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Back to the Future: Marshawn Lynch

Digging up comparables from the past to try to predict Marshawn Lynch's future.

Without the help of a flux capactitator or Dr. Emmett Brown this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. The first player in this series is star running back Marshawn Lynch. After an up and down start to his career, Lynch burst on to the scene with this incredible run against New Orleans in 2010, and followed it up with back-to-back top-five fantasy seasons.

While that run is virtually incomparable, Lynch's career is not. After two seasons as a fantasy RB2, Lynch went AWOL in 2009 and 2010 before becoming a fantasy star. While no one is a perfect match, the best comps for the first six seasons of Lynch's career are Edgerrin James, Ottis Anderson, and Marshall Faulk. The chart below shows that all four players had a similar "V" arc to their career through year six. What I'm more interested in is figuring out is where their careers went from there.

While the players above all had similar paths to year six, their paths from that point forward were considerably different. Faulk rode the Greatest Show on Turf to arguably the best two year stretch in fantasy history, James had three more serviceable seasons as a borderline RB1 before falling off a cliff, and Anderson disappeared for the next four seasons before reemerging in the eleventh year of his career.

Anderson's disappearance was due to one of the biggest concerns for someone that runs as hard as Lynch does, injuries. Those injuries cost Anderson nearly 50% of the games in years 7-9 of his career. Lynch's aforementioned style and his history of back problems mean you have to at least consider the possibility that he's due for an injury riddled season. He's racked up over 650 touches in the past two seasons and probably takes as many licks per carry as any back in the league. Still, it's not prudent to predict injury for a player that's missed one game in the last three seasons. Anderson's path simply serves as a cautionary tale that running backs with this much tread on their tires do sometimes simply break down.

If Anderson's arc offers a cautionary tale Faulk's is clearly the opposite. In his next two seasons he'd accumulate more than 4,300 total yards and 47 touchdowns. Read that again. He, like the Rams' offense for those two seasons, was incredible. Want to hear something even more impressive? He did so while missing four games in those two seasons. Of course, Faulk was a completely different type of back than Lynch and relied much more on the receiving game to earn his fantasy points. Faulk also ran with a much more elusive style and hadn't taken the beating that Lynch has to this point in his career. While it's unlikely that Lynch falls off a cliff like Anderson did, it's even less likely that he performs at the level Faulk did. It is possible, however, that Lynch still has one or two years left of the best production of his career.

If you're looking for the best comparison for Lynch, it's probably Edgerrin James. James was a better pass catcher, and much more productive in the early part of his career, but in years 3-6 of his career his arc mirrored Lynch's. James had one very solid season left before he was traded to Arizona and never returned to the same level of production. Some of that can be blamed on the Cardinals' offensive line at the time I'm sure but it's not unreasonable to presume that Lynch may only have one more productive fantasy season before he starts the inevitable descent down his career arc.

For further illustration of how Lynch compares to these backs so far, here are the career attempts, yards per carry and fantasy points per game of all four backs through the first six seasons of their career:

Marshawn Lynch 1452 4.2 11.8
 Edgerrin James 1828 4.2 17.1
Marshall Faulk 1642 4.1 15.4
Ottis Anderson 1690 4.4 14.2

The encouragement you can draw from above is that Lynch's workload has been significantly lower than the other comparable backs. While it wouldn't be hard to argue that he's seen as much punishment in 1,400 carries as most backs see in 2,000, it's more helpful to suggest that Lynch may have slightly longer left as a productive running back than the presented arcs would suggest.

Observations and Projections

While I wouldn't predict an injury, Lynch has to be as likely as any starting back not named McFadden to miss at least some time due to injury over the next couple of seasons. In fact, when a well-run organization like the Seahawks drafts a third running back in the second round, it says they've had the same thought and will do their best to control Lynch's workload in 2013. A lightened workload likely takes a career year on the level that Faulk experienced off the table. While redraft owners may disagree, a lightened workload is exactly what dynasty owners should be hoping for. With a controlled workload, Lynch could have three solid RB1 seasons left in him.

Assuming no major injuries, project a slightly elongated version of Edgerrin James career arc. Lynch may very well have his career year left in him, but it will likely fall in the 260-280 point range if he does. It's more likely that his dynasty value is as high at the beginning of the 2013 season as it will ever be again. Lynch's early season schedule is much more favorable than it is down the stretch, so try to selling high by Week 7 or 8.

Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr