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Spotlight: Rashard Mendenhall

posted by Anthony Borbely on Jul 18th


Anthony Borbely's thoughts

In Week Four of the 2009 season, Rashard Mendenhall took over as the starting RB for the Pittsburgh Steelers and has posted RB1 numbers ever since. Despite the fact that he did not start the first three games in 2009, Mendenhall still finished 13th among RBs in fantasy points, averaging a little less than 14 fantasy points per game. Numbers like that will usually place a RB in the top 10. Mendenhall followed that up with a 7th place finish last year and once again averaged a little under 14 fantasy points per game.

Mendenhall started the final 13 games in 2009 and all 16 in 2010. Below are his numbers for the 29 games he started in those two seasons:

Season Starts Rushes RushYds RushTDs FPT/game
2009 13 235 1063 7 13.8
2010 16 324 1274 13 13.9

As the table shows, Mendenhall's average fantasy points per game in each of the last two seasons (only games he started) are virtually identical. In addition, Mendenhall has 10 or more fantasy points in 21 of his 29 starts and only twice did he fail to reach five points. Mendenhall had 15 more points in 14 of his 29 starts.

When analyzing Mendenhall's outlook for the 2011 season, there are a few items of note:

Item #1: The Steelers have a potent offense
In my opinion, this is a major factor when it comes to deciding on a first-round running back. The Steelers have a strong passing attack and QB Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best in the business at making a play when there doesn't seem to be one to make. This can extend the time that the offense is on the field and thus give a RB like Mendenhall more opportunities.

Item #2: The Steelers play several games against teams with weak run defenses
The Steelers play nine games against teams that were ranked 18th or lower in run defense last year. They only face four teams that were in the top ten in run defense. Although we all know this situation can change, it is my opinion that any changes to the run defenses as a whole will be minor. In addition, their opponents had a combined record of 121-135 last year, which is the 6th easiest schedule in the league. Mendenhall owners should be salivating over the schedule he faces.

Item #3: Mendenhall is not a big factor in the passing game
Although Mendenhall is not a big part of the passing game, I am not too concerned because I do not expect him to be a big part of it. I think his numbers over the last two years are a good place to start. However, Mendenhall is not necessarily incapable of being a better receiver out of the backfield. He has good hands, but they don't do much good when he is only targets twice per game. I highly doubt his receiving numbers will decline, so we already know the worst-case scenario. Also remember that he has put up top ten numbers with minimal help in receiving yards.

Item #4: Mendenhall's yards per carry fell from 4.6 in 2009 to 3.9 last year
Obviously this is something that needs to be addressed. When a RB carries the ball more than 300 times and his yards per carry falls off as drastically as Mendenhall's did, the first concern that is usually raised is whether the workload caused the decline in yards per carry. However, there are three reasons why I do not think that is the case:

Reason #1: Pittsburgh's offensive line was ravaged with injuries: The Steelers arguably had more significant injuries to their offensive line than any team in football. Starting tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon missed a combined 25 games last year. Their line struggled in both pass protection and run blocking. When I see a stat like this, I usually look to see how the player looked in the games and how effective the offensive line was at opening holes. In watching Mendenhall play, there simply did not seem to be much room to run last year.

Reason #2: The Steelers did not make a significant addition at RB in the draft: The fact that the Steelers did not address running back in the draft could mean several things. First, maybe there were no value picks at RB during the middle rounds of the draft. It's also possible that the Steelers will look to acquire a RB in free agency to ease the workload on Mendenhall. On the other hand, maybe the Steelers aren't concerned about Mendenhall's workload. Since he is 24 years old, my guess is the latter. If they sign a RB in free agency, then this could change. As of this writing, I do not see any reason to believe that the Steelers will lighten Mendenhall's workload.

Reason #3: Mendenhall averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the 4th quarter and overtime last year: In my opinion, this is a significant number. Mendenhall did his best work late in games. That is not the sign of a RB who was affected by a heavy workload. It is the opposite. What that tells me is that the 225-pound Mendenhall was wearing out defenses and that is common for big backs. They generally get stronger as the game goes on because they deliver punishment to defenses and eventually, it takes its toll on them.

