We know that for a variety of reasons (injuries, touchdown luck, etc.), running back scoring is incredibly volatile from year to year. Last year in this column, Miles Sanders and Jamaal Williams were highlighted as major regression candidates who ended up woefully busting in 2023 after excellent 2022 fantasy football performances.

We’ll focus on two players who are likely to score fewer touchdowns (a fickle, non-“sticky” statistic year to year for running backs) and lack an adequate amount of targets (receiving production/opportunity is quite “sticky” year to year) to make up for possible touchdown regression. Here are two 2024 regression candidates at the running back position who are likely to underperform at cost:

Running Back Regression Candidate: Kyren Williams

Undoubtedly, Kyren Williams was a revelation in 2023. As a very late-round or outright free asset who finished as the RB2 in PPR points per game (RB7 overall), Williams defined the term “league winner” as he overtook Cam Akers early in the season to become the Rams’ dominant rusher.

However, with a current ADP of 13.5 overall as the RB5 (22.0 as the RB6 in dynasty startup drafts) we need to be much more judicious when considering him as a selection at the 1st/2nd round turn.

Poor Athletic Testing

It’s no secret that despite decent production (70th percentile dominator rating in college), Williams struggled mightily with athletic testing during the 2022 pre-draft process (credit to RAS):

Kyren Williams, a running back regression candidate, and his combine testing numbers

With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that he fell to the middle of the 5th round in the 2022 NFL draft. You’d have hoped a small running back (5’9″, 194 lbs – 22nd percentile BMI) would possess better speed, agility, and explosion. This is exemplified by him finishing only 13th in yards per touch and 28th in breakaway run rate during his breakout 2023 season.

Draft Capital Matters, Especially If You Don’t Catch Passes

Another troubling aspect of Williams’ 2024 outlook is his lack of per-snap receiving involvement. Despite a nice collegiate receiving profile, finishing 1st in snap share, and 4th in route percentage during his 2023 breakout, Williams didn’t make much noise as a receiver last year. He parlayed that elite opportunity into only the 24th most targets, 37th best yards per route run, and 32nd most receiving yards out of qualifying running backs. The lion’s share of his fantasy production came from touchdowns and rushing yards.

How does this rushing-heavy NFL production profile project when accounting for draft capital? Here is a list of every running back with 5th-round or worse draft capital (including undrafted players) since 2012 who had 200+ carries and under 50 targets in a season (N). I then looked at how they performed the following season to see if they maintained their touchdown luck or saw an increase in targets – the results were not pretty:

PlayerSeason (N)N PPR Pts (Finish)N+1 PPR Pts (Finish)N+1 Tgts (Diff. From N)N+1 TDs (Diff. From N)
Tyler Allgeier2022159.4 (RB29)137.6 (RB36)23 (+6)5 (+1)
Elijah Mitchell2021165.0 (RB26)43.6 (RB78)4 (-16)2 (-4)
Chris Carson2019232.6 (RB12)187.8 (RB19)46 (-1)9 (+0)
Philip Lindsay2019197.7 (RB19)66.0 (RB66)14 (-34)1 (-6)
Chris Carson2018201.4 (RB15)232.6 (RB12)47 (+23)9 (+0)
Jordan Howard2018180.0 (RB20)111.4 (RB44)14 (-13)7 (-2)
Peyton Barber2018150.3 (RB31)116.5 (RB43)24 (-5)7 (+1)
Jordan Howard2017199.7 (RB14)180.0 (RB20)27 (-5)9 (+0)
Alex Collins2017171.0 (RB21)108.6 (RB45)36 (-15)8 (+2)
Latavius Murray2017157.5 (RB25)131.9 (RB38)26 (+9)6 (-2)
Jay Ajayi2017135.1 (RB36)43.4 (RB83)6 (-28)3 (+1)
C.J. Anderson2017175.1 (RB18)67.4 (RB69)9 (-31)3 (-1)
Isaiah Crowell2017143.5 (RB31)140.7 (RB33)28 (-14)6 (+4)
Jordan Howard2016230.1 (RB10)199.7 (RB14)32 (-18)9 (+2)
Jay Ajayi2016215.3 (RB11)135.1 (RB36)34 (-1)2 (-6)
Spencer Ware2016193.8 (RB17)N/AN/AN/A
LeGarrette Blount2016232.9 (RB9)107.6 (RB44)8 (+0)3 (-15)
Alfred Morris201596.6 (RB53)40.4 (RB77)6 (-7)3 (+2)
Chris Ivory2015202.7 (RB12)94.5 (RB49)28 (-9)2 (-6)
Alfred Morris2014187.9 (RB18)96.6 (RB53)13 (-13)1 (-7)
Alfred Morris2013178.3 (RB21)187.9 (RB18)26 (+14)8 (+1)
Zac Stacy2013183.4 (RB20)64.5 (RB70)23 (-12)1 (-7)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis2013119.8 (RB40)N/AN/AN/A
Alfred Morris2012252.0 (RB8)178.3 (RB21)12 (-4)7 (-6)
Vick Ballard2012131.6 (RB33)6.8 (RB130)2 (-25)0 (-3)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis2012173.8 (RB22)119.8 (RB40)8 (-22)7 (+1)

