A Taste of Fantasy Running Back Touches

Have you ever been frustrated by a fantasy running back? Most fantasy owners have been. Unfulfilled hope in a top-tier running back can leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Speaking of bitter taste… when you were in school, you probably saw a diagram in science class that showed the different regions of the tongue and how each area was responsible for a different taste. You grew up believing that this mapped area of your tongue isolating each taste was true. Maybe you still believe this is true?

I hate to break it to you, but there are not specific areas of the tongue that isolate each type of taste. The truth is every area on your tongue has that ability. Back to the running backs.

I had begun researching running back touches going back to 1990. Touches are defined as rushing attempts plus receptions. The intent of the research was to determine if NFL history would reveal statistical evidence of how running backs were being used over time in today’s pass-happy NFL.

The problem is, I needed a baseline. An expectation of what fantasy owners realistically hoped to see from a starting running back. Because most experts and fantasy enthusiasts speak of this ambiguously grandiose amount of touches for a running back to be effective and relevant. What was this mystery number?

I happened to be visiting my favorite message board site and someone – we’ll call him Anna – was really excited over the Raiders’ free agent signings and how it would impact RB Doug Martin’s touches. In fact, Anna’s exact quote was, “the potential is there, especially if they let Douggie carry the ball 20 times a game.” And there it was. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Twenty.

Sad to say that Douggie has not averaged over 20 touches per game since 2015. Over his last 2 seasons he has barely pillaged an average close to 15 touches per game. (11.9 and 13.4) But what about the rest of the NFL?

Historical Statistics

Here’s the meat and potatoes. The graph below shows the total number of running backs each season beginning with 1990 that had an average equal to or greater than that magical number of 20 touches per game.

The graph proves what most fantasy owners have probably been dreading all along. That dread is that the NFL doesn’t employ many workhorse, 20-touch running backs any more.

Keep in mind that 20 touches translate to at least 320 touches in a 16-game season. Most owners would be happy with that – I know that I would. Problem is, in 2018, only 3 running backs had more than 320 touches. While 3 may seem low, recent history shows it’s about normal. The 2017 and 2016 seasons only saw 5 backs hit 320 touches. 2015 only had 3. 2014 had 4.

As the graph shows, only 6 total running backs from 2018 averaged more than 20 touches per game. What about the other top running backs who came close to that mark? The chart below shows the top 24 running back touch leaders from the 2018 season with games (G), Touches, and touches per game (T/G), and standard fantasy points (Pts).

Touches are a good indicator of how a back will be used in an offense. Those with rose-colored fantasy glasses will probably point out that falling short of this 20-touch mark may still lead to some tasty fantasy production.

  • Alvin Kamara (18.3), for example, had the second-most TD last season (18) which propelled him as a top 5 fantasy RB.
  • James White (11.3) was on the low-end of touches, but his 12 TD bumped him to the top 15 among fantasy RB.

While I agree that getting close to 20 touches is definitely a good thing, the point of this data is to show that 20 touches is a tough number to bank on in today’s NFL.

Backs who tend to fall short of this mark may get a boost from scoring touchdowns. Sadly, the drop-off from the top-tier is a steep one. Crave you may, but make no mistake – fantasy owners who tend to be optimistic about touches are also the ones who exaggerate potential touchdowns. Sadly, the drop-off from the top-tier is a steep one.

Possible Reasons For Caution

Let’s cleanse our palate as we tackle this subject from another angle. The trend in today’s NFL is that offenses want to be less predictable. They want to disguise their offense so the opposing defense doesn’t know who to key in on. We see the results of this tactic as teams spread the ball around to multiple targets. Fewer teams have a workhorse back because more teams deliberately spread the ball around.

Is 20 touches still a realistic fantasy benchmark? What if I told you that out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners (7 different franchises), only one team had a running back that averaged over 20 touches per game? And no team has accomplished this in the last five championships! (Spoiler alert. Only the 2013 Seattle Seahawks had a 20-touch RB in Marshawn Lynch (21.1) in the last decade.) If spreading the ball around wins championships (and it sure seems like it does) then other teams will copy that formula.

As fantasy owners, a point of emphasis may be to target players from good offenses, right? Of the top 16 best yardage offenses from 2018 (half the league, mind you), only 3 of those teams had a running back that averaged over 20 touches per game.