Positives

  • Mendenhall has put up mid RB1 numbers since becoming a starter
  • The Steelers have nobody else at RB that is a threat to Mendenhall's touches
  • The Steelers have one of the easiest schedules in the league

Negatives

  • While there may be legitimate reasons for it, the simple fact is Mendenhall's yards per carry declined significantly from 2009 to 2010
  • Although there is more depth, the offensive line is still unsettled
  • Hines Ward is a great run blocker and may see reduced snaps this season due to his age

Final thoughts

Mendenhall has been a workhorse since becoming a starter in the early part of the 2009 season. While the 324 carries last year could be a concern, the fact that Mendenhall was strong in the 4th quarter and overtime last year makes me believe that the heavy workload is not an issue. In watching Mendenhall play last year, I saw a RB who ran hard and punished defenses. There were significant injuries on the offensive line and in my opinion; it clearly played a major role in Mendenhall's yards per carry. Should the offensive line remain healthy, I expect Mendenhall's workload to remain the same and I believe his yards per carry will increase by anywhere from 0.3 to 0.5 yards per carry. I think he is arguably the safest mid-first round RB this year.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

wdcrob said:

It'll be interesting to see if the Steelers ever take advantage of Mendenhall's receiving skills. He was good at Illinois and has averaged 8.9 per on 50 catches as a pro. But they haven't really incorporated him into the passing game very much. If they never do he's still good for years of low RB1 production. If they do, he could put up RB1 numbers. I think they give him a few more receptions this year, and that the Steelers line is a bit better.

rzrback77 said:

I see Rashard Mendenhall as a conundrum. In an NFL where RBBCs seem to grow more and more every year, he is definitely one of the few remaining. He has not missed a game over the past two seasons and he plays a leading role on a solid offensive team, yet the best that he has finished is 7th in non-ppr scoring and likely lower than that in ppr as he has a career best 25 receptions.

He is a sure thing to get lots of carries and he hardly has any opportunity to drop far, yet he seems to have much less chance of over-producing his draft spot than the ones usually going before him.

In the survivor drafts already completed, he averaged RB 9 in the WSLs and more recently was drafted at 10, 8, 8, and 9 in the competitive survivor leagues I participate in.

With Mendenhall, you basically know what you are going to get. In his favor, his floor seems to be pretty high though. I see another similar season in 2011, with the only way he presents a bargain opportunity is if he hits the tweets hard right before your draft.

MrTwo94 said:

With the injuries to the o-line I dropped Mendenhall last year expecting him to be less effective. While he certainly was less effective (4.6 ypc vs. 3.9 ypc) his workload saw a sharp jump (15 carries/gm to 20). Not many players successfully string 300 carry seasons together, so I'd be a little cautious here. But his situation does make his floor unusually high. After preseason talk of him losing goal line carries, he ended 2010 with 13 rushing TD. I anticipate his line has to improve to some degree, so his ypc should improve. I doubt he'll see quite as many carries as last year, but he should still see more than most. Although touchdowns are nearly impossible to predict, it shouldn't surprise anyone if he lucks into a huge TD year. A workhorse back on a fairly prolific offense should provide all the upside you need in the middle of the first round.

Grahamburn said:

I despise the Steelers. Hate them and their fans, actually. I've never owned a Steeler in any fantasy football league I've ever played in. I expected Rashard Mendenhall to be terrible last season. An offensive line in shambles, no QB for the first four games, and a tough schedule led me to believe he'd be awful. How wrong I was.

Fast forward to 2011 and I've seen the error off my ways. This might sound crazy, but Rashard Mendenhall has a legitimate shot at being the #1 overall RB in fantasy football. Hear me out.

The Pittsburgh Steelers schedule is easy. Ridiculously easy, and it's not like they're only playing bad defenses either. Many of the offenses they're going to face are atrocious as well. How do you think these team's offenses will fare aginst the Steelers' Defense?

1 at Baltimore Ravens
2 Seattle Seahawks (awful)
3 at Indianapolis Colts
4 at Houston Texans
5 Tennessee Titans (awful)
6 Jacksonville Jaguars (awful)
7 at Arizona Cardinals (awful)
8 New England Patriots
9 Baltimore Ravens
10 at Cincinnati Bengals (awful)
12 at Kansas City Chiefs
13 Cincinnati Bengals (awful)
14 Cleveland Browns (awful)
15 at San Francisco 49ers (awful)
16 St. Louis Rams (awful)
17 at Cleveland Browns (awful)

I'd say that's at least 10 games where the Steelers' opponent will score 13 points or less. Also notice the stretch of cupcakes during the fantasy playoffs. What's that mean for Rashard Mendenhall? It means the Pittsburgh offense will have short fields, the opposing defense is going to be on the field a ton, they'll be worn down, and they'll be pretty sick of tackling in the second half.


Rashard Mendenhall projections

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