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The Gut Check No.364: Over-Under, RB ADPs

Waldman's first pass at the 2016 running backs through the lens of average draft position.

Precision is overrated in May. The archery, surgical lasers, and nanotechnology will have its time in July. This spring, it's all about horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons at the office of the Gut Check. 

We all have to start somewhere. As I create my first set of fantasy rankings, I'm beginning with the broad strokes. Today's Gut Check profiles running backs that I like significantly more or less than the current ADP in PPR leagues. 

A COMMUNIQUE FROM CAPTAIN OBVIOUS 

My values versus existing ADP will change. How much, I have no idea. This article is that starting point. The purpose of this exercise is to note which receivers merit closer examination when creating your draft plans.

Overvalued

Patience Grasshopper...

David Johnson (ADP 8, The Gut Check 59): This difference between the fantasy hive mind and my thoughts can be explained by three factors: ageism, tape study, and inside information. David Johnson aces the "eye test" for most football fans and analysts. He's big, strong, fast, and makes eye-popping highlight-reel plays. When a back does these four things, most people believe it's only common sense that David Johnson will be the starter in 2016 after a terrific showing in 2015.

Add Bruce Arians' statements that Johnson is the team's' bell cow and that the back could become one of the best ever, and it sounds like a ringing endorsement that can't miss. It's likely that my ADP is way too low and I'll have to adjust it later this summer.  

But it's early June and sometimes it's wise to take a step back and examine whether something that's a can't-miss is actually a foregone conclusion. 

It's my job to risk overthinking these matters and at the risk of doing so, people might be jumping the gun on David Johnson's emergence. I had these thoughts last December after watching him, I received some confirmation about what I saw in January after speaking with a member of the Cardinals' coaching staff, and there's potential validation this week when an ESPN beat reporter wrote that he believes Chris Johnson will be the Cardinals starter.

I've been optimistic that David Johnson can be a good NFL starter since studying him at Northern Iowa. His emergence isn't a surprise to me at all. In a scouting report, written prior to the draft, I mentioned that David Johnson has great upside if he lands with a gap-heavy blocking scheme that the Cardinals and Colts run: 

Johnson is one bad ass athlete. He’s six inches taller and 29 pounds heavier than Trey Williams and his speed, agility, and explosion are roughly equal, if not better than the A&M back.

If he was as talented a runner as he is a receiver, he’d be the best back in this class. The tempting thing about Johnson is that he’s close enough to becoming a refined runner that his upside will be difficult to pass up.

His receiving skill is good enough that there has been light discussion about a position change. Johnson’s hand-eye coordination is rare. He wins difficult targets in the air and does so in the face of tight coverage.

Johnson also sets up defenders at the top of the stem. He catches the ball with his hands, on the move, and with his back to the quarterback or the defender.

Although not where he could be, Johnson’s not bad as runner. He displays some press and cut skill, good pad level, high and tight ball security, and quick feet. The moves he has for a man his size are impressive: jump cuts, spins, and lateral cuts.

Unfortunately, he’ll make questionable choices with these moves in the open field. He’ll jump-cut to the incorrect side of the pursuit or attempt a move to elude pursuit when he has the size to earn more yardage. I want to see a more decisive runner who is patient with developing blocks, and not always looking for the cutback when there’s opportunity to use his power and burst in a more focused, committed manner. He’ll second-guess his speed and attempt a cutback when keeping the pads down and driving down hill would have been the more successful choice.

When he chooses size and strength, Johnson can fall through contact and gain extra yards. There’s some natural strength he has to exploit, but he’s not doing so at this point of his development. In the right scenarios, Johnson will display more balance than what I’ve seen from him. Right now, he only earns yards after contact by falling through collisions and not bouncing off them.

Johnson has potential as a pass protector. He moves his feet well, earns position, and delivers his hands to the body of the opponent. His punch needs improvement. He’ll often drop his head into contact rather than uppercut with a punch. He gives up too much leverage this way. His diagnostic skills need refinement, especially when working with his offensive line when the defense runs twists at the line of scrimmage. He’ll see developments with pressure and react to them, but twists and working in tandem with a teammate can get confusing for him. Johnson can also be late when forced to move laterally to a blocking assignment.

