The Weekly Gut Check No. 196 - Dangerous Picks That Can Damage Your Draft Part II (RBs)
By Matt Waldman
July 15th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Dangerous Picks That Can Damage Your Draft Part II - Running backs

Imagine if you had the opportunity to rearrange your face - like Mr. Potato Head, but for real. You stand at a mirror, and for kicks, slide your nose in the middle of your forehead, pop your mouth to your left cheek and roll your eyes to your chin.

Crazy? Trippy? If you're doing a double take at the by-line be assured this is not JaMarcus Russell guest writing for Footballguys after a few shots of codeine with a Jolly Rancher chaser. J.R. (and I don't mean Jolly Rancher - although it could be a good nickname for Russell) is a lot like a J.R. I met 21 years ago who told me that rearranging his face was his favorite pastime.

I met J.R. while spending my summer mornings prepping food at a Burger King. Like most of my co-workers, he was hired from a local Narcotics Anonymous halfway house. J.R. was a speed addict from Austin, Texas. He was a nice enough guy that came from a rich family and while we played Frisbee with the frozen patties and built igloos with those giant white blocks of shortening, he told me stories about his drug use.

If you can imagine Less Than Zero taking place in Texas - or better yet, the creators of King of The Hill deciding to do an animated version of the novel - you get the idea. One of J.R.'s favorite chapters from his life would probably be called "Fun With LSD."

Note: If any of you are concerned that I'm promoting drug use at Footballguys.com please consider the fact that J.R. told me these stories while chopping lettuce at 5:00 a.m. at a Burger King in metro Atlanta. This was a kid who could have been tooling around Austin in a vintage Mustang - the car he wouldn't have wrecked if he were sober.

J.R. was only 19 years old, but he was probably one of the smartest guys from that halfway house working there. He was scared of what the drugs did to him - it cost him a chance to go to college on a full scholarship. So before you complain to Joe and David that Matt Waldman's columns are promoting drug use just remember two things:

  • J.R. and his roommates worked at Burger King, bunked at a cheap house, and peed in a cup every day to earn the privilege to ask, "Do you want fries with that?"
  • Joe and David get enough weekly emails that say, "...You need drugs just to read Waldman's columns."
  • J.R. used to spend hours on LSD trips. He liked to do two things the best: sit at the park and make the grass grow at his will, and rearrange his face in the bathroom mirror. He said it was the most bizarre and entertaining thing he's ever done, but the long-term return on investment wasn't worth it.

    Working with J.R. at Burger King at 5:00 a.m., I could see why. I did it to have free afternoons to transcribe and memorize Gene Ammons solos at volumes that would have otherwise prompted neighborhood calls to the police. J.R. had no choice.

    J.R. is a dramatic example of risky short-term choices screwing up long-term choices. Fortunately fantasy football doesn't have consequences as remotely serious as my former line mate at the BK (If you're still out there, I hope you're doing well).

    Even "the good stuff" in fantasy football can change the entire complexion of your draft for the worse. I use the phrase "dangerous picks" in the title of this series because most of the players I'm profiling are significant talents taken at pivotal points. I think these selections are pressure points in the draft process that require careful consideration before you take them. If these players continue to have the average draft value I have listed for them, then I believe they pose a greater than desired risk at their current value - even if that value passes the initial eyeball test.

    Last week, I looked at quarterbacks. This week I will profile runners. Next week, it will be receivers and tight ends.

    Stephen Jackson (ADP 1.09)

    With a total of 1424 rushing yards in 2009, only Chris Johnson gained more yards on the ground than Jackson. The Rams runner also had 50 receptions, which put him in the top 10 among backs in this category. If Jackson were more effective getting into the end zone (4 TDs) he could have easily finished higher than the No. 10 fantasy producer in non-PPR leagues. Jackson is also a consistent fantasy starter; he has five straight seasons with at least RB2 production, and two of those seasons were of RB1 quality. This is enough of an argument to believe Jackson is an absolute bargain at 1.09, but there's a little history that I think makes him a more dangerous pick than commonly thought.

    As I mentioned in the spring, only 13 backs in the past 20 years have produced more than five straight seasons as fantasy starters. Jackson is a special enough talent to be the 14th back on this esteemed list that I compiled earlier, but I believe his injury history works against him. The Rams starting running back has played a full season only once in his six-year career, missing 2-4 games in three of those years.

