Back in 2012, another couple of football geeks asked the question of how much usage is too much usage for a running back in a single season? There was an interesting conclusion reached by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders
A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson.
Schatz did his study back in 2004 which was about the time of the golden era of “bellcow” running backs in the NFL. It’s possible that NFL GMs payed attention to his conclusion (but I doubt it) and started spreading the touches out. ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft looked at this study with new data in during 2011 and 2012 noting that the “curse of 370” not only had immediate but long-term effects on the running back’s career.
Statistically speaking, players affected by the curse generally lose 25.9 percent of their 370-carry campaign’s fantasy production the following year, going game by game; Turner lost 22.3 percent. In their second season following their 370-carry campaign, they lost 12.4 percent of their production from their follow-up year. Not to guarantee Turner follows that trend, but if he does, it’ll mean an average of 11.2 fantasy points per game in 2010 or, at best, 179 in a 16-game season, a number that 10 running backs topped last season.
The era of the "bellcow" NFL RB is dead. That era began in the mid-90s and ended in 2010. pic.twitter.com/NOEkjIpdfW— Joseph Mahoney (@ndjomo76) April 2, 2022
That study got me thinking about whether that 370 number still stands. For reference the NFL leader in rushing attempts in 2021 was Jonathan Taylor with 335 - in 17 regular season games. During most seasons from the golden age of the “bellcow” back, that would have ranked fourth or fifth for a 16 games season. In a 16 game regular season, Taylor would have had 315 carries. That would have ranked sixth or seventh in carries during the golden age. In 2003 there were ten NFL backs with most than 315 carries during the regular season.
So let’s dive into the data and see if we can find a value that fits for the “modern” NFL. Can we find the breaking point for an NFL RB in terms of carries or touches? Does that number still exist?
We are going to do this by looking at the total seasons 2000 and beyond where a back had roughly 300 touches. We are also going to look at the consecutive seasons with 300 or so touches for running backs 2000 to present. In other words, is 300 (carries) the new 370?
Since the 2000 season (inclusive) there have been 132 instances where a back touched the ball (carries + catches) 335 times during the regular season. That peaked in 2002 when thirteen backs had 335 or more touches - including two guys with 400 or more (LaDainian Tomlinson - 451 and Ricky Williams - 430). Those 132 seasons were amassed by 60 running backs, but most of that happened before that second article above was written in 2011 (July before the 2012 season).
Twenty running backs account for 77 of the 132 instances - all 20 of those have three or more seasons with 335 touches or more.
|Back||Seasons with 335 or more Touches (2000 to present)|
However if we look at when these occurred we find that only 31 of those seasons happened 2012 and after. That’s a number small enough to look more closely and see if 335 touches is the “new” 370 carries.
|Jonathan Taylor (22)||372||2021||IND|
|Najee Harris (23)||381||2021||PIT|
|Dalvin Cook (25)||356||2020||MIN|
|Derrick Henry (26)||397||2020||TEN|
|Christian McCaffrey (23)||403||2019||CAR|
|Ezekiel Elliott (24)||355||2019||DAL|
|Leonard Fournette (24)||341||2019||JAX|
|Ezekiel Elliott (23)||381||2018||DAL|
|Saquon Barkley (21)||352||2018||NYG|
|LeSean McCoy (29)||346||2017||BUF|
|Le'Veon Bell (25)||406||2017||PIT|
|Melvin Gordon (24)||342||2017||LAC|
|Todd Gurley (23)||343||2017||LAR|
|David Johnson (24)||373||2016||ARI|
|DeMarco Murray (28)||346||2016||TEN|
|Ezekiel Elliott (21)||354||2016||DAL|
|Le'Veon Bell (24)||336||2016||PIT|
|Adrian Peterson (30)||357||2015||MIN|
|Devonta Freeman (23)||338||2015||ATL|
|DeMarco Murray (26)||449||2014||DAL|
|LeSean McCoy (26)||340||2014||PHI|
|Le'Veon Bell (22)||373||2014||PIT|
|Matt Forte (28)||368||2014||CHI|