As it stands, Johnson is a decent gap runner. If he can improve his patience and decision-making in the open field, he has upside as a starter for a gap-heavy team like the Cardinals or Colts. If Johnson is placed in a zone blocking scheme he’ll need to develop more discipline as a decision maker and refine his press-and-cut concepts to thrive.

Johnson is an instinctive receiver, but he overthinks his job as a runner. He flashes enough good work between the tackles that I believe he’ll develop, but he’s not there yet. If he’s placed in a gap scheme and works out the kinks, he could be a Pro Bowl back. Just remember that vision-eyes-feet issues are difficult to fix.

The rookie's strengths and weaknesses that I profiled were on full display last year. Although the box scores and TV highlights made David a scintillating rookie, the actual play-by-play analysis reveals that Chris was a more patient runner. 

David admits that he needs to continue working on his patience and, according to Craig Grialou's Arizona Sports article, Chris was the one responsible for helping him see it:

We’ll be great together,” David Johnson said. “C.J. continues to help me out in my running, continues to teach some of the tips of the trade of how to run the ball and make it easier for me and the linemen blocking.”

What kind of tips?

“Just being patient because in college it’s more of just trying to hit the hole I felt like, but now it’s more of being patient,” he said. “Setting up the blocks is a huge thing with how fast the defenses are and how much faster and stronger everyone is on the other side of the ball.”

When Cecil Lammey, Jene Bramel and I attended the 2016 Senior Bowl, we had dinner with a group that included assistant coaching intern Dr. Jen Welter. A former semi-pro running back and the first woman to play the position on a male football team, Welter understands the game. The subject of Chris Johnson versus David Johnson arose during the meal when a sports talk radio host sitting with Welter believed David was clearly the better player.

Welter disagreed, stating that Chris was a far more patient runner and it helped the offense stay on schedule down after down while avoiding more difficult down and distance situations. Welter and I agreed that while David was the flashier back and a fine receiver, Chris was

While David has some higher averages per carry when viewing some of the splits of his season, many of these numbers came on down and distance situations that were pass-heavy downs and "long" situations where the opponent was clearly playing the pass. When the Cardinals had down and distance situations where the defense expected a run (2nd and less than 4 yards to go), Chris was about a yard better per carry and about two yards per carry better when the Cardinals were running the ball in a close game and trailing. 

David had more breakaway upside embedded into his averages, but Chris had fewer good/bad swings in his splits and it matches a lot of what's seen on tape between the two backs. This is why many analysts describe Chris' play with words like "dependable, workmanlike, decent, and solid." But if you're a quarterback, offensive coordinator, or head coach, high-level consistency is a greater asset than big-play upside. 

Chris did a better job than David when it came to earning consistent gains that allowed the offense to continue using the widest possible range of its playbook and keep the defense guessing. David showed the skill to erase difficult down and distance situations, but he was also more likely to put his team in those binds where the odds to convert aren't as strong and the range of play-calling options diminish.

Good fantasy analysis also requires projection and it's reasonable to expect that David will improve is patience and make the competition between him and Chris all that tighter, if not pull away as the bell cow as Bruce Arians said this spring. But let's remember that when Chris is in a system that's a good for his skills, he's an excellent back and a freakish athlete in his own right.  

Chris Johnson was the No.14 fantasy back after 11 weeks; David Johnson was No. 35. If not for Chris' injury, David would not have been a top-10 fantasy running back and it's likely Chris would have earned top-10 production. ESPN reporter Josh Weinfuss covers the Cardinals. This week, he shared that he believes Chris will claim the starting job. Keep in mind the setting for this opinion is a "fun" prediction piece with contributions from all beat writer.

The editor of this piece likely asked the contributors for some attention-grabbing thoughts, but most of the takes were reasonable to the average reader and lukewarm to anyone monitoring the NFL year-round. Only this specific statement about the Cardinals' situation seems surprising if reading it from the perspective of the fantasy hive mind. 

