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Spotlight: Michael Turner

posted by Mark Wimer on Jul 28th


Mark Wimer's thoughts

Fading Prospect or Solid Fantasy Pick?

The commentary out of Atlanta on Michael Turner's role in the Falcons' offense this year has been consistent - the coaching staff wants to reduce his role in the offense so that he stays fresher for later in the season. Looking at Turner's production since arriving in Atlanta during 2008 shows us that he's averaged 337 carries per season in his three 16-game campaigns (leaving aside the 2009 season, cut short at 11 games). The team feels that a workload in excess of 300 carries a year is wearing Turner down and hurting the running game during the post-season push/post-season in December/January.

Let's take a look at his season-by-season production below to gain some perspective on Turner's time in Atlanta:

2008: 16 games played for 377/1,699/17 rushing, with nine targets for 6/41/0 receiving
2009: 11 games played for 178/871/10 rushing, with seven targets for 5/35/0 receiving
2010: 16 games played for 334/1,371/12 rushing, with 20 targets for 12/85/0 receiving
2011: 16 games played for 301/1,340/11 rushing, with 27 targets for 17/168/0 receiving

As you can see, Turner has always scored double-digit TDs in his Atlanta seasons (even during 2009, when he had 10 rushing TDs in 11 games), but he hasn't snagged more than 17 receptions in any season (in 2011 he saw 27 targets for 17/168/0 receiving, his first time over 100 yards receiving in any season as a pro). Many fantasy owners are wondering whether Turner's fantasy production will take a big hit during 2012 due to the team's plan to reduce his rushing workload - is he a fading veteran or will Turner still be a solid fantasy pick?

I believe that Turner will be a solid fantasy running back (especially in non-PPR leagues, but still worthy of starting status even in PPR leagues due to his high TD scoring potential). Here's why:

First of all, the second-year challenger for playing time, Jacquizz Rodgers, is more suited to a complimentary role in the offense (along the lines of Darren Sproles in New Orleans last year). He's got great speed and moves, but Rodgers just isn't built to be a featured back at 5'6" and 196 pounds - Turner clearly is at 5'10" and 247 pounds (51 pounds heavier than Rodgers!) and he's a proven commodity in this league. Rodgers has managed 57/205/1 rushing and 21/188/1 receiving so far during his NFL career. Those are OK numbers for a guy learning the ropes as a rookie, but they are hardly numbers that would lead the Falcons to insert Rodgers for Turner as the lead back.

Second, the veteran challenging for playing time, Jason Snelling, is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield (his career high is 44/303/3 receiving during 2010), but he's averaged 3.7 (87/324/1 rushing) and 3.4 (44/151/0 rushing) yards per carry over the last two years despite his 5'11", 234 pound frame, while Turner has posted averages of 4.1 and 4.5 yards rushing per carry during that same time frame.

In short, what you've got here are two complimentary backs who are good receivers out of the backfield, but neither Rodgers nor Snelling figure to be the primary ball carrier. In fact, the team has stated they'd like to see Turner get 70% of the carries this year (last year, the team rushed the ball 453 times). Even if we see a shift to more quick passes and less handoffs during 2012 - and reports out of June organized team activities indicated that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter plans to emphasize the screen game, employing Rodgers and Snelling for those plays - Turner will still be handed the football regularly. For example, if the team drops to 400 total carries during 2012 (a drop of a little more than 10% from last year's total), Turner would likely see 280 carries given his expected 70% share of the carries - that is a decrease from the 301 rushes he saw last year, but not a huge drop-off.

Third, as we saw last season, a drop in carries doesn't automatically equate to a big drop in production - Turner had 33 less carries last year, but only shed 31 yards rushing, while scoring one less TD. If the Falcons are more discriminating about when they run the ball, and they are successful in setting up the run with the quick passing game to Rodgers and Snelling, then Turner should be able to put up rushing numbers that will still make his fantasy owners smile. 280 carries at 4.1 yards per carry (Turner's lower average over the past two years) still gives up 1,148 yards rushing - assuming he is around last year's 4.5 yards per tote puts us up at 1,260 yards rushing.

