Jamal Black is a co-host of the Two Tone Crew podcast and has been playing fantasy football for more than a decade. Jamal uses statistics heavily in projecting players’ future success and attempts to look at football from many different angles to come to the best conclusions.
For more thoughts on the NFL and Fantasy Football, follow him on Twitter @Jamalisms
Read any Fantasy Football For Beginners article, and you will see the standard suggestion of drafting a running back with each of your first two picks. In large part this is because many leagues prefer starting two running backs on each team, and only one quarterback. This means running backs are a precious commodity in fantasy circles. As the NFL continues its transition to high-powered passing offenses, however, the RB/RB strategy faces increasing scrutiny. The yellow brick road we’ve been on for the last 5-10 years is leading to an emerald city where too few running backs can be trusted to dominate, while too many quarterbacks can. (I’ll spare you the ‘horse of a different color’ reference) Precious commodity or not, predictability is a big issue.
Depending on your scoring system (and the intelligence of your competition), I can imagine as many as four quarterbacks being taken in the first round. Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford each passed for more than 5,000 yards last year. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, won the league MVP and would almost certainly have exceeded the 5,000 yard mark if he had played in the final week of the season.
Any combination of these guys in round one shouldn’t surprise you, though the first few picks are still more likely than not to be running backs. If these guys last through the first set of picks, expect a run on quarterbacks in round two and don’t be afraid to start the run if it hasn’t happened by the time your pick comes around.
Despite the changing landscape, I still feel the earliest few picks (at least) should be spent on a work-horse running back. The question is, which one do you want?
In this article, I’ll zero in on last year’s champion – Maurice Jones-Drew. We’ll take a look at the last ten years to try and spot trends and glean understanding from the combined fates of former league leading rushers. Is Jones-Drew likely to repeat as the rushing champion? Should you take him with your first pick? Let’s see what recent history has to say on those matters.
Ricky Williams led the league in rushing for the 2002 season with an impressive 1,853 yards on 383 carries. The next year he dropped all the way to tenth place with 1,372 yards, a loss of 26%. Even more notable, it took him 392 carries to get those yards in 2003. He had nine additional carries and 481 fewer yards, while his per carry average dropped from 4.8 to 3.5 between years. Given a brutal workload of 775 carries in only two seasons, that isn’t so surprising. What did surprise is what happened afterwards, as Ricky left the league, discovered yoga, and traveled the world before monetary concerns forced him back into the league. Give him credit for effort and endurance upon his return.
He only appeared in the top ten rushing leaders once more, but doing so in 2009 – seven years removed from his league leading effort – showed fair durability and longevity.
In our second year under review, Jamal Lewis made a run on the all-time record. In the end, he came up just short at 2,066 yards on 387 carries. Wise observers expected a drop off in 2004 – no back has ever exceeded 2,000 yards twice in a career – but few would have expected him to fall 51.3% all the way down to 1,060 yards. It wasn’t until four years later that 1,304 yards allowed Jamal Lewis to rise back into the top ten – the last time he earned that distinction.
Few would argue that Curtis Martin had less than a worthy NFL career. On the list of all-time rushing leaders, Curtis Martin is a top five back (fourth, actually). He tallied more yards than numerous HOF players, not to mention recent retiree and likely first ballot HOF player LaDanian Tomlinson (to be discussed later). Curtis exceeded 1,000 yards rushing nine times, consecutively, before becoming the oldest player to lead the league in rushing at 31 years of age in 2004. It was a close call for Martin and his 1,697 yards on 371 carries came in a single yard ahead of Shaun Alexander. Managing this feat at 31 years of age was impressive, so it should come as no surprise that he never led the league again.
As you would expect, the drop off was precipitous. More than never leading the league – he never even appeared in the top ten after 2004. The very next year audiences everywhere watched as Curtis struggled to a measly 735 yards and a 3.3 yard average, a loss of 56.7%.
