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The Weekly Gut Check No.261 - Milk Carton Men: RBs

The Milk Carton Men series profiles players who went missing last season. Any information leading to their whereabouts may prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason.

These players went missing last seasons. Any information leading to their whereabouts could prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason.

Intro

If you're old enough, you'll remember when photos and pertinent information about missing children took up real estate on the backs of milk cartons. According to an April 20th article in Slate about the National child Safety Council's decision to take this route to inform the general public, this practice ended in the late 1980s "after prominent pediatricians like Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton worried that they frightened children unnecessarily."

Slate reported that this measure of plastering photos on milk cartons, pizza boxes, grocery bags, and junk mail never yielded data that showed it was effective. Considering that the only subject in football approaching this level of gravity is head injuries, I thought I'd take the milk cartons out of retirement for our purposes. Hopefully, prominent Footballguys pediatrician Dr. Jene Bramel doesn't worry that this will frighten fantasy football owners unnecessarily.

Then again, a photo of a player with the phrase "Have You Seen Me?" should scare you. I'm profiling players at each position this month who mystified their fantasy owners last year when their starter production disappeared - perhaps never to be seen again.

The series began with two quarterbacks that got lost in the fantasy wilderness and their whereabouts are unknown at this time. This installment profiles four running backs last seen at the parking lot of their home stadiums, but each one never made it into their respective building. The fantasy police has some leads, but these tips often wind up as dead ends.

It has come down to whipping out the milk carton photos for this trio of missing runners: Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, and Rashard Mendenhall. Despite this act of desperation, I have a gut feeling the leads in these cases are hotter than what we've seen with quarterbacks. In fact, I hear the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) is offering a hefty reward if any one of these four can be found and returned to the stadium. No, I've got that wrong - fantasy writers usually don't have that kind of money laying around unless they inherited it. Maybe it's the FFPC. I dunno, acronyms get me jittery.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Last Seen Tearing Through the Colts Defense Week three of the 2012 Season

The hottest lead at this point is that Jones-Drew went into hiding on his own reconnaissance using the alias Pocket Hercules at the physical therapist's office and the local Weight Watchers. The No.3 fantasy runner in 2011 suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in 2012 and spent the off season rehabbing and dropping 10 pounds to his college playing weight of 205 lbs. to get ready for the 2013 season. A local "team insider" for a radio station claims he saw a svelte Jones-Drew at rookie camp this month. But you know how beat writers are - shout the word "donuts" from 40 yards away and a herd of yapping, balding, and poorly dressed, (mostly) men will be seen running faster times than Onterrio McCalebb at the NFL Combine. That's why camp information is so sketchy these days.

If we can verify Jones-Drew will return to the field on his own accord, this could be an open and shut case. One of the runner's best qualities - his elusiveness - is what has made his whereabouts so difficult to ascertain. In his seven-year career, Jones-Drew has been a top-12 fantasy runner five times and until 2012, he had only missed three games in six years.

The Jaguars offensive line has been better on paper than it has in games - mostly due to injuries that have forced receivers into action and starters to shuffle to other spots. When this happens, the quality of line play often drops due to skill and continuity gaps. If Eugene Monroe, Uche Nwaneri, Brad Meester, and Will Rackley can stay healthy, and No.2 overall draft pick Luke Joeckel plays to his ability early, the line could improve on Matt Bitonti's C-minus assessment of the unit in 2012 where the Footballguy ranked the Jaguars crew No.20 among the NFL's big uglies.

Weight Loss

When I hear that a running back has lost weight to prepare for the season, I think of backs at the end of their careers like Ricky Watters and Clinton Portis. Watters ultimately went missing after he refused to ride on planes after 9-11 only to be heard from this year when his son "lil Ricky" became a YouTube hip-hop sensation.

On second thought, maybe it was just among his classmates and this football writer looking for his dad's highlights in a past RSP blog post.

Portis was a beaten-down version of the borderline superstar runner he was at times in Denver and Washington when he opted to drop pounds to lengthen his career. It didn't work out, but I think all of those press conferences we so thoroughly enjoyed with Portis different "personalities" was actually training to go into hiding once his career ended.

All I can say is the costumes must have gotten a lot better, because we haven't heard a peep from Portis since he went into retirement. At least you can say he did a nice job transitioning away from the limelight. Here's hoping Fred Davis stops trying to be his own legal counsel.