|LeSean McCoy (25)||366||2013||PHI|
|Marshawn Lynch (27)||337||2013||SEA|
|Matt Forte (27)||363||2013||CHI|
|Adrian Peterson (27)||388||2012||MIN|
|Alfred Morris (23)||346||2012||WAS|
|Arian Foster (26)||391||2012||HOU|
|Doug Martin (23)||368||2012||TAM|
So there are some players who have had 335 or more multiple times over the last ten seasons:
- Marshawn Lynch - 2012 and 2013
- Demarco Murray - 2014 and 2016
- LeSean McCoy - 2013, 2014 and 2017
- Ezekiel Elliot - 2016, 2018 and 2019
- Le’Veon Bell - 2014 and 2017
- Adrian Peterson - 2012 and 2015
So we can look at each back in greater detail to see if a extreme usage season ruined them. I’ve also included some other guys who are of interest. Many of the backs are past the point where they could have another block of heavy usage. Five of the guys are recent (and young) enough that they will be lumped together at the end since they still could still have another block of heavy usage in their careers - if they have had one already (Derrick Henry, Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey). Henry and McCaffrey have. Harris was a rookie in 2021. Taylor was in his second season.
|Back||years of consecutive 300ish touches||Notes|
|Adrian Peterson||8*||two years with injuries|
|Matt Forte||7*||one injury year with 255|
|Ezekiel Elliott||6*||only one year of not close to 300 - 268|
|LeSean McCoy||5||one down year|
|Le'Veon Bell||5*||split by injury and missed year contract|
|Dalvin Cook||3||two years of less usage to start his career|
|David Johnson||3*||injuried in middle|
|DeMarco Murray||3*||injuried in middle|
|Christian McCaffrey||2||had 326 and 403|
|Leonard Fournette||1||304 as rookie then 155, up down up down up|
|Saquon Barkley||1||352 and hurt ever since|
|Jonathan Taylor||?||268 then 372|
|Najee Harris||?||381 as rookie|
Doug Martin (aka the muscle hamster)
Doug Martin burst on the scene with 368 touches as a rookie in 2012 (319 carries and 49 catches). He got hurt the next year and only had one season during the rest of his career where he came close to that total number of touches that he had as a rookie - 321 touches in 2015 (when he was 1st team All-Pro). He finished his career with 1470 touches so 25 percent of his career touches came in his rookie season. Martin got 5.2 yards per touch in his two good seasons, every other year that he had significant touches he was below 4.0 (save one).
Foster was the next great find in terms of running back talent, back when it seems every GM could find a late round back that could have a great seasons or two in the league. Foster was undrafted out of college and only touched the ball 62 times as a rookie in 2009. He then exploded on the scene in his second year in the league - leading the NFL in rushing yards, rushing TDs, total TDs, touches and yards from scrimmage in 2010. Over the course of three regular seasons he had 1115 regular season touches. He was never the same after his 391 touches in the 2012 season and he would miss half of the 2013 season with injury. He would go on to have one good year after that (2014 - 298 touches), but he was ostensibly “used up” after that three year stint of heavy utilization. Foster would finish his NFL career with 1731 touches, with 64 percent of them coming during that three year stretch. Foster got 5.6 yards per touch during his first two heavy usage seasons, but he only came close to that once more (5.3 in 2014) during his career.
Not long after Foster burst on the scene, another guy who was almost forgotten in the draft (6th round pick) rose to prominence. Alfred Morris got 346 touches as a rookie with Washington in that one good year that Mike Shanahan had as their head coach (2012). Morris would peak in his rookie season (like Martin) and while he would be named to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 (when he had 285 and 283 carries), his career would essentially be over after his three year block. 913 of his career 1497 touches would occur during this three year window (61 percent). Unlike Foster and Martin, Morris never had a season where he was highly effective at gaining yards. His best years he got 4.9 yards per touch. He finished his career with a 4.5 average.
