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Greatest Fantasy Football RB Seasons of All-Time: Where Does McCaffrey Rank?

Christian McCaffrey - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News

In the NFL's wild Super Wild Card Weekend, we saw a few running backs lead their teams with huge games. Christian McCaffrey had 119 yards on the ground, Travis Etienne paced the Jaguars with 109 rushing yards, and Saquon Barkley had 109 total yards and two touchdowns. As a result, it's time to pay the running backs some love today.

During the 2023 NFL Playoffs, I will be looking back at some of the best fantasy football seasons of all-time position by position. While it's mainly an exercise for amusement, I wanted to see just how spoiled we've been of late or how much we've forgotten the greatness of the past.

We started last week with the quarterback position, so we'll move to their backfield mates today.

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Best Fantasy Football Running Back Seasons of All-Time

I used Pro Football References fantasy stats, which go back as far as 1978, and collected the best half-point PPR seasons (listed under FanDuel scoring on the site). Below is the top 20 leaderboard sorted by points per game. I believe this is a fair way to adjust for the current longer season as well as giving proper credit to situations like Marshall Faulk in 2011 when he missed two games with injury but was utterly dominant when he was on the field.

I've broken down some of the best seasons below for a larger context, and you'll also see VBD mentioned, which was popularized by Joe Bryant in the 90s and is the player's fantasy points minus the fantasy points of the baseline player at that position. It's used to highlight just how much better a player was than their peers, so think of it like Wins over Replacement.

HONORABLE MENTION: Eric Dickerson (1983)

Stats: 1,808 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry, 404 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns

Dickerson is the only running back from prior to 1995 who had a season crack the top 25 all-time in terms of either points per game or total points. Obviously, that has a lot to do with how the running back position has evolved over time, and it's not a knock on the earlier backs that they're not on here.

However, it also does point out how special Dickerson's 1983 season was. By VBD, Dickerson was the most valuable player in all of fantasy football in 1983, which is incredible considering it was his rookie season. He led the league in rushes and rushing yards and set a career-high in receiving yards. What's wild is actually that he had just four TOTAL receiving touchdowns in the rest of his career. It's also important to note that VBD still ranks this as the 25th-best running back season of all time, so there isn't much of an argument to have Dickerson higher than an honorable mention.

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Terrell Davis (1998)

Stats: 2,008 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry, 217 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns

This 2018 season by Terrell Davis ranks as the 2nd-best season of all time by VBD. He led the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry and won the MVP. However, due to his lack of receiving, this season finishes 11th all-time in terms of total fantasy points scored and 13th in points per game, so he just misses the top ten. The sad part is that this was the last season we ever saw 100% Terrell Davis. He tore his ACL in Week 4 of the next season while making a tackle on an interception return and he was never the same running back again. Given the success he had in his first four seasons, Davis is one of the bigger "What If?" players in NFL history.

#9. Emmitt Smith (1995)

Stats: 1,773 rushing yards, 25 touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry, 375 receiving yards 

It may be surprising for people to see Emmitt have just one season in the top 25 in terms of points per game and just two in the top 25 in terms of total points. But that's the nature of being a running back in fantasy with a limited receiving ceiling.

In 1995, Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns and his 375 receiving yards were the second-most ever in his career; however, he also had zero receiving touchdowns. It's hard to fault him since that wasn't really in the nature of too many running backs in the mid-90s but these are the kind of generational changes we see when we compare players across the years.

1995 almost marked the end of a six-year run where Smith was an All-Pro or an MVP candidate. Despite playing nine more seasons, Smith never had more than 12 rushing touchdowns in a season again and never made another All-Pro team. He also never averaged more than 4.2 yards per carry in a season again. Considering Smith was just 26 years old in 1995, it really shows how short a window running backs have when it comes to elite production.

 

#8. Todd Gurley (2018)

Also has the #10 all-time season (2017)

Stats: 1,251 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry, 580 receiving yards, and four receiving touchdowns

If you want to talk about short windows, we need to talk about Todd Gurley. The Georgia product debuted as a 21-year-old in 2015 and was one of the best running backs in the NFL by 2017. He rattled off two straight seasons where he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, posting 30 rushing touchdowns across 2017 and 2018.

What people also forget is that Gurley was a pretty strong receiver with 580 receiving yards in 2018 and 788 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2017. Although he was the MVP runner-up in 2017, the extra rushing touchdowns in 2018 put him over the top for fantasy when it comes to points per game.