Not all weight-loss scenarios are bad ones. Marshawn Lynch dropped weight as he transitioned from the Bills to the Seahawks - losing even more between the 2011 and 2012 seasons - and Lynch has been a top-five fantasy runner both seasons while playing at a weight that was more in line with his college dimensions and less the plodding guy he was temporarily in Buffalo.

Jones-Drew's weight loss isn't a concern for me because as powerful as he has been as a runner, his game is still modeled on quickness and agility. As pro offenses borrow more from the college game and defensive personnel adjusts, the alignments have gotten wider and lighter, quicker backs are earning more chances to perform on the field.

I think Jones-Drew would have been fine playing at 205 pounds throughout his career, but I bet the perception around NFL organizations was the heavier the better if the quickness could still be there. However, count me among those who subscribe to the theory that Jones-Drew's height combined with a 205-pound frame is on par with a 215- or 220-pound runner at a height of 5'10".

In the end, weight loss does little to change a player's style. LenDale White was a quicker back after losing weight, but he was still a back who lacked great vision and balance conducive to the pro game. Gary Brown back in the `90s was a smart, shifty runner who was quick at any size, but had more stamina when he was at his optimal playing weight. Jerome Bettis was "The Bus" when he came to Pittsburgh, but he was "The Tractor-Trailer" by the time he left. That rig still had freakish agility even carrying a full cargo.

Lisfranc - Fantasy Football's Frau Blucher

There aren't many injuries scarier for a running back than the dreaded Lis Frank injury. I shudder every time I say it. Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook suffered this ailment and it wrecked their fantasy careers. I still thought Westbrook looked pretty good as a contributor off the bench for the 49ers, but say the name of that injury out loud and you might as well press the play button on this YouTube clip again - it's what coaches and GMs hear in their heads.

At this point, Jones-Drew is RB14 in early analysis of Average Draft Position data. One head of our two-headed news commentator feels this makes Jones-Drew a potential value. I agree, but I also think the current ADP is about right for Jones-Drew. I think he's a value because the high-low spread of his ADP is pretty broad and it means Jones-Drew is one of those backs that might drop to you at a bargain pick between the 30-40 range overall.

Would I take Jones-Drew at in the top 25 picks? If he can practice by training camp, you bet. In the top 20? It remains to be seen. However, this is the point where I think we'll start to have some sightings of the old "MJD" on the football field. If that happens, I expect the case will be closed.

Darren McFadden: Last Seen entering the Forbidden Zone

The quality of that commercial was on par with the Raiders zone blocking last year. However, it wasn't just the linemen failing to make the transition. McFadden was never a good zone runner. He's at his best when he's given a singular gap and told to hit it with intensity. Asking the Raiders back to make decisions and create at the line of scrimmage is the equivalent of dropping him into another dimension of time.

Yep, Darren McFadden entered The Forbidden Zone last year. Here's a reasonable comparison of a McFadden season in a gap/power scheme in 2010 and the Raider in the zone scheme last year. Caution: the following scene contains graphic material for adults only.

Darren McFadden's Rushing Stats by Blocking Style

Year
Scheme
Games
Rushes
Yards
Y/R
TDs
FPTs
Rank
2010
Gap/Power
13
223
1,157
5.2
7
226
6th
2012
Zone
12
216
707
3.3
2
115
28th

It's a pretty tidy comparison by season in terms of games played and rush attempts and the differences in output is scary. Much of this has to do with the decision-making McFadden lacked in the zone offense. This has never been a skill of his. I also think the poor output in the zone scheme hurt his production in the passing game.

Darren McFadden's Receiving Stats by Blocking Style

Year
Scheme
Games
Targets
Recs
Yards
Y/R
TDs
2010
Gap/Power
13
61
47
507
10.8
3
2012
Zone
12
63
42
258
6.1
1

This comparison isn't as neat because the Raiders didn't have a healthy and productive Jacoby Ford in the mix last year. Oakland's receiving corp was a corps of rookies, journeymen, and Darrius Heyward-Bey and they could not hang into the football or run the right route. When the opposing defense didn't have to do anything special against the outside weapons in the passing offense it afforded them more time to focus on McFadden, who saw nearly identical targets and receptions, but the end result was a stark difference in yardage and efficiency.

