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Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in carries last season
Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in carries last season
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Effect of Running Back Carries
on Future Production

Fantasy football draft strategy

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Updated: July 16, 2012
Original Release: July 3, 2004


Maurice Jones-Drew had a big year last season, but a consequence of that season was his large number of carries (rushing attempts). He finished the year as the NFL leader in that category with 343. The thing that saved him was that Jacksonville didn't make the playoffs, which kept him from piling on even more rushing attempts on top of that already concerning number. Could that spell trouble in 2012? Read on and decide for yourself. (See what the Docs recommend in their 2012 Fantasy Football Player Rankings)

In fantasy football, it's often difficult to predict which fantasy players will have a significant drop-off in production from one year to the next. This can yield devastating consequences for your team during your fantasy football draft, as you pay a premium price for a player just to have them crush your team with a very substandard season that did not warrant their high draft status. In this article, we will analyze yet another factor that can contribute to a disappointing fantasy season: The effect of Running Back Carries ( Running Back Attempts ).

Running backs are one of the crucial positions in most fantasy football leagues. While running backs can provide a consistently high source of fantasy points week in and week out and are in high demand on fantasy draft day, they are also prone to suffering a significant decrease in production after carrying the ball too many times in the preceding season. A running back's body is a machine, and, like all machines, they can only perform their function so many times before they must be replaced by a newer version (or sent in for repair). With that in mind, there are two measures (absolute and relative) to evaluate the wear and tear of running backs:

1. The absolute measure of the number of carries (attempts) a running back has had in the previous season (Table 1).
2. The relative measure in the increase in the number of carries from season to season (Table 2).

Both of these measures are indicators for a potential drop-off in production from one season to the next, and we have compiled two tables to help illustrate these points. Table 1 lists every NFL player that has experienced a workload of 370 carries or more in a season (through 2011) followed by their performance in the subsequent season.

Table 1, History of NFL Running Backs with 370 or more Carries in a Season


NFL Running Back
Player Carries Year Team Rush Yards Rec. Yards Total TD Comment
  Larry Johnson
416 2006 KC
1789
410
19
  Never was the same again.
 
158 2007 KC
559
186
4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamal Anderson
410 1998 ATL
1846
319
16
  Tore ACL in next season.
 
19 1999 ATL
59
34
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  James Wilder
407 1984 TAM
1544
685
13
  Huge drop-off started in 1986.
 
365 1985 TAM
1300
341
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Eric Dickerson
406 1986 LA
1821
205
11
  Even E.D. couldn't handle 400+.
 
283 1987 LA-IND
1288
171
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Eddie George
403 2000 TEN
1509
453
16
  Never returned to > 3.4 ypc.
 
315 2001 TEN
939
279
5
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Gerald Riggs
397 1985 ATL
1719
267
10
  On downslope for rest of career.
 
343 1985 ATL
1327
136
9
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Ricky Williams
392 2003 MIA
1372
351
10
  Downslope started in 2002.
 
168 2004 MIA
743
93
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Terrell Davis
392 1998 DEN
2008
217
23
  Tore ACL in next season.
 
67 1999 DEN
211
26
2
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Barry Foster
390 1992 PIT
1690
344
11
  Effectively ended his career.
 
177 1993 PIT
711
217
9
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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  Eric Dickerson
390 1983 LA
1808
404
20
  Rookie season. Low mileage.
 
379 1984 LA
2105
139
14
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Eric Dickerson
388 1988 IND
1659
377
15
  Dickerson is tough as nails.
 
314 1989 IND
1311
211
8
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamal Lewis
387 2003 BAL
2066
205
14
  Classic breakdown.
 
235 2004 BAL
1006
116
7
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Edgerrin James
387 2000 IND
1709
594
18
  Tore ACL in next season.
 
151 2001 IND
662
193
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Rashard Mendenhall
385* 2010 PIT
1273
167
13
  Workload caught up with him.
 
228 2011 PIT
928
154
9
  Tore ACL in week 17.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Ricky Williams
383 2002 MIA
1853
363
17
  Took seven years to recover.
 
392 2003 MIA
1372
351
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Walter Payton
381 1984 CHI
1684
368
11
  Has immunity like Dickerson.
 
324 1985 CHI
1551
483
11
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Marcus Allen
380 1985 OAK
1759
555
14
  Bottom dropped out the next year.
 
208 1986 OAK
759
453
7
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Eric Dickerson
379 1984 LA
2105
139
14
  Dickerson is not always immune.
 
292 1985 LA
1234
126
12
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  George Rogers
378 1981 NOR
1674
126
13
  Injury bug next two seasons.
 
122 1982 NOR
535
21
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Emmitt Smith
377 1995 DAL
1773
375
25
  Dropped 600+ total yds, 10 TDs, &
 
327 1996 DAL
1204
249
15
  full yard on ypc (4.7 to 3.7).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Michael Turner
376 2008 ATL
1699
41
17
  In & out of repair shop all year.
 