    Jackson's Career Stats

    Year
    Gm
    Rush
    Rush Yds
    Rush TDs
    Rec Yds
    Rec TDs
    FPs
    2004
    14
    134
    673
    4
    189
    0
    110.2
    2005
    15
    254
    1046
    8
    320
    2
    196.6
    2006
    16
    346
    1528
    13
    806
    3
    329.4
    2007
    12
    237
    1002
    5
    271
    1
    163.3
    2008
    12
    253
    1042
    7
    379
    1
    190.1
    2009
    15
    324
    1416
    4
    322
    0
    197.8

    Two things are apparent from Jackson's career totals. First, he's been on pace for RB1 production in every RB2 season he attained since 2005. Second, his carry count seemed higher than even the average starting RB. I researched carry averages from 2005-2009 and discovered that Jackson was among the most active backs during the past five years.

    Carries Per Game Average (2005-2009)

    Running Back
    Gm
    Att
    Att/Gm
    Tiki Barber
    32
    684
    21.4
    Domanick Williams
    11
    230
    20.9
    Steven Jackson
    70
    1414
    20.2
    Adrian L. Peterson
    46
    915
    19.9
    Clinton Portis
    64
    1270
    19.8
    Chris Johnson
    31
    609
    19.6
    Shaun Alexander
    43
    840
    19.5
    Thomas Jones
    79
    1541
    19.5
    LaDainian Tomlinson
    78
    1517
    19.4
    Larry Johnson
    66
    1281
    19.4
    Jamal Lewis
    71
    1303
    18.4
    Curtis Martin
    12
    220
    18.3
    Matt Forte
    32
    574
    17.9
    Edgerrin James
    67
    1200
    17.9
    Willie Parker
    71
    1221
    17.2
    Ryan Grant
    47
    782
    16.6
    Rudi Johnson
    57
    924
    16.2
    Frank Gore
    73
    1168
    16
    Marshawn Lynch
    41
    650
    15.9
    Kevin Smith
    29
    455
    15.7
    Willis McGahee
    74
    1157
    15.6
    Cadillac Williams
    54
    843
    15.6
    Cedric Benson
    60
    935
    15.6
    Warrick Dunn
    63
    979
    15.5

    The highlighted players in the table have been active since 2005 and in theory could have played the complete 80-game span. Among these active players, Jackson is first in attempts per game, third in overall attempts and sixth in games played.

    What caught my eye about this list is that at 233 pounds, Jackson is a rarity on this list in terms of his size. Most of the backs are 220 pounds or lighter. For a big back capable of punishing defenses, it's impressive that Jackson has only missed 10 games while getting the ball at a 20 attempt per game clip.

    The average peak (producing as a fantasy starter) for the top 24 fantasy RBs during the past 20 years is 6.2 seasons. Jackson has already performed as a starter for five years and he's coming off back surgery for a herniated disc that he suffered late last year. After researching disc injuries and treatment, I'm not as concerned about Jackson experiencing chronic back issues that will prevent him from performing this year. Although I think he could have an increased risk of injury due to the nature of the game and his position. Especially with the likelihood he will continue to see a heavy workload.

    What I have difficulty resolving is his each of these small detractors: his dimensions, his minor injuries that have forced him to miss time over the years, and his high carry rate as he quickly approaches the end of peak production for most of the better talents at his position during the past 20 years. Obviously, there are players that exceed this 6.2-season peak and Jackson could be one of them, but I think Jackson needs better quarterback play to help him out and I don't believe it's going to happen soon enough.

    Last year, Jackson averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored 12.9 fantasy points per game during the first eight games. However, once Marc Bulger was lost for the season, the Rams runner averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Jackson still managed to elevate his points per game average to 13.5 for the final seven games, but he also missed a game due to the back injury. The Rams offensive line last year also dealt with a lot of turmoil. Starting right guard Richie Incognito was waived due to conduct detrimental to the team, former first-day pick Alex Barron was traded to the Cowboys, first-round pick Jason Brown missed eight games due to a concussion, and free agent Jacob Bell missed time with a torn hamstring.

