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Player Faceoff: RB Marshawn Lynch, Oakland

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Marshawn Lynch

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Matt Waldman

Lynch will be one of the most polarizing players in 2017 fantasy drafts because there are multiple questions surrounding his return that can easily be deal breakers for fantasy owners, including age, injury, workload, and conditioning. However, if all of these questions are answered, Lynch could be a league-winning pick as an early-round target because of his skill, the Oakland offensive line, and the quality of the Raiders’ surrounding talent. I believe most of these questions can be put to rest, and the one that isn’t can be managed sufficiently enough that it won’t be a deal breaker. Let’s eliminate the conditioning questions immediately. There are images of Lynch in camp and a soccer game where he appears overweight. Lynch is known to wear layers that make him appear heavier than he really is. Here are videos of Lynch working out in April of this year and working out on the beach in boots (to increase resistance) in late June.

These recent concerns about weight and conditioning have no merit. The fact that Lynch is capable of performing these types of exercises should also mitigate concerns about his injury history. While NFL.com’s Ian Rapaport cited sources who linked Lynch’s retirement to compressed cartilage in his back that often required the Seahawks to keep Lynch off the practice field and engage in longer warm up periods on game day, the actual injury that limited Lynch in 2015 was a sports hernia. I asked Jene Bramel about Rapaport’s terminology of the injury and he didn’t think it was a clear reference to anything that was any more relevant than spinal stenosis. While spinal stenosis isn’t curable and the injury is degenerative, many football players suffer through this issue as their careers progress and it’s often a pain management issue according to Jene Bramel.

“Determining how much stenosis is acceptable for a football player and how high the risk of future injury is less clear,” writes Bramel. “A 1990 study of 224 professional football players found that 33% met x-ray criteria for cervical spinal stenosis. In other words, it may be that lots of football players play with spinal stenosis and never have symptoms. Other studies suggest that x-ray evidence of cervical spinal stenosis is not a good predictor of future symptoms.”

Too many analysts have linked Lynch’s 2015 production to his back rather than a sports hernia and an offensive line that needed half the season to gel, and by that time, Lynch was having surgery. The Raiders have one of the better offensive lines in the league, Lynch is clearly in shape, and the Raiders will allow the veteran to manage his back condition throughout the year. The key word is “manage” because if you don’t conflate the sports hernia with the back issue, Lynch’s cartilage compression is a manageable issue.

When this injury is put into perspective, the final question is age. If you look at the top 20 fantasy running back seasons since 2000 for backs age 32 and older, 5 of the top 10 seasons (which were RB1-caliber) have happened during the past seven years, which indicates that advancements in training can lead to longer careers. While some of my colleagues want to write off any positivity for Lynch’s return as sentiment-fueled bias, I don’t think they are digging deep enough into his injury, the age issue, and Seattle’s offensive line in 2015. At Lynch’s ADP, I’ll think he’s at just the right value to take the risk because he’s capable of besting Latavius Murray’s 2016 season in attempts (195), average (4.0), and touchdowns (12), and without imposing unrealistic workload projections, either. Considering that Murray—an inferior runner to Lynch—performed as the No. 13 fantasy back with this workload, even the same workload as Murray could make Lynch undervalued at his ADP. Seems to me that the doom-and-gloom hand-wringing may wind up being the trendy outlook of those trying to look wise and as we’ve learned, Lynch has mastered the art of playing the fool to catch the wise.

Low Side: Stephen Holloway

The last time we saw Marshawn Lynch was in a playoff loss at Carolina to close out the Seahawk’s 2015 season. Lynch had missed the final six games of the season, but returned following recovery from sports hernia surgery. The Seahawks were dominated early, trailing by a 31-0 score at halftime and completely abandoned the run. Lynch only had six carries for 20 yards as the Seahawks ran the ball only 12 times in the game. On the season, he played only 7 games and set career lows for attempts (111), rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (3.8). He was out of football for an entire season and returns as a well used 31-year old with 2,144 carries. Lynch is known for his hard running style, preferring to run over defenders than go around them.

Oakland has a solid offensive line, but they also have two talented second-year running backs (Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington) that totaled 170 carries for 959 yards and also caught 46 passes for another 309 yards. These two backs are familiar with the offense and each performed well as rookies. Richard averaged 5.9 yards per rush and Washington averaged 5.4. These two should be used at least as often as last year and possibly more. The Raiders behind their leader, Derek Carr will continue to pass the ball more often than they run it. Carr will again approach 600 passing attempts, which will limit the running back rushes to around 375. Lynch could be under 200 carries, even if he stays healthy. The allure of the Skittles eating Beast Mode remains strong and likely has elevated most projections for him beyond his reach. The combination of his long layoff, less usage this year as a receiver, his age and the potential for injury is enough to keep him from meeting expectations this season.