Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
The wheat from the chaff at ... running back (2 of 2)
Posted Aug. 07 at 03:14 AM
Part two of our leviathan look at running backs comes with a bit of good news up front: Not much has changed since we did this last week. Jamal Lewis is another week older; that’s about it.
So last week’s column still stands, and I’d encourage you to cross-reference this one against it. What will change below are the player ratings; the deck reshuffles because we’re talking about different games now, those based on rotisserie categories instead of raw accumulated points.
The key here, as I’ve written almost every week, is that one thing a lot of good backs do frequently -- catching passes -- can hurt a Categories team while it helps a Points team. That’s because receiving average is a category unto itself, and RBs’ receptions tend to go for much less yardage than WRs’. I’ll give you the most painful illustration I can:
In last year’s Fanball Football Challenge, the top 10 overall teams combined to post a yards-per-catch average of 12.80.
My team (I Chase The Devil, named for a Max Romeo song you should download right now) finished 14th overall. My receiving average was 12.44.
One player I was all over -- a guy who made my Week 1 roster and stuck all year -- was Matt Forte, who finished with 63 catches for 477 yards (7.57 yards per).
Subtract Forte from my receiving numbers and I lose some total yards, sure, but I had more than plenty of those. And my average jumps from 12.44 to -- you guessed it -- 12.80 on the nose.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you receiving average cost me thousands of dollars in 2008. That wasn’t all Forte’s fault -- he was cheap; I don’t regret owning him -- but I’m thinking you get the point.
Look, there’s a line to be straddled here, no question. Receiving yards are still good. Cheap RBs are still essential. But every back who catches more than a couple of passes per game will drive your average through the floor. After Forte the top pass-catching backs last season were Maurice Jones-Drew (62 receptions, 9.11 yards per) and Kevin Faulk (58, 8.38).
How to straddle the line?
One, let receiving average dictate many of your selections at WR. We’ll talk more about this next column, but suffice to say for now that you’d rather get 100-plus catches from Andre Johnson (115, 13.70) than Wes Welker (111, 10.50).
Two, let total receptions break what would otherwise be ties between RB candidates -- especially at the top of any game’s salary list, where you’ll have to be choosy about who makes your final squad. For the record -- and for the mathematically disinclined -- when I write that total receptions should break a tie, I mean that the player with FEWER receptions should win; the fewer balls an RB catches, the less he moves your team’s average. So give me Michael Turner’s 6 catches ahead of Adrian Peterson’s 21. Not that I necessarily believe these are otherwise tied backs, mind you, and not that 21 catches is a crippling total, either.
Three -- and this is probably less important than One and Two, but it can’t hurt -- make a point of owning the very fastest running backs, because they figure to be the ones who’ll occasionally break off a very long reception. They also figure to break off long runs, and rushing average is also a category.
Of course, not everyone has the same list of fastest RBs. Some guys don’t play as fast as their 40 times (Mr. Reggie Bush, ladies and gentlemen); speed is partly in the eye of the beholder. My personal list goes Chris Johnson, then Felix Jones or Steve Slaton, then Turner and a handful of others including Darrens McFadden and Sproles.
About rushing average.
Two weeks ago I wrote that passing average isn’t a great measure of a quarterback’s actual skill. This week the story is much the same. Ian Allan does a fine job of explaining why in this year’s Fantasy Football Index magazine -- on newsstands now, you cheap bastards:
Running games can be fickle. You can have the same running back and the same offensive line, yet get wildly different results due to small changes in timing or play-calling or if the defense takes a different approach.
How else can you explain how the Panthers could average 3.7 yards per carry, 114 rushing yards and score 8 rushing TDs during the first half of last season, before exploding for 191 rushing yards per game and 22 TDs during the final eight games (when they averaged a mind-numbing 5.9 yards per attempt)?
