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Fact or Fiction: The "feature back" role is alive & well in the NFL?


Fact or Fiction: The "Feature Back" role is alive & well in today's NFL  

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what's the general consensus these days?  Is there still such a thing as a true "Feature Back" in today's NFL?  Or is it an anachronism, headed to the dustbin of history? Or is it somewhere in between, where the goalposts of what defines a feature back have been adjusted for the modern game where every backfield shares carries to some degree or another? 

I think back to guys like Edge James, Marshall Faulk, Charlie Garner (all too briefly), Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Jamal Lewis, etc and then look around today's NFL,  and I barely see a resemblance. One that comes to mind is Nick Chubb, who I believe could easily carry an offense. He could be a 25-30 touch "feature back", the centerpiece of an offense, and a guy who rarely comes off the field due to talent & skill sets. If it were 1988, Chubb would be the next great RB, putting up beastly numbers year after year, seemingly destined for HOF.  Yet there's Kareem Hunt, ruining that for fantasy owners everywhere. Yet to the Browns, that's a perfect result. They keep their RBs fresher, healthier, and while game-script dependent, the teams get the production they want when they need it. 

I am of the opinion that more and more teams philosophy shifts away from what we used to think of as a classic 3-down feature back. We may never see another LT2 type player. Barkley is about the only one I can think of who comes close to that centerpiece role. CMC as well, though I tend to view him as more of a receiver that runs than an elite RB who catches. I don't think his frame could handle a Walter Peyton or Frank Gore type pounding. CMC is more Charlie Garner / Roger Craig than he is Edge James. So he's an elite RB for FF purposes, but is he a feature back in the sense we used to define the  role? 

For fantasy purposes, this obviously impacts rookie RB value. We now talk about RBs taken in the 3rd round of the NFL draft as a team "spending a high draft investment" on them, when in the era of the true feature back, elite RBs commonly went in the 1st or early 2nd round of the NFL draft. 

So which is true?

Is the feature back role alive & well, but not enough players fit the mold to fill it so teams use committees or (as with  CMC) tailor their offense to suit their skills?

Or are teams shifting away from the role in general, so a "feature back" today merely describes  a player who gets 65% of the backfield touches in what's become a more pass-happy league in general? 

In rookie drafts, RBs are valued sky high on the potential of becoming "the next" (insert great player for that franchise here). I recall this with so many RBs in the past after Edge, or LT2 or JLewis or Faulk hung up the cleats, only to see disappointment after disappointment as those teams shifted to RBBC or however you want to describe the time-share.  The discussion at hand was Jonathan Taylor with the Colts. I contend that for 2020 it's crowded with Hines & Mack in the mix, and even if Mack is gone in 2021, Hines 3rd down role limits Taylor's value. Yet Taylor commands a price as though he will be the man & have a 3-down role.  And it should be noted that I concede Taylor may well ascend to that 3-down role & I could be completely wrong. Certainly wouldn't be the 1st time I've been wrong and it wouldn't be the last either. But If you're going to obtain one of these rookie backs, are you paying for "the next Edge James" or are you paying for what you believe Taylor will realistically become, given the mindset of today's NFL? 

How about CEH? All the pieces seem to be falling into place for a feature role. Am I wrong to believe that Andy Reid just prefers to mix it up and will throw other bodies out there regardless?

So is "feature back" today what it was in the era of the centerpiece RB, or is feature back in the mind of the beholder? And how does that effect rookie value? 

I'm just curious what the  consensus of FBG-ers is on this subject.  For a long time now I've de-emphasized having  a top flight RB on my teams. For one, they get hurt a lot. For another, with PPR scoring systems I tend to have better teams as a result of this approach. I don't quite do "zero RB", but I do tend to get elite WRs & stack up on  RB2-3 options, of which there seem to be more and more of every year. 

