In the 10 years spanning from 2002-2011, there were 77 times in which an NFL running back amassed 300 or more carries in a season. If we eliminate Ricky Williams’ 2003 campaign and Tiki Barber’s 2006 effort (both of whom retired the following season), we are left with a sample size of 75.
Of those 75 instances, 55 (73.3%) went on to score fewer fantasy points the following year (complete list located at the end of this article).
To get a better understanding about those percentages, we must first establish what constitutes a legitimate regression and the key factors that contribute to it. Here’s a look at the five running backs who recorded 300 or more carries in 2012:
Arian Foster, Houston Texans (351): Since taking the league by storm in 2010, no player has amassed more carries (956). Foster led all rushers in attempts and ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards (1,424), but posted a career-low 4.1 yards per carry average.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (348): All Day’s 2012 MVP campaign showed the world that on the evolutionary ladder he falls somewhere between human beings and X-Men. Fell just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record while carrying the Vikings on his back to a 10-win season and trip to the playoffs.
Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins (335): Second to Peterson in rushing yards (1,613) despite his status as a rookie sixth-round selection out of Florida Atlantic. Averaged 4.8 ypc in his pro debut en route to a fifth-place finish in fantasy scoring at RB.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (319): Immediately justified his selection in the first round of the 2012 draft by seizing control of the starting job and never looking back. Martin’s contributions in the Tampa passing attack (49-472-1) led to a rookie season that resulted in 1,926 total yards from scrimmage, third behind Peterson and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks (315): Has become one of the league’s premier workhorse ball-carriers since his arrival in Seattle three years ago. Averaged a career-high 5.0 yards per attempt (fourth among RBs) on his way to a top-four fantasy finish.
In standard scoring formats, each of those five players completed the 2012 season ranked in the top-5 in fantasy scoring at the running back position. But does that mean we can count on each of them to enjoy a similar level of success in 2013?
The first item of business we need to establish is what constitutes a regression, as it would be inaccurate to weigh Priest Holmes’ 2-point regression from 2002 to 2003 the same as Chris Johnson’s 116-point regression from 2009 to 2010.
For this study we’re going to define a true regression as a drop-off of 50 or more fantasy points from one year to the next. 50 fantasy points is the approximate equivalent of 500 rushing yards, eight TDs or a combination of the two (ex: 250 rushing yards and four TDs).
As stated earlier, 55 RBs (73.3%) experienced a regression in fantasy points the following season, with 40 (53.3%) suffering a drop-off of at least 50 fantasy points. Those stats also tell us is that only 20 RBs (26.6%) came back the following season to post even bigger numbers than the year before.
In our case study more than half of the RBs who carried the ball 300 or more times in a season from 2002-2011 returned the following year to record at least 50 fewer fantasy points. That’s a big percentage and an even bigger drop in production.
It also means that at least two of our RBs candidates entering 2013 will, on average, fall victim to the same trend.
Injuries and suspension are explanations. Ruptured Achilles tendons, blown-out knees, broken feet and bad backs. Nobody said it would be easy to sustain 300+ violent collisions over the course of a brutal 16-game season and then come back the following year to do it at a high level all over again.
Drew appeared in just six games for Jacksonville last season after carrying the ball 343 times in 2011. Of the 40 running backs who saw their fantasy production drop by 50 or more points following their 300+ carry season, 21 (52.5%) appeared in fewer games the next year while 19 (47.5%) played in at least three less matchups.
The candidates: Morris and Martin both appeared in all 16 games during their rookie seasons. Peterson has appeared in 89 of a possible 96 regular season games since entering the league in 2007. Foster missed three games due to injury in 2011. Lynch has appeared in 88 of 96 regular season matchups since entering the league in 2007.
As for the 20 running backs who scored more fantasy points in the year after their 300+ carry campaign, the average age entering the next season for those players checks in at 26.6 years of age, with nine of those 20 ball-carriers beginning the season at 26 years of age or younger.
The candidates: Peterson turned 28 in March, Lynch turned 27 in April, Foster turns 26 in August, Morris turns 25 in December, Martin turns 25 next January.
Personnel, team and scheme changes are just a few of the additional reasons why NFL RBs have had trouble sustaining a high level of production following a 300+ carry season. Fortunately, our five candidates who fit the mold entering 2013 won’t have to deal with as many adjustments.
The candidates: Morris will have to contend with opposing defenses that spent the offseason learning how to defend the read-option.
Lynch could experience a slight decrease in carries thanks to a more prolific passing attack under second year quarterback Russell Wilson.
Martin’s offensive line remains largely intact, with former Chicago Bear Gabe Carimi now manning the right tackle position.
Foster could feel the effects of 956 carries over the last three seasons and lose a bigger percentage of rushing attempts in 2013 to backup Ben Tate.
Peterson will once again be the focal point for opposing defenses, but that’s nothing new.
One last note: Of the 75 RBs who carried the football 300 or more times from 2002-2011, only Willie Parker (Steelers) and Corey Dillon (Patriots) went on to win the Super Bowl the following season.
Joe Fortenbaugh, worked as an NFL Agent from 2003-2006 at JB Sports, Inc. Follow Joe on Twitter @joefortenbaugh, and check out his website at NationalFootballPost.com. You can reach him at [email protected].