A few notes on the table above:

  • Out of 27 qualifying seasons, there was only one top-12 and six top-24 RB finishes in the following season (N+1). These players don’t often perform above replacement level and seldom improve their fantasy performances the following year.
  • Only 9 out of 27 of the players scored increased their touchdown totals the following season, and zero scored 10+.
  • Only 3 out of 27 players improved their raw target numbers the following season, and zero players on the list ever surpassed 53 targets in a season during their entire careers.

Unfortunately, players with Williams’ draft capital and lack of receiving numbers rarely repeat (let alone improve upon) their breakout seasons. With minimal draft capital and monetary investment, teams are far more willing to bring in competition via the draft and free agency. These players are also far less likely to be “handed” the job again if they were to get injured. Their lack of receiving production only heightens these risks, as it presents even more opportunities for competition.

Conclusion

There’s little doubt that Kyren Williams was an awesome player in 2023 for both the Rams and fantasy teams. He passed the “eye test” far better than one would expect considering his 2022 combine numbers, and his 2023 production was superior to any of the performances listed in the above table. His volume, lack of free agency competition (thus far), goal-line opportunity, and collegiate receiving profile likely give him more hope than the once-promising Jay Ajayis and Jordan Howards had during their N+1 seasons.

However, his cost is incredibly steep as a borderline first-round selection – if we want to draft a running back that high in PPR fantasy drafts, we want much more receiving ceiling (and floor) than he appears to possess. Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp will dominate targets in Los Angeles. He could fall victim to negative touchdown regression like so many of his cohorts above, and any injury to Matthew Stafford would tank the offense’s touchdown potential and render Williams an RB2/flex play.

Williams’ ADP could fall precipitously if Rams draft another RB, and his current value will not get higher even if he does escape the summer without meaningful competition. History shows that these types of running backs do not last long, and they fall of a steep cliff once the decline in opportunity sets in. It rarely pays in fantasy football to draft an unathletic running back with 5th round draft capital at their absolute opportunity ceiling. Hopefully, his ADP will settle into the late second or early third round which will make him far easier to select.

Running Back Regression Candidate: David Montgomery

David Montgomery came to Detroit in 2023 and was heralded as the “next Jamaal Williams” – a player who could be their early-down grinder and goal-line hammer to complement the speedy rookie Jahmry Gibbs. This prognostication madee Montgomery the RB25 off the board in the 7th round of 2023 fantasy drafts.

While he didn’t lead the league in touchdowns like Jamaal Williams did in 2022, Montgomery did not disappoint: he scored 13 touchdowns and ran for 1,015 yards en route to an overall RB17 finish.

But like Kyren Williams above, David Montgomery has major touchdown regression and receiving volume issues that make him a bit of a risky pick at his current and more expensive price (RB19 at the end of the 6th round).