    Say what you will about Bulger's durability but he was one of the better passers in the league and his presence on the field helped the ground game until the offensive line continued its tradition of flat lining. Sam Bradford has the promise to develop into a passer of Bulger's skill, but by that time Jackson might be a year or two past his peak. In recent years, nearly two-thirds of the consistently productive fantasy RB1s lack a fantasy QB1. But just because these quarterbacks are less productive doesn't mean they are inefficient, which is why fantasy passing production and the ground game don't have strong correlation. Yet, a level of efficiency will be needed that I doubt we'll see form Bradford or A.J. Feeley.

    Because I think Jackson is closer to falling off the productive RB cliff than discussed, taking the Rams runner in the range of 1.09 is a risky choice. I would much prefer him as an RB2 because I think receivers like Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Miles Austin present more value. In fact, I'd rather have two of them before I set my sights on Jackson, which means I think he's overvalued. If you think Jackson still has enough in the tank, then my argument has no merit for you. Go to the next back on my list. If you have the same worries about Jackson, read on...

    The reason why I'd rather have a receiver has to do with baselines. In a three-receiver, two-runner fantasy league, the baseline starter is the 36th-ranked receiver and the 24th-ranked runner. When I examine the difference in points among players the fantasy football world is projecting within a specific draft range, I would prefer to take two receivers in the area a fantasy owner would likely take Jackson.

    Average PPG Difference To the Baseline For Running Backs

    Year
    RB1
    RB2
    RB3
    RB4
    RB5
    RB6
    RB7
    RB8
    RB9
    RB10
    RB11
    RB12
    RB13
    RB14
    2007-09
    10.4
    8.6
    6.8
    6.2
    5.6
    5.1
    4.3
    4.0
    3.7
    3.4
    3.1
    2.7
    2.4
    2.0
    2004-06
    13.1
    10.6
    9.6
    8.2
    7.0
    6.1
    5.4
    4.5
    3.4
    2.8
    2.6
    2.3
    1.9
    1.8
    2001-03
    13.7
    10.8
    10.0
    9.0
    7.5
    7.1
    6.6
    5.9
    5.7
    4.4
    4.1
    3.8
    3.2
    2.8
    1998-00
    13.2
    11.4
    8.6
    7.5
    6.9
    6.1
    5.5
    5.1
    5.0
    4.5
    4.1
    4.0
    3.6
    3.2

    Average PPG Difference To the Baseline For Wide Receivers

    Year
    WR1
    WR2
    WR3
    WR4
    WR5
    WR6
    WR7
    WR8
    WR9
    WR10
    WR11
    WR12
    WR13
    WR14
    2007-09
    8.5
    6.9
    6.7
    5.8
    5.5
    5.1
    4.8
    4.7
    4.3
    4.3
    3.9
    3.6
    3.5
    3.3
    2004-06
    7.7
    6.2
    5.9
    5.6
    5.4
    5.3
    5.1
    4.9
    4.6
    4.0
    3.8
    3.7
    3.3
    3.1
    2001-03
    9.1
    8.0
    6.2
    5.5
    5.1
    4.8
    4.6
    4.4
    4.2
    3.9
    3.8
    3.6
    3.3
    3.2
    1998-00
    7.8
    6.9
    6.2
    5.8
    5.1
    5.0
    4.6
    4.2
    4.0
    4.0
    3.9
    3.4
    3.0
    2.9

    Let's presume you have pick 1.09 and the following players are available to you: Steven Jackson, Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Miles Austin. If Jackson turns out to be the seventh-best back in 2010, which is what his average draft position projects, and the trend from 2007-2009 continues, Jackson would be a 4.3-points per game better than the worst starting RB. It's a healthy difference, but what if you take two receivers instead?

    Presuming Andre Johnson is off the board at or near his 1.06 ADP, and you take the next best receivers based on this line of thought - Reggie Wayne at 1.09 and either Calvin Johnson or Miles Austin at 2.04 - you would have better production value than if you took Jackson and the next available runner or Jackson and the next best receiver. Depending on the years used, Wayne (WR2 in the chart) and Johnson (WR5) would combine for 12.4-13.1 points more than the baseline compared to the total of 9.8-11.4 gap if you took Jackson and Johnson or worse yet, the 9-11 point game if you took two runners.

