Back in the old days of fantasy football drafts, if you didn’t take running backs with your first two picks, you were probably doomed. The number of bell cow running backs were much higher and guys often held their value better. In today’s NFL, we see less of the dominant back and more of the running back by committee approach.
The number of rushing attempts per game has not dropped much over the past 12 years, averaging around 26-27 attempts per game, per team. The number of targeted passes to running backs has not changed significantly over the past eight years. It is all about coaching philosophy that has changed our definition of bell cow backs over the years. We need more cow bell!
Old Way vs New Way
Turn back the clock to 2010, and we saw an average of 10 running backs with 300 or more touches per season. If you break down the statistics even more, you see that number would have been even higher if a few more backs stayed healthy. While game situations affect the number of touches significantly from game to game, the number of running backs with 20-25 touches per game has dropped over the past 10 years. The shelf life of a starter hasn’t lengthened, with fewer touches, but more and more coaches believe in splitting the touches more.
Redefining the Bell Cow
20-25 carries a game used to be the accepted definition of “bell cow.” Since most teams averaged around 25 rushing attempts per game, this meant your bell cow was getting over 90% of the carries. In today’s NFL, and especially in today’s PPR world of fantasy football, my definition of bell cow has changed to look at total touches versus carries, since I don’t care how a running back gets the ball, I just want the guy who gets it often.
300+ Touch Club
Last year, only five running backs made it into the 300+ touch club: Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson. Only three of those guys have been a member of that club in the past: Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson. Among active running backs heading into the 2019 season, only Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson have been members of the 300+ touch club in three or more seasons. While you will always hear me preach about ignoring yearly totals in favor of weekly performance in fantasy, when it comes to the 300+ touch club, it also shows the ability to stay healthy.
Projected 300+ Club Members
Over the past five seasons, an average of five players have exceeded 300+ touches, so it makes sense to pick my five guys most likely to hit this total. The first two are obvious, since the Giants will lean heavily on Barkley and the Cowboys on Elliott. The ironic part of the 300+ barrier being breached so infrequently is that a player needs to average a little over 21 carries per game and play 14 games. Le’Veon Bell would be my third most likely player to make the club, despite playing for a coach who has been known for splitting carries among his backs. Melvin Gordon will also get a nod from me this season and will eclipse that mark for the second time in his career, if he can play 14 or more games. While veteran David Johnson or rookie Josh Jacobs might be the logical picks for the fifth spot, I will be bold and forecast that rookie David Montgomery has the edge to be the fifth member of the club this year.
We clearly need more cow bell to make the running back slot easier to handicap in fantasy football this season.