After one of the most interesting fantasy football conversations I’ve ever enjoyed, something that was discussed was stuck in my mind. We were talking about how it is vital to consider the range of possibilities for each player before drafting them, briefly mentioned was who we thought had a shot at 20+ rushing touchdowns. The player we all mentioned? LeSean McCoy.

As the centerpiece of an explosive Chip Kelly offense in and out of the red zone, we agreed that he may have the best chance at doing so. This lead me to doing some research on what type of opportunity, situation, and environment have occurred in previous 20+ rushing touchdown seasons. By exploring the individual statistics, team play breakdowns, and team scoring statistics, let’s get an idea of when it’s most likely a player can join the “20” club:

Examining Historical Seasons: Individual Statistics

Since we are taking a look at historical precedence and in what environment 20+ rushing touchdowns has occurred in, it is necessary to take a close look at the statistics of previous running backs who have rushed for over 20 scores. I looked at all of those occurrences since 1990:

PlayerYearAgeGamesRush AttRush YdsY/ARush TDWeight (lbs)
Average2715.6352.31677.64.7623.4217
LaDainian Tomlinson2006271634818155.2228215
Shaun Alexander2005281637018805.0827228
Larry Johnson2005261633617505.2120235
Priest Holmes2003301632014204.4427213
Priest Holmes2002291431316155.1621213
Terrell Davis1998261639220085.1221210
Terry Allen1996281634713533.921208
Emmitt Smith1995261637717734.725216
Emmitt Smith1994251536814844.0321216

A few things stick out here: First, you need to get over 300 carries. Period. Preferably north of 330. Any running back who wants a shot at 20+ touchdowns needs to be a serious bellcow back- something not easy to find in today’s NFL. This eliminates many candidates already. McCoy has proven to being one of those, he carried the ball a league-leading 314 times last season. With Chip Kelly running even more plays and Bryce Brown in Buffalo, that could happen again. So far, so good.

Secondly, the weight of the players who have rushed for 20+ touchdowns hasn’t been lower than 208, with an average of 217. This makes sense because of the need to bang in touchdowns from piles on a goal line, something that is likely easier to do with a bigger, more durable body. These weights are according to NFL.com, LeSean McCoy makes the threshold at 208. Smaller running backs don’t seem to repeat big touchdown seasons.

Play Type Breakdown

After taking a look at personal statistics, it’s time to analyze some team statistics. Here, we will examine the play types per season (run vs. pass) and number of plays run (something that is abuzz in today’s NFL, especially with Chip Kelly) to further solidify historical precedence.

PlayerYearTeam Plays Per Game (League Rank)% Passing Plays% Rushing Plays
Average63.1 (16th)49.2%50.8%
LaDainian Tomlinson200663.5 (11th)47.2%52.8%
Shaun Alexander200563.8 (17th)47.7%52.3%
Larry Johnson200566.2 (3rd)49.4%50.6%
Priest Holmes200362.7 (18th)54.6%45.4%
Priest Holmes200260.3 (25th)50.8%49.2%
Terrell Davis199865.1 (6th)48.3%51.7%
Terry Allen199660 (29th)50.2%49.8%
Emmitt Smith199562.9 (20th)50%50%
Emmitt Smith199463.6 (14th)44.9%55.1%

I was interested to discover that only twice have teams that supported a 20+ touchdown rusher finish in the top 10 of plays run per game. More than likely, this is because more rushing attempts = more plays the clock is running, which leads to fewer plays in the game. Those teams averaged about 63 plays per game. Although Chip Kelly’s inaugural season saw them finish 13th in plays per game, they still ran a tad over 65 per game. Even so, they are looking to easily exceed that number in 2014.

Some seasons were more lopsided than others, but it looks like an even split between run and pass for teams that supported a 20+ touchdown rusher. I assumed it may be closer to 55% to 45% favoring the run, but I was proven wrong. Philadelphia finished at 47%- 6th in the NFL, but that will likely need to increase slightly next year. With DeSean Jackson out of the fold and Riley Cooper likely returning to Earth, I’m willing to bet the Eagles will be closer to 49% this year.

All in all, I’m coming to the conclusion that achieving the play frequency and breakdown precedent is not too tough to accomplish for most teams and isn’t such a deciding, divisive factor.

Scoring Breakdown

Now that we’ve seen a play frequency and type breakdown, let’s take a look at exactly how much and in which ways teams supporting a 20+ touchdown rusher scored that year.

PlayerYear Team Points Scored (League Rank)Total Team Offensive TDs% Passing TDs% Rushing TDs
Average446 (3rd)5043%57%
LaDainian Tomlinson2006492 (1st)5643%57%
Shaun Alexander2005452 (1st)5446%54%
Larry Johnson2005403 (6th)4339%61%
Priest Holmes2003484 (1st)5643%57%
Priest Holmes2002467 (1st)5349%51%
Terrell Davis1998501 (2nd)5855%45%
Terry Allen1996364 (8th)3931%69%
Emmitt Smith1995435 (3rd)4738%62%
Emmitt Smith1994414 (2nd)4542%58%

Over the course of my research, the biggest indicator for 20+ touchdown scoring seasons was carries. The second biggest is just as obvious: the prowess of that player’s offense. At first glance this may be a “chicken vs. egg” scenario- obviously if one player can find the end-zone 20 times, it’s going to be a high scoring team. But the point is that the offense needs to get the ball into scoring position first, which good offenses are clearly better at than bad ones.

On average, the 20+ touchdown rusher’s team ranked as the 3rd best offense in the NFL. They finished as the very best 5 out of the 9 occurrences, and never finished lower than 8th.

