In 2014, Adrian Peterson had 23 touches (carries and catches) after handling the ball 308 times the year before. He came back in 2015 to rank 2nd in points per reception formats. In 2014-2015, DeMarco Murray went from 449 touches to 237. He ended 2016 as the #6 RB for fantasy. These two RBs went from stud to dud to stud again (in fairness, Murray was #14 in total points in 2015, it just seemed like he was a dud because he was drafted much higher than that). But how common is that? 

I went back to 1988 to find all RBs who had 200+ touches and then saw their usage decline by at least a third the next year. How did they do in the year following that workload drop?

Not counting the backs who saw their touches fall in 2016, I came up with 242 RBs meeting these criteria. Murray and Peterson were exceptional

RB Fantasy Category the Year After a Big Workload Drop

Top 6

Other RB1

RB2

RB3

RB4

RB5

RB6

RB7+

DNP

Total

9

7

22

30

29

22

13

50

60

242

Only 9 of the running backs managed a Top 6 finish (total points, PPR, standard yardage and TD scoring). Another 7 fell into the RB1 category (I'm using 12-team league standards, so an RB1 is a Top 12 back, an RB2 finished #13-24, RB3 #25-36, etc.). Fifty of these RBs weren't even worth rostering (RB7+) and 60 did not play (DNP), or at least received no touches from scrimmage.

Of course, those 242 backs were all ages and ability levels – although few teams will give 200+ touches to a totally useless NFL back. So I broke them down first by age and then by performance before their workload was cut to see if I could find clues as to who would be like Peterson and Murray and who should be avoided on your fantasy roster.

First, I divided the RBs by age: 

RB Fantasy Category the Year After a Big Workload Drop

Age

Top 6

Other RB1

RB2

RB3

RB4

RB5

RB6

RB7+

DNP

Total

21 to 23

1

3

1

1

2

3

 

5

3

19

24 to 26

3

3

6

12

8

6

4

15

12

69

27 to 29

4

1

13

11

11

8

5

19

23

95

30 to 32

1

 

2

5

8

4

4

9

15

48

33+

 

 

 

1

 

1

 

2

7

11

Total

9

7

22

30

29

22

13

50

60

242

The number of RBs age 23 or younger who have a heavy workload, then a drop, is pretty small; a lot of RBs haven't even played two years by the time they are 23. And very few RBs over 33 return after a big fall in usage – and even fewer have any fantasy value. Only one RB over 30 came back to be an RB1 after a significant drop in usage the previous year – that was DeAngelo Williams in 2015 filling in for Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh after only playing 6 games with Carolina in 2014 (67 touches vs. 227 in 2013).

Here's a graphical breakdown, with RB1 thru RB3 classified as "Starters" (assuming 2 RB plus a flex lineups), RB4 thru RB6 as benchwarmers, and RB7+ being players on the waiver wire:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice the table was raw numbers, while this chart is in percentages. For example, from the table, 6 RBs in the age 21 to 23 group are RB3s or better – that is 32% of all backs in this age group. 

From age 21 to 29, about 30% of RBs coming back from a big usage drop fall into the "starter" category. Another quarter of those players are worth having on a fantasy roster, although on the bench. Probably the biggest difference in the three youngest age groups is that from 27 to 29 there is a noticeable increase in DNPs: from the mid-teens in percentage terms up to around 25%.

After 30, the share of RBs who rebound from a workload cut to fantasy starter (even defined liberally) is pretty low (the raw numbers are small too). The DNPs go up sharply too. In dynasty/keeper formats, you can pretty safely bail on them. In redraft leagues, a decent percentage of 30 to 32 year-olds are worth a bench spot for a cheap price. Remember there are only 11 RBs those 33+ bars.

Of course, there is a big difference between a stud RB and an RB3, so the next chart breaks down "Starter" into more useful categories:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 20% of very young backs who had a usage decline bounce back to RB1 levels. This is much higher than from 24 to 26 year olds. And that group has about twice as large a share of RB1s as the age 27 to 29 category – although they have an equal share of Top 6 studs. Check out the first table to see the raw numbers vs. the percentages.

While we saw in the previous chart that the 27 to 29 year olds had about the same share of starters as the two younger groups, the second chart makes it clear that these are more likely to be RB2s or RB3s – Peterson and Murray were both in the 27 to 29 category and pushed up the Top 6 share, but they were clearly exceptions. Most backs this age experiencing a workload decline are not going to come back to the RB1 level. 

After age 30, there is DeAngelo Williams reclaiming RB1 status after his touches dropped, and then James Stewart (DET, 2002) and Corey Dillon (NE, 2006) at the RB2 level. Dillon actually was an RB2 in 2005 even though he had only 64% of his 2004 touches. His load dropped even more in 2006 – 93% of 2005 – but he had a lot of TD value all three years (13, 13, and 13 rush/receiving scores) despite declining overall touches. From age 33+ on, a big workload drop appears to be a strong hint that a back's RB2 or better days are done.