Montgomery’s Goal-Line Monopolization Is A Thing Of The Past

While many drafters’ theories about Montgomery being the Lions’ new goal-line hammer were accurate during the first part of the season, it did not survive the Jahmyr Gibbs breakout campaign for long:

PlayerOpps. Inside The 10: Weeks 1-6Opps. Inside The 10: Weeks 7-18
David Montgomery1615
Jahmyr Gibbs422

After Mongtomery went down with a rib injury and missed a couple of games, he never regained the near monopoly he had on goal-line work. Unsurprisingly, his overall fantasy performance declined significantly afterward:

David Montgomery - a running back regression candidate - and his splits from Weeks 1-6 vs. Weeks 7-18

With Gibbs proving adept at goal-line work and even seeing targets inside the 10 yard-line, it can no longer be assumed that Montgomery will see 75+% of the goal-line work in 2024 (like he did at the beginning of 2023). Since that was the thesis for drafting him at RB25 in 2023, he should be less expensive in 2024 than he was last season – not more.

In Chicago, Montgomery saw 35+ targets every season (including 68 in 2020 and 51 in 2021). He only saw 24 last season as Gibbs fulfilled his destiny as one of the most dynamic receiving backs in the league. Is there any hope for Montgomery seeing more receiving work in 2024?

Approaching The Age Cliff Without Receiving Production: A Worrisome Sign

David Montgomery turns 27 this summer, which is very problematic for his 2024 production potential. Here is a list of running backs since 2012 who scored 9+ touchdowns with 30 or fewer targets at age 26 or older. Like with Kyren Williams above, I have added their following seasons (N+1) to see how they followed up such a performance. I only selected players whose ADPs were outside the top-24 for their N+1 seasons to adjust for expectation, as no one thinks David Montgomery will perform like Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb:

PlayerSeason (N)N PPR Pts (Finish)N+1 PPR Pts (Finish)N+1 Tgts (Diff.)N+1 TDs (Diff.)
Jamaal Williams2022225.9 (RB13)60.8 (RB61)20 (+4)1 (-16)
Ezekiel Elliott2022185.8 (RB22)174.5 (RB30)65 (+43)5 (-7)
Mark Ingram2019242.5 (RB11)52.9 (RB76)8 (-21)2 (-15)
Raheem Mostert2019165.2 (RB26)99.7 (RB48)19 (-3)3 (-7)
LeGarrette Blount2016232.9 (RB9)107.6 (RB44)8 (0)3 (-15)
Jonathan Stewart2016146.4 (RB29)117.2 (RB42)15 (-6)7 (-2)
Ryan Mathews2016144.6 (RB30)N/AN/AN/A
Mike Gillislee2016125.7 (RB40)68.8 (RB69)1 (-10)5 (-4)
Frank Gore2013190.9 (RB18)158.7 (RB21)19 (-7)5 (-4)

A few notes on the table above:

  • Only 2023 Ezekiel Elliott saw an increase to a meaningful number of targets, and that was only because of the disastrous season the Patriots suffered through last year. The rest of the list saw either a negligible increase or even an outright decrease in N+1 from their already meager target numbers.
  • Only 2016 Jonathan Stewart surpassed even five touchdowns the following season, showing the incredible volatility of rushing touchdowns from year to year.
  • Zero of these players finished as a top-20 running back in their N+1 season. Only 2013 Frank Gore finished inside the top-30.

Unsurprisingly, older running backs who don’t catch passes tend to perform at disastrous levels as they age. We want to be ahead of this trend, not one of its many victims.

Conclusion

Like Williams, there is some reason for optimism with Montgomery. The offense is still likely to be elite, and the Lions have shown a significant proclivity toward running the football near the goal-line. Montgomery will still have goal-line opportunities, and he could go back to owning that department if Gibbs were to go down.

But Montgomery is another year older, has seen his targets drop significantly every year since his sophomore season, and is more expensive than he was last year. Optimistically, he may prove an exception to the table above and maintain his touchdown scoring production to meet his cost. At worst, he’ll be borderline unstartable as he hits the age cliff and loses even more work to Gibbs. You should be looking for more floor and ceiling in your top-100 selections.

In 2024 you can select younger options like Rhamondre Stevenson, Tony Pollard, Jaylen Warren, and D’Andre Swift at a cheaper price. If you’re interested in Montgomery’s archetype, Nick Chubb (ADP of 88 as the RB24) or Raheem Mostert (ADP of 93 as the RB28) are also options later in the draft.