Anticipating the Breakout: Running Back Trends & Breakout Candidates (Fantasy Football)

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Identifying that next breakout player before the rest of your league mates can truly give you an edge in your fantasy leagues. And while we can safely project the Cooper Kupps and Jonathan Taylors of the fantasy world to remain elite options at their positions (barring any injury), there will undoubtedly be a few new faces that emerge into fantasy relevance this upcoming season. 

Which players are most likely to have a breakout season? And for dynasty purposes, should I continue to hold on to a player in hopes that this is the year they *finally* break out? To answer these questions, I analyzed 22 years of fantasy data to find any trends and similarities among the players that broke out during that timespan. 

To start my breakout article series, I focused on the Running Back position. Before we dig into my findings, here are some of the parameters of my analysis:

  • The timeframe of my dataset spans from 2000 to 2021 (sourced from Stathead)
  • To identify the breakout seasons in that timespan, I filtered on players that were drafted since 2000
  • A breakout season for a Running Back is identified as a top-24 fantasy season in PPR per game scoring (min. 8 games played)
  • My sample size only includes players that were drafted and exclude UDFAs
  • Sample Size: 139 Breakout Running Backs

Let’s dive in!

Breakouts by Draft Capital + Hit Rates

To start things off, I charted all 139 running backs based on their draft round. To no surprise, the first round had the highest number of breakouts with 41, while the second and third rounds each had 28. And finally, we have a total of 42 breakout running backs in my sample size from rounds four through seven. While this partially shows the predictive value of draft capital, we need more information to fully capture its significance. That brings us to the table below. To expand this further, I isolated my sample size to players that were drafted between 2000 to 2015 (instead of 2021). This leaves us with a group of running backs who have had at least seven seasons to break out for fantasy managers. This then also excludes players like Travis Etienne or Cam Akers who have only had a few seasons to emerge. 

Once we bring in the total number of players drafted in each round, we can calculate the more significant data point known as the breakout hit rate (Breakouts ÷ Total Drafted). Clearly, draft capital is crucial in identifying the next breakout running back as we see an impressive hit rate of 78.57% for first-round Running Backs. This is exactly why first-round running backs are so valuable in dynasty rookie drafts as they almost always return at least one RB2 season in their career. We see a significant drop-off in hit rates for day 2 running backs as only 46.5% experienced a breakout season for fantasy. And lastly, the hit rates for day-3 running backs come in at only 14.1%, proving that the odds of finding the next Lamar Miller or Aaron Jones are rather low.

There are ways to further improve the accuracy of these hit rates by accounting for college production, specifically when we modify the data using experience thresholds. I dig into that concept more in my article from earlier this off-season titled Experience-Adjusted College Production and Its Impact on Prospect Hit Rates

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It is also important to note that not every breakout season is created equal. Using the same dataset of players drafted from 2000 to 2015, we see that reflected based on my findings below:

For running backs drafted in the 1st Round, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is RB12
  • The average PPR per game production is 15.9
  • 51.5% finished within the top 12
  • Average 3.9 Top-24 Seasons in their career

Not only are 1st round running backs more likely to break out, but when they do take that leap into fantasy relevance, there is a greater than 50% chance they finish within the top-12. 

For running backs drafted in the 2nd and 3rd Round, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is RB14
  • The average PPR per game production is 14.9
  • 43.6% finished within the top 12
  • Average 3.0 Top-24 Seasons in their career

We see a slight dip in overall production for day 2 running backs, while the average fantasy finish is closer to a high-end RB2.

For running backs drafted in the 4th – 7th Round, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is RB15
  • The average PPR per game production is 14.6
  • 38.2% finished within the top 12
  • Average 1.9 Top-24 Seasons in their career

Surprisingly, we do not see a massive difference in fantasy production compared to day-2 running backs. However, we see a sizable decline in average top-24 seasons. In other words, the chances of finding a day-3 running back breakout are already very slim (14.1% hit rate). But once you do find that player, most of them will only average one additional top-24 season for the remainder of their career.

Breakouts by Age

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After determining that draft capital matters, how can we further identify when these breakouts will occur? Should we expect most running backs to break out as soon as they enter the league? One variable we can look at is age. Once again, I charted all 139 running backs, this time based on their breakout age. As you can see above, most RB breakouts occur at the age of 23. In fact, about 60.4% of breakouts occurred between the ages of 22 and 24. Furthermore, 72.6% of all RB breakouts occurred by age 24, indicating that most occur relatively early in their career.

If we layer in draft capital (per the table below), we see a similar pattern for first-round running backs, with 75.5% of them breaking out by age 23. Age 25 seems to be the cutoff, with only 9.09% of breakouts occurring after that threshold. Interestingly, the only first-round running back to break out at the age of 30 is none other than Cordarelle Patterson. An argument could be made that he would have broken out earlier had he switched positions years ago. And because it’s fun to go down memory lane, the youngest first-round RB breakouts belong to Todd Gurley, Jamal Lewis, Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch, and Reggie Bush – all occurring at age 21. For day-2 running backs, the percentages are relatively similar, though the breakout cutoff seems to happen a year earlier at age 24.