If that kind of in-season fluctuation tells us anything, it’s that many of the numbers you’ll see in scanning the yearly leader boards don’t mean quite what they seem to. I’m comfortable saying that certain players are the best RBs and thus are likely to finish among the leaders in carries and rushing yards and (along with a few short-yardage specialists) rushing TDs. I’m less comfortable saying that they’ll finish among the leaders in rushing average -- not when Pierre Thomas (4.845 yards per carry) can finish 2008 in a dead heat with Peterson (4.848). Rushing average is a better metric than passing average, but not by terribly much. You shouldn’t ignore it in constructing a Categories roster, but I wouldn’t make it a primary consideration.
To ratings. The numbers mean the same now as they did a week ago.
Michael Turner -- again, he caught 6 passes in all of 2008 ... and they added 96 catches to the roster in the person of Tony Gonzalez, so there’s nothing at all to go around; Turner is very fast, and he’s $710 cheaper than Peterson in the Football Challenge to boot; no tie to break between the two.
Chris Johnson -- would have been the fastest guy at his Combine if he’d run in pads; had big games like clockwork against the worst defenses he faced as a rookie; there are fewer bad Ds on the schedule this time around, but I fully expect C.J. to be better in Year 2.
Steve Slaton -- he and C.J. are automatic for one more year; come August 2010 their salaries will give pause given their receiving talents, but till then you get the new elite rushers at middling prices; own them, start them, mind your yards-per-catch at WR.
Matt Forte -- beautifully set up; low rushing and receiving averages held his salaries down despite a hyperproductive rookie season, and now comes Jay Cutler; fewer stacked boxes + better downfield quarterbacking (Cutler completed more ’08 passes to three WRs than any TE; more to two TEs than any RB) = higher rushing average and fewer total receptions.
Adrian Peterson -- when a back hits the very top of the salary lists he cannot possibly earn his money every week -- $3340 in the Football Challenge is hugely more than all of the players above A.D. on this list; but MIN opens at CLE, then at DET, and there are several other creampuffs on the slate; may not earn it every week, but I’ll use him every time he seems likeliest to.
Knowshon Moreno -- if he’s as good a runner as I think it won’t much matter, but note that his new QB is the same Kyle Orton who threw so many dumpoffs to Matt Forte in 2008; I’m certain to carry Moreno unless he tanks completely in the preseason, so I’ll have to be extra cautious about picking my other cheapos; you’re about to see the first instance of that extra caution.
Ahmad Bradshaw -- what part of Derrick Ward’s production from 2008 would have been worth $860 in the Football Challenge?; Bradshaw’s a closer-to-rugged Felix Jones (follow up to the Moreno comment: neither Bradshaw nor Jones can catch), only with a softer, front-loaded schedule; he probably figures more heavily into my plans at the moment than his own team’s.
Darren McFadden -- I said it: own the very fastest backs; a healthy DMC will yet be heard from; the one real question at $770 in the Football Challenge is the QB situation -- Justin Fargas can’t hold him down, but JaMarcus Russell can; with a starting nod to Jeff Garcia, 40 would bump to 50 or even 75.
Brandon Jacobs -- big new salaries and a bullet in Plaxico Burress’ leg cost Jacobs many ratings points; he’s a beast, and neither a slow nor a pass-catching one at that, but the Giants’ O was far less beastly after Plax left; without the old whole-team explosiveness Jacobs isn’t worth his money; with it, I just might own two NYG backs.
Felix Jones -- cheap and ridiculously explosive, and made even more so by the violence Marion Barber does to defenses before this cat comes in; with health and a bigger workload Jones shoots to 50 or even 75, but I’m nervous enough about both that I’ll probably hold off at least through Week 2 (vs. NYG).
Darren Sproles -- marginally more expensive than Bradshaw, McFadden or Felix Jones, and fourth among them (for now) for another reason, too: dude is 5’6”, 185 lbs.; real questions remain about how much work he can possibly do, but he’s explosive enough that you’ll have to think about him if LaDainian Tomlinson continues to wind down; check the ’08 receiving average, which won’t repeat but still makes a point: 11.79.