After having lost out on the rushing title by one yard in 2004, Shaun Alexander won redemption in 2005 by taking the title and rushing for nearly 1,150 yards more than Curtis Martin. His 1,880 yards on 370 carries was impressive. Gaining almost 1,000 fewer yards the very next year, however, was not. His fall to 896 yards in 2006 (down 52.3%) was eerily similar to Curtis Martin’s fate, but the connection carries further because Shaun Alexander was essentially never heard from again. He, much like Curtis, never once broke into the top ten after leading the league in rushing.
2006 and 2007
LaDanian Tomlinson was the NFL’s top rusher in 2006. As you would expect from someone who garnered so much positive attention when he retired a few weeks ago, his career path was better than the other backs we’ve looked at. In the years presented so far, LaDanian appeared in the top ten every time. He was second in the league in 2002, third in 2003, seventh in 2004, and sixth in 2005 before appearing in the top spot in 2006. With 1,815 yards on 348 carries, LaDanian Tomlinson impressed. On top of that, despite that his total dropped 18.8%, he managed to lead the league again the following year. His 1,474 yards on 315 carries in 2007 is the lowest total to lead the league in all years analyzed – but it did lead the league – and marks the only time that someone led the league twice (not to mention doing it consecutively) in the 10 years under review. Sadly, 2007 was more or less the end of the greatness of “LT.” His tenth place finish in 2008 with 1,110 yards was 38.8% off of his first place pace in 2006, and 24.7% less than what he gained in 2007. Despite hanging around in the league for many years thereafter, 2008 was his final appearance on the top ten list. Even for a guy like LT, the fall from grace was quick and final.
At this point, heading into a discussion of 2008, I’m going to draw a distinction. If you recall from my earlier analysis, or from the rather obvious NFL trend, the league is transitioning to a passing league.
This is evidenced by numerous factors, but the easiest way I can explain it is this: The top ten rushers for the period from 2002-2006 averaged 1,518 yards on 330 carries. Meanwhile, the top ten rushers from 2007-2011 averaged 1,328 on 295 carries. In 2011, only one running back even crossed 1,400 yards. Not only are teams passing more, many teams have transitioned to what is known as RBBC in fantasy football circles. It’s a dirty, little, four letter word (or acronym, whatever) that refers to a running back by committee approach. If you want an example, look no further than Carolina who, despite inexplicably paying DeAngelo Williams piles of cash last year, splits carries fairly evenly between multiple guys – including the QB.
This relates strongly to the new point I’m going to make. Whereas the backs discussed earlier were mostly aging by the time they led the league, many of the next backs discussed are far younger. Not only that, but they aren’t quite as abused in terms of rushing attempts. 35 carries per year (330 minus 295) may not sound like a lot, but it adds up very quickly over the course of a career. Whether due to an influx of elite athletes capable of climbing to the top of the mountain faster, or because of the transition to a passing league and RBBC trends… these next guys are generally sticking around in the top ten longer and will likely continue to do so in the future. Much can be learned from looking back, but it appears that much has already been learned by the NFL. As such, I would merely suggest that readers use caution when projecting how quickly rushing leaders will pass into the dust heap of the truly dead, as their predecessors did. While leading the league in the first five/six years was a career death blow, it isn’t necessarily the same for years seven through ten.
As already discussed, LT repeated as the league leader in 2007. The guy who finished second that year was a rookie by the name of Adrian Peterson. Adrian Peterson does four things well, and the first of four is the reason for the other three. One, he runs like a beast / plays with reckless abandon… and on the way he gains yards, fumbles a lot, and gets injured. He was recently rated the eighth best player at any position in the NFL, but in 2008 he likely would have been even higher. In that year, his second in the NFL, he gained 1,760 yards on 363 carries. As with everyone not named LT, he hasn’t (yet?) led the league in rushing a second time, but until last year, when he was injured (and doing quite well), he had appeared in the top ten each year since winning the title (fifth in 2009 and sixth in 2010).
For the sake of perspective, Ricky Williams was in the top ten two separate times after leading the league in 2002, and both times he finished tenth. Jamal Lewis (2003) took four years to recover from being the top guy. He cracked the top ten only once more, and has since retired. Curtis Martin (2004) did it zero times and has retired. Shaun Alexander (2005) did it zero times and has retired. LT (2006 and 2007), a first ballot HOFer, cracked the top ten twice more after winning the rushing title in 2006, and has now retired. Adrian Peterson has already done it twice, is the only person to do so and finish above tenth place both times, and is still young. While questions remain as to when he will make a triumphant return from a serious knee injury, nobody seems to be questioning if it will happen. Expect to see him in the top ten again. Worth noting, btw, his rushing yards dipped 21.4% (to 1,383) in the year following his top place finish.