While Morris was able to avoid the injuries that seem to be almost automatic after three years of heavy usage, his effectiveness decreased every season from his rookie year to 2015, his final season in Washington. He had almost as many touches as a rookie (346) as he did in his final five NFL seasons (372)
This three year window of effectiveness with heavy usage occurs often among feature backs this century.
Like Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch was a first round pick (12th pick in 2007) and he was used fairly heavily (~300 touches) during his first two years in the league. He fell out of favor or was hurt in his third season in Buffalo (he lost his starting job to Fred Jackson) and only got 148 touches in 2009. He was traded to Seattle early in the 2010 season and would finish the year with 224 touches, the vast majority of which would come as a Seahawk (186). 2011 would begin a four year stretch where Lynch would get a ton of touches (313, 338, 337 and 317). His 1305 touches over these four regular seasons would almost be half of his career 2740 touches. By the 2015 season, the 29 year-old veteran was ostensibly used up. He would miss most of the 2015 season with injury and would be out of the league in 2016. He would attempt to make a comeback with the Raiders and he did get 227 touches for them in 2017, but he was really a shell of his old self and he only have 117 more touches in his final two seasons. Unlike Foster and Morris, Lynch was able to handle four years of heavy usage before he “broke down”.
Lynch was a back like Morris, in that he was never a high yards per touch guy. Lynch had two seasons above 5.0 (5.3 in 2012 and 2014), but most years he was in the mid 4’s.
Matt Forte was a workhorse, albeit a mostly forgotten one at this point (above is the only image Getty had of him). If you include his down (injured) year in 2011, he had seven straight seasons with a huge workload. He averaged 323 touches per year and 1633 yards from scrimmage over seven seasons (2008-2014). If he had been able to play longer, he could have taken the “Curtis Martin road” into the Hall of Fame. Martin was a good but not great running who was a workhorse for what seemed like an eternity in the NFL.
Forte was approaching that, but unlike Martin, Forte started later and didn’t last quote as long. Only 650 of Forte’s career 2910 touches came with after the age of 29. Forte was out of the league after the 2017 season, but if you look at his yards per touch, he really was not the same player in his final two seasons. He average 5.0 yards per touch for his first eight seasons, but only 4.5 yards per touch during his last two. Martin on the other hand had arguably his best season at the age of 31 when he led the league in touches (412), carries (371) and rushing yards (1697). That would be Martin’s only first team All-Pro selection.
Forte’s ability to produce large yards per touch values every year was a reason he able to hold off younger men trying to take his job for more years than most backs. During his career he had four years where he gained 5.0 yards or more per touch.
Curtis Martin notwithstanding, Forte was able to handle more years of heavy usage than anyone we’ve discussed so far, but he has largely been forgotten because he never led the league in anything, he never made first team All-Pro and he only made the Pro Bowl twice.
The league seems to always on have at least one enduring workhorse back at a given time. Curtis Martin was the “successor” to Emmitt Smith. Martin was followed by Forte who got us to Adrian Peterson (who will be discussed later). I didn’t forget Frank Gore, I just didn’t mention him because he surprisingly only had one season with 335 or more touches (373 in 2006). I contributor to his longevity is that he was never “ridden as hard” for a sustained period as some of these other “horses”.
Demarco Murray had one monster season (2014) when he had 449 touches and 2261 yards from scrimmage. He would lead the league in a number of categories, make first team All-Pro and finish third in the MVP voting. He got hurt and missed half the year in 2015. His injury could be said to have been a direct result of the extreme usage he got in 2014. If you include his 48 playoff touches, he finished the season with close to 500 touches.
His 497 total touches was the fourth most ever in NFL history (regular season + playoffs). Only Emmitt Smith (519 in 1995 and 516 in 1992) and Jamaal Anderson (517 in 1998) had seasons with more. You could realistically say that 2014 ruined Murray and 1998 ruined Anderson as both were never the same after those years of extreme usage.
Murray’s 497 total touches in 2014 had a similar effect to James Wilder’s 492 touches in 1984, except while Murray had a huge drop off the next season, Wilder got 418 touches in 1985. Wilder’s 910 combined season touches over two was only ever topped by one back - Emmitt Smith. Smith averaged 463 touches per full season from 1991 to 1996. The Cowboys were in the playoffs every year during that stretch.
