I listened to the CBS Fantasy Football Today Podcast a couple of times last week, and this was the first time that I had taken the occasion to do so in about a year. On the show, a debate opened up about Joseph Randle, who seems to have become somewhat of a polarizing figure this preseason. I don’t recall the exact nature of the debate, but it concerned Randle’s overall potential for this season.
The debate was somewhat ended (since I have only listened to the podcast once since then, the topic may have come up again and I’m not aware of it) when Heath Cummings (this isn’t the exact language but it’s approximate) argued that there haven’t been many running backs that have turned out to be successful after having less than 100 carries in each of their first two seasons.
Intuitively, the narrative makes sense. If a running back was actually talented, they would have been good enough to get at least 100 carries in one of their first two seasons: not a very high bar to cross. However, I heard that and thought, “Do we really know that?”
The basic question is, are there running backs who turned out to be successful after barely playing in each of their first two seasons?
If we can answer this question, it not only informs us about the possibilities for Joseph Randle, but it tells us about the upside for any other running back who is asked to be a contributor after seeing limited action at the start of their career.
Let’s Get to The Bottom of This
To solve our question above, I looked at all running backs since 1998 who had less than 100 carries in each of their first two seasons. My data only goes back to 1989, so if a player started their career before 1989 and played until 1998, their first season would be before the first year of our data; however, to my knowledge, I don’t know of any running backs who played in 1998 and started their careers before 1989, so we should be safe.
Once I had this list of players, I looked at the best Fantasy seasons for this group of players (i.e. the running backs who barely played their first two seasons), which you can find below. The list contains the Top 100 Fantasy seasons for players of this group.
If Heath is right, especially since our population is relatively small and only goes back to 1998, we shouldn’t recognize any of the names at the top of this list; they should be players that are irrelevant and never produced at a meaningful level.
Not only do we recognize a lot of the names on this list, but we can also see a lot of quality players in this group.
We now know that it is possible for a running back to turn into a good player after seeing limited carries in their first two years, but we have also learned that it’s somewhat common for it to happen. It amazes me how often players come out of nowhere to have productive careers; C.J. Anderson was an undrafted free agent and is now a first or second round pick in most Fantasy drafts this year; Cameron Wake was cut by the Giants, out of football, and in the CFL, and still turned into one of the best edge defenders in the NFL at age 27. Our ability to predict the future performance of NFL players is poor, and the more we realize this, the better we will become at our forecasts.
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