Bell Cow and Workhorse Running Backs
The terms Bell Cow and Workhorse are attached to running backs without merit. “This guy should get the workhorse role in that offense.” “That guy is a bell cow in that system.” The entire coaching staff blends into a single unit – numerous coaches forming into one system and one philosophy. At least in theory, the head coach should want coaches to best fit his head coaching vision. There are 32 systems and philosophies and all 32 will be unique to the other. And yes, bad teams will need to throw the ball more since they are trailing and playing catch up. You get the point.
In 2020, Derrick Henry led the league in rushing attempts with 378 carries equating to 73% of his team’s rushing attempts. James Robinson had 71% of the Jaguars’ carries with 240 carries. Robinson had 138 fewer carries than Henry but only a 2% difference in the percentage of their team’s carries – Henry and Robinson were the top two in terms of percent of their team’s carries. How do we identify what a true Bell Cow or Workhorse running back is? Here are my operational definitions for the two terms:
- What is a Bell Cow? The lead cow, especially the lead cow of a herd. For fantasy purposes, the lead running back, especially the lead running back of a committee. I will define a Bell Cow as the running back receiving 70% or more of the team’s carries. The lead running back of the group, the running back getting the majority of his team’s carries.
- What is a Workhorse? A person or machine dependably performs hard work over a long period of time. The hard work is being the running back doing most of the work in the offense over the course of a season. I will define a Workhorse running back as the running back receiving 70% of the carries and 15% of the team’s receptions while being on the field for over 75% of the snaps.
A Bell Cow or Workhorse running back should be consistently producing fantasy points every single game. Since 2010, a running back has surpassed 200 PPR (points per reception) points 161 times over those seasons. Here are the years and the number of running backs:
Why 200 points? The lowest finish for a 200-point running back was RB18, an RB2 finish. You want these specific running backs on your fantasy teams. A season over 200 points gets a chance to finish as an RB1, at worst an RB2. What about 300 points? Here is the same chart but with running backs over 300 points in a season:
Surpassing 300 points is challenging. Here is a side-by-side view of the two previous charts:
Bringing back the 200 point running backs, the combination provides a strong baseline. Since 2020 we have never had a season below 10 running backs but never a season above 20 either. Again, the systems and schemes are different for each of the 32 teams. This leaves the running back usage unique. Here is the usage for 200 point running backs dating back to 2020 per season:
It is important to note the average touches of the running backs are similar. The number of 200 point running backs does not affect average touches. In 2014 there was the least 200 point running backs (11) but they averaged the second-highest touches per season. What makes the touches unique? In 2014 they had the second-lowest reception (542) total. Could receptions be a major factor for running backs in fantasy football? Here are the receptions from the 161 running backs broken down into reception totals per season dating back to 2010. This accounts for the modern playstyle of the NFL.
Yes, two running backs had under 10 receptions in a season. I mean, do I really need to talk about this chart, it is obvious what is needed to ensure a 200-point running back. Dating back to 2010, 86% of running backs scoring over 200 points in a season had over 30 receptions in a season. Here are the 300 point running backs broken down:
Dating back to 2010, 94% of running backs scoring over 300 points in a season had over 40 receptions in a season and only 12% of running backs received less than 200 carries.
Analyzing The Data
We are left with two terms, Bell Cow and Workhorse. Application of the terms is needed. I am going to present the truth from the data on the 200 and 300 PPR running backs (2010 – 2020):
200+ PPR points:
- 63% of running backs > 200 PPR have between 30-59 receptions per season.
- 50-59 receptions (23%)
- 40-49 (20%)
- 30-39 (20%)
- Average 240.14 carries per season.
- Average 48.73 receptions per season.
300+ PPR points
- The lowest reception season was 19
- 32 is the second-lowest
- 97% of running backs have over 30 receptions per season
- 70% had over 50 receptions
- 50% receive 201-299 carries per season
- 12% less than 200 carries
- 53% receive 66+ receptions per season
- 6% less than 40 receptions
Bell Cow Running Backs
What is a Bell Cow? The lead cow, especially the lead cow of a herd. For fantasy purposes, the lead running back, especially the running back of a committee. I will define a Bell Cow as the running back receiving 70% or more of the team’s carries. The lead running back of the group, the running back getting the carries.
Workhorse Running Backs
What is a Workhorse? A person or machine dependably performs hard work over a long period of time. The hard work is being the running back doing most of the work in the offense over the course of a season. I will define a Workhorse running back as the running back receiving 70% of the carries and 15% of the team’s receptions, but is on the field for over 75% of the snaps.
