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High-volume backs

Are heavily used running backs more likely to break down?

When a running back handles a big workload, does that make him a player we should be trying to pick (because he’s proven he can handle the wear and tear of the position)? Or is it best to stay away from such players (figuring that they are overdue to break down)?

The two prime candidates this year are Josh Jacobs (pictured) and Derrick Henry. Jacobs handled the ball 393 times last year, winning his first rushing title. Henry actually averaged more touches per game but sat out one week, finishing at 382 touches.

I pulled up some numbers on this, seeing if we can couldn’t anything from the big data figures. There have been 80 other running backs in the 32-team era who have handled the ball at least 350 times. (That’s after setting aside guys who didn’t play at all in the next season – like unsigned LeVeon Bell or retired Tiki Barber). If we look at how those players performed in their next season, 25 of the 80 played in 12 or fewer games. About a third, in a rough sense, missed a decent amount of action. If we consider starting 13 of 16 games to be a healthy or relatively healthy season, then about two thirds of these backs checked out OK the next year.

I’m listing all of those backs below. The ones who played in 12 or fewer games are tagged with black dots. There are plenty of them, underscoring that if you choose to regularly use your first-round picks on high-use running backs, you will be hitting some of those black dots, putting your fantasy team in an early hole that will need to be overcome in the later rounds.

The players are ranked in descending order by their touches the previous season (the three guys with about 450 touches are at the top, and the backs down with about 350 touches are at the bottom).

RUNNING BACKS WITH 350 TOUCHES (the next season)
YearPlayer (prev. touches)AgeGTouchRunRecTotTD
2007• Larry Johnson, K.C. (457)2881885591867454
2003LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (451)24164131,6457252,37017
2015DeMarco Murray, Phil. (449)27152377023221,0247
2007• Steven Jackson, St.L. (436)24122751,0022711,2736
2003Ricky Williams, Mia. (430)26164421,3723511,72310
2004Deuce McAllister, N.O. (420)26143031,0742281,3029
2004• Jamal Lewis, Balt. (413)25122451,0061161,1227
2004LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (413)25153921,3354411,77618
2005• Curtis Martin, NYJ (412)32122447351188535
2006Tiki Barber, NYG (411)31163851,6624652,1275
2010Chris Johnson, Ten. (408)25163601,3642451,60912
2004Ahman Green, G.B. (405)27152991,1632751,4388
2007LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (404)28163751,4744751,94918
2006Edgerrin James, Ariz. (404)28163751,1592171,3766
2020• Christian McCaffrey, Car. (403)243762251493746
2021• Derrick Henry, Ten. (397)2782379371541,09110
2004• Priest Holmes, K.C. (394)3182158921871,07915
2011Arian Foster, Hou. (393)25133311,2246171,84112
2004Fred Taylor, Jac. (393)28142961,2243451,5693
2023Josh Jacobs, L.V. (393)25??????
2005LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (392)26163901,4623701,83220
2013• Arian Foster, Hou. (391)2781435421837252
2006LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (390)27164041,8155082,32331
2013Adrian Peterson, Min. (388)28143081,2661711,43711
2012• Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac. (386)276100414865002
2006• Shaun Alexander, Sea. (385)2910264896489447
2005Edgerrin James, Ind. (385)27154041,5063371,84314
2009Adrian Peterson, Min. (384)24163571,3834361,81918
2005Clinton Portis, Was. (383)24163821,5162161,73211
2003Priest Holmes, K.C. (383)30163941,4206902,11027
2006• Clinton Portis, Was. (382)2581445231706937
2009• Michael Turner, Atl. (382)27111838713590610
2023Derrick Henry, Ten. (382)29??????
2019Ezekiel Elliott, Dall. (381)24163551,3574201,77714
2022Najee Harris, Pitt. (381)24173131,0342291,26310
2009Matt Forte, Chi. (379)24163159294711,4004
2003Eddie George, Ten. (379)30163341,0311631,1945
2011Steven Jackson, St.L. (376)28153021,1453331,4786
2005Shaun Alexander, Sea. (376)28163851,880781,95828
2005Rudi Johnson, Cin. (376)26163601,458901,54812
2010Steven Jackson, St.L. (375)27163761,2413831,6246
2008LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D. (375)29163441,1104261,53612
2007Edgerrin James, Ariz. (375)29163481,2222041,4267
2005Tiki Barber, NYG (374)30164111,8605302,39011
2017• David Johnson, Ariz. (373)261172367900
2015• LeVeon Bell, Pitt. (373)2361375561366923
2007Frank Gore, S.F. (373)24153131,1024361,5386
2003Tiki Barber, NYG (373)28163471,2164611,6773
2022• Jonathan Taylor, Ind. (372)23112208611431,0044
2008Clinton Portis, Was. (372)27163701,4872181,7059
2003Deuce McAllister, N.O. (372)25164201,6415162,1578
2009• Clinton Portis, Was. (370)288133494575512
2005• Domanick Williams, Hou. (370)25112699763371,3136
2011Ray Rice, Balt. (370)24163671,3647042,06815
2006Larry Johnson, K.C. (369)27164571,7894102,19919
2013• Doug Martin, T.B. (368)246139456665221
2015Matt Forte, Chi. (368)30132628983891,2877
2008Brian Westbrook, Phil. (368)29142879364021,33814
2007Willie Parker, Pitt. (368)27153441,3161641,4802
2003Travis Henry, Buff. (368)25153591,3561581,51411
2004Shaun Alexander, Sea. (368)27163761,6961701,86620
2012Ray Rice, Balt. (367)25163181,1434781,62110
2014LeSean McCoy, Phil. (366)26163401,3191551,4745
2010Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac. (365)25143331,3243171,6417
2004Curtis Martin, NYJ (365)31164121,6972451,94214
2007• Rudi Johnson, Cin. (364)28111834971106074
2014Matt Forte, Chi. (363)29163681,0388081,84610
2004Edgerrin James, Ind. (361)26163851,5484832,0319
2005• Corey Dillon, N.E. (360)311223173318191413
2011Chris Johnson, Ten. (360)26163191,0474181,4654
2006Rudi Johnson, Cin. (360)27163641,3091241,43312
2004• Travis Henry, Buff. (359)2610104326453710
2016• Adrian Peterson, Min. (357)31340728800
2003Corey Dillon, Cin. (357)2913149541716122
2010Adrian Peterson, Min. (357)25153191,2983411,63913
2021Dalvin Cook, Min. (356)26132831,1592241,3836
2020Ezekiel Elliott, Dall. (355)25152969793381,3178
2003Jamal Lewis, Balt. (355)24164132,0662052,27114
2017• Ezekiel Elliott, Dall. (354)22102689832691,2529
2003Shaun Alexander, Sea. (354)26163681,4352951,73016
2006Willis McGahee, Buff. (353)25142779901561,1466
2019Saquon Barkley, NYG (352)22132691,0034381,4418