Interested to hear what everything thinks. I hope this topic is interesting and/or useful. :hifive:

Edited by Hot Sauce Guy
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If the definition of feature back is 20 touches a game, then no there aren’t many of them anymore compared to 10-15 years ago. I think there were 8 or 9 guys with 300 touches last year. That’s probably half as many as the timeframe I mentioned. There may have been seasons where 20+ guys had that many touches. 

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13 minutes ago, Anarchy99 said:

If the definition of feature back is 20 touches a game, then no there aren’t many of them anymore compared to 10-15 years ago. I think there were 8 or 9 guys with 300 touches last year. That’s probably half as many as the timeframe I mentioned. There may have been seasons where 20+ guys had that many touches. 

That's part of the challenge with such a discussion, in that we first have to define what a "feature back" is. I am going by the classic definition as you seem to be above, with that "build the offense around (X elite RB) and run everything through them. Even in Payton  Manning's Colts teams that most think of as a high flying air attack, the offense was largely built around Edge James & play-action passing. 

I think the NFL has shifted away from that approach significantly & we will see fewer & fewer of that sort of team. This is in part the evolution of the game, and in part in response to rules changes that make life easier for QBs and WRs. And of course teams seem reticent to invest tons of money into a position that takes more punishment. 

So in a dynasty rookie draft when an owner selects a CEH, are they hoping to get the next Larry Johnson? I would think at best given the modern mindset they'd be lucky to get the next CMC. 

Where the role was once defined as a centerpiece, it seems that 15-18 touches would be considered a "feature back" in 2020, and I disagree with that definition. 

Edited by Hot Sauce Guy
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At first glance I'd say no it's being phased out, but I realize now that I say that because there aren't a lot of great feature guys, guys who you center the entire offense around as you suggested. There's feature backs (Barkley/CMC/Zeke), and then there's the 3-down workhorse back (Carson/Aaron Jones/Ingram), then there's RBBC.  I'd say it's 50/50 workhorses & RBBC

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46 minutes ago, Hot Sauce Guy said:

I won't speak for Doc, but suffice to say he's on the other side of this discussion, which is fine -

No. I was replying to a post of yours that claimed that most teams want to feature a RBBC "regardless of the talent level of the RBs" which is not true and I offered up CMc, Barkley, Elliot, Cook, A. Jones, Fournette, L. Bell, Mixon, Gurley, Ingram (last year w/ Baltimore) as counterpoints.

This premise is flawed because the goal posts will keep moving and now all of a sudden a feature back should see 20-30 touches a game. (that's a small minority of backs in NFL history that averaged 20-30 touches a game).

There's always been some form of RBBC in the NFL (depending on how one defines it)  - perhaps it's slightly more prevalent now but it's also much more of a passing league now anyway.

ETA: Here is the quote I was replying to:

Quote

The NFL prefers committees & employs them regardless of the talent level of the RBs on the team.

 

Edited by Dr. Octopus
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If the criteria is now 20-30 touches a game, this thread is useless because the obvious answer is "no".

If we want to base it off the original discussion, yes I do believe teams will feature a talented RB and will not force him into a RBBC with a bunch of JAGs, just because they want a RBBC.

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7 minutes ago, Dr. Octopus said:

No. I was replying to a post of yours that claimed that most teams want to feature a RBBC "regardless of the talent level of the RBs" which is not true and I offered up CMc, Barkley, Elliot, Cook, A. Jones, Fournette, L. Bell, Mixon, Gurley, Ingram (last year w/ Baltimore) as counterpoints.

. I thought I went out of my way to represent it accurately. 
 

my example of that was (and is) Chubb, spelled out above. I see him as talented as Barkley, yet the Browns choose to employ a RBBC.

seems accurate. 

I disagree with at least half the backs on your list.  But this topic was intended to make a more general discussion about that, inspired by our exchange. 

7 minutes ago, Dr. Octopus said:

This premise is flawed because the goal posts will keep moving and now all of a sudden a feature back should see 20-30 touches a game. (that's a small minority of backs in NFL history that averaged 20-30 touches a game).