The Raiders will return to a Gap/Power offense in 2013 and I believe it will help McFadden play to his potential. Although the passing game may take a slight step forward as its young receivers get healthy (Ford and Denarius Moore) and gain more experience (Rod Streater and Juron Criner), I think the quarterback position takes a half-step back with Matt Flynn. There will be some who blame Carson Palmer, but I think it's the same lack of foresight that existed when writers and analysts said Kurt Warner "lost it" in New York before he moved to the Cardinals and looked like a future Hall of Famer.

Flynn had two games that impressed people behind the wheel of a Packers offense that could have made Colt McCoy or Bruce Gradkowski look like a future starter. Flynn has developed into a quality backup who should have some good games as the starter, but he'll need the running game to return to the 2010 form. If he can demonstrate an ability to make plays with his feet and complete passes where defenses force him to throw, then he'll have a chance to remain the starter in Oakland. If not, I anticipate we'll see rookie Tyler Wilson by season's end.

Durability: The Enduring Facet of McFadden's Game

Until McFadden can last a 16-game season, his upside remains limited as a fantasy option. The Raiders back has never started more than 13 games in a five-year career. Other than missing nine games in 2011, he has played between 12 and 13 games during four of his five NFL seasons. It's a decent number if one could choose when McFadden will get hurt, but it doesn't work that way.

I believe that running style contributes to injury. McFadden is an aggressive runner with an upright gait. Although he lowers his pads into contact, he does not run with low pad level until he spots the collision point. This is one facet of his style that I believe invites more injury than a back that uses a lower pad level throughout his run.

Although McFadden is able to maximize his speed with this style of running and it affords him a chance for bigger plays, it also invites more contact. Adrian Peterson has an upright style like McFadden, but the difference in his game is that he has more lateral agility. The Vikings runner has a more extensive repertoire of stop-starts, cuts, and elusive moves than the Raider. McFadden tends to maximize his speed and either bend in a new direction like a motorcycle taking a curve or he rams into his opponent.

In this respect, I think McFadden's style is more of a do-or-die proposition and his season often dies before its time. It also leaves me to wonder about DeMarco Murray and rookie Knile Davis, who have similar gaits as McFadden. I haven't drawn any conclusions about these two backs, but it's something that bears watching.

While I believe the Raiders runner will return from the Forbidden Zone, I'm still leery of injury. McFadden is leaving the board as the 19th back according to current ADP data. While I think I'd be forced to consider him if he were to drop below RB24, it's an unrealistic hope to get him as a flex-play.

If you take McFadden, I think the realistic hope when considering he hasn't stayed healthy is that you get 10-13 games from him and you draft two backs that can complete the year unscathed and produce as fantasy starters. If that happens, you can maximize the McFadden's upside as he takes you on an exciting journey. However, you still have the reliable options that can take you home rather than leave you stranded.

Remember, this article is about lost fantasy players. We don't want your face on a milk carton.

Rashard Mendenhall: Disappeared in 2012

If you ask new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, the starting running back in Arizona is Rashard Mendenhall. Arians was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2011 so he's familiar with Mendenhall's game. However, Arians coached the Colts offense in 2012 and I wonder if he has noticed that Mendenhall went missing that year. Maybe NFL writers should have asked Arians if he has seen Mendenhall before he named the runner his new starter in Arizona.

We haven't.

But in defense of the 5'10", 225-lb. back, an ACL injury limited Mendenhall throughout 2012 and the Steelers offensive line also had its share of woes. Mendenhall averaged a paltry 3.8 yards per carry last year, which was better than Isaac Redman (3.7) and not much worse than Jonathan Dwyer (4.0). Pittsburgh hoped it would add to its ground game with 2012 first-round pick David DeCastro, but the rookie missed the season with a knee injury of his own.

Guard play is a vital part of any running game and contrary to what we've seen from the Arizona Cardinals, the organization received an infusion of talent this spring from guards Johnathan Cooper and Earl Watford. Cooper in particular is one of the more impressive players in this draft class. I studied his game and came away impressed with his explosiveness, agility, and purpose as a run blocker.

Cooper's athleticism to pull and work past the line of scrimmage is the best of this class and better than most guards I've seen in several years. He's a perfect fit for a power scheme that Arians likes to run.

Play action passing also works like a charm when setting it up with the power run game. Smart Football writer Chris Brown does a fantastic job of illustrating the impact of pulling a guard with the play action game and why it helped Andrew Luck as a down field passer at Stanford despite an offense that some might say was vertically conservative. Arians used the same pulling action in Indianapolis and Luck averaged more yards per attempt as a rookie than any quarterback in the NFL last year.

