Fantasy: The Contrarian – DeMarco Murray v. Felix Jones

| December 10, 2011

Following a series of virtuoso performances by DeMarco Murray and with Felix Jones mired in another injury-plagued campaign, the NFL community has anointed Murray the workhorse of the future in Dallas. Murray is averaging a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. Jones’ 4.1 yard average looks quite pedestrian by comparison. The dynamic rookie appears to have relegated the incumbent to a complementary role.

This is where PFF’s unique premium stats allow us a crucial glimpse under the hood. PFF keeps track of yards after contact and missed tackles forced, combining them in an important metric known as the Elusive Rating. Murray ranks 15th among runners with an Elusive Rating of 44.4. Jones is 18th at 41.

When you strip away the effects of blocking, are Murray and Jones really equivalent backs?

On the season, DeMarco Murray has averaged 3.0 yards after contact, Jones 2.7. The big difference in their performances has occurred almost entirely before they’ve encountered defenders. Murray is averaging 2.5 yards before contact, Jones 1.5.

Snaps Att. Yds Avg. YACo YBeforeC/Att. YAfterC / Att.
 DeMarco Murray 381 159 872 5.48 481 2.5 3.0
 Felix Jones 232 74 307 4.15 197 1.5 2.7

Achieving yards before contact is a skill, but in this case the difference is probably a sample size mirage. If Jones is this much worse than Murray at finding and hitting the hole, then we could expect it to manifest before his 4th season. (His 1.5 number is actually not bad; Adrian Peterson has averaged 1.6 over the last four seasons.) This hasn’t been the case. Over his first three seasons, Jones averaged an elite 2.25 yards before contact. In only one of his three seasons did he average below 2.5.

Years Snaps Att. Yds Avg. YACo YBeforeC/A YAfterC/A
Felix Jones 2008-2010 908 331 1751 5.29 1006 2.25 3.04

The much more likely explanation is strength of opponent. In the season’s first four games when Jones was the primary ball carrier, the Cowboys faced the Jets, 49ers, Redskins, and Lions. The Jets and 49ers rank 1st and 5th according to PFF’s run defense ratings. Jones carried 26 times in those games and averaged 0.77 yards before contact. In his two games against Washington and Detroit – teams which rank closer to the bottom in run defense – he averaged 2.13 yards before contact.

Contrast that to DeMarco Murray who has seen heavy action against almost exclusively lousy run defenses. In very limited reps, Murray did nothing against the defenses that held Jones in check. He exploded against St. Louis (27), Philadelphia (22), Seattle (4), and Buffalo (24). Murray’s most impressive performance was easily his 22-carry, 139-yard outing versus the Seahawks. Unfortunately, over his last three games he’s averaged 3.4 yards per carry against run defenses that all reside outside PFF’s Top 20.

It is highly unlikely that Felix Jones has suddenly forgotten how to run or that DeMarco Murray has discovered another gear beyond the one that earned him a sub-4.3 ypc average over his final two seasons at Oklahoma.

There is only one reason to consider Murray a stronger option than Jones going forward. Murray has recorded five 20-plus carry games in his last seven outings. Jones has only one 20-plus carry game in his entire career. Does this automatically mean Murray is a workhorse and Jones merely a change of pace?

The answer will be heavily influenced by the injuries these backs suffer in the future. Jones has a reputation as a china doll. Murray suffered myriad injuries in college, and his first NFL training camp continued the theme. He played through them, but his effectiveness was significantly diminished.

Murray has performed admirably during this current stretch, but it’s not that different than the way Jones emerged at the end of last season when finally given the opportunity to be the lead back. Because of his facility in the passing game, Jones actually averaged a slightly higher number of fantasy points per touch.

Date Touches/G Yds Scrim/G Yds/Touch FP/Touch
Felix Jones Wk 10-17 2010 17 99 5.8 0.85
DeMarco Murray Wk 7-13 2011 22 136 6.2 0.83

Murray has posted gaudy results in high-carry games as a professional, but he would need to reproduce them over a much larger sample to prove it’s more than a fortuitously timed hot streak. In college he averaged 3.99 yards per carry in games with at least 20 carries. That is not the profile of a player who gets stronger as the game goes on.

Conclusion: The perceived difference in efficiency between Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray is almost entirely the result of a scheduling fluke which has artificially enhanced the yards before contact numbers of Murray and suppressed those of Jones. Their respective values going forward will depend more on usage than talent.

This provides an arbitrage situation in dynasty where you should be able to pick up Jones at a discount and sell Murray at a premium. Enough games are left for the market to correct before the off-season, but the narrative currently attached to these players will prove hard to relinquish for many talent evaluators, pundits, and fantasy players. Even if he has a slow finish, Murray will likely be a 2nd round pick next year. Most who drafted Jones in 2011 were True Believers. Burning the previously devout could cause his ADP to fall out of the Top 100. At those values, contrarians will ignore Murray and target Jones in 2012.

  • Cmhbuck

    What do the results show if you take into account the blocking of FB Tony Fiametta?

  • Shawn Siegele

    As with so much that happens in the NFL, the interaction effects of so many different players going in so many different directions makes it difficult to know what to attribute where (which is one of the ways in which PFF is so valuable). Fiametta ranked 17th in blocking (-2.9) among FBs last year with the Panthers, but he was much better over the second half of the season.

    This season he’s only played meaningful snaps in Weeks 3, 7, 9, 10. In Week 2 he put up a truly awful run block number of -1.1 against the 49ers in only 8 snaps, which suggests his extremely poor play led the Cowboys to employ formations that didn’t use a FB. In Week 9 he did almost as poorly against the Seahawks. Perhaps not surprisingly, those are the two good rush defenses he faced. In Week 3 against Washington he did very well, and Jones had a big game. In Week 7 against St. Louis he performed extremely well (1.0), and Murray had a huge game. Those are much weaker rush defenses.

    It’s technically true that the Cowboys have averaged significantly more rushing yards in games where Fiametta has played but probably isn’t relevant. In Weeks 2 and 8 he basically didn’t play (saw only 15 of 122 snaps). And much like ypc for the HBs, his blocking performance seems mostly to depend on the quality of the opposing defense.

    It’s also true that Murray’s performance has collapsed over the past 3 games with Fiametta absent, but I doubt that’s the reason. It’s more likely that Murray’s numbers were simply unsustainable, a factor which is perhaps exaggerated by defenses scheming to take him away.