On this topic, I also ran the numbers for running backs with 300 to 349 touches. I wanted to see if they looked noticeably more durable than the 350-plus guys. I didn’t see much; 26 of those 99 played in 12 or fewer games. That group averaged 14.5 games the next season, a little more than a game more than the first group of 80.

While 26 of 99 is better miss ratio than 25 of 80 (and with an extra game), the overall stats were weren’t compelling. The 350-plus touch players in their next seasons averaged 21 more touches for 102 more yards, with a 9.4 to 9.0 edge in touchdowns. So they finished with better stats (on average) despite playing a little less.

Circling back to our two candidates for this year, neither looks like a super compelling candidate. (Will be a surprise if at least one of them isn’t a black ball guy.) With he played in 17 games last year, Jacobs has had problems staying healthy in the past, and he’ll be running behind maybe the worst offensive line in the league. And I’m expecting the Raiders will have quarterbacking problems at some point. He’s also unsigned at this point, and we’ll need to see how that plays out. I wouldn’t be excited about coming out of a first round with Jacobs as my pick.

With Henry, I don’t know that it makes sense to compare him to other backs. He’s bigger than regular players, and with a history of getting better as he gets more carries. He’s like Jim Brown in the early ‘60s. But he’s also playing on a lesser team. The Colts and Texans are also in the AFC South, making Tennessee less likely to finish in last in its division, but it’s got a painfully limited offense. So I would say Henry is in the same class as Jacobs – a player who might grade out as a late first-round pick, but you don’t want to be the guy who selects him there.

—Ian Allan

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