Devonta Freeman was a fourth round pick of the Falcons out of Florida State in 2014. He was little used as a rookie. The 2014 Falcons had a broken down Steven Jackson as their primary ball ball carrier. In 2015, the Falcons used Freeman as their “bellcow” back. He had 338 touches and his 1634 yards from scrimmage accounted 27 percent of the Falcons total yards that season. Freeman would get 281 touches in 2016, but nagging injuries would limit him to 232 touches in 2017. Freeman missed the vast majority of the 2018 and 2020 seasons with injuries and his season high in touches over the last four seasons is 243. It would appear that the 619 regular season touches he received over the course of the 2015 and 2016 seasons broke him, but that is not too surprising since he is one of the smaller backs that we have discussed so far (5-8, 205).
As smaller back, Freeman has always had a high level of use in the passing game and this has led to him having an “inflated” yards per touch value for his career. For backs who have four or more carries per catch, a yards-per-touch value over 5.0 means Hall of Fame (more on this later). Freeman produced 4.8, 5.5 and 5.1 yards per touch during his heavy usage block (2015-17), but those number where higher than you might expect because he had 163 catches (on 209 targets) during those three years.
Adrian Peterson is the first back that we have discussed who is a sure Hall-of-Famer. Gore is most likely one, too, but I wouldn’t say sure-fire. Gore will take the “Curtis Martin road” that Matt Forte won’t be able to trod. If the other guys we discussed are quarter horses, Peterson is Secretariat. Peterson averaged 320 touches per year for his first seven seasons in the NFL. Peterson got hurt in 2014 and missed almost the entire season. In 2015, at the age of 30 and coming off of an injury, AP had another great season with 357 touches, but this would be he last great season. Starting with the 2016 season, AP has been on seven teams. At this point he is no longer even a viable NFL back. He will be 37 next season, if he plays. He had a total of 42 touches in 2021.
Carries by age for the top 5 all-time, 6-10, 11-15 and 16-20. Not much on the other side of 30 with a few exceptions. The career arc of most NFL RBs is very short. All 20 of these guys were blessed and lucky. pic.twitter.com/HCZfiywsZK— Joseph Mahoney (@ndjomo76) April 8, 2022
What Peterson did from 2007-2015 is comparable to the best backs who have ever played in the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl seven times and was first team All-Pro four times. His 2314 yards from scrimmage in 2012 was tied for ninth best all-time. Oddly enough, the guys in first, third and fourth will probably never make the Hall (Chris Johnson, Christian McCaffrey and Tiki Barber). We will discuss CMC later.
If you exclude 2014 (injury), Peterson had 2636 touches over eight seasons; that is an average of 330 touches per year for close to a decade. I doubt that level of sustained running back usage is ever matched again in the NFL (but there is a guy who could match it discussed later). Not only was AP heavily used, but he was consistently elite over those eight seasons. This is in direct contrast to Curtis Martin who got the same level of usage, but was much less productive than AP. Martin rode his sustained usage into the Hall of Fame.
Peterson averaged 5.2 yards per touch from 2007-2015 inclusive. Curtis Martin’s best season saw him getting 4.7 yards per touch. Walter Payton averaged 4.9 for his career. Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin both averaged 4.4 yards per touch over their careers. LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 4.9. Barry Sanders averaged 5.3. Among the backs in the top 20 in touches all-time, only Marshall Faulk, Sanders and Peterson averaged more than 4.9 yards per touch for their careers.
Looking at this, I have changed my mind. Gore is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer.
Another Hall of Famer with a similar level of sustained production to AP is Edgerrin James. While he had a season-ending injury in his third season after very heavy usage in his first two, he was able to recover from that and put together six straight seasons of 338 or more touches (2002-2007).
Back to more recent guys though...