One guy who does face questions is Chris Johnson. Like Adrian Peterson, he had a solid rookie season and then jumped to the top of the pack in his sophomore outing. In 2009, Chris Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards on 358 carries, earning him the nickname CJ2k. His 5.6 yard average is the best of any player to lead the league in rushing over the last ten years. This, combined with his yards from scrimmage record and related enshrinement in the 2,000 yard rushing club, created high expectations which have not been met. He did manage to come in at fourth place the following year, a better finish than anyone but repeat champ LT, but his dip of 32% to 1,364 rushing yards left something to be desired… and the drop out of the top ten in 2011 is even more worrisome. A return to at least respectable numbers (the top ten) isn’t out of the question, given his relative youth compared to other backs that fell out of the top ten after leading the league, but it remains to be seen what will happen.
2010 continues the trend of guys leading the league in their second year. Arian Foster true action for the first time in late 2009 and did well. He then followed it up with a league leading 1,616 yards on 327 carries in 2010. As you well know, despite missing sizable amounts of time due to injuries in 2011, Arian Foster continues the trend of young backs leading the league in rushing and then maintaining a top ten pace. In 2011, he finished with 1,224 yards. This was a decrease of 24.3%, but was good enough to land him at number five for the year. Many are expecting big things from Arian Foster in 2012 and, although I’m a bit more skeptical due to the presence of Ben Tate and RBBC trends in the NFL, anything less than another top ten finish would be a major disappointment.
Every back who finished in the top spot over the last five years has subsequently finished in the top ten at least once more. This is in spite of a very limited time period and careers that (apart from LT) are still ongoing and have significant potential for continued success. Compare that to the preceding five years when Ricky Williams, Jamal Lewis, Curtis Martin, and Shaun Alexander were essentially washed up as dominant running backs after leading the NFL, and there is reason to think that trends are good for league leaders moving forward.
Speaking of league leaders, let’s now return to Maurice Jones-Drew. In 2011, he led the league while rushing for 1,606 yards on 343 carries. It bears noting that he is not the spring chicken that Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Arian Foster were when they led the league, but it also bears noting that 1,606 is the second lowest total to lead the league in the last ten years, while 343 carries is the third lowest carries given to a league leader. The inherent wear and tear to lead the league in 2011 was not quite the herculean effort undertaken by guys in previous years. Then again, another factor to consider is that Jacksonville pulled a “Del Rio special” and fired their QB shortly before the season last year, resulting in the eventual early introduction of (a completely ineffective) Blaine Gabbert. Everyone knew that the rush was coming when Maurice Jones-Drew lined up, and he still led the league. Some people call this a favorable consideration, as they assume Gabbert will only get better and the related threat of
a pass opens holes for Jones-Drew; I wonder how much more of a beating it subjected him to.
Maybe the inherent wear and tear isn’t so low?
There are many considerations when setting your fantasy rankings. I’m not going to tell you specifically where you should rank Maurice Jones-Drew because the correct answer depends on your point system.
Besides, I don’t want you to simply take my word for it without any extra thought. What I will say is that Maurice Jones-Drew is not LaDanian Tomlinson. History strongly suggests that he won’t repeat as the leader, so I won’t have him number one. All other leaders dropped a minimum of 20% between years, and the guys with some age (Alexander and Martin) dropped off by 50%+.
More likely Jones-Drew’s ceiling is somewhere between fourth and sixth place, which means he won’t be in my top three. At that point, I suspect someone else will take him before me.
Maurice Jones-Drew is not a lock for Fantasy Greatness just because he won the rushing title last year, and you’re being fed sweet-tasting lies by anyone who claims he is. Let’s get that straight. If anything, history suggests otherwise. When it comes to your turn, if you have an early pick, strong consideration is suggested.