Whatever the age of these backs, they had varying fantasy value BEFORE their touches fell. The next table breaks that down:

RB Fantasy Category the Year After a Big Workload Drop

CAT Before Drop

Top 6

Other RB1

RB2

RB3

RB4

RB5

RB6

RB7+

DNP

Total

Top 6

4

3

5

6

4

5

1

6

3

37

Other RB1

4

1

6

3

8

1

6

9

3

41

RB2

1

3

10

16

10

9

5

27

25

106

RB3

 

 

1

4

6

5

1

8

25

50

RB4

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

4

6

RB5

 

 

 

1

1

 

 

 

 

2

Total

9

7

22

30

29

22

13

50

60

242

So 37 of these 242 RBs were Top 6 backs before their workload dropped by a third. Four of those 37 came back with a Top 6 year. Compare that to the "Other RB1s" in the before category: the differences aren't huge in the comeback season but the better "before" backs were a little better on the whole afterwards, as the next chart shows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peterson and Murray, of course, were Top-6 backs before their touches fell: about half of those backs came back to the starter level and three-quarters were worth having on a roster. Of course, if you pay Top 6 draft capital for them, about half the time you will be badly disappointed. At each drop in "before" value, there is a corresponding decline in the performance after the workload cut. Only 10% of RB3s who see their touches fall in one year turn it around and become starter-worthy the next season – half don't even play.

The RB4/5s in the before category were too small in number to bother charting; none did better than an RB3 after their touches dropped. But really, it's hard to be an RB4 or worse on 200+ touches.

Again, there is a lot of room between a Top 6 RB and an RB3:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top-6 RBs are more likely than any other performance group to come back as Top-6 RBs. That might seem obvious – but it's also noteworthy that those same backs are much more likely to be RB2/3s than RB1s. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

Other RB1s before a workload decline only get back to RB1 status around 12% of the time – but when they do, they more likely are studs than also-ran RB1s. That alone isn't cause for excitement: only a third of them even make it back to the "Starter" level at all.

A very small percentage of "before" RB2s are "after" RB1s, and they are more likely to be RB3s than RB2s in the year after their touches dropped. No player at the RB3 level saw his opportunities cut by a third and then produced as an RB1 the following season –RB2 scoring was also rare, and while RB3 was the most likely "starter" level, that was still a small overall share.

I did not try to differentiate between the reasons why a back's touches were diminished. But I did look at how many games each RB played in the season he was cut back.

RB Fantasy Category the Year After a Big Workload Drop

GPs When Workload Dropped

Top 6

Other RB1

RB2

RB3

RB4

RB5

RB6

RB7+

DNP

Total

0 to 4

1

2

3

1

5

 

1

6

11

30

5 to 8

5

 

8

7

6

4

2

5

15

52

9 to 12

1

2

8

11

7

4

3

22

16

74

13 to 15

2

3

2

8

2

7

3

14

11

52

16

 

 

1

3

9

7

4

3

7

34

Total

9

7

22

30

29

22

13

50

60

242

Notice that if a back played all 16 games AND had his touches fall he was very unlikely to be even an RB2 much less an RB1 in the next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While Peterson was suspended the year his touches fell so dramatically, most RBs who play 4 or fewer games probably had a serious injury as a cause for the fall. So it's not surprising that they were also the most likely to "DNP" the next year. 

RBs with 5 to 8 games played are the most likely to come back at the starter level, although they are also have a higher share of DNP than the backs who made it through more games. There is not a lot of difference in the RBs who played 9 to 12 and 13 to 15 games in how well they do in the subsequent season after there touches fall: about 30% are starters, 20% are bench players, and the rest waiver material or bot playing.

While most backs who play every game AND see their opportunities fall are worth a roster spot, that spot is on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RBs who played over half the scheduled games while seeing touches drop by a third or more are most likely going to be RB3s if they are startable at all. No back who played every game while taking a big workload loss came back to the RB1 level.

There probably are some anomalies explaining the gap in "other RB1" performance for RBs who play 5 to 8 games, but whatever the reason these are the backs most likely to put up stud RB points the next year (that's still less than 10% of them). 

To summarize:

  • What Peterson and Murray did was unusual.
  • Backs that manage to come back from a workload cut were very good to begin with and under 30 years old.
  • Even younger is better.
  • RB3s who have their touches taken away probably aren't coming back.
  • Backs who play every game and see a big drop in usage probably are done too – at least above the RB3 level.
  • RBs who appear 5 to 8 times in a season where their touches decline sharply are more likely to recover fantasy value than those who play more than half their games.