Fred Jackson -- too cute to own a very cheap Jackson during Marshawn Lynch’s three-game suspension?; not in Weeks 2 (vs. TB) and 3 (vs. NO) it isn’t; my only hesitation is that he’s caught 59 passes in 24 career games of mostly limited action; then again, not all of his catches are average-killers: longs of 54 yards in 2007, 65 in 2008 (strangely, without scoring on either).
Shonn Greene -- ran 307 times last year at Iowa, and caught all of 8 passes; I’d give him a 75 if not for the incumbency of Thomas Jones, who is, after all, coming off his best-ever season; wait until Greene takes the job, then wait no more.
Beanie Wells -- same as last week: no idea what to expect, but he’s very well set up; Arizona likes to throw to its RBs (or did, anyway, under departed OC Todd Haley), but Wells can’t catch; if he can run, he makes my teams.
Larry Johnson -- salaries back to eminently reasonable levels, offense on the upswing, but Haley is his new coach; L.J. can be awesome again and still may be a break-even proposition for Categories teams as Matt Cassel’s safety option with Tony Gonzalez gone from KC.
Ryan Grant -- second straight year as a late-season performer; I actually bought him for the stretch run because he’d heated up and still wasn’t catching any passes, so naturally he caught 9 (of his season total of 18) after Week 14; my bad luck notwithstanding, relatively safe if unexciting.
Julius Jones -- much better here than in Points games, because he has lousy hands; I know how backwards that sounds, but usually you’re compelled to own a really talented cheapo RB (like Forte a year ago) even if he’ll kill your receiving average, and here’s a less talented cheapo ($1150 in the Football Challenge) who definitely won’t; also: T.J. Duckett will get the short-yardage carries, which should protect Jones’ rushing average; if he’s getting nearly all of the other carries you have to consider him.
Pierre Thomas -- if he’s simply splitting time with Reggie Bush, then no; but if Thomas becomes the main rusher, Bush the main pass-catching RB, he gets a lot more interesting for the money; make as much of the preseason as you can.
Maurice Jones-Drew -- last week’s 75 loses two-thirds of his ratings points over the main difference between Points and Categories; I like C.J. and Slaton better straight-up, and both are cheaper, and J-D is the favorite to lead all RBs in catches with those two trailing; I will carry the more expensive Peterson, will carry Turner in the same price range as J-D, would carry Jacobs ahead of J-D; no room unless a bunch of things break bad for other guys (hey: and after Max Romeo, if I can possibly turn you on to Breaking Bad on AMC I’ll be swimming in good karma).
Ronnie Brown -- could be the sucker play of 2009 as a salary twin for Matt Forte; watch Brown’s receptions climb while Forte’s drop; unless I miss my guess, Miami’s Wildcat now evolves to feature Pat White’s passing, with Brown doing much of the receiving at 7 or 8 yards per clip; I’d rather spend the same money on Forte, obviously ... or on both Bradshaw AND McFadden.
Willis McGahee -- at last year’s reception total -- 24, albeit in just 13 games -- he’s worth thinking about; at 2007’s -- 43, in 15 -- he isn’t; McGahee is marginally better than Julius Jones as a rusher, but I have more faith in Matt Hasselbeck’s ability to keep defenses honest in ’09 than Joe Flacco’s.
Kevin Smith -- caught 39 balls in limited action a year ago, and his new coordinator (Scott Linehan) likes to throw to RBs; Smith is cheap enough, and was productive enough down the stretch, that many will carry him even so; when in doubt, though, I tend to avoid slowish backs on awful teams.
DeAngelo Williams -- will lose some numbers to Jonathan Stewart, and Williams’ 22 receptions came at an unusually steep price: 5.50 yards per; he may be awesome, but you can live without his kind of awesome at these prices.