    Projections are rarely dead-on across the board so its conceivable two runners could out-produce what I just threw out there - especially if you land an elite producer that late. However, in recent years starting running backs have a higher turnover rate than wide receivers and most of the backs in this range we're discussing were top-12 backs last year and they fall in the high-risk group for turnover.

    Since most leagues start more receivers and they are surer bets, I would prefer getting two top receivers in this position. Especially when there are generally more backs that are available in the mid rounds that become starter-worthy than receivers. My contention is that not only will I get the points advantage with two receivers early, but I also have a strong chance to acquire a top-12 runner much later in the draft.

    In other words, if I draft Steven Jackson my chances are lower of landing two stud receivers but if I draft two stud receivers my chances are still decent to get a top-12 RB as my RB1 and a top-24 RB as my RB2. If the difference in rankings changes from year to year for these positions remains somewhat constant, then taking Jackson at 1.09 could cost you at least an additional top-12 player at a position, and possibly three. Of course, the Rams RB could finally remain healthy for the year and maximize his elite talent, but I think my point is a compelling enough to list him as a dangerous pick. He might be worth the danger, but dangerous nonetheless.

    Shonn Greene (ADP 2.01)

    You can go here for a good run-down of the upside/downside of the Jets likely starter in 2010. The highlights: Greene rushed 44 times for 263 yards and two scores against the Bengals and Chargers in the playoffs; he plays behind a heck of an offensive line; and the Jets have enough weapons on both sides of the ball to keep the ground game a factor every week. The lowlights: Greene is not known as a strong receiver and he had zero receptions last year; he had atrocious pass protection skills at Iowa; and Greene will have competition for redzone and third down opportunities from LaDainian Tomlinson.

    It's the lowlights that catch my eye more than the highlights. The reason is that I have watched enough of Shonn Greene at Iowa to know that he's a talented back, but his deficiencies leave the door open for a veteran like Tomlinson. I think Greene is one of the more powerful backs in the league and his ability to be a closer will be highly valued. His power puts him in the class of runners like Michael Turner, Jonathan Stewart, Adrian Peterson, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. But in the NFL there are at least 25 backs in the league right now that have his skills as a between the tackles runner. They might have more or less power, agility or speed, but their combo of skills would make the Jets forget about Greene in a heartbeat.

    Greene's pass protection skills and receiving skills aren't likely to come alive in 2010, and I think the addition of LaDainian Tomlinson was a strategic move to consolidate the skills of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington into one player. Tomlinson might be a step slower, and potentially a downgrade from Jones, but he's still a fine receiver and a proven red zone option. Although he may no longer be the superstar he was a couple of years ago, I don' think his skills have fallen off the cliff just yet.

    Although it will be an added bonus for Greene to learn from one of the great players of the past 20 years, I believe Tomlinson's presence will limit Green's upside. Chase Stuart does an excellent job of explaining it from a receptions standpoint in his Player Points article. In there, Stuart explains that the best chance for Greene to crack the top 10 backs without becoming a solid factor in the passing game is to earn approximately 330 carries, gain 1400 yards and score double-digit touchdowns.

    Thomas Jones did exactly that last year, gaining 1402 yards and 14 scores on 331 carries despite a grand total of 58 yards as a receiver. However, Leon Washington only played seven games in 2009 and it contributed to a big reliance on Jones. If you project Washington's 72 attempts, 331 rushing yards and 131 receiving yards over the course of a full season, his numbers would have approached 113 carries, 517 yards rushing and 205 yards receiving.

    If Tomlinson earns only 110-120 carries in 2010, which is 7-8 per game, it's still likely to drop Greene from his target of 330 to 290. At 4.2 yards per carry, Greene would hit the 1200-yard mark, which could still get him into the top-12 if he produces in the red zone. But I think it's very reasonable for Tomlinson to get half the rushing touchdowns from the red zone, which would be a hit to Greene's value.

    To be more than fair in this argument let's assume Tomlinson gets one-third of the potential rushing touchdowns of the 14 Jones attained last year. Even so, Greene is looking at 1200 yards and 10 scores, which would be 180 fantasy points. That total would have earned Greene the No. 13 RB spot in 2009 fantasy leagues. This is pretty close to the 2.01 ADP assigned to Greene this summer. However, I have a tough time believing Tomlinson, who had 12 scores last year, is only going to score four times behind a much better Jets line. I'm not expecting double-digit touchdowns from Tomlinson when Greene is no slouch himself, but I think 6-7 scores is enough of a possibility that Greene could lose another 12-24 points, and that could drop Greene to the 17-24 spot.

