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When do Running Backs Tend to Breakout?

Running backs are seen as more likely to succeed early in their careers. We also expect them to play for fewer seasons and have a smaller fantasy relevant window. Anticipating when a running back will have their breakout is an important factor in fantasy football drafts. This coupled with the 2017 season seeing a boom in production for the position has led to Running backs shooting up draft board ADP.

So, when do running backs breakout? Is there anything that can help us decide when we should “give up” on a running back that hasn’t broken out yet? What are the chances for lower draft capital running backs?

When Do Running Backs First Have a Breakout?

Running backs break out in their first year more than any other point in their careers. They also breakout out in year one more than any other position.

Running Backs who breakout to any level in their first two years are also normally the most valuable.

  • 71 running backs have broke into the top-12 in PPR since 2000, 43 were in the first two years
  • Of the 28 players to breakout after their second year, only 11 have been in the top 12 more than once, 39%
  • 43 who broke out in their first two years, 29 of which have been in the top 12 more than once, 65%

Draft Capital is also a clear divider for opportunity and success for Running Backs.

Unlike wide receivers, running back drafted outside round three are less likely to break out after their second season. Even UDFA’s (Undrafted Free Agents = round 8) seem to have a higher chance.

My guess is that this is because those drafted inside rounds four to seven are much more likely to be targeted for their special teams. UDFA’s also have an advantage, of a sort, by getting to choose the team they sign with. Something perhaps supported by the fact five out of the eight UDFA’s to break out into the top 12 since 2000, five of them did so on the same team they initial played for.

The window is large enough for UDFA’s that players like Corey Clement and Matt Bredia should remain interesting for a while and even those like Zach Zenner and Corey Grant remain “in the window” to finish in the top 24 in PPR. In any case, the relatively tiny number of those who do means they will always be a long shot.

Running backs drafts outside of the top three rounds have broken out 22 times since 2000. Out of that group 19 did so after their second year, 86%, and 13 broke out after their second year, 59%.

What do Breakout Running Backs do, before their Breakout?

Draft capital is an indicator of volume and opportunity. Efficiency, or performance, is a lot harder to predict and a lot less stable year after year. However, I think it’s possible to find trends in breakout players. Namely a certain level of volume before they break out and an increase in efficiency.

Unfortunately, the production measurements for the average breakout player are too low to really be useful. However, there is a pattern of increasing usage each year. Both YPC and YPT are basically worthless stats that don’t explain or predict running back efficiency in a given year let along predict it the next year. The increase in both, before a breakout, on average suggests some level of increased play along with increasing volume.

The best measure of performance for running back available on FFstatistics are the “Yards Per Rush” graphs original created by Michael Zingone @FFzinger. They are available in the Data Analysis>Offensive Patterns>Running Backs>Yards Per Rush submenu.

So I suggest using them to consider some of the potential 2nd and 3rd-year breakout candidates in 2018.

Second Year Breakout Candidates in 2018

Joe Mixon struggled in his rookie season. Based on the percentage of his runs that went for different gains his efficiency looks…okay. He struggled to find big plays in 2017 and saw a few too many go for less than 2 yards. However, nothing in his profile is overly worrying. I still think Giovanni Bernard is a legitimate threat. Hopefully if Mixon can increase his efficiency in 2018 as he definitely has the potential to breakout.

Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, and Jamaal Williams are the other interesting names on the list. None of them except maybe Jamaal Williams had enough carries to really form a solid opinion. However, there are some noticeable things about their 2017 performance.

  • Jamaal Williams had too many of his runs go for two yards to less, while at the same time being bolstered by some big 7 plus gains
  • Aaron Jones has by far the most impressive Yards Gained graph of the group. He was incredibly efficient in 2017, gaining above average runs over 4 yards gained.
  • Marlon Mack struggled a lot in short yardage gains and seems to have racked up yards on big splash plays over 8 yards gained. He also had way too many of his carries go for minus yards.

Third Year Breakout Candidates for 2018

Derrick Henry’s production looks good compared to the average for third-year breakouts. However, he struggled to find traction in 2017.

Way too many of his runs went for negative yards and he could not produce even league average gains at 2 plus yards gained. This looks very different from his 2016 performance.

If he can recoup some of his 2016 efficiency and gained opportunity competing with Dion Lewis he could be a breakout candidate. However, his 2017 dip in efficiency is concerning.

Other notes:

  • Kenyan Drakes 2017 performance on 133 carries was, odd. I still have concerns about whether he can be a high volume running back in 2018. He did have a high percentage of his carries go for 4 plus yards
  • Devontae Booker had too few carries in 2017 for his efficiency in year two to be descriptive. But his runs went for a high number of runs over four yards which is positive

Conclusion

Running Backs are tricky. They require a volume of carries to produce in fantasy, and volume is in some part indicative of talent. However, with the level of efficiency stats, we have right now it’s a coin flip as to whether we can know a player is talented enough to earn an opportunity before it happens. As such we are more heavily dependent on reading the situation, to find opportunity.

In other words, draft capital is the biggest and most predictive for projecting volume. Our best bet for adjusting draft capital with performance are new tools like Yards Per Rush Graphs available on FFstatistics from Michel Zingone.

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