That’s what I think of when someone says “feature back”. It’s why I’m asking the question. 

it seems the goalposts are only moving to allow more RBs to fit the definition of the modern game where it seeks teams are moving away from building an offense around 1 guy. 

7 minutes ago, Dr. Octopus said:

There's always been some form of RBBC in the NFL (depending on how one defines it)  - perhaps it's slightly more prevalent now but it's also much more of a passing league now anyway.

ETA: Here is the quote I was replying to:

I don’t disagree with that at all. I do disagree strongly with the contention that someone like a 15-18 touch and minimal receiving role guy like 2019 Mark Ingram is a “feature back”. 

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Pats - RBBC
Dolphins - RBBC
Bills - RBBC, Singletary could/should be workhorse
Jets - Bell workhorse

Steelers - Conner workhorse
Ravens - RBBC, Ingram could be a horse (should have been horse his first 4 yrs in NO), Dobbins may be horse
Browns - RBBC, Chubb/Hunt good enough to be horse alone
Bengals - Mixon horse

Chiefs - CEH will be horse, but would this have been RBBC if DWill didn't opt out?
Broncos - RBBC
Raiders - Jacobs horse, maybe on his way to feature back? 
Chargers - Ekeler horse now? Prob RBBC

Colts - RBBC, they have 14 RBs I think
Titans - Henry is borderline feature back
Jags - Fournette horse
Texans - RBBC

AFC total - 9 RBBC's, 6 horses, maybe 1 feature back IMO

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Just now, Dr. Octopus said:

If the criteria is now 20-30 touches a game, this thread is useless because the obvious answer is "no".

If we want to base it off the original discussion, yes I do believe teams will feature a talented RB and will not force him into a RBBC with a bunch of JAGs, just because they want a RBBC.

I mentioned a specific era. That’s where the definition comes from.  I even named players specific to that era. 

the criteria isn’t “now” 20-30 touches a game, the criteria always has been that for feature backs..

That is why i was suggesting a player like Taylor, drafted in rookie drafts, would likely never meet such an expectation due to the presence of a 3rd down back like Hines, and in general a philosophy to use a 3rd down back like Hines. Or in Chubb’d casee, Hunt. 

I’ll put you down as a no. Thanks for chiming in. 

 

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Saints - RBBC
Panthers - CMC Feature
Falcons - Gurley horse?  Maybe RBBC...
Bucs - RBBC

Cowboys - Zeke feature
Eagles - Sanders horse
Washington - RBBC
Giants - Barkley feature

Packers - Jones horse
Vikes - Cook feature
Bears - RBBC
Lions - RBBC?

Niners - RBBC
Hawks - Carson horse
Rams - RBBC? 
Cardinals - RBBC

NFC Total - 8 RBBC's?  4 feature guys, 4 horses

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2 minutes ago, Hot Sauce Guy said:

I don’t disagree with that at all. I do disagree strongly with the contention that someone like a 15-18 touch and minimal receiving role guy like 2019 Mark Ingram is a “feature back”. 

Mark Ingram had 203 carries and 26 receptions last season in 15 games. His backup Gus Edwards had 133 carries and 7 receptions in 16 games. If that's a RBBC, then 95% of every team in NFL history employed a RBBC.  

This is now a passing leagues so very few teams will build their offense around a RB - so if that's your new premise, this thread should end. I doubt anyone thinks otherwise.

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Just now, wlwiles said:

Saints - RBBC
Panthers - CMC Feature
Falcons - Gurley horse?  Maybe RBBC...
Bucs - RBBC

Cowboys - Zeke feature
Eagles - Sanders horse
Washington - RBBC
Giants - Barkley feature

Packers - Jones horse
Vikes - Cook feature
Bears - RBBC
Lions - RBBC?

