) boxes indicate 90th percentile or higher metric scores for said player. I could not find metrics on several players due to lack of testing or lack of reporting from years ago (Lewis, McGahee).
Second off: Any of the non-highlighted boxes indicate a score lower than the 90th percentile, with the majority of the scores being 80th percentile or lower (Dalvin Cook mostly between 70th-80th, Javonte Williams mostly between 40th-70th aside from agility score). I believe the lower athleticism scale plus his play style led Cook to struggle with soft tissue issues in his attempt to return the following season, and the lower athleticism scale plus the severity of his injury (ACL, LCL, PLC) is why I do not think Williams will be able to produce high numbers early on in Y1. But what about Breece Hall?
Jamaal Charles is the one running back who did not meet the 90th percentile scale yet produced high-end fantasy production in Y1 from his first ACL return. He did have three metrics hit the 90th percentile in his 10-yard split, 40-yard dash, and agility score, barely missing in speed score with an 88th percentile score but having a very low 23rd percentile burst score. I don’t know how to explain this one, other than Charles being an absolute stud and the Chiefs leaning into him as the workhorse (fun fact, Brian Daboll was the Chiefs OC that year with Romeo Crennel the HC as the Chiefs went 2-14 yet Charles going nuclear with 285-1,509-5 rushing). He nearly had four metrics fall into the 90th percentile scale, so it could be a nice little indicator here that I can’t use for the sake of this argument.
90th Percentile RBs in Y1 Post-ACLR
The key names that stand out here that have 90th percentile scores nearly across the board: Edgerrin James, Adrian Peterson, Saquon Barkley, JK Dobbins, and… you guessed it… Breece Hall. Now that is quite the running back room. Technically, Deuce McAllister falls into this category as well, however his ACL injury occurred at age 28 and a whole seven years after he tested at the combine, so let’s not count him since he only played one more season before retiring. Let’s go down this list one by one to see how these elite athletes performed in Y1 post-ACLR:
Edgerrin James: As noted above, while he did regress from an absurd rookie season of 20.9 PPG down to 15.4 throughout the year, he did have multiple four-week spans of scoring 19.57 then 19.35 PPG, which both came within 92% and 93% of his pre-ACL PPG scored. He received insane volume that season, seeing anywhere from 20-40 touches per game and eventually suffered a partial hamstring tear, yet still only missed two games and then returned. While on paper it appears he regressed, we have to take into consideration that the Colts drove him into the ground and on a per-touch basis, he actually produced near-elite numbers in Y1. Pretty good for the single 10.0 RAS running back to return from an ACL tear.
Adrian Peterson: Do I need to do this one? We all know the historic season AD produced in his first season returning from ACL, let alone doing it after returning in only 8 months 17 days after surgery. He is a monster who increased his PPG by 3.3, increased from 18.4 to 21.7 with an absurd 25.6 PPG from weeks 9-16. Notably, his athleticism metrics are very similar to Breece Hall’s.
Saquon Barkley: Here is the tough one to argue, as many continue to say that Barkley did not hit in his first year back from his ACL after his season was halted by a left ankle sprain (of note, he tore his right ACL). So why am I arguing Barkley as a positive sign for Y1 production? Prior to his fluke ankle injury, he had scored 21.4 and 29.6 PPG in weeks 3-4 with very positive usage both in the run game and in the passing game (13 targets across those two games). He then missed four games plus a bye week due to the high-grade ankle injury, returned to play 69%, 82%, and 78% of snaps before he reinjured his left ankle and didn’t surpass 60% snaps in any of his remaining five games.
Can we claim his two-game elite sample as a win for Y1 ACLR returns? Certainly we cannot. Can people use his left ankle as a claim towards Barkley being a miss for Y1 ACLR return? No, you can’t do that either. Big picture, the two-game sample of elite production gave us insight into what could have been if he had not stepped on the arch of an incoming cornerback who forced his left ankle into a high-grade sprain as he ran near full speed.
JK Dobbins: his injury certainly was not a simple one after he tore his ACL, LCL, PCL, meniscus, AND his hamstring. He dealt with scarring and multiple setbacks in his attempt to return, including requiring a second surgery mid-season to manipulate and debride (cut out) the scar tissue that was causing him to limp his way down the field on every run. Notably, once he returned after the second surgery, he led the league in rushing from weeks 13-17, was fifth in rush yards after contact, only had two tackles for loss, led the league with 13 rushes of 10+ yards, and tied for the lead with four rushes of 20+ yards. That is categorically insane production and he still likely wasn’t at 100% health coming off that second surgery. This is a huge hit for Y1 ACLR return, and makes you wonder what Dobbins could have done early in the season if he had not dealt with scarring setbacks.
The Case for Breece Hall and Potential Insight into Future Elite Athlete RTP Y1 ACLR
Breece Hall will be the ultimate test subject for this theory of mine. His athleticism metrics mirror the four other running backs who also fall into the 90th percentile athletes and who happened to give us either small-scale glimpses or full-season glimpses of return to elite production as early as year one after suffering an ACL tear. Hall has seemingly been ahead of schedule even since early on in his rehab, seen jogging on an AlterG at a good pace only 11 weeks out from surgery. To those who are afraid of Hall falling into an RB committee due to the arrival of Nathaniel Hackett, the good news is that he was producing 16.4 PPG while basically being in a committee. The other good news is that he’s already hitting unbelievable top-end speeds six months out from his ACLR, according to the Jets’ front office. He’s also already sprinting forward and laterally at only six months out at a pretty good pace, with three whole months to go to get ready for week one.
I believe that Hall will be near full-go by August (granted the Jets will likely hold him out from preseason games and stick to getting him reps in a more controlled environment in practice), leaving him open to sliding right back into his starting role for week one. With this timeline, it would not surprise me if he is scoring as a top 5-10 running back by week five-six, when he would be roughly 11 months out from his ACLR with likely two full months of being full-go in all reps and a full month of NFL gameplay.
After all is said and done, can we please stop using ACL data as an end-all-be-all reason to fade any running back in their Y1 returning from ACL? We shouldn’t be branching in guys like 30-year-old Reggie Bush, end-of-career 28-year-old Deuce McAllister, and non-elite athletes with the several elite players who are returning and using them as a reason to skew the data and claim lack of production. Look at the data as a whole, but then pick it apart to get a true and clearer picture. Breece Hall needs to be branched in with the elite status of Edgerrin James, Adrian Peterson, Saquon Barkley, and JK Dobbins. He continues to be faded to RB11-12 range in drafts. You should strongly consider taking the discount on him. The case for Hall producing in his pre-injury form in Y1 has been made.
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