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Player Spotlight: Marshawn Lynch

A detailed look at Marshawn Lynch's fantasy prospects for 2015

What you’ve seen – high volume and high impact – is what you’ve gotten. But now?

Since his ascension into Seattle’s lead role in 2011, Lynch has been the league’s best package of volume, production, and consistency among running backs:

  • 1st in rushes
  • 4thin yards per rush
  • 9thin targets
  • 1stin touchdowns

You know Lynch’s talent level – according to Pro Football Focus, he again led the league in missed tackles last year with 88, or 21 more than #2 DeMarco Murray. You know his fit into the offense, and you know his top-five ceiling. But what’s the floor for a bastion of consistency hitting age 29? One who’s already taken more touches than Adrian Peterson and threatened retirement twice?

It depends, of course. If we examine recent historical comparisons, we can see what worked out and what didn’t. Since 1990, Lynch and 13 other backs have accumulated 2,200 touches by age 28 and continued playing beyond that point. Of those 13:

  • Ten went on to post lead back usage the following year.
  • None of the other three failed to do so because of some sudden, age-related tumble at 29. Clinton Portis and Maurice Jones-Drew were already backup/rotational types by that point, and Adrian Peterson was lost to suspension in Week 2.

So that’s a good indicator that 29 isn’t a career-killer for high-volume backs. But what about quality? Were they over the hill and ineffective once they hit that point?

  • Those ten backs averaged 97.1 scrimmage yards per game in their age-29 season.
  • They averaged roughly the same yardage per carry at 29 as they did the year prior.
  • We do see a bit of a drop-off in receiving production; only one of the ten (Barry Sanders) caught more passes at 29 than at 28.

The takeaway here is that, under normal circumstances, we can expect productive, high-volume backs to enjoy similar success at 29 to what they saw at 28. So are Lynch’s circumstances normal?

What if the Seahawks pass (significantly) more in 2015?

That’s unlikely. There may be tweaks, sure – the Seahawks will throw the ball a bit more as Russell Wilson matures and the team plays with its new receiving toys (Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett). But that was inevitable; the team posted the fewest pass attempts and second-most rushes in football from 2011-14. Their run:pass ratio over that span was, to say the least, quite slanted:

 

SEA

NFL Avg

2012

55:45

42:58

2013

52:48

42:58

2014

51:49

42:58

 

The team just made Wilson one of the league’s highest paid quarterbacks, so it makes sense that they’ll expect more and more from his arm as time marches on. But there’s absolutely no reason to make a sweeping philosophical change at this point. The Seahawks are perennial Super Bowl contenders and enjoy monumental success with what they’ve done for the last four years. Graham or no Graham, they won’t skew pass-heavy anytime soon.

But what if they inch in that direction in 2015? That’s very likely, but would that volume dip damage Lynch’s RB1 outlook?

Let’s project Lynch’s usage and production possibilities with truncated workloads. I’m projecting the Seahawks to run 1,029 plays in 2015, just a tick more than last year’s 1,021. Even if we apply slight regression to Lynch’s yards per carry and touchdown rate from last year, we get these possible seasons:

Run:Pass Ratio

Team Rush

Lynch Rush

Lynch Yds

Lynch TDs

50:50

515

274

1235

10.4

49:51

504

269

1209

10.2

48:52

494

263

1185

10.0

47:53

484

258

1161

9.8

46:54

473

252

1134

9.6

 

As you can see, it’s hard to see his rushing numbers slipping out of RB1 range. Also, factor in that Lynch is a fine passing down back in his own right, averaging 46 targets over the last two years. An uptick in passing would likely grant him a small boost in receiving opportunity right alongside the rest of the offense.

A Backfield to his own?

Through three years in Russell Wilson’s offense, Lynch has commanded a whopping 57.1% of the team’s rushing attempts. Obviously, that speaks volumes about his central role atop coordinator Darrell Bevell’s gameplan. Bevell doesn’t so much want his running game to dominate opponents; he wants Lynch to do it.

Robert Turbin is a fine third down back. In his three seasons he’s caught 81% of balls thrown to him and graded out as an average pass blocker. But he’s a limited athlete without much dynamism. Even with 231 career carries, he’s still seeking his first rushing touchdown – in fact, he’s yet to take a carry from inside the five. He looks like much more of a clear backup than a rotational back you have to get onto the field and manufacture touches for. That makes him a prime handcuff to Lynch, but not a guy with standalone value; his value is as Lynch insurance and not much more.

