For as long as there has been fantasy football, players have sought every little edge they can find. One edge is knowing when it’s time to invest in a given player. Another is when it’s time to avoid one. Understanding a player’s workload and how it impacts him long term can create unique buying and selling opportunities. This is especially true in dynasty leagues.
The Curse of 370:
While volume is king in fantasy football the wrong type of volume/workload can have a significant impact on a player’s long-term NFL performance. Carrying the ball frequently can increase a running back’s risk of injury and lead to a shorter career. This was first noticed in the 90’s-00’s when the “Curse of 370” was talking point. This curse suggests that running backs who carry the ball more than 370 times in a season are at a higher risk of injury. Conversely, running backs who catch more passes and have fewer carries may be able to play longer than those who primarily carry the ball. Catching passes tends to be less physically demanding and involves lower impact hits.
It’s worth stating that few backs see 370 carries in today’s NFL. The number of running backs who carry the this frequently has declined in recent years. It’s commonplace now for many (nearly all) teams to have a running back by committee approach. This minimizes injury risk and maximizes productivity.
The 370 Carry Club:
Since 2013, only two running backs have had more than 370 carries in a single season. They are DeMarco Murray (392 in 2014) and Derrick Henry (378 in 2020). That’s a short list let’s dig in to how they fared, shall we?
DeMarco Murray left the Dallas Cowboys for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and watched his productivity drop off a cliff. He missed one game with a pulled hamstring and was basically benched after week 11. While he rebounded in 2016, his fantasy productivity was sapped, and his career ended in 2017 at age 29. Ouch.
Derrick Henry followed up his monster 378 carry campaign with an incredible 8 game stretch. Looking like a league MVP he piled up nearly 1,000 yards. However, during his 8th game, he suffered a Jones Fracture. This injury ended his campaign and likely the championship hopes of countless fantasy managers.
While we don’t expect to see many backs get this kind of rushing volume in 2023 and beyond it’s important to understand that there is still risk in combined rushing and receiving over exposure.
Risks of Too Much Volume in a Small Window:
Using historical data and the 370 carry curse as a short term guide, we’re able to target two milestones that could spell impending doom for running backs. There are two numbers that stand out; the first is 725, and the other is 1600.
These numbers relate to something I call Running Back Workload (clever name, right?). Running Back Workload = Carries + (Receptions * 0.75). In fantasy, volume is king; however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
A 725+ Workload Score in any 33 game regular season stretch results in heightened injury risk and performance drop-off. See Christian McCaffrey in 2020 and Derrick Henry in 2021. Both players were massive volume leaders and subsequently had following seasons ruined by injury. They are the only two recent examples of players who cleared the 725 milestone. We can also look at DeMarco Murray’s 2013-2015 stretch, where he got to a score of 724.25 by week 2 of the 2015 season. He promptly missed week 3 and, as noted above, had limited effectiveness for the remainder of that year. As few backs hit this milestone I can concede that the sample is small. However it has shown to matter as it had a negative impact on 100% of the players who cleared the milestone; DeMarco Murray, Christian McCaffrey, and Derrick Henry.
The End of the Road:
While we can identify short and intermediate warning signs, what about the longer-term consequences of a running back’s workload? The 1,600 figure referenced earlier relates to career-level usage. The fact is, running backs can fail at any age. From my research, the biggest factor in a running back’s failure is their workload. A 1,600 “Workload Score” places the player in the danger zone. The danger zone is no longer just for Top Gun movies, Archer, or a Kenny Loggins track. Instead, it’s an alarm to indicate when it’s time to move on from a player. Hopefully leveraging their name value for younger assets.
A recent example of this is Ezekiel Elliott, whose career workload score led me to advise people to pass on him in favor of Tony Pollard before the 2022 season. Unfortunately, Elliott cleared the 1,600 mark during the 2021 season, and as predicted, he experienced a significant drop-off in 2022. Although the Cowboys tried to force feed Elliott touches and targets, he was inefficient and suffered career lows in efficiency and counting stats to include rushing yards, receiving yards, receiving TDs, yards per carry and yards per target.
Fantasy managers locked Elliott into their lineups early in the year as they drafted him as the RB15, effectively forcing their hand. This was detrimental to their success as he produced single-digit PPR points in three of the first five weeks. Elliott’s early-season struggles may have led managers to bench him for his respectable weeks 6-7, only to lose him to injury and a bye week in weeks 8-10. While Elliott was much better down the stretch, scoring 8 TDs from weeks 10-16, every one of those touchdowns came from inside the 10-yard line. Falsely inflating his value. It’s not surprising that Dallas cut him after the 2022 season and as of this writing is still a free agent (June 2023).
Looking Ahead to 2023:
How does this relate to 2023? Derrick Henry has a workload score of 1,845, he cleared the 1,600 barrier in 2022. This puts him firmly in the danger zone. To add another layer of risk, Henry also eclipsed a 33-game workload score of 725 for the second time in his career in 2022. The Titans are likely aware that their 29-year-old herculean running back is nearing the end of the road. Henry may be “built differently,” but his career usage and age have led to rampant speculation that Henry could be traded. While I wouldn’t expect a trade, I would be actively moving him off of my dynasty rosters as fast as I can.
The risk is real. In 2022, I advised people to pass on “Zeke”. There were several options that I mentioned as better values like Tony Pollard (RB30 ADP), Miles Sanders (RB27 ADP), and Rhamondre Stevenson (RB34 ADP). Elliott’s risk of failure was too high given his career workload number of 1,600. If you took Elliott, you likely struggled at RB in 2022.
In 2023, I’m advising you to pass on Derrick Henry as he’s the only notable RB in the danger zone for 2023. As the preseason shakes out it might be worth adding the Titans number 2 running back to you roster late in drafts. Whoever wins that job could be a high upside volume play.
Remember it’s always better to get out a year early than a year late. Good luck this season and keep an eye out for more running back workload content this summer.