Spotlight: Michael Turner

posted by on Jul 3rd


's thoughts

"You can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it..."

That little maxim is said so much in fantasy football circles that I'm not entirely sure where and when it originated. The general idea is that your first round pick should be a player that, barring injury, will perform no worse then the top dozen or so players in football. First round picks are about high "floors" more then they are about high "ceilings." If your first round pick manages to perform like a top-12 talent, then that should be considered a win for your team. Even if he doesn't finish as the top player in fantasy football, as long as he isn't too far off the pace then you can be comfortable that your stud is living up to his billing.

Despite this generally accepted strategic pillar, there is almost always a player selected in the first round that is more "upside" then "floor." There seems to always be a player that could finish in the top-12 of fantasy players if everything breaks his way but just as likely could end up finishing much lower if it doesn't. In 2009, that player was Steve Slaton. Opinions were divided and owners who gambled on his ceiling in the first round of that season were rewarded with a fumble-prone running back that finished as the 33rd rated fantasy player. This year, Slaton's average draft position is 102nd overall between Darren Sproles (a part time runner) and Montario Hardesty (a rookie on the Cleveland Browns). When things go well, many fantasy owners are the first to say "I told you so!" to their league-mates. And when things go bad, the fantasy community shows no mercy at draft time the next season.

This year, the player that fits this profile is Michael Turner. Right now, Turner's ADP is 6th overall, smack dab in the middle of round one. In 2008, Turner's first year with the Atlanta Falcons, he scored 17 touchdowns and had 1740 total yards from scrimmage - rewarding owners with a finish of #2 overall behind Adrian Peterson. In 2009, things were not so good as Turner struggled through injury to post 900 total yards and 10 touchdowns. He finished 23rd overall and no doubt was the weak point for a number of fantasy teams based on his production compared to his ADP. However, it doesn't appear that fantasy owners are punishing Turner too much as his current draft position indicates that many believe his 2009 season was an aberration and Turner can be expected to bounce back to the elite of fantasy players.

In 2009, Turner actually continued his torrid 2008 for much of the season until suffering three ankle injuries in the second half of the year. He had to be removed from three different games due to the ankle and was only at full strength for the season's first eight contests. In those eight games, he rushed for just over 700 yards and 10 touchdowns as well as 4.9 yards per carry (up from 4.5 in 2008). In other words, when healthy in 2009, Michael Turner was as good - and arguably better - then he was when he finished as the 2nd best player in fantasy the season before.

Reports from early camps suggest that Turner is in great shape and the ankle injury is well recovered. With this information in mind, is it possible that RB6 is too LOW for Turner? Thus begins the "Great Debate" over running back workload. The downside of Michael Turner is that he is coming off an injury plagued season and no one is sure whether those injuries were due in part to his 377 carry season in 2008. A number of essays have been written about the negative consequences of exceeding a 370 carry workload and many people believe that Turner's eventual breakdown in 2009 wasn't just a freak accident but rather the culmination of too many carries in a relatively short period of time. And if that hypothesis is correct, then there is ample reason to worry about Turner breaking down again in 2010. In short, the history of running backs having a 370 carry season and then ever returning to prominence while avoiding injury in future years is not good. Players like Jamal Anderson, Larry Johnson, and Ricky Williams have all posted 370+ carry seasons in recent years. Each of those players entered subsequent seasons feeling "healthy" and "recharged" and "in great shape." And none of those three players has neared superstar status since those campaigns. In fact, only Ricky Williams has managed to post a 1,000 yard season after a 370 carry year (Williams has done so twice). Is it possible that Turner will begin the season again as one of the rushing elite only to succumb to nagging injuries later in the year? Yes, it is. However, his 4.9 yards per carry in 2009 is reason for optimism, and his involuntarily reduced workload last season means that he hasn't endured the physical pounding that some of his peers have from linebackers and defensive tackles.

Of lesser concern (but still significant) is that Michael Turner is not an integral part of the Falcons receiving game. His 22 receptions in six seasons represents a low mark for running backs drafted so highly and with Jerious Norwood on the roster spelling Turner, it doesn't appear that Turner will evolve in to a pass catcher any time soon.