The statements from Arizona's head coach and GM also include qualifiers implying Johnson needs to improve his game. There are probably more believable scenarios that will put David in the starter seat than Chris:

  • Enough improvement with David's patience that the team feels compelled to give the youngster more reps to accelerate his development.
  • An injury to the aging Chris.
  • David's big-play ability as a receiver.

But these are scenarios where fantasy owners will be right for the wrong reasons. Of course, winning games is more important than winning arguments. It's why I'm 90 percent certain that David Johnson will climb my board significantly within the next two months and I'll have few qualms about drafting him as a top-10 back if Arizona doesn't split him with Chris.

But today, I'm not ready to make it a foregone conclusion that he's the starter. If my points at least heighten awareness that Chris Johnson still deserves serious attention, I've done my job. 

Doing What You're Supposed to Do

Latavius Murray (ADP 47, The Gut Check 107): Murray is an example of what can go wrong with David Johnson's prospects. Read Oakland's remarks about Murray and it's clear that the team is trying to balance two things: showing confidence in Murray developing into a better back while also taking action to find him help, if not an eventual replacement. Teams don't have confidence in a back when the head coach declares that he wants to give a 230-pound back with great speed a lighter workload after touching the ball 307 times. 

A 300-touch season is a healthy expectation for a back when a team believes in him. But Murray hasn't fully developed his game and his lack of patience at the line of scrimmage is easy to spot. First down is one of the most important downs for running the ball. When the starting running back gains 3.5 yards per carry in these situations and this accounts or 50 percent of his attempts, it's not a good sign. 

Adrian Peterson's first-down average? 4.4. Ameer Abdullah? 4.3. Devonta Freeman? 4.0. Frank Gore and the Colts' lackluster line? 4.1 on first downs despite averaging 3.7 yards per carry overall. 

When the offense is in the position to dictate on even terms with the defense, Murray underwhelms. When the GM of the Raiders says its fifth-round pick is an every-down talent, it's a sign that Murray isn't the guy and eventually may not be guy on the Raiders' roster if Washington proves he can be the guy before Murray's contract expires. 

My low ranking of Murray is rooted in my belief that at some point before December, Washington will overtake the runner for the starting gig and render Murray useless for fantasy owners. If Washington earns a split with Murray in training camp, expect Murray's ADP to remain where I have it and Washington's to climb within RB2 territory. If Washington's moniker remains "third-down back" in mid-August, my ADPs for both players will remain as they are because I'll be avoiding Murray and betting on Washington's development. 

Matt Jones (ADP 54, The Gut Check 131): Like Murray, Jones didn't do what he was supposed to do on first down. He averaged 2.8 yards per carry. He wasn't much better when Washington had a small lead or deficit and wanted to lean on the run game (3 ypc). Despite these dour-looking stats, it's reasonable to cut some slack for the rookie and project improvement.

At the same time, Chris Thompson barely saw an NFL field until last year and his first-down average was 5.8 and in close games with a lead, he earned 11.1 yards per carry. It's also reasonable to note that defenses likely saw Thompson as a passing down back and down and distance wasn't as much of a factor. Even so, Thompson remains a player of note this summer because Jones' inefficient production and poor ball security make him a starter on the hot seat if he looks the same in September as he did down the stretch of 2015.

Then there's Keith Marshall, the speedy late-round pick with every-down talent. As much as Washington is expressing confidence in Jones, last year's production doesn't guarantee this stance doesn't change direction faster than a Barry Sanders jump cut. 

Undervalued

Chris Johnson (ADP 191, The Gut Check 40): In addition to what's already been said in the section about David Johnson, Chris Johnson the athlete is a freak. He's 31, but that number isn't far off from Adrian Peterson's 31. That's 28 or 29 in normal NFL athlete years according to the true brains behind the Matt Harmon brand, Charlie Harmon. Ole "Chuckbacca" explained the conversion is a lot like human years to dog years but with a few different variables. I was sworn to secrecy about the formula. 

DeAndre Washington (ADP 208, The Gut Check 116): Here's an excerpt of my report on Washington from the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:

I want to like Washington a lot more than I do. I want to believe he’s the next coming of Maurice Jones-Drew. The film won’t let me. A realistic view of Washington is that he’s a smart, versatile runner whose athletic gifts border on the special, but aren’t quite enough for him to cross that threshold into every-down stardom in the NFL.