Another point of consideration is running back touches in general. Earlier we mentioned that 20 touches per game calculates to 320 touches in a season. In a pass happy NFL, how many touches are leftover for the running backs? The average amount of RB touches for all 32 teams was 428 touches. (Leading the way was Jacksonville’s 547 touches and the low was Cleveland’s 308).

The average of those 428 average touches show in the above chart calculates to roughly 26 touches for an entire team’s running backs. 27 if you round up (26.8). It’s also worth noting that the first team to have a 20-touch running back (LAR) is eighth on the list of team touches. So just because a team will apportion a large number of touches to the running backs, this in itself does not guarantee that the team will designate a workhorse back since the first 7 teams didn’t have one.

Drafting a running back in the first round may still be the prevailing trend. However I’m here to tell you that drafting a running back first solely because they may get 320 touches a season is becoming virtually impossible to find. Even to real NFL teams, they are becoming an acquired taste.

If you’re salivating over the running backs for the 2019 fantasy season, a cautious fantasy owner has to wonder if this decreasing trend in touches will continue? I say it will. Especially since many franchises have been using the free agency period to stuff their figurative mouths with running backs.

Yet I believe there will be at least 4 running backs who average 20-touches per game for 2019:

  • Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) – with virtually no one to challenge him and an old school head coach, his third consecutive season of 20-touches is essentially a certainty.
  • Saquon Barkley (NYG) – identical situation as Elliott’s. Not much depth behind him and Shula will get what he can out of the Giants’ best player both in the run game and pass game.
  • Le’Veon Bell (NYJ) – Bell averaged 20 touches in 4 out 5 seasons. Clearly the best player on the Jets, coach Adam Gase will ring up Bell’s number often.
  • Alvin Kamara (NO) – while he fell short last season with only 18.3 touches per game, Mark Ingram (who split 37% of their touches) is gone. Unless the Saints add depth in the draft, I can’t see new RB Latavius Murray getting the type of touches Ingram had.

Players I don’t see reaching the 20-touch mark:

  • Leonard Fournette (JAX) – he missed half the season with a hamstring issue, while he is a dual threat back who can catch, new OC John DeFilippo virtually ignored the run game as coordinator of the Vikings. Plus he has new QB Nick Foles.
  • Todd Gurley (LAR) – he broke down as the season went on. Reports of arthritis in his knee has some concerned, including me. Don’t get me wrong, he is elite and my guess is he’ll be a stud for most of the season. Maybe.
  • James Conner (PIT) – he filled in admirably for Le’Veon Bell who held out. But his effectiveness started wearing down in week 10, culminating with missing weeks 13-15. The defensive attention given to Antonio Brown who is no longer with the Steelers may add another wrinkle to Conner’s game.
  • Christian McCaffrey (CAR) – a PPR monster, it can’t be a good thing (fantasy wise) when your head coach goes on record saying they want to lighten your load.

I asked this question to start this article: Have you ever been frustrated by a fantasy running back? At the end of the 2019 season, what will be the lingering aftertaste left in most fantasy owners’ mouths? Sweet? Salty? Sour? Or Bitter?

Special shout out to pro-football-reference.com for their research tool, and the Sports Hoopla Message Board.

 

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Joe Mica

Written by 

Joe has been passionate about fantasy football since 2001. He has experience as an owner as well as a commissioner in H2H, auction, redraft and IDP leagues. He has written fantasy football columns since 2010. Submit any fantasy football questions you may have to me on twitter @averagejoem

5 thoughts on “A Taste of Fantasy Running Back Touches”

  1. Excellent article Joe – the new NFL is here. The days of every team having a true #1 RB seem distend to go the way of the dinosaur. ..

  2. Joe,
    Excellent subject matter. However I can’t see the graph and no add blocker is on. So not sure why I don’t see it.
    Definitively the workhorse of old is going extinct, course that makes the few still around like gold.
    Maybe you can help me out with that graph ? I’m really interested in seeing it.

    1. Not sure why you couldn’t see the graph, and if it was just one specific one or all three. I uploaded new ones in a different smaller file format – not sure if that will help or not. Let me know; worst case I can email you a copy of them.

  3. Well another great read..one of if not my now fave writer… oh and im certainly happy to own DoublEE on my Dynasty team..the days of the true number 1 are certainly leaving us…

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