As a result, fantasy owners drafting Turner will be counting on him to be a workhorse running back to carry their squad. On the one hand, his on field performance in the last two seasons has been stellar and even after his 377 carry season in 2008, he was wildly effective in 2009. On the other hand, the specter of that season will loom over Turner for the rest of his career as every ding, bruise, and boo boo will be blamed on the 2008 season. Owners will be left holding their breath hoping that his presence on the injury report is not significant enough to impact his performance. The significance of the gamble can not be overstated: to acquire Michael Turner will require a mid first round pick, and if Turner is going to wear down (whether as a result of the 2008 season continuing to carry over or some other reason), then it is most likely to happen in the second half of the season when owners need him most.

Positives

  • Actually improved his performance in 2009 after 377 carries in 2008. If he continues to carry the ball at 4.9 yards-per-attempt then Turner will be very effective for fantasy owners and the Falcons.
  • Clearly has a knack for scoring as his 27 total touchdowns in his previous 26 "healthy" games would prove.
  • Likely to begin the season as the focal point of the Falcons offense. As long as Turner is healthy he can expect to garner at least 20 carries a game.

Negatives

  • 377 carry season in 2008 will loom over him like a dark shadow for years to come. Missing almost half of 2009 can be correlated to the heavy workload in 2008 in the minds of many.
  • Not an effective receiver. If Turner is to be a top-tier fantasy performer, he will have to do it exclusively as a rusher.
  • Falcons offense regressed in 2009. Can they make the necessary adjustments in the passing game to free up space for Turner to run?

Final thoughts

My view is that despite evidence to the contrary, the "370 carry curse" is overrated. Michael Turner looked awfully good last year despite the fact that the Falcons offense wasn't working as efficiently as 2008 and the offensive line was playing rather inconsistently. 700 yards and ten touchdowns in ten games is nothing to sneeze at and his 4.9 yards per carry are evidence that Turner wasn't suffering any dead-legs while he was active. The ankle injury is worrisome but not nearly as much as if he'd torn a ligament or required significant surgery in the offseason. While only time will tell if 2008 was Turner's high-point as a rusher, I believe that he will bounce back and have a highly productive season, helping fantasy owners that gamble on him win lots of games this year. Of the players not named " Adrian Peterson" or "Chris Johnson", Turner represents as much upside or more as anyone available in this year's draft pool.


Quotations from the message board thread

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

TS Garp said:

Turner very well may have topped his 17 TDs from 2008 if he hadn't gotten hurt. And he was actually averaging more yards per carry. The Falcons made Jason Snelling look like a serviceable starting running back, and, not to knock Snelling, but he's not the talent that Turner is. The point is, this is a great offense for a RB. Word is that Turner's looking leaner and he's in better shape. The lack of receptions puts a bit of a ceiling on his value, especially in PPR leagues, and I don't think the Falcons will ride him as hard as they did in 2008, but I still think he'll have a great season:

Bird said:

I really like Atlanta this season. They showed plenty of heart last year battling through injuries. For the first time in their franchise's history, they finished with a winning record two years in a row. Ryan is changing the culture in Atlanta to a winning one. If Ryan is the driver of this car then Turner is the engine that makes it go. Atlanta may want to lighten his carry load during the season but there will be too many opportunities for them to preserve victories by running the ball late and for that they will want their best runner on the field in the 4th quarter.

baconisgood said:

I personally feel that Turner is that rarest of animals- a player who is being properly valued.

His 2008 campaign was very nice but the #2 ranking at the end of the year was somewhat misleading due to it being a down year for elite backs in general. In 2009 his 2008 season would have been 4th, 2007 3rd, 2006 5th, 2005 t-5th, 2004 5th, 2003 t-6th. I think there are quite a few reasons to view 2008 as a very nice ceiling- one that he may be able to top by 10 pts or so but not much more. He is very unlikely to get more than 376 carries and with 11 receptions in > 1.5 years in Atlanta we know he isn't going to supplement his rushing yards with receiving ones. He could improve on his 17 TDs, but large improvement is unlikely and with Snelling having the build for a goaline back it wouldn't be a shock to see him worked in there a few times this year after Turner carries the Falcons inside the 10.

Realistically a healthy Turner will break 300 carries (he is top good not to) but loses 3rd down looks to both Snelling (who caught 30 balls last year) and Norwood and could potentially lose some GL touches.

karmarooster said:

I very much avoided Turner last year as he went consistently in the top 3, even in PPR leagues. This year he might fall enough to make him a better value in the later first round - current ADP between 1.05 and 1.09.


Michael Turner projections

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