Veteran Running Backs Changing Teams Often Provide Poor Fantasy Value

History hasn't been kind to running backs seeking a fresh start elsewhere, and we take a look at how veteran backs have done in new situations, compared to average draft position.

Le'Veon Bell and Veteran Running Backs Changing Teams

He shall be Le'Veon, but he shall not be a good pick in fantasy with the Jets (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire)

[Editor’s Note: this article originally appeared in August of 2020. The intro has been updated to account for the season results, but the remainder of the research is as was originally presented.]

In 2020, three prominent running backs played for new teams and were expected to be the starter. The Rams cut Todd Gurley and he signed with the Atlanta Falcons. Arizona traded David Johnson to the Houston Texans, after he was benched in 2019 and replaced by Kenyan Drake. And the Chargers did not give Melvin Gordon the contract he wanted, so he ended up signing with Denver.

The results for those three were decidedly mixed, and mostly disappointing. None of them regained their past form fully. Melvin Gordon did finish the highest, at RB14 in PPR leagues and was a solid if not spectacular return on investment. David Johnson and Todd Gurley both finished below their average draft position, and faded down the stretch, with Gurley largely being benched. He started with 375 rush yards and 5 touchdowns in the first five games, but closed with only an additional 303 rush yards and 4 touchdowns the rest of the year.

As it turns out, the past evidence prior to Gurley, Gordon, and Johnson is not very favorable, either.

Veteran Running Backs Changing Teams in Fantasy Football

This is data from 2010 to 2019, using the PPR average draft position for running backs from Fantasy Football Calculator. It includes all running backs who (1) were ranked in the Top 30 by average draft position at RB, and (2) at the start of the season were playing for a different team than they had the previous season. Thirty different running back seasons qualified.

PlayerYear AgeADPGPPRPPR/G
Le'Veon Bell2019NYJ2771521514.3
Mark Ingram2019BAL30211524316.2
Duke Johnson2019HOU2626161549.6
Tevin Coleman2019SF2628141359.6
Jerick McKinnon2018SF2619000.0
Carlos Hyde2018CLE282514987.0
Danny Woodhead2017BAL32268597.4
Mike Gillislee2017NE27279687.6
Adrian Peterson2017NO322910797.9
DeMarco Murray2016TEN28151629618.5
DeMarco Murray2015PHI2791518412.3
Matt Forte2016NYJ31171418413.1
Lamar Miller2016HOU2541419113.6
LeSean McCoy2015BUF27121217914.9
Arian Foster2016MIA30234194.8
Frank Gore2015IND32131619312.1
C.J. Spiller2015NO282613816.2
Rashad Jennings2014NYG29181113912.6
Ben Tate2014CLE262611787.1
Chris Johnson2014NYJ2927161157.2
Maurice Jones-Drew2014OAK293012282.3
Steven Jackson2013ATL30131214812.3
Reggie Bush2013DET28141423917.1
Chris Ivory2013NYJ2527151046.9
Ahmad Bradshaw2013IND272834214.0
Benjarvus Green-Ellis2012CIN27181517411.6
Peyton Hillis2012KC261913493.8
Michael Bush2012CHI282413866.6
Tim Hightower2011WAS252456212.4
Reggie Bush2011MIA26271522314.9

Half of the running backs changing teams failed to get to 125 fantasy points. Only three (10%) exceeded 225 fantasy points. For some context, 225 points in PPR roughly correlates with a Top 10 finish in fantasy football, while over the last decade an average of 36 running backs per year have exceeded 125 PPR points. The group averaged 129 PPR fantasy points.

Average draft position does matter. If you sort by ADP in the above chart, you can see that the better drafted players tended to perform better. Of the three primary running backs switching teams in 2020, Todd Gurley is being drafted the earliest. The average draft position for Gordon (19) and Johnson (20) is very similar to the group average of 20.7.

How Does That Compare to Running Backs Who Did Not Change Teams?

You are probably curious how that compares to other running backs. To look at that, we compared the PPR fantasy points scored by the player ranked most directly in front of and behind the running back in question in the same season. (For situations where two backs who changed teams were near each other in average draft position, we made sure not to duplicate using the same comparable player for each.)

The comparably drafted running backs, who did not switch teams as veterans, ended up finishing with 157 PPR fantasy points on average. That’s a 28-point increase over the backs that switched teams.

Here’s a comparison of how the two groups finished in PPR fantasy points.

PPR PointsChanged TeamsSimilar ADP
225 or more10%15%
175 to 22423%30%
125 to 17417%20%
124 or less50%35%

Compared to similarly drafted running backs, those changing teams were more likely to be busts scoring fewer than 125 points (50% to 35%). They were less likely to provide big booms of 225 points or more (10% to 15%).

Running backs who change teams tend to be big names, or backups getting their opportunity in a new place. Fantasy drafters have been eager for them to bounce back or succeed in a new place, but the evidence is mixed as to how wise an investment that is.