Leonard Fournette got 304 touches as a rookie and then got hurt and missed half of the next season (where he only had 155 touches). In 2019, his third season, he got his heaviest usage season (341 touches) of his career so far. It was also his best season from a production standpoint (1674 yards from scrimmage). Fournette has had an odd career in that he has been mostly healthy, but he has alternated from heavy usage to light usage every year of his career. If this trend continues he will have a light usage year in 2022. He had 249 touches in 2021.
Melvin Gordon is another one of the highly drafted backs in this list. He was the fifteenth overall pick in 2015, but his career has been dogged by nagging injuries. He has only played in sixteen regular season games twice and once was in 2021 when there were seventeen (the other year was 2017). Because of this, he has only had two years when he had close to or above 300 touches (2016 and 17). That being said, he has been fairly consistent between 200 and 300 touches per year (averaging 252 per year) for his entire seven year career.
What is interesting about Gordon is that he has largely been below average in terms of his effectiveness as a runner. He has only had three of seven seasons when he was above average in terms of yards per carry (2018, 2020 and 2021). His performance in Denver over the past two seasons has moved his career average up to 4.2 which is about what the league has been averaging during his time in it. His average before playing in Denver was 4.0.
Because injuries (and holdouts) Gordon has been able to avoid the extreme usage season(s) that some of the backs on here have seen and this might have allowed him to avoid the major, season-ending, injuries that many of these guys have had during their NFL careers. Of course, in typing that I have probably jinxed him to one of those injuries in 2022.
David Johnson was a third round pick of the Cardinals out of FCS Northern Iowa. He spent his rookie season in a time-share with slowing veteran back, Chris Johnson, and then he burst on the scene with a monster second season in 2016. David led the league in touches (373), yards from scrimmage (2118) and touchdowns (20) in 2016. He alone accounted for 36 percent of the Cardinals’ offense that season and he was named first team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. He would get hurt in the first game of 2017 and miss almost the entire season. He would put together a strong 2018 season (303 touches), but that would be his only good season following the injury. His last three seasons he has gotten 409 total touches, or about as many as he had in 2016.
Todd Gurley was another first round back (tenth overall pick in 2015) who had a three year block of heavy usage before he “broke”. From 2016 to 2018 Gurley averaged 326 touches during the regular season. He was All-Pro and Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018. His 348 total touches (reg plus playoffs) in 2018 seemed to “break” him. His 2019 season would be much less effective (from 5.8 down to 4.2 yards per touch) and he was only given 254 touches for the Rams in 2019. He moved to the Falcons for 2020 where his effectiveness continued to decline (3.8 yard per touch). Despite that pathetic 3.8 value, the Falcons still fed him the ball 224 times in 2020. That might be a reason why he was out of the league in 2021.
While Gurley managed to avoid the catastrophic leg injuries like he had in college, his three years of heavy usage basically meant that he had no “tread left on the tires” in 2019 and 2020.
Dalvin Cook got his injury out of the way early - blowing out his knee early in his rookie season. He was used lightly in his second year and then he has been “ridden hard” over the past three seasons averaging 314 touches per year over the last three (not including his 46 playoff touches in 2019).
However, his three straight years of heavy usage might mean that he is primed for an injury in 2022, or at least a loss of effectiveness. We might have already started to see that in 2021 as his yards per touch dropped to a career low 4.9, down from a high of 5.5 in 2019 and well below his career average of 5.3. If you are into fantasy football, Cook might be a guy to avoid drafting to highly in 2022.
Like almost every back in this article, Bell had a time when he was the best running back in the league. Bell was a second round pick by the Steelers in 2013 and was used immediately getting 289 and 373 touches in his first two years in the the NFL. An injury would truncate his third season, limiting him to six games (137 touches), but he would bounce back with two straight years of 336 or more touches in 2016 and 2017. If you include playoff touches, Bell had 405 and 431 touches in 2016 and 2017. I guess he felt he needed a break after that, because he sat out the entire 2018 season with a contract dispute.
He got 311 touches as part of a terrible Jets team in 2019, but his effectiveness was limited partly because of poor blocking and a lack of talent around him on offense. During the last two seasons Bell has been on four different teams and has only gotten a total of 142 touches.