Washington displays good patience to press close to his blockers and then bounce the run through a crease or behind a blocker in the open field. He hits tight gaps with confidence and burst so I’m not as concerned about his vision just because the majority of his runs came against five and six-man boxes.

He’s more patient on inside runs than he is outside. There are plays where he outruns his blocks to his detriment.

He displays the right kind of patience to set up gap plays with his footwork. A quick-twitch back with a strong first step, Washington makes defenders miss with upper and lower body fakes. There are too many runs where he leads with a stutter step and it becomes a predictable move. He also has the balance to remain on his feet after a head-on collision with a defensive back.

Washington is stronger than you think, because he's low to the ground and has the lower body of a taller back who would weigh 215-225. He drives the pile and twists and turns for extra yards when wrapped. He can also step out of a wrap. He bounces off hits to his legs below the knee and he can fall forward for extra yards. But unlike MJD, he's not going to win many head-on battles and he lacks that uncommon balance.

Washington’s burst is one of his assets. Whether he runs inside or outside, he can get into the secondary fast. There was a point in the year that Washington had more gains of at least 30 yards than any player in college fooball. He has enough speed to breakaway from defenders for long touchdown runs. Cornerbacks and safeties with strong pursuit angles will catch him but it’s not a guarantee.

Pass receiving backs and Texas Tech go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Washington does the Red Raiders no shame here. He has the hand-eye coordination to catch the ball over his head and make full-extension receptions.

He’s confident enough in his hands and physicality to catch the ball and turn into oncoming contact from linebackers. When the original break doesn’t come open on a route, Washington does a good job working back to the quarterback to find an open zone.

Although he doesn’t catch every pass in the face of contact, Washington makes difficult catches with his arms away from his body. He needs to improve his catch radius and focus on throws near his back hip. It’s not the easiest catch, but it will be a common “bad, but catch-able” placement he’ll see on the outlet routes he’ll run in the NFL.

Where Washington’s lower body girth shows up best is pass protection. He’s willing to step into the line of scrimmage and take on blitzing defenders with good hand position and a punch. Most of his assignments that I saw on tape were against defensive backs, but Washington displayed the skill to handle linebackers and edge defenders at the Senior Bowl practices.

What holds back Washington in my eyes is his lack of power to push the pile, balance to win head-on collisions against defenders larger than safeties, and athletic skills that border on stardom-caliber but aren’t quite there. If he develops enough of these components to his game, he could surprise as a productive lead back. Otherwise, he’s a valuable, big-play weapon in the passing game with committee upside. 

What I see from Washington a player who can succeed full time if used more like Brian Westbrook or Giovani Bernard than Ray Rice or Maurice Jones-Drew. If he can work to get under linemen for yards after contact, he'll have consistency between the tackles. The fact that Latavius Murray's stock appears on the decline and Washington will have an opportunity in a West Coast offense makes him more appealing short-term. I'll take my chances.

Ryan Mathews (ADP 67, The Gut Check 56): Here's a little scouting algebra for you. Ryan Mathews + Maturity/Preparation = Matt Forte. Sadly, the maturity/preparation variable or Mathews has been inconsistent at best.

Mathews has been a fantasy RB1 before and if he's prepared this offseason to carry the load in 2016, he could easily give the Eagles as strong RB2 even if the passing offense struggles. The issue is maturity and preparation, which go hand-in-hand

Mathews is missing OTAs with a groin injury. Although not a serious development, Mathews' history of poor conditioning and nagging injuries that have derailed past seasons make this development a more notable concern than for the average back. Eagles Reporter Eliot Shorr-Parks is already projecting Kenjon Barner as the permanent starter. Many of Footballguys peers are even more interested in rookie Wendell Smallwood.

Neither Barner nor Smallwood has Mathews' vision. Whatever small edge Barner has in speed and agility offers diminishing returns if his vision hasn't improved since bouncing from Carolina to Philadelphia.  Smallwood has talent, but a learning curve ahead with blocking schemes that I'm skeptical he'll overcome if he's not earning first-team reps this spring. 