Niners - RBBC
Hawks - Carson horse
Rams - RBBC? 
Cardinals - RBBC

NFC Total - 8 RBBC's?  4 feature guys, 4 horses

Recent news puts RoJo closer to horse if word about Brady grooming him as the new James White is to be believed. 

I’m skeptical that Gurley will ever have enough touches to be a horse again, but he could surprise me. 

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46 minutes ago, Dr. Octopus said:

Mark Ingram had 203 carries and 26 receptions last season in 15 games. His backup Gus Edwards had 133 carries and 7 receptions in 16 games. If that's a RBBC, then 95% of every team in NFL history employed a RBBC.  

This is now a passing leagues so very few teams will build their offense around a RB - so if that's your new premise, this thread should end. I doubt anyone thinks otherwise.

It’s not a RBBC. but 200 carries is also not a “feature back”. 

it’s sort of somewhere in between. Which is why I asked the question above - “is the definition of feature hack shifting with the times” to mean “a guy who gets ~65% of the carries” rather than a 300 touch true “centerpiece of the offense” type player. 

It’s not a new premise. It’s the original question. 

If I’m reading you right, then you agree with me to an extent. A Jonathan Taylor type back will never be a true centerpiece “feature back”, because he’s going to lose receptions to Hines, and he’s not going to be the centerpiece of the offense, in part because it’s a passing league.

so as I said - regardless of his talent, he might not become “the next great” at the position. 

which begs the question, why are FF managers drafting him as if he will?   The answer seems to be “because in the current game, he’s as close as we’ll get”, which would be a fair answer. 

One that also means that the “Feature Back” role is indeed dying, but we’re applying that name to a new definition. 

Edited by Hot Sauce Guy
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The game changes from era to era. The year OJ rushed for 2K yards, the Bills had only 213 passing attempts and 1236 passing yards on the season.

In 1978, Walter Peyton had 383 touches. Teammate Roland Harper 283 touches himself. The Bears ran the ball 634 times . . . and ranked 4th in rushing attempts. NE that year had 671 rushing attempts (with no one over 200 carries).

Like I said, the game is different now. Teams don’t need a stud back to win. 

Edited by Anarchy99
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6 minutes ago, Anarchy99 said:

The game changes from era to era. The year OJ rushed for 2K yards, the animals had only 213 passing attempts and 1236 passing yards on the season.

In 1978, Walter Peyton had 383 touches. Teammate Roland Harper 283 touches himself. The Bears ran the ball 634 times . . . and ranked 4th in rushing attempts. NE that year had 671 rushing attempts (with no one over 200 carries).

Like I said, the game is different now. Teams don’t need a stud back to win. 

So there’s the good stuff. 💡

it seems the term “feature back” is shifting with the eras.

for this era what’a the definition of a “feature back”

is there a difference between a “feature back” & a “workhorse back”? I always thought of them as synonymous. 

now it seems that “workhorse” could be a more fitting moniker, if it’s only describing a “back who has a 3-down role, ~65+% of the time, in a backfield with a 3rd down specialist & a GL specialist?

:shrug: 

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For fantasy, a reception is worth a lot more than a carry - something like 3x as much on average. And lately many teams have been using their top RB more in the passing game.

If we bake that into our definition of a RB's workload, then use Carries + 3*Receptions + Pass Attempts per game (min 8 games). With that definition, the top 10 RB seasons over the past 30 years are:
40.6    Le'Veon Bell    2016
39.8    Christian McCaffrey    2019
38.5    Steven Jackson    2006
38.4    Le'Veon Bell    2017
38.4    LaDainian Tomlinson    2003
38.1    Ricky Williams    2000
38.1    LaDainian Tomlinson    2002
37.4    Priest Holmes    2002
36.5    Brian Westbrook    2007
36.4    Marshall Faulk    2001

If we use a workload of 25 as the cutoff, then 11 players reached that cutoff last season:
39.8    Christian McCaffrey
32.9    Leonard Fournette
29.6    Alvin Kamara
29.5    Le'Veon Bell
29.2    Dalvin Cook
28.9    Ezekiel Elliott
28.7    Saquon Barkley
25.9    Chris Carson
25.8    Devonta Freeman
25.5    Austin Ekeler
25.4    Nick Chubb

Given where guys like McCaffrey, Westbrook, Faulk, Kamara, and Ekeler are on those lists, CEH's prospective workload doesn't look so bad.