178 2009 ATL
871
35
10

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  John Riggins
375 1983 WAS
1347
29
24
  Career ended two years later.
 
327 1984 WAS
1239
43
14
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jerome Bettis
375 1997 PIT
1665
110
9
  "The bus" sent in for repair.
 
316 1997 PIT
1185
90
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Emmitt Smith
373 1992 DAL
1713
335
19
  Out 2 games for 1st time in career.
 
283 1993 DAL
1486
414
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Earl Campbell
373 1980 HOU
1934
47
13
  Huge drop in ypc (5.2 to 3.8).
 
361 1981 HOU
1376
156
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  LaDainian Tomlinson
372 2002 SDG
1683
489
15
  Another rare example of immunity.
 
313 2003 SDG
1645
725
17
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Curtis Martin
371 2004 NYJ
1697
245
14
  Wear and tear caught up to him.
 
220 2005 NYJ
735
118
5
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Christian Okoye
370 1989 KC
1480
12
12
  Nigerian nightmare was over.
 
245 1990 KC
805
23
7
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Shaun Alexander
370 2005 SEA
1880
78
28
  Never was the same thereafter.
 
252 2006 SEA
896
48
7
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  *includes massive playoff workload

The trend in the above table is clear and demonstrates drafting running backs with a large number of carries in the previous season is very risky business. Their fantasy football value will be extremely high due to coming off a huge season (after all, more carries means more opportunity to pile on stats and fantasy points), and overwhelming odds say they will not be able to justify that very high draft status and fantasy value in the following season. Through the 2011 season and out of the 24 running backs in the history of the league with 370 or more carries in season, in the very next season of play, (18) experienced a significant decline in fantasy production, (4) tore their ACL, and (6) effectively had their career ended. Only Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, and LaDainian Tomlinson did not show any real effect or drop-off in fantasy point production in the season following their 370+ carry season. Stop and think about the names of Dickerson, Payton, and Tomlinson for a minute. They are arguably the best backs to ever play the game ("The best, Jerry, the best!"). The other 21 backs listed aren't exactly slouches and represent some of the creme of the crop in the history of the NFL.

Very high workload (carries) in the previous season equals trouble, and the cut-off for danger is approximately 370 or more carries in a year, although your measure for concern should start at 350+ carries. At 370 or more carries, the engine has overheated, and you should proceed with extreme caution when considering any back in this category from the previous season as a very high pick for your fantasy football draft. Between 350 - 369 carries in a season, the "check engine" light is on. That pace cannot be maintained, and there is danger of a breakdown. Backs like Curtis Martin, Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith, and Terrell Davis were able to tote the rock in the 350 - 369 carry range without a significant drop in production in the subsequent season, while others like Herschel Walker, Stephen Davis, Ahman Green, and Deuce McAllister did experience a significant drop in production in the subsequent season. As such, if you see over 350 or more carries in a season, it should cause you to raise your eyebrow as a point of possible concern.

As mentioned above, while the absolute measure of the total number of carries in a season is a useful measure to critically evaluate running backs as potential let-down candidates for your fantasy football draft, the relative measure in number of carries from season to season is also an important consideration to keep in mind. Every running back is different, and their body is used to a certain level of abuse. If they experience a significant increase in carries from the previous season, it can be just as demanding (damaging) on their body as a season with a large, absolute number of carries. This relative, sharp increase in workload can also yield a breakdown in the subsequent season. To help illustrate this point, a few examples are provided in Table 2 below.

Table 2, Examples of RBs with a Breakdown after a Substantial Increase in Carries (33% or more)


NFL Running Back
Player Carries % Inc. Year Team Rush Yards Rec. Yards Total TD Comment
  Dorsey Levens
121 -- 1996 GNB
566
226
10
  In prime with little prior abuse.
 
329 172% 1997 GNB
1435
370
12
 
 
115   1998 GNB
378
162
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Garrison Hearst
234 -- 1997 SFO
1019
194
6
  Effectively ended his career.
 
310 33% 1998 SFO
1570
535
9
 
 
0   1999 SFO
0
0
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamal Anderson
290 -- 1997 ATL
1002
284
10
  41% inc. + 410 carries = trouble.
 
410 41% 1998 ATL
1846
319
16
 
 
19   1999 ATL
59
34
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Curtis Enis
133 -- 1998 CHI
497
20
0
  Only 24 years old in 2000.
 
287 116% 1999 CHI
916
340
5
 
 
36   2000 CHI
84
68
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  James Stewart
249 -- 1999 JAX
931
108
13
  In his prime... it didn't matter.
 
339 36% 2000 DET
1184
287
11
 
 
143   2001 DET
685
242
2
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Stephen Davis
207 -- 2002 WAS
820
142
8
  Load too much in Carolina.
 
