The workhorse running back is a dying breed. Consider that 19 different running backs had at least 300 touches in 2000 but just four reached this threshold in 2021.
Teams are spending less money and draft capital on running backs these days, so it’s not surprising to see more willingness to feature a committee of backs as opposed to a single workhorse. This makes sense in real life, but fantasy football managers would prefer their running backs to never leave the field.
Today’s goal is to identify which teams still use a legit workhorse running back. I went through every NFL play-caller to collect their per-game running back usage from up to the last five years (when applicable with their current team). New coaches are marked with an asterisk, as their numbers are derived from their relevant coaching tree, which is identified under the “Notes” section of the chart.
NFL RB snap % usage by team/play-caller relative to the time that the coach has been calling plays pic.twitter.com/BohnyLjgjA
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) July 29, 2022
For reference, only 5% of 2021 games featured a running back playing at least 90% of the offense's snaps, 22% had a running back playing 75% or more of the snaps, and 57% with a back at 60% or more.
The following breakdown creates tiers for each offense in terms of their willingness to feature a single running back. Each play caller’s respective rates in terms of giving a single running back 90%, 75%, or 60% of the offense’s snaps are listed in parentheses.
Offenses that have proven to be willing to feature a true three-down workhorse RB
- Pittsburgh Steelers (41%/82%/88%)
- Los Angeles Rams (27%/52%/86%)
- Minnesota Vikings (27%/52%/86%)
- Dallas Cowboys (20%/43%/88%)
- Arizona Cardinals (14%/39%/76%)
Steelers: The Steelers were content to lean on a single running back before offensive coordinator Matt Canada arrived. Another workhorse role for Najee Harris sure looks to be on the way after peeping the team’s depth chart. PFF projections only have Derrick Henry (391) and Dalvin Cook (354) set to receive more total touches than Harris (346).
Rams and Vikings: Sean McVay and disciple Kevin O’Connell have been willing to feed one single running back more than just about any offense outside of Pittsburgh. Todd Gurley, Sony Michel, Darrell Henderson, C.J. Anderson and lately Cam Akers have held down this workhorse job, so don’t be surprised if Akers and Dalvin Cook push for true every-down roles if healthy.
Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott’s usage decreased a bit in 2021 while playing through a torn PCL, but previously, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was content to barely take him off the field. The good news for Tony Pollard is that he managed to rack up 1,056 total yards despite Zeke playing 17 games in 2021, and the Cowboys’ lack of depth at wide receiver could force the team to find more ways to keep both players on the field at the same time.
Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury has handed David Johnson, Kenyan Drake, Chase Edmonds and most recently James Conner true every-down roles since landing in Arizona back in 2019. While Edmonds and Conner split time with both healthy in 2021, Conner dominated usage with Edmonds sidelined, and the team hardly devoted any resources to finding a real RB2 replacement ahead of 2022.
Offenses that basically feature one running back, although it’d be a lot cooler if they did so just a bit more
- Carolina Panthers (9%/24%/58%)
- New Orleans Saints (1%/28%/73%)
- Tennessee Titans (0%/24%/59%)
- Cincinnati Bengals (0%/20%/69%)
- Buffalo Bills (3%/20%/62%)
- New York Giants (3%/20%/62%)
Panthers: New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo regularly handed his RB1 a three-down role during their time together in New York. Head coach Matt Rhule has been just fine handing Christian McCaffrey all the work he can handle when healthy over the last two seasons. I’m continuing to ride the CMC 1.01 train, as his receiving workload is the single most unique and productive position-specific trait in all of fantasy.