What I've shared isn't a definitive endorsement of Mathews but as my RB14, I expect Mathews to build on last year's production as the full-time starter. Although the scheme will be new, the team will want to lean on the ground game. The Eagles have an excellent line with one of the most athletic units in the league. It's a great match for a cutback runner with Mathews' patience.

The defense should also improve because Jim Schwartz is a proven coordinator and he's returning the unit to a 4-3 scheme that makes the most a Brandon Graham, an excellent 4-3 DE prospect who was switched to a 3-4 OLB just as he was coming into his own. Look for the defense to improve enough for the offense to stay in games and give Mathews viable opportunities for 18-20 touches per week. 

Don't miss a good thing while wrapped up in the 'next big thing' 

Doug Martin (ADP 27, The Gut Check 17): Martin earned fantasy RB4 production with 25 additional touches (and 36 more fantasy points) than Latavius Murray's totals as the fantasy RB10. Despite playing with an offensive line that started two rookies and had little continuity for at least five years, Martin averaged more yards per carry (4.9) than any back with at least 200 attempts. The veteran also earned these top-4 PPR (No.3 non-PPR) totals despite the fact that the No.16 PPR RB last year was teammate Charles Sims.

There's also the small matter of Jameis Winston being a rookie, but we've seen teams lean on good backs for big production while first-year quarterbacks acclimate to the league. Listen to some of my peers and there's nothing exciting about Doug Martin compared to Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, David Johnson and LeVeon Bell. How about getting a more proven first-round caliber fantasy back at the top of the third round who could conceivably outperform any of these four backs often leaving in the first half of the first round?  

I'm giddier than Jason Wood waist-deep in new titles at Midtown Comics.

If I'm drafting at the end of the first round, I might take Martin at 17 because he's that much better to me than what I might get otherwise. There's little reason to believe Martin will cede additional touches to Sims after the Buccaneers awarded him a new contract. And I couldn't disagree more with the idea that Martin is an effort player and not a great athlete. 

This notion has to be rooted solely, and short-sightedly, in 40 times. Martin ran a 4.55-second 40 at the combine. If one judges Martin's athletic ability on this overrated metric alone, he's an average athlete who gets by on great effort. 

Martin's times in agility-specific drills are in the 92nd percentile of all backs tested at the combine. His shuttle times were better than Kenyan Drake, a runner most

Martin's bench press totals are also better than any back entering the league during the past two seasons. To diminish Martin's athletic ability overlooks what it means to be an athletic runner at this level. If this is the attitude your peers have about Martin, expect to benefit from it on draft day.

Adrian Peterson (ADP 10, The Gut Check 4): I admit it, I'm getting picky with this one. Why nitpick the value of a player when there's agreement with the hive mind that said player is a top-10 pick? Because, right or wrong, fantasy owners place a ton of weight in the decision behind their first player off the board. The first player off the board is often a tone-setter for draft strategies, especially this year.

Upside Down Drafting has become mainstream. The fact that only seven backs gained 1000 yards rushing adds to mainstream fantasy owners shifting more to an early-round, non-RB strategy. It means that fantasy owners with late first-round picks will have the choice of Peterson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Allen Robinson or Rob Gronkowski.

Maybe it's just me but selecting one player from these five, especially in a PPR league, is among the most difficult choices an owner will face this year. The answer exists with the 11th, 15th, 19th, or 23rd pick in a 10-, 12-, 14-, or 16-team league:

  • 10/11 Turn—Peterson/A.J. Green. Although some are down on the Bengals offense with the exodus of Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, Green has always been a fantasy WR1 in the three seasons he's played 16 games and he's never performed worse than a fantasy WR2. 
  • 10/15 and 10/19 Turn—Peterson and one of Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper or Ezekiel Elliott. These choices come down to who you like more: Peterson, Lamar Miller, or Jamaal Charles. In the past, it would be difficult to choose between Peterson and Charles, but I think the Charles injury and the emergence of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware could mean a lower ceiling on Charles. Miller is more likely a bell cow than Charles this year but Peterson is coming off a fantasy RB2 season. Whether it was PPR or non-PPR, Peterson's hold on the RB2 spot was by no means small and he did it behind a tattered offensive line. The only other back available in the second round with the trifecta of ability, line, and feature role is likely Elliott. If you want to be a contrarian in a year where a lot of mainstream owners will try their hand at Upside Down principles, taking Peterson and Elliott could be a winning ticket. If not, Thomas Rawls is the next available option in the third round, which can afford you one of the receivers listed above. 
  • 10/23 Turn—Peterson and one of Elliott, Brandin Cooks, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Eddie Lacy or Doug MartinIf Elliott is gone (and he will be...his ADP will climb inside the 15th overall pick by August), Doug Martin appeals to me more than these receivers, but there's enough of a drop-off at the position that taking a second running back doesn't feel right when Matt Forte will be in range as my third-round pick. I'd rather have Forte as my RB2 than Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate or Jordan Matthews as my WR1. If Ryan Fitzpatrick returns in July, Marshall will appeal to me more the Cooks. But for now, I'll gladly take the Saints receiver. 

Like Larry Fitzgerald, Peterson's ADP is victimized by cautious fantasy owners subscribing to ageist theories. If you can't get past the fact that Peterson is 31 despite the fact that during his nine-year career, he has always been a top-three fantasy RB when he's played at least 15 games—and he's played 15 games at least 5 times—then you don't subscribe to the fact that he's a freakish athlete. If you do consider him a freak of nature, you understand that he's a top-three performer regardless of offensive line quality, and the Vikings have made improvements to the offense, I don't see how you pass on him at the discount of the 10th pick overall. 

Matt Forte (ADP 32, The Gut Check 23): The Jets have a solid offensive line that is at its best as a run-blocking unit. Pro Football Focus doesn't see it this way, ranking them 25th overall against the run last year. But regardless of where they ranked in 2015, Chris Ivory turned in a season as the No.11 PPR RB (No.7 non-PPR). 

One of the keys to determining the strength of a ground game is the center-guard combos at the line. Nick Mangold is a Pro Bowl center and James Carpenter has become a quality left guard after early ups and downs as a tackle with the Seahawks. If Ryan Clady can stay healthy, the left side of the line has the talent to become a strong trio in 2016. 

With a back like Forte, the Jets don't have to be great up front for him to thrive. The former Bear is one of the smartest, most versatile, and well-conditioned running backs in the league. I'll take the 30-year-old veteran over Ivory. Chicago's line was a work in progress last year after it moved Kyle long from guard to tackle shifted new acquisition Matt Slauson to center. Although the unit was far from a disaster, it was a mid-grade unit at best. 

Give a back like Forte 240 carries and he'll earn 1000-1100 yards. Although he missed three games last year, he was on pace to reach those figures if he stayed healthy. Considering that Forte has played 16 games in 5 of his 8 seasons, I'm not too concerned about a breakdown. I'm also not buying the idea that Forte will lose a lot of looks to players like Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson because he's an excellent receiver who should reach 500 career catches within the 4-6 weeks of the season and he's only two years removed from a 102-reception, 1846-yards-from-scrimmage year. 

Chan Gailey is already talking about adjusting the offense so Forte earns time from the slot and split wide. If Gailey remains as good as he's been with tailoring his offense to his talent, there's no reason Forte doesn't earn at least 60-70 catches and 230-250 rushing attempts. It's enough volume for Forte to earn top-10 production at his position.  

Ezekiel Elliott (ADP 21, The Gut Check 8): He's every bit as talented as Todd Gurley but in a different way. Not that it's remotely a one-to-one comparison, but Gurley is Adrian Peterson's force of nature to Elliott's Marshawn Lynch-like versatile grinder. I loved Dallas' acquisition of Elliott because the Ohio State star is skilled running a variety of blocking schemes and his passing-down skills are good enough for him to become an every-down back after a little refining in camp.

Elliott takes the best of Darren McFadden (a decisive, forceful gap runner with good hands) and Alfred Morris (a creative, patient, and powerful zone runner) and combines them into one body. Defenses will have a more difficult time scheming because Elliott's skills won't tip off the style of run or whether the play is run/pass solely on his presence.

If McFadden can produce as a RB13 last year without a healthy Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, the superior skills of Elliott make him a great candidate for top-10 production overall.