Fourth, Turner has improved as a pass receiver during his time in Atlanta, increasing his targets up to 27 last year, and going over 150 yards receiving. If the team is doing a lot more passing to the running backs this year, it isn't unreasonable to expect Turner to see a modest bump in this area, perhaps to 35 targets for 25/200/1 receiving - these are a nice potential bonus for owners of Turner in PPR leagues.

As you can see, I think the doom-and-gloom surrounding Turner's 2012 prospects is unwarranted. There is plenty of room for the Falcons to get more work for Rodgers and/or Snelling in the offense without sending Turner's numbers off a cliff.

Positives

  • Turner is a featured back in a league where clear-cut #1 running backs are becoming an increasingly rare commodity
  • Turner increased his yards per carry average to 4.5 per rush last season over his 4.1 average in the year prior - he seems to still have enough gas in his tank to play effectively at the NFL level
  • Turner increased his presence in the passing game last year and went over 150 yards receiving for the first time in his Atlanta years

Negatives

  • Turner turned 30 on February 13, 2012 - players over 30 in the NFL generally don't recuperate from the wear-and-tear of an NFL season as quickly as younger players do
  • The Falcons' coaching staff has made their intentions to reduce Turner's workload crystal clear
  • The Falcons' new offensive system will reportedly emphasize the screen passing game, a role that is better suited to Rodgers and Snelling than Turner

Final thoughts

Even though the Falcons plan to run the ball less this year, and to ask Michael Turner to run it less, the team still needs a powerful back who can punch the football into the end zone from goal-to-go situations (a role that suits Turner), and they'll still want to grind out the game when they enjoy a solid lead in the second half of games (another role which suits Turner and not the other backs on the roster). Turner is the best ball carrier on the team, and he'll get more than enough touches to remain an impactful fantasy player this year. Also, if the team's plan works and Turner is fresher during the December push into the playoffs, his fantasy owners will receive more robust production during fantasy playoffs - which would be a good thing. Overall, I am optimistic that Turner remains a solid fantasy running back (especially in non-PPR leagues), and I have him ranked highest among all the Footballguys.com. He should be well north of 1,000 yards rushing again this year, and I see no reason for him to score less than 10 rushing TDs again 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.

Frankbot said:

He'll be drafted as a RB2 for the first time since his first year in Atlanta and he'll put up fine RB2 numbers for his owners. We all know he isn't what he used to be, that the Falcon offense has shifted to a passing attack, that Jacquizz figures to eat into some of his touches this year, and so on and so forth - BUT, at the end of the day he's still the primary back on a potent offense and a lock for goal line carries. I think his touches scale back to the 260 range conservatively, and his yardage and average both take significant hits - but that he'll still deliver double-digit TDs as the Atlanta offense takes another step towards upper-echelon status.

TheDirtyWord said:

For a guy who over the previous 2 seasons put up an average of 1482 YFS & 11.5 TD's...Michael Turner sure does appear to be radioactive as far as fantasy circles are concerned. What I don't understand completely is why...?

I get that he no longer looks explosive. But as far as RB's with more than 200 carries last season (19), Turner finished 7th in terms of number of % of carries that resulted in 20+ yard runs (3.7%). Marshawn Lynch has made it to being drafted in the late 1st round. Turner is dropping to the beginning of Round 3. But their production was remarkably similar; 1416/13 to 1508/10. Turner actually showed a decent ability to catch the ball last season for his first time as a Falcon. While he won't ever excel in this area, 2008-2010 almost gave the indication that he was allergic to catching the football ala Shonn Greene.

