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2016's RB Revival

By Jared Smola 8:07am EDT 7/21/17

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to 2015 RB Production: Trend or Fluke? This article was originally published on February 2 and was updated on July 21.

2016 might have made you forget just how bad RBs were in 2015. But they were bad. So bad, in fact, that we dedicated an entire article to detailing the carnage.

Here were the major takeaways from that piece:

  • 2015 continued a 3-year trend of declining rushing production (carries, yards, TDs, yards per carry).
  • Over that same time span, RB production in the passing game (targets, receptions, yards, TDs) increased.
  • The net effect was a general uptrend in RB PPR production, with 2015 marking a 6-year high in total PPR points scored by RBs. Non-PPR production was generally flat from 2010-2015.
  • RB1 production was way down in 2015, with RBs 1-12 accounting for just 23.2% of total RB PPR points. That group had averaged 27.9% of the scoring over the previous 5 years.
  • RBs that finished 49th or worse in the final rankings, meanwhile, accounted for a 6-year high 32.4% of total RB PPR points in 2015.

Let’s turn our attention to 2016 to see whether these trends continued or reversed.

Total RB Rushing Production

Mixed results here. Total RB carries declined for the 6th straight season. Rushing yards climbed a tad from 2015, but 2016 still marked the 2nd lowest total over the last 7 years.

Check out the rushing TDs, though. A huge spike to 357 — a 7-year high and a whopping 21.8% increase from 2015. We should expect that number to come back down in 2017, somewhere around the 2010-2016 average of 330.

Total RB Receiving Production

RB receiving production was down across the board from 2015. But 2016’s numbers were all still higher than the averages over the previous 6 seasons.

Despite the drop in RB receiving numbers from 2015 to 2016, production still seems to be trending up.

Total RB Fantasy Production

2016 brought 7-year highs in both total RB PPR and non-PPR points. There’s been a clear uptrend in PPR scoring. The big spike in non-PPR was due in large part to those 357 rushing TDs. I'd expect non-PPR scoring to dip back down some in 2017.

Where did the points go?

2015 RB1 production looked like an outlier after the 2015 campaign. 2016 only confirmed that. In both PPR and non-PPR scoring, total points by RBs 1-12 jumped right back up near the averages from 2010-2014.

RB2 production also increased from 2015 to 2016, although not quite back to 2010 to 2013 levels.

Total fantasy points from RB3s and 4s continues to remain relatively flat.

RB5 production, on the other hand, reversed course after trending upward from 2013 to 2015. We surmised in last year’s article that growing production from these RB5 types might make the top-end RBs less valuable. That might have been a premature conclusion, though. It’s possible that the spike in RB5 production in 2014 and 2015 was just a blip and that the numbers will continue to reside in the range we saw the previous few years. At minimum, we can’t assume that RB5 production is on the rise.

What did we learn?

2016 continued to show us that overall rushing production is in decline. That’s been offset, though, by increased roles for RBs in the passing game. The net result has actually been an upward trajectory in RB PPR scoring over the past 7 years. 2016 also brought a 7-year high in non-PPR scoring, although that looks like more of a 1-off spike than a trend to bank on going forward.

The biggest takeaway is the affirmation that the poor 2015 season for RB1s was an anomaly. Outside of that year, the top 12 RBs have consistently accounted for 26.9-29.3% of total PPR points and 27.9-30.2% of total non-PPR points. We should expect scoring to fall within that range in 2017 and value the top-end RBs accordingly.

How are fantasy owners reacting?

2016 drafts presented big value in early-round RBs after the fantasy community as a whole overreacted to an outlier 2015 season. So how are drafters reacting this year after RB1s bounced back in 2016?

To get an idea, let's look at where the top 36 RBs are going in overall ADP this year vs. last:

RBs as a whole are going earlier in drafts this year than last, especially in the first few rounds. In fact, overall ADP is later in 2017 at only 4 of the top-36 RB spots vs. 2016.

Here's a more detailed look at the data. (A negative number in the "Difference" column means the RB is going earlier this year than last.)

So have drafters overreacted to 2016? Swung too far back in the opposite direction?

Maybe a little.

David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell deserve to be the first 2 guys off the board. Ezekiel Elliott is an easy top-6 value as long as he's not suspended for more than a game or 2. Beyond that, though, you can certainly argue that WRs represent better value than RBs in the early rounds.

That's especially true from the late 2nd round into the early 4th. The discrepancy in overall ADP between this year and last is 7+ picks for the majority of those RBs (RB9 through RB16). Most of the RBs in that range -- Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon, Marshawn Lynch, Christian McCaffrey -- have serious question marks. The WRs being selected in the same area -- Dez Bryant, Doug Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, to name a few -- look like much safer bets.

That's not to say we should be avoiding early-round RBs altogether this season. But whereas a RB-heavy start to drafts was optimal last year, a more balanced approach seems best in 2017.

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