He’ll be 30 during the 2022 season. He had a decent run on heavy usage seasons (five or so).
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the few backs in this piece (like Melvin Gordon) who has managed to avoid serious injury, the only thing that has kept Elliott from playing fifteen or more games every season has been his 2017 six-game suspension. As such he has been the most best combination of durability and effectiveness among recent NFL backs. If he had played in those six games in 2017 he would have had 300 or so touches in every year of his career. Jerry Jones has rewarded him with a huge contract for his combination of productivity and durability. Elliott will have a cap hit of 18.2 million for the 2022 season and fifty million of his ninety million dollar contract was guaranteed.
That level of usage while avoiding injury makes him unique among recent the backs in this article. Gordon has avoided the major injury, but he has been used significantly less than Elliott. Elliott’s career so far look like Matt Forte’s and somewhat like Curtis Martin’s. Forte started 12 or more games at RB in nine straight seasons all while averaging 310 touches per year. Martin started 12 or more games in every year of his career and averaged an astounding 364 touches every year (not including post-season). If you include post-season touches, Martin finished his career with 4021 touches. That’s the 4th most all-time. Amazingly, Emmitt Smith finished his career with 5319 touches including post-season. Since quarterbacks are not included, I doubt anyone ever breaks that record.
Relevance to the 2022 Broncos
So I applaud you for getting this for into the article; I think my PhD dissertation had fewer words. This is part where we discuss the most recent guys: Derrick Henry, Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. Taylor and Harris just had their first heavy usage seasons.
Henry had two heavy usage years in 2019 and 2020 (409 and 418 combined regular season and playoff touches) before getting hurt in 2021 and missing half the year. Le’Veon Bell was the last guy to have two seasons of 400+ total touches in a given full (reg + playoff) season. Henry get relatively light usage early in his career, so he may have two of three more great years left in him despite being 28 for next season.
Saquon Barkley was immediately given a heavy workload as a rookie (352 touches) and he led the league in yards from scrimmage in 2018. He had an impressive 5.8 yards per touch as a rookie, but he hampered by nagging injuries in his second season (missed three games) and his effectiveness dropped some (to 5.4 yards per touch) while getting 269 touches. He missed all but two games in the 2020 season. So his injury happened after two, not three, years of heavy usage. Barkley played in thirteen of seventeen games in 2021, but his touches were all the way down to 203. I expect that he will bounce back, particularly if the Giants improve enough to have more time in games in 2022 before they have to abandon the running game.
Christian McCaffrey played in every game for his first three years in the league, but he was eased into it more than many of these elite backs. He was only given 197 touches as a rookie. That was increased to 326 in his second season when he had an amazing (for a running back) 6.0 yards per touch. He was ridden hard in 2019 with 403 touches, but he generated an amazing 2392 yards from scrimmage that year - 44 percent of the Panthers’ offense that season. The combined stress of his workload from 2018 and 2019 may have broken him. He appeared in three games in 2020 and only seven in 2021 - with 212 touches combined over the last two seasons. That being said, he was very effective when he was one the field in 2021 generating 5.8 yards per touch.
So the Broncos have Javonte Williams who has the body to be able to handle 300+ touches in a season. The question is should the Broncos “ride him hard” like the Steelers did with Bell, the Cardinals did with Johnson or the Panthers did with CMC? I guess it comes down to what you want his career to be. If the Broncos ride him as a “bellcow” back (like Hackett did with Fournette in his rookie year), he could possibly have a really great two or three year stretch. Conversely the Broncos could use a RB1A and RB1B approach similar to what we saw in Denver in 2021. That could potentially extend Pookie’s career and his effectiveness, but remember, Pookie is only under contract to the Broncos for three more seasons. So while it might not be in Javonte’s best interest, the Broncos could “use him up” in 2022, 2023 and 2024 and then let some other team overpay for an aging “elite” running back as a free agent. What do you want the team to do?
How many touches should Javonte Williams get in 2022?
This poll is closed
more than 350
it all depends on who else we bring in as a RB