While the Falcons have given off signals that they plan to de-emphasize Turner in 2012, they did this last season too via a 10% reduction in carries. Will the Falcons incorporate Jacquizz Rodgers into their overall offensive structure more in 2012? Yes...but if anyone is forecasting Turner to come it at a significantly lower level of carries than 300, I think they are off-base. 275 is going to be his floor. IMO, the de-emphasizing of Turner has more to with how he's used relating to what down and distance and situations he'll be on the field for versus just workload. As an FYI, 53.8% of Turner's touches the last 2 seasons have come on 1st & 10. Generally, you'll see RB's with numbers more in the 47-49% range. A guy like LeSean McCoy is down at the 42% range.

A lot of folks believe that with the removal of Mike Mularkey as OC, that the Falcons are going to pass more. But this is a team that has dropped back to pass an average of 610 times the past two seasons. Number of attempts isn't the issue here. Passing efficiency is and overall offensive predictability is. IMO, the goal for the Falcons is to produce more per pass versus more passing. Under Mularkey, the Falcons have been amongst the league leaders in offensive plays, never finishing lower than 4th in this category since 2009 with the goal of producing long sustained drives. This is a good mentality to have to be sure, but if you continually do this at the expense of quick strike, big play ability ... when you are behind, it's an uphill climb back into the game which has been a hallmark of the Falcons playoff failures because it's not in the Falcons comfort zone. The lack of the Falcons offensive diversity has started to become too evident.

I think Jacquizz can contribute on all 3 downs, but the goal for him will still be situational or play specific. The Falcons will have packages that will exploit his abilities that can be used on any down, but I don't see his time on the field eclipsing 40%. As for Snelling...I think he acts as a nice insurance policy for the Falcons should Turner go down...but he's essentially the same style of player without the speed.

At the end of the day, Turner is probably going a half a round too low for my liking and I'd be comfortable spending a mid-2nd on the guy. He'll still be a bellcow type back for the Falcons and he's THE guy inside the 5.

FF Ninja said:

What is this round 4/5 talk? The most recent ADP has him at 35.

Turner's slip in value is due to his lack of upside. In fantasy football everyone wants to draft a guy who is going to blow up. I think we all know that Turner's best FF days are behind him. You are drafting a guy who has had a heavy workload and appears to have no top gear anymore. It is hard to imagine getting much more in 2012 from him than 80% of 2011. And that's best case. Worst case is the wheels fall off and you are left thinking, "how could I NOT have seen his coming?!" I guess there might be an extreme optimist out there who thinks maybe he's the next Curtis Martin, but I doubt it.

Beyond the age and the wear and tear, the Falcons lost their OC so there is some uncertainty. Maybe he gets used quite a bit less. One thing I'm reasonably sure about is that it would be hard for the Falcons to pass more. Lots of people think this is going to turn into a pure passing team, but I'd argue that they already were. And it's not like Matt Ryan is Peyton Manning. I think this team will run the ball 400 times again this year and you'd have to think Turner will get at least 250 of those carries and all the goal line looks.

Given his company at RB17, he seems like a safe bet to outperform his ADP but if and only if he doesn't break down. The 3 guys ahead of him are SJax (also about ready for a steep decline), Sproles (a niche player relying on the big play), and FJax (likely splitting time with a 9th overall pick). Guys you'd likely be thinking about when picking Turner: Bradshaw (historically gimpy with rookie competition), Gore (also historically gimpy with a likely reduced role), R.Bush (durability questions and extremely suspect offense), and Beanie (gimpy with Ryan Williams back to compete with). These guys all have their questions, but when weighing all the situation, I don't think you'll find another guy in this range with as good of a combination of work load and team offense.

If I'm drafting at the end of the 3rd and need a RB, I like Turner out of that group. It is not like he averaged 3.9 ypc last year. Even if he sees a drop off from 4.5 to 4.0 and he only gets 250 carries, that's still 60 yards a game with a really good chance of a touchdown. There's always a chance that the new OC will let him catch some passes, too.


Michael Turner projections

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