Over the past few decades the number of RBs who reached a workload of 25 was:
9.2 per year in the 2010s
15.5 per year in the 2000s
9.3 per year in the 1990s

2000-2007 was the heyday of feature backs, but things seem to be stabilizing near the previous average rather than plummeting further.

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3 hours ago, Hot Sauce Guy said:

it seems the term “feature back” is shifting with the eras.

for this era what’a the definition of a “feature back”

is there a difference between a “feature back” & a “workhorse back”? I always thought of them as synonymous. 

now it seems that “workhorse” could be a more fitting moniker, if it’s only describing a “back who has a 3-down role, ~65+% of the time, in a backfield with a 3rd down specialist & a GL specialist?

:shrug: 

IMO I agree with what you said earlier as the definition of a feature back - a stud who is the centerpiece of the offense AND gets 3 down work, all goal line work, and is in the top 5-7 of carries in the league, whether that plateau is 250, 300, I don’t know.... LT, AD in his Viking days, CMC/Barkley now, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, the studs of the studs who were the main weapon on their team. 
 

When I think workhorse I think Frank Gore. Durable, reliable, give him the ball 20 times a game and just grind it out. 
 

just my $0.02 and I’m probably in the minority.  I think there’s a lot of guys who could be workhorses *cough Nick Chubb cough* but because of their teams depth of talent, wanting to keep guys healthy, presence of a skilled receiving back, RB’s pass blocking skills, whatever, their team opts for RBBC when they could have a horse. 

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15 minutes ago, Milkman said:

RB don't command big money anymore so more and more likely great RB are switching positions in HS and college. This trend is likely to continue. So less and less RB will be good enough to be featured. 

That’s a really good point. One i was considering but having trouble articulating until now. 

it seems like a lot more backs are in that Brian Westbrook build than the Eddie George build these days. 

thats why Henry was so fun to watch last year. Just a throwback bulldozer of a back. Defenders feared getting hit by him.

but maybe more kids that size want to be the next Ray Lewis rather than the next Eddie George. LB $ could be better than RB money with more jobs available. 

That could be another facet of the evolution of the game. Chicken & the egg...are coached moving away from the “feature back” style because they’re changing styles or are they changing styles because there aren’t a lot of big athletic backs? 

i remember a period towards the end of the “feature back era” where it seemed like all the big backs we FF owners were drooling over were busting. Brandon Jacobs & Landale White come immediately to mind. Teams started trying the “thunder & lightning” approach to varying degrees of success.

Seems like we have more lightning than thunder in the game these days.

Edited by Hot Sauce Guy
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Isn't the demise of the feature back the direct result of ownership thinking that the passing game brings more interest and more fans, so the rules further and further restrict DBs and hits on QBs, so the passing game becomes the more effective system to use because of it being easier to score under the rules and so the more pedestrian (intended 🙂) feature back attacks less often bring positive results - getting coaches fired. I don't know that its evolution as much as its a profit driven and intentional game modification.

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9 hours ago, Catbird said:

Isn't the demise of the feature back the direct result of ownership thinking that the passing game brings more interest and more fans, so the rules further and further restrict DBs and hits on QBs, so the passing game becomes the more effective system to use because of it being easier to score under the rules and so the more pedestrian (intended 🙂) feature back attacks less often bring positive results - getting coaches fired. I don't know that its evolution as much as its a profit driven and intentional game modification.

Yes, agree.  It is very much a self fulfilling prophecy based upon rule changes and desired emphasis in the game over the last decade. 

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