318 54% 2003 CAR
1444
159
8
 
 
24   2004 CAR
92
32
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Corey Dillon
138 -- 2003 CIN
541
71
2
  Too much inc. for this 30 yr old.
 
345 150% 2004 NWE
1635
103
13
 
 
209   2005 NWE
733
181
13
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Steven Jackson
254 -- 2005 STL
1046
320
10
  46% inc. if include receptions.
 
346 36% 2006 STL
1528
806
16
 
 
237   2007 STL
1002
271
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Michael Turner
71 -- 2007 SDG
316
16
1
  430% inc. + 376 carries = trouble.
 
376 430% 2008 ATL
1699
41
17
 
 
178  
2009 ATL
871
35
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  R. Mendenhall
242 -- 2009 PIT
1108
261
8
  34% inc. + 385* carries = trouble.
 
324 34% 2010 PIT
1273
167
13
 Tore ACL in week 17.
 
228  
2011 PIT
928
154
9
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  *includes massive playoff workload

As shown in the above table, all the running backs listed had a breakdown after a large workload increase from the previous season (33% or more). As with any trend, it does not always hold as there are examples of backs that experienced a large increase with no ill effects (i.e. Priest Holmes in '01 and Tiki Barber in '02); however, it is something to keep in mind as another "proceed with caution" measure in your fantasy football draft. We would like to take a brief moment to also mention rookie running backs. Rookie running backs are generally excluded from consideration here provided they toted the rock as the primary ball carrier for their team in college. Yes, the NFL season is long and often you hear of rookie RBs discussing the added length (and abuse) of the NFL season, but the increase in workload from college is not typically as dramatic as many of the backs listed in the above table, and youth is also in a rookie running back's favor.

Entering 2012, NFL coaches have gotten wise to some of these statistical red flags, and for the first time in several years we do not have a RB that jumps off the page as an immediate concern. Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in 2011 with 343 carries, which is marginal and starting to approach a workload that could be of concern; however, we feel overall he is fine and does not bring any additional injury risk that would be considered out of the ordinary for a NFL RB. On the increase in workload front, Philadelphia RB LeSean McCoy warrants some consideration with a "proceed with caution" mark by virtue of his 32% increase in carries in 2011 compared to 2010. However, overall we feel he should be fine as McCoy is still very young (24 years), and the Eagles have done a good job steadily increasing his workload in his first three years in the league (155, 207, 273 carries in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively). In short, his body has been steadily conditioned to the abuse and his youth will help his recovery factor. Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch is another RB that experienced a sharp increase in workload with a 41% increase in 2011 compared to 2010. This places Lynch in an immediate concern area as far as failing our ~33% increase in workload tripwire. However, similar to McCoy, this needs to be considered on a case by case basis, and when you evaluate Lynch on a larger scale, this number isn't quite as bad as it may appear on the surface. Similar to McCoy, youth is on Lynch's side. It may feel like Lynch has been in the league for quite some time, but he is only 26 years old. He also has experienced similar workloads to his 2011 season in the past (280 carries in 2008 and 250 carries in 2009), so as a whole, the workload of his 285 carries in 2011 doesn't represent a statistical outlier and something Lynch's body is not already accustomed to receiving. So similar to McCoy, Lynch's past history and youth move him into an area of less concern.

In summary, there are two measures that can be used to indicate whether a running back will experience a drop-off in production in the following season: (1) The absolute number of carries for a running back in the previous season, and (2) the relative increase in carries from season to season. Nothing is more damaging to a fantasy football team than paying a premium price for a player in your fantasy football draft just to have them completely flop during the season and crush your team in the process. The absolute number and/or increase of carries required for a breakdown is different for different players. A few select players don't breakdown until they hit the upper 300's in carries. Others fall-off after a significant increase from the previous season. A few more take several years of heavy workloads (350+ carries per season) to shut down, and some just always seem to be injured. However, keep in mind these breakdowns don't necessarily have to come in the form of injury or missed games. Some of these "breakdowns" occur because a team added a young running back to take some of the burden off the veteran with high mileage. Even those incidences can be linked to carries because someone is putting the back on the shelf because a breakdown was inevitable. As far as a fantasy owner is concerned, a low scoring fantasy week is a low scoring fantasy week, regardless of how that was realized. As a general guideline, an absolute measure of approximately 370 or more carries in a season is a cutoff for danger, although 350+ carries is a starting point for concern, and a relative measure of 33% or more increase in workload in the previous season is also a cutoff point for danger. Naturally these guidelines are just that, guidelines intended to help reduce the risk of a poor fantasy football draft and increase the likelihood of a successful one. At the end of the day, it's all about stacking the fantasy odds in your favor on your draft day.

Want more freaky RB injury "rule-of-thumbs" to help in your fantasy football draft preparation?
Then be sure to check out our RB Two Year Major Injury Rule article as well.

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