    If I'm picking at the top of round two, I'm still looking for a player with both a higher floor and a higher ceiling than what I see from Greene. For me, Greene's point potential looks like the Jets' version of Marion Barber III: the upside is a high RB2 and the downside is a low RB2. I would rather have backs like Jamaal Charles, DeAngelo Williams, Knowshon Moreno, Chris Wells and even Ryan Mathews, all backs with a greater ceiling of potential for RB1 upside than what I see from Greene.

    The Jets' back might be a safe RB2 but just like the Steven Jackson scenario, I would prefer taking a WR1 with top-five or top-seven upside and follow up with backs like Wells, Forte, Addai or Best that I think have a similar range of potential at a lower cost.

    Ronnie Brown (ADP 4.07)

    Yeah, I'm the same guy that had Brown as my preseason No. 3 back last summer. He was on track for a 900-yard, double-digit score 2009 before he suffered a foot injury in week 10 - not No. 3 RB material with the reinvigorated Ricky Williams, who churned out an RB7 performance. Williams is the reason I don't think Brown makes great sense as the 19th back going off the board when RB15 is probably his upside - an optimistic ceiling when you consider his foot injury, a potential suspension based on a DUI charge in Florida, and Williams' 1385 total yards and 13 scores. Brown has a year left in Miami and there is no indication that they want him back in 2011.

    Miami has the surrounding talent for Brown to be a huge boom at the right price, but to get a WR2-WR3 along the lines of Chad Ochocinco, Michael Crabtree, Mike Sims-Walker, Percy Harvin and Hakeem Nicks at the same value is a choice I'd rather make. With tight ends like Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis still on the board, I think Brown at 4.07 is a dangerous proposition. It could work out for you, but with this much upside still available at other positions, I think it could be a make-or-break pick where you could be looking back and thinking along these lines: If I took Ochocinco or Sims-Walker I would have won three more games and earned the first seed in the playoffs. Brown at 4.07 is a good example of a pressure point in a redraft.

    Brandon Jacobs (ADP 5.11)

    Jacobs might be a lower pick than Greene or Brown, but I think his absolute upside is as a low-end RB2. There are more talented and capable backs rated lower than Jacobs, who I believe fits the mold of backs that experienced some success, but lack the special ability to extend their peak beyond the average production period of 3.7 years for the 90-plus starting RBs I profiled over the past 20 years for the article link I used in the Steven Jackson segment. Jackson met the 6.2-year peak criteria. I don't think Jacobs does.

    At 6'4", 260 lbs., I think Jacobs size works against him over the long term. He takes too much of a beating to have the stamina to ever become more than a 250-carry back. His highest workload came last year with 224 attempts and his yardage was his lowest in three seasons.

    Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be a player on the rise. He has more ideal size for an every down runner. I know this counters what you hear from more conventional sources who believe that Bradshaw is too small and Jacobs is more of a bell cow back, but just look at the dimensions of some of the better backs in recent history and you should have more questions about what Jacobs brings to the table moving forward than Bradshaw, who was arguably more effective than Jacobs last year while playing with an injury. Jason Wood makes a good argument for Bradshaw as more of a high-risk, high-reward option because he is going later than Jacobs. I believe that if Bradshaw gets hurt, the Giants won't hesitate to use backs like Danny Ware, Andre Brown or Gartrell Johnson and this will continue to limit Jacobs' opportunities.

    Expecting 1100 yards and 15 scores is far too optimistic for Jacobs, who I believe has peaked and in an offense that will lean more on the pass than ever before. Even if you disagree with my take on Jacobs, I don't think he presents better value in drafts than players like his teammate Hakeem Nicks or Percy Harvin and Santana Moss. I also believe Ricky Williams, Marion Barber and Cadillac Williams are better values that are frequently available after Jacobs. It's also a good time to land a quarterback if you're drafting soon, Brett Favre's value has jumped three rounds in the past two weeks and Jay Cutler's is rising steadily to the point that landing him in the late fifth, early sixth might also be a worthwhile option.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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