It should be noted that despite leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2018, he played only 14 games. In fact, Gurley also only played 15 games in 2017 which is why these two seasons are both OUTSIDE of the top ten when you list it by total points scored. That's kind of the perfect encapsulation of Gurley's career; he was tremendous when on the field, but he simply couldn't stay healthy enough to reach his full potential and really only played three seasons in the NFL at full strength.

 

#5. Priest Holmes (2003)

Also has the #6 all-time season (2002)

Stats: 1,420 rushing yards, 27 touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry, 690 receiving yards

Priest Holmes was one of the best stories in the NFL in 2001 when he came out of nowhere to lead the Kansas City Chiefs and was the NFL leader in rushing yards after being a backup in Baltimore for four years. After a great 2002 season that landed him 6th on this list, he had an even better season in 2003 when he led the NFL in touchdowns as a 30-year-old with 27, while also racking up almost 700 receiving yards.

However, stop me if you've heard this before, but this was really the end of Holmes' run at the top. He got hurt the next year, playing only eight games, and he was never able to regain traction in his career.

 

#4. Christian McCaffrey (2019)

Stats:  1,387 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry, 1,005 receiving yards, and four receiving touchdowns

When people say "If only Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy," this is what they mean. McCaffrey led the NFL in total touchdowns and yards from scrimmage even though he led the NFL in no running back-specific categories. He is simply just a tremendous all-around player who can contribute in myriad ways on the football field. It's the exact reason that somebody like McCaffrey has more historic fantasy value than Emmit Smith. Although I should note that McCaffrey also averages 4.6 yards per carry in his career, so he is a more talented pure runner than people often give him credit for.

By VBD, this season ranks 8th all-time, so even if you account for the changes in the fantasy game, McCaffrey had a tremendous season in 2019.

 

#2. LaDainian Tomlinson (2006)

Also has the #7 all-time season (2003)

Stats: 1,815 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry, 508 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns

This could be the number-one rushing season of all time depending on which way you slide it. During the 2006 season, Tomlinson had the most fantasy points by a running back in a season ever and the second-most ever if you go by points per game. This is also the best season ever based on VBD, ranking 33 points ahead of Terrell Davis' season.

Tomlinson put up such a massive total because he led the NFL in rushing yards and total touchdowns. He averaged 145.2 yards per scrimmage per game and was the league's MVP. 2006 was also his second-best receiving season in his career, and while he had always been a really good running back, he really peaked in 2006 and 2007 when he scored 49 total touchdowns and gained 4,272 yards from scrimmage between the two seasons.

However, that would be the end of his run of dominance. In 2008, he was able to accumulate his way to 1,110 yards rushing and 426 receiving yards, but he lacked the same explosion, only averaging 3.8 yards per carry as a 29-year-old. He would then average 641.3 yards over his next three seasons, and we can all just agree to forget those final two seasons with the Jets.

 

#1. Marshall Faulk (2000)

Also has the #3 all-time season (2001)

Stats: 1,359 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry, 830 receiving yards, and eight receiving touchdowns

Marshall Faulk is inarguably one of the top fantasy running backs of all time, but I know people won't like that he's number one here. In 2000, Faulk only played 14 games, missing Weeks 9 to undergo surgery to remove loose cartilage in his knee. He then missed week 10 before coming back to play the last six games of the season and the playoffs. He missed just two games for mid-season knee surgery! However, those missed games mean that his total points and his VBD score are lower than Tomlinson's.

However, we also need to look at what Faulk did in 14 games, while recovering from knee surgery, and be super impressed. He led the NFL in total touchdowns, gained 156.4 yards from scrimmage per game, and won the MVP. Since people were upset in the quarterback article that some of these players sat out at the end of the season, we can also factor in that Faulk had 571 total yards and 11 touchdowns over the three weeks that would have been the fantasy playoffs in 2000. That should make fantasy managers happy.

 

Anyway, you slice it, it's been a while since we've seen true fantasy dominance from a running back in the way we used to. Obviously, as the NFL goes to more committee backfields and fewer players are carrying the ball 300 times a season, we're unlikely to see the fantasy seasons of guys like Faulk, Tomlinson, and even Holmes get challenged. But, hopefully, that means we get to see these running backs play for longer before injuries grind them down.



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