The excitement over mega-athlete and film darling Christine Michael has died down tremendously. Michael’s stock soared last offseason amidst Lynch’s first retirement scare and some downright misleading praise from the coaching staff. That opportunity never materialized, and Michael garnered just 74 snaps in 2014. There’s still plenty of appeal there, but he seems miles from even challenging Turbin for backup snaps, let alone stealing touches from Lynch. He may even be fighting for a roster spot this August.

Lynch’s main competitor for rushes is quarterback Russell Wilson, but that’s no deterrent. Last year Wilson ran 118 times – his career-high and the eighth-most by a quarterback since 1972 – and the team’s running backs still took 340 rushes. Wilson is a phenomenal runner, but he’s unlikely to ever take on more of a chunk of the running game than that.

Health Concerns

Lynch has recently battled a back ailment – compressed cartilage, which can worsen with wear – that many feel has been a factor in his multiple retirement wafflings. At the link, NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus explains that Lynch avoided the locker room at halftime of a 2014 game over concerns his back might lock up. You’d never know it, as he’s had the problem since 2007. But it’s a real concern as we ponder his effectiveness at 29.

Positives

Consistency and heavy, heavy volume. No back has seen more carries since 2012, and few have dominated their own backfields as thoroughly. Setting the tone for one of the league’s most run-intensive teams, Lynch has no legitimate concerns over volume.

Prominence within a successful, and occasionally dynamic, offense. No back has scored more touchdowns since 2012; in fact, no back has run the ball more often from inside the five. The Seahawks routinely find themselves in the red zone as often as just about anyone, so Lynch annually carries a floor of 10-12 touchdowns.

Uninspiring backfield competitors. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are enticing handcuffs for various reasons, but neither have come close to forcing an intriguing timeshare with Lynch. And Russell Wilson has likely already reached his rushing maximum.

Negatives

Health. Reports are that Lynch’s back issues are chronic and could force him into (actual) retirement soon. They don’t seem to have limited him at all, but they’re something to keep an eye on.

Age. We see from the above data that 29 doesn’t kill a back’s career, but it rarely makes it stronger. We’ve probably already enjoyed Lynch’s best seasons, so he loses the upside battle to peers like C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill.

A potentially evolving offensive system. The team will almost certainly throw more going forward. We don’t know how much more, but Lynch’s days of 280+ carries are likely over.

Final Thoughts

Since 2012 – when Russell Wilson was drafted and the Seahawks offense took shape – Lynch has been an absolute fantasy lynchpin, averaging a season of 1,677 total yards and 14 touchdowns. It appears at this point there’s simply nothing capable of halting that run apart from Lynch himself. His age isn’t a big concern, nor is the mild increase in passing we can expect in Seattle. He’s a bona fide upper-tier RB1, sacrificing some upside for proven consistency and steadily high projections across the board.

Projections

 

G

Rush

Yd

TD

Rec

Td

TD

FumL

Justin Howe

16

265

1192

10

33

286

3

2

Maurile Tremblay

16

238

1078

9

29

257

2

3

David Dodds

16

260

1170

11

35

308

2

1

Jason Wood

16

290

1350

12

35

300

2

3

Bob Henry

16

270

1140

11

32

270

2

1

 

Thoughts from around the web

Rich Hribar of TheFakeFootball is bullish on Lynch repeating his typical RB1 value: 

“All of the top backs have reasons to express some level of concern this season and Lynch may actually have less than the others around him. He is totally worthy of the required draft capital necessary to secure him and I have softened on that initial stance on avoiding him… if he’s the back that ends up sliding to the back half and near the turn [of the first round], soak him up in those spots.” 

ESPN’s Christopher Harris calls Lynch his ideal #1 overall pick for 2015: 

“Remove age from the equation and I don't think there's much of an argument: Lynch deserves to be the highest-rated RB on your board. Of course, we can't completely disregard age, but my analysis shows that while age-29 RBs coming off major workloads have fallen off a bit, they've performed well. That's why I've stopped worrying. While he brings increased risk, Lynch should be the first player off fantasy draft boards this summer.”

By the way, Sports Injury Predictor doesn’t think Lynch’s back woes should sway your fantasy plans:

“He has missed one game due to back pain in the last 5 seasons. Outside of that he has managed the pain and played at an elite level. There is no reason to think that this is the year he falls apart. Also – looking closer at the deal he signed with the Seahawks you can see how high the organization is on him. He was coaxed out of retirement with a two year extension to his one year remaining with the Seahawks for an additional $24M making his total earned over the next 3 years $31M. This from a team who won’t commit long term to a quarterback who has taken them to back-to-back Super Bowls.”