Surprisingly, day-3 running backs somehow have the highest concentration of breakout seasons at age 27. Does this mean we should hold onto day-3 running backs well into the later stages of their career? I believe this implies the opposite. This age group includes players such as Michael Bush and Mike Davis, running backs who mostly had one-and-done breakout seasons, taking advantage of injuries or other circumstances that led to a temporary influx in opportunities. The fact remains that day-3 running backs are easily replaceable and rarely produce multiple top-24 seasons in their careers.

Furthermore, there also seems to be a link between early breakout age and continued fantasy dominance. Below are the average number of top-24 seasons based on breakout age groups:

  • Ages 21 – 23: 3.9 Career Top-24 Seasons
  • Ages 24 – 26: 2.3 Career Top-24 Seasons
  • Ages 27 or older: 1.4 Career Top-24 Seasons

Naturally, the earlier a player breaks out, the more opportunities they have ahead of them to accrue multiple top-24 seasons. However, dominating in the NFL at a young age likely indicates a higher talent level, leading to sustained success in the NFL.

Breakouts by Career Year and Experience

While dissecting fantasy seasons by age can be illuminating, we are not necessarily comparing apples to apples since players enter the NFL at varying ages. For example, in 2015, David Johnson entered the league at age 24, while Todd Gurley started his career that year at age 21. Naturally, Johnson will have a much later breakout age. Instead, we can use career year as a variable to even the playing field. In charting the breakout seasons above, we see a much clearer trend. About 75.5% of all RB breakout seasons occurred within the first three seasons of a player’s career. 

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If we dissect the data further, we see that 72.7% of first-round RB breakout seasons occur within the first two seasons! Again, this is why first-round RBs are so valuable. Not only do they have the highest hit rate, but they also return top-24 value within their first two years. We see a similar trend among day-2 RBs, though with just a slightly higher percentage of Year 3 breakouts. The anomaly once again is within the day-3 RBs, as we see players emerging later in their careers. However, I believe this is more indicative of the unpredictability of day-3 RB breakouts, along with their already low breakout hit rate. And as I mentioned earlier, late breakouts generally lead to one-and-done breakout seasons, as opposed to long, successful careers. If we once again take a look at the average career top-24 seasons based on breakout year, we see this trend very clearly:

  • Breakout in Years 1-2: 3.7 Career Top-24 Seasons
  • Breakout in Years 3-5: 1.9 Career Top-24 Seasons
  • Breakout in Years 6-9: 1.3 Career Top-24 Seasons

Lastly, of the 139 breakout players in my sample size, 87.8% of those running backs had their breakout season with the team that drafted them. Intuitively, this makes sense considering the data above suggests that most breakout seasons occur early in a running back’s career. This also implies that running backs are unlikely to emerge for fantasy if they do decide to leave their team after their initial rookie deal expires.

Potential Breakouts: Which Running Backs Meet Our Thresholds?

To summarize, the most common breakout running back…

  • Was drafted on Day 1 (78.6% hit rate) or Day 2 (46.5% hit rate)
  • Is in the 21 – 24 age group
  • Is currently within the first 2 years of their career
  • Is currently still on the team that drafted them (87.8% of RB breakouts)

Which RBs fall into these categories heading into the 2022 season?

Breece Hall was selected in the 2nd round of this year’s NFL draft. Despite having a lower overall hit rate than day 1 RBs, my research on experience-adjusted production indicated that day-2 running backs (since 2013) tend to have an improved breakout hit rate (roughly 75%) if they possess both an elite college production profile along with entering the league as an early-declare prospect. Hall easily checks both of those boxes, profiling as one of the most productive college running backs over the last decade. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that our UDK rankings currently have him slotted as the RB20 in PPR leagues, projecting an immediate breakout in his rookie year.

Travis Etienne Jr. was a very similar prospect to Hall in that he possessed an elite college production profile entering the NFL. As a first-round pick, he could have had an impactful rookie season had he not suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury. The good news is that Etienne is currently on track to be ready for his age-23 Sophomore campaign. Furthermore, there seems to be a path for Etienne to assume the lead running back role in Doug Pederson’s offense with James Robinson currently recovering from an Achilles tear. So to start the year, Etienne should receive plenty of opportunities as the Jaguars’ RB1, potentially contributing both as a rusher and receiver. Keep in mind, per our very own Matthew Betz’s research in the UDK, players recovering from a Lisfranc injury “experience a 21% drop off in performance compared to their pre-injury levels.” As a result, drafting Etienne does come with some risk. However, the upside remains that he could receive enough opportunities to propel him into RB2 territory.

Javonte Williams just narrowly missed the cutoff last year as he finished as the RB25 in PPR per game scoring in 2021. Entering his age-22 season, there is plenty of optimism (RB12 in ADP) that he could take an even bigger step forward and far exceed our breakout threshold. With Russell Wilson now under center for the Broncos, it would not surprise me if Williams finished as an RB1 this season, assuming he takes on the “Aaron Jones role” in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense. Keep in mind, despite splitting time with Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon, Jones has still averaged around 17.8 opportunities per game while Hackett was Green Bay’s offensive coordinator. And while he didn’t necessarily call the plays in his time with the Packers, it would not surprise me if he implemented a similar playbook in Denver. If Williams can assume a similar workload, he should easily finish as a mid-range RB2 – with the upside to finish within the top 12 if he can find a consistent role in the red zone.

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