If you don't think Carson Palmer will benefit from this play action game then you either lack any confidence in the veteran or you believe the running game will falter. I'm not one of those bemoaning Palmer's arrival or the Cardinals offensive line this year. Arizona may not turn into an offensive juggernaut, but I do think we'll see noticeable improvement from 2012's unit because I have confidence in Arians' system, the overall upgrade at guard, and a veteran presence at quarterback capable of elevating the production of a talented receiving corps.

This leads us back to Mendenhall, who is the known commodity to Arians. We have learned from the Cardinals new head coach that he does not want to use a committee (more music to my ears as a football fan because I believe many running back committees are mismanaged and take players away from the flow of the game). If the former Illinois star is finally back to his pre-injury form, he has the talent to edge third-year runner Ryan Williams for the starting role.

I say this about Mendenhall with full disclosure that I think Williams is a more talented player. He's more explosive, he has a better range of skills to elude defenders, and he runs with authority. Unfortunately, Williams had a reputation for getting nicked up at Virginia Tech and his first two NFL season have been unkind to him in the injury department - a patella tendon as a rookie and a shoulder in Year Two.

Even in leagues that allow a third RB as a flex, Mendenhall is a bargain at his current ADP (RB26 - 71st player off the board). Anytime you can get a potential starter as an RB3 when there have been positive and noteworthy changes to the offense, he's worth putting in bold in your tiers. Even if Williams has a strong camp and wins the job, Mendenhall should remain as bargain as his value drops because we haven't seen Williams last a season.

This may not be a glowing endorsement that Mendenhall will rediscover his stride as a fantasy starter, but I think if a reporter asked Arians if he's seen the big back his answer will have us removing the former Steeler's photo from milk cartons at the local grocery.

All-Points Bulletin

The reasons for these three runners to find their way back to the good graces of fantasy owners are there to consider them at their current price. If you're seeking a conservative perspective then here's how I see it:

The Maurice Jones-Drew is the safest of the bunch - he's versatile, durable, and the only reliable game in town. He's also the most expensive investment, but I think worth the cost. I'd say his ADP makes him the best mix of aggressive risk-reward. I can imagine Jones-Drew as my second pick and the first back I take off my draft board if I'm picking in the back half of a serpentine draft.

McFadden is the most volatile. If you can get him as an RB3/Flex, it could be worth the wild ride. But most drafts require an RB2-investment and that's too costly for a player who hasn't finished a season. I'll be waiting for McFadden to drop beyond the first 30 backs before I seriously consider him for my team.

If I have a quarterback like Brees or Rodgers, a pair of strong receivers, and an RB1 or strong RB2 then I'll have no qualms about taking McFadden if he's still there. It probably won't happen in most on my leagues, but it's the type of contingency one should be ready to address.

Mendenhall is the best risk-reward. The offense matches his skill sets, the unit has earned an infusion of talent, he has been given the current label as starter, and he requires the smallest investment of the three. As much as I dislike aspects of his running style, I think Mendenhall's value is the best of the three and if he maintains a hold on the starting job after training camp, then I can see him as a great RB3/Flex or a low-end RB2 if I'm front-loaded my team with excellent receivers and an RB1.

I could also see taking Mendenhall as a high-risk RB1 if my front-loaded roster includes a pair of strong receivers and an elite quarterback. In other words, Mendenhall is a nice fit as a potential back to target with an Upside Down Draft Strategy.

Next week, the Milk Carton Men Series profiles wide receivers that have lost their way.


More from Matt Waldman:

Gut Check No.316: Week 2 - Sifting Through The Wreckage - September 16
Gut Check No.315: Week 1 - Straight, No Chaser - September 9
Under The Microscope: Ravens RB Lorenzo Taliaferro - September 8
Gut Check No.314: 2014 Fantasy If . . . Then - September 1
Gut Check No.313: Waiver Wire Prep - August 25
Gut Check No.310 - Non-PPR Tiers Update 8/22 - August 22
Gut Check No.311 - PPR Tiers Update 8/22 - August 22
Dear Draft: It's Not All About You - August 18
Gut Check No.309 - PPR Tiers Update 8/16 - August 16
What if Montee Ball is lost for the season? - August 13