Clinton Portis -- gets his numbers every year, but he seems to be hemorrhaging speed; that’s not so evident in his rushing average, but check his longest run of each season beginning with 2003: down from 65 to 64 to 47 to 38 to 32 to 31.
Willie Parker -- speaking of hemorrhaging speed, Parker’s been dramatically less explosive the last two years than the two before; I’ve been calling it for years, but this is the season PIT becomes a throw-first team ... unless he comes all the way back; no separate comment about Rashard Mendenhall except this: no wonder he slid; you almost couldn’t help but find a Pro Bowl RB in the ’08 Draft unless you happened to be the team that finally bit on him.
Steven Jackson -- good player, but kind of a plodder; will probably destroy your receiving average (the Rams have little to nothing at WR and TE) and may take your rushing average down with it; 25 instead of 10 -- or 0 -- because I think the team is better overall, and sometimes that can magically fix what seem to be the likeliest problems.
Frank Gore -- faster than Steven Jackson, so his rushing average should be higher, but otherwise the same comment -- and Gore is meaningfully more expensive.
LaDainian Tomlinson -- not quite at the top of his usual salary levels, but close enough that he’d have to be all-the-way vintage -- and even then he’d be more valuable in Points games; one thing that didn’t decline much in 2008 was his receptions.
Brian Westbrook -- joins Tomlinson at the ratings level where formerly great backs go to be ignored; 10 instead of 0 because I like him, but 10 instead of anything more because if his loss of a step is permanent, his pass-catching makes him an absolute menace to Categories teams.
Joseph Addai -- good hands on what has been a bad rushing team for two years now, and yet Addai’s not exactly cheap; I won’t write about Donald Brown separately -- no honest impression of him yet -- but the line would have to play much better to make any back other than a Pro Bowler worth considering.
Marion Barber -- there are worse picks, but few of them seem as certain as Barber to be worse than ever in 2009; best number will almost certainly be his TD total, but rushing TDs go in a stew with all other points -- they’re not a separate category in most games; meanwhile he’ll get those TDs by taking 100 percent of the team’s short carries, and he’ll still pile up short catches, and just when he’s softened a defense enough to give up some long gainers ... right, in comes Felix Jones.
Bill Belichick -- even if you knew exactly which back would do what in NE, you’d never know which week would feature which of the whats; reading that last clause was as much fun for you as watching film of the Pats is for defensive coordinators.
Cedric Benson -- not a week too soon: the very last time I will type his name.
Reggie Bush -- even if he breaks way out -- and those who were holding their breath have all passed out -- he’ll catch enough dumpoffs to sink a Categories team; last year: 52 in 10 games (!).
Thomas Jones -- I’ve been hard on him in this space this year, but here’s one more reason why it’s hard to conceive of owning him: he’s always had good hands.
Jamal Lewis -- rushing average isn’t especially revelatory, but nor is it meaningless; Lewis has been over 4.00 just once in the last four seasons -- and that’s no longer partly attributable to 1-yard TDs; he scored just 4 times a year ago.
Marshawn Lynch -- underexplosive, to coin a term, and receptions up to 47 (granted, 10 of them came in one weird game against CLE); plus he doesn’t suit up before Week 4, and Fred Jackson’s pretty good; he may be lucky to get his job back at all.
Ray Rice -- nothing special as a runner, same concern I expressed for McGahee over Flacco, and Rice caught a bunch of balls (33) in 13 rookie games.
Derrick Ward -- not truly cheap after hanging 1,025 rushing yards on defenses softened by Brandon Jacobs; now he may split carries with Earnest Graham, and in any event he’ll face stacked boxes (and catch a stack of panic throws) with the Bucs starting Byron Leftwich or spinach-green Josh Freeman at QB.
And that, finally, is a wrap.
I’m moving next week, Florida to New York, so the next column won’t come till the week after.
Enjoy the first preseason games if you’re constitutionally able to do so; I’m not ashamed to say that I am not; preseason football, as I write every year, plays on a loop in hell.
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