The average number of offensive touchdowns scored for these teams was 50. In 2013, only two teams scored 50 or more offensive touchdowns: the Broncos….and the Eagles.

Of course, the type of touchdown is going to be very lopsided in favor of rushing touchdowns for these teams, and 57% to 43% is actually quite a large margin. But let’s say that the Eagles can score 56 touchdowns (a slight improvement) and get to an even split. That would be 28 rushing scores- McCoy would have to score a reasonable 72% of those to reach 20. In his awesome 2011 season that saw him reach 17 rushing scores, McCoy scored 85% of his team’s rushing touchdowns.

Red Zone Defenses in the NFC East

I’m only briefly going to touch on this because predicting defensive strength year-to-year is incredibly difficult, but I thought this was worth mentioning. Look at the 2013 red zone defenses of the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins:

2013 Red Zone Defense StatsRed Zone Chances Per Game (League Rank)Red Zone TD % (League Rank)
Dallas3.9 (30th)64.5% (31st)
NY Giants2.9 (8th)54.4% (15th)
Washington3.8 (27th)63.3% (27th)

The Giants are solid, but the rest? Not only do the Cowboys and Redskins give up a ton of red zone attempts (30th and 27th, respectively), they let their opponents score very often when the get there (31st and 27th, respectively). In other words: they let their opponent get inside the 20 a lot, and when they get there they score a touchdown a very high percentage of the time. All good news for Philadelphia’s scoring outlook.

The Best of the Rest: The Other Top RBs

I would definitely be remiss if I didn’t look at the other top fantasy running backs off the board in 2014 and at least glance at their chances of 20+ rushing touchdowns. I’m going to focus on what I consider the three big indicators- chance to get over 300 carries, being over 208 pounds, and the likelihood of that player being on a top-three scoring offense:

  • Although he was the top fantasy player in 2013, I can’t consider Jamaal Charles a candidate to score 20+ rushing touchdowns. First, at 199 lbs, he fails the weight threshold by almost 10 lbs. He saw a mere 259 carries last year, and the Chiefs mentioned they want to lessen his rushing workload even more. And while the Chiefs’ offense is considerably above average, how likely are they to finish in the top five above the likes of the Broncos, Eagles, Packers, Bears, etc.? Sorry Jamaal.
  • Matt Forte is definitely in a good offense, but also will not receive the carries necessary to score 20+ rushing touchdowns. He’s a 29 year-old back who has battled lower body injuries and only saw over 289 carries once- his rookie year.  Add in the fact that the Bears’ red-zone offense will likely feature Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett, and there’s pretty much a 0% chance Forte hits 20+ rushing scores. He’s never even gotten to 10.
  • Adrian Peterson definitely has the body type and potential for rushing attempts, but the offense he is on torpedoes any chance of scoring 20. Remember, no player since 1990 has been on an offense worse than 8th when he scored 20 rushing scores, and over half the time they finished first. Exactly how likely are the Vikings to finish in the top quarter of offenses in the NFL, let alone number one? Moving on.
  • Marshawn Lynch is the center of his offense, but he still isn’t a good candidate to join the “20” club. This may be putting it too simply, but he’s averaged 300 carries over the past 3 seasons, and the most he’s been able to put up is 12 touchdowns. If he hasn’t done it already, he likely never will. With Christine Michael bearing down, it’s likely Lynch has seen his last 300+ carry season.
  • Montee Ball has definitely got the opportunity and the offense- the Broncos are very likely to finish in the top three once again. But again, how many carries could he possibly get? Even in a best-case scenario where he holds onto his health and the job for 16 games, will an offense led by Peyton Manning have a runner see 300+ carries? Moreno saw a mere 242 last year while the offense passed over 59% of the time. Most importantly, the Broncos passed nearly twice as much as they ran in the red-zone in 2013. Maybe that will change with Eric Decker gone, but not drastically enough to support one player to score 20 rushing touchdowns.
  • The last person I’ll mention is Eddie Lacy, and I will admit it is very tough to poke holes in Lacy’s chance to score 20 on the ground. Yesterday I polled Twitter on who do they think the most likely 20+ rushing touchdown candidate is, and Rotoworld’s very own Evan Silva suggested that Lacy was the most likely candidate. He’s got the size, he’s got the offense for sure, and he saw 284 carries while basically missing two games. Can he stay healthy for an entire season? Will the Packers seriously commit to the run? Those questions are yet to be answered, but after doing this research Eddie Lacy is the one other guy I cannot write off.

In Conclusion

First of all, something I’ve yet to really discuss: McCoy has scored 20 total touchdowns in a season before, in 2011, including 17 rushing scores on 273 carries- or one every 16 carries. If he can somehow match that pace at 320 carries in 2013 (he got 314 last year), he’ll reach 20.

Also, I want to re-emphasize that I’m simply looking at the historical precedent and situations for scoring 20+ rushing touchdowns- obviously, it’s not a steadfast rule that players MUST meet this criteria. Nor am I actually predicting LeSean McCoy is going to score 20+ rushing touchdowns. I’m simply pondering what it has taken in the past to do so, and considering the entire range of possibilities a player could finish the season with.

In summary, LeSean McCoy has the body (208lbs), the offense (only other team besides Denver to score 50 offensive touchdowns), and a shot at 300+ carries. Other than possibly Eddie Lacy, I don’t see another running back who has a realistic shot at getting the amount of carries on the correct offense necessary to score 20+ rushing touchdowns. If someone reaches 20+ rushing scores this season, I believe it will be LeSean McCoy.