2020 Running Back Data
It is time to apply the operational definitions. It should be noted the 2020 season was affected by COVID-19; the 2020 season had the third-fewest 200 PPR running backs dating back to 2010. Correlation does not equal causation, just a limitation to note. Here are the top 30 running backs starting with the most carries to fewest:
Pink = running backs playing less than 14 games
Here are some facts regarding the 2020 running back data:
- David Montgomery led all running backs in snap percentage
- Derrick Henry led all running backs in percent of their team’s carries
- Dalvin Cook led all running backs in percent of their team’s receptions
- 20% of running backs had over 60% of their team’s carries
- 7% of running backs had over 15% of their team’s receptions
Limitations of the 2020 running back data: injuries and playing time. Rookies like J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers did not receive the lead role of the offense. Myles Gaskin played in only 10 games, he spent four games on the injured reserve and two games on the COVID-19 list. I manually calculated the ten game splits for Gaskin and the Dolphins:
Gaskin was used similarly to Ezekiel Elliott during those 10 games, Elliott received 3% more carries and 4% fewer receptions. Injuries are a part of the game. Is it fair to knock season-long statistics because of injuries?
Identifying Bell Cow Running Backs
A bell cow running back receives 70% or more of the team’s carries. From 2020, only two running backs fit the operational definition. I included the running backs with 60% or more for honorable mentions. Derrick Henry and James Robinson are your bell cow running backs from 2020.
Here is the 2019 season:
The 2020 season only had one less bell cow but had four less running backs over 60% of their respective team’s carries. Remember, running backs receiving 60% or more still deserve an honorable mention. Maybe the threshold is too high?
Identifying Workhorse Running Backs
A Workhorse running back is the running back receiving 70% of the carries and 15% of the team’s receptions, but is on the field for over 75% of the snaps. There were zero running backs to surpass the thresholds. However, it did happen in 2019. It was noted injuries and COVID-19 affected the 2020 offseason and the 2020 season. Let us look at the 2019 data:
Kenyan Drake’s data is from the eight games played with the Cardinals. Christian McCaffrey was the only Workhorse running back from the 2019 season. Leonard Fournette, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, and Kenyan Drake had over 15% receptions but could not meet the criteria for snap percentage and the percent of the team’s carries.
Again, maybe the threshold is too high?
I think it is important to understand 2019 data compared to 2020 data due to the variables affecting running back play in 2020. I tried my best to dance around the elephant in the room. Simply put, COVID-19 affected the 2020 NFL season. I have no idea to what extent. Did defenses get affected more than offenses? What position was affected the most? You can think of numerous questions. Regardless, there was some sort of influence on the season.
Looking at Bell Cow running backs, the 2020 season had one less running back. The 2019 season did have four more running backs miss the threshold by less than 10% of the team’s carries. The Bell Cow running back leads the group by receiving the majority of the carries. Looking at Workhorse running backs, the 2020 season had zero compared to the 2019 season having one.
If a running back cannot reach 70% of the team’s carries, even while counting quarterback scrambles and designed wide receiver runs, this begs the question should they even be considered a Bell Cow or Workhorse running back? The snap percentage and reception percentage adds additional measures to the terms. Are my criteria too high? Is it a problem a small percentage of running backs qualify? These terms indicate the running backs are accumulating volume in an offense. We should not throw these terms around lightly.
Being a Bell Cow or Workhorse running back does not equal high-level production, it just means you are getting volume in an offense. There have been only 33 total running backs since 2010 to score 300 or more points. These running backs average 279.61 carries and 65.67 receptions per season. A reminder of the operational definitions:
- Bell Cow
- The running back receiving at least 70% of the team’s carries
- The running back accumulating 70% of the team’s carries and 15% of team’s receptions while playing 75% of snaps
In 2019, only three total running backs qualified to be a Bell Cow or Workhorse running back (McCaffrey, Mixon, Chubb) — of the Bell Cow and Workhorse running backs:
- 11 running backs scored more points than Mixon
- Six running backs scored more points than Chubb
- Zero running backs scored more than McCaffrey (the only Workhorse)
Identifying bell cow and workhorse running backs
Applying the knowledge from this analysis, we can be confident Christian McCaffrey will be the running back warranting a workhorse title. After McCaffrey there are notable running backs who potentially can reach the workhorse title:
- Saquon Barkley
- Dalvin Cook
- Ezekiel Elliott
Bell cow running backs include the workhorse, Derrick Henry, and potentially these running backs:
- Nick Chubb
- Joe Mixon
- Josh Jacobs
Playing a full season is the underlying factor — just remember that these titles are of no importance. The terms are not needed for a running back to perform as good (if not better) and/or acquire volume and opportunities in an offense. The terms indicate a substantial usage within a system. The terms should not be used to validate a running back.
So why glorify these terms?
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