To call Jonathan Stewart a polarizing player for fantasy football owners is like calling Warren Buffett a man who dabbles in finance. Stewart was a physical specimen coming into the NFL in 2008 and drafted by the Panthers at no.13 overall. Dynasty owners flocked to the talented running back as the no.2 player in rookie drafts that season behind only Darren McFadden in average draft position. The only problem was Carolina already had DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, a first round draft pick in his own right just two years before Jonathan Stewart’s arrival. 2008 marked the beginning of a long, curvy road for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart owners alike.
DeAngelo Williams was in a 50/50 split with DeShaun Foster in 2007, but Foster was out and rookie Jonathan Stewart was in for 2008. Fantasy owners banked on talent over situation when paying the high price for Stewart as a rookie. Stewart’s redraft ADP was actually ahead of DeAngelo Williams (RB26 vs. RB31) in August drafts in 2008. Fantasy owners remember what happened in the five months that followed. DeAngelo Williams turned in one of the best fantasy seasons for a running back in recent memory with 1515 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns. While Stewart had very respectable fantasy numbers (839 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) in a juggernaut rushing attack, Williams’ breakout was looking like another RBBC nightmare for Stewart owners going forward. Here is a breakdown of the Carolina duo in 2008:
|2008||FP/SN||SN/G||SN%||PFF Rush||YCo/Att||YPC||MT%||PFF Elusive||GL Atts||TD||ATTs||TGTs||Pass Rating|
Here is what happened on the ground in 2008: Despite the discrepancy in total fantasy production, the efficiency metrics are a lot closer between the two running backs. On a run-heavy attack, Stewart still managed 38% of the duo’s snap count and finished as RB10 in PFF rush rating – not bad for the second-best back on his own team that season. Stewart’s 3.5 YCo/Attempt was also RB4 in the NFL. Both were hyper-productive at the goal line, plunging in for scores over 65% of the time on carries inside the 5-yard line.
Fast forward to 2009. The pair’s ADP for year two of the Jonathan Stewart journey was turned on its head. Williams goes from RB3-level in drafts to the no.7 overall back. Stewart’s impressive efficiency metrics were not enough to sustain the hype from prior to his rookie year. Now, he was the 1B Carolina option for fantasy, falling to RB33 in terms of ADP.
|2009||FP/SN||SN/G||SN%||PFF Rush||YCo/Att||YPC||MT%||PFF Elusive||GL Atts||TD||ATTs||TGTs||Pass Rating|
Stewart still trailed in terms of time on the field in 2009, but he was nearly dead-even in terms of combined attempts and targets. Williams’ studly YCo/Att fell by a full yard, while Stewart maintained his level. Stewart’s elusive rating was stable from his rookie season, while Williams came back to the pack. The excellent efficiency at the goal line turned into a train wreck, converting under 20% into touchdowns as a combo. With a full-on RBBC in order, fantasy owners stuck with Williams in 2010 – the back with a 1500-yard season under his belt. 2009 was considered a hiccup for Williams despite Stewart’s efficiency in his first two seasons. Williams’ ADP was RB9, while Stewart’s stock rose to RB22. Both were expected to be fantasy starters in PPR formats in 2010.
|2010||FP/SN||SN/G||SN%||PFF Rush||YCo/Att||YPC||MT%||PFF Elusive||GL Atts||TD||ATTs||TGTs||Pass Rating|
The Jimmy Clausen experiment killed the fantasy prospects of the entire Carolina team in 2010. Steve Smith was declared deceased for fantasy owners and the running game was not far behind. DeAngelo Williams played just six games, but was still the lead back in terms of time on the field when healthy. Red zone opportunities were essentially nil for the Panthers run game. For the second straight season, Stewart was the more elusive back, making defenders miss more often.
Now, we come to 2011. Both backs were coming off less-than-stellar seasons on a dreadful offense. DeAngelo Williams was a hot topic during the offseason as a free agent. Fantasy owners salivated at the prospect that both talented runners would finally be lead backs on different teams. The Panthers shocked the world and signed the 28-year-old Williams to a huge contract, keeping the duo in Carolina. Cam Newton was the No.1 overall pick and looked lost in the preseason after the NFL lockout stole valuable offseason time from incoming rookies. Williams’ ADP fell all the way back to RB21, while Stewart was back to his level from 2009, RB34.
Cam Newton proceeded to change the Carolina offense starting in Week 1 of 2011 and the running back duo both played 16 games for the first time since Stewart’s rookie season in 2008.
|2011||FP/SN||SN/G||SN%||PFF Rush||YCo/Att||YPC||MT%||PFF Elusive||GL Atts||TD||ATTs||TGTs||Pass Rating|
Despite the big contract for Williams, Stewart played more snaps on the season. Stewart’s elusive rating and PFF run rating rivaled Williams’ mark from his dominant 2008 campaign. The most notable shift was in the passing game. Stewart developed into the main pass-catcher in the backfield with 57 targets, nearly as many as 2008 and 2010 combined for the two running backs. Cam Newton is coming off a historical fantasy season, including 14 rushing touchdowns that has every fantasy pundit screaming “regression!” We have not seen a goal line quarterback like Newton before. It’s hard to question Carolina for using Newton inside the 5-yard line as he scored eight times on 14 attempts in 2011. Williams and Stewart combined for just four scores on 12 attempts. When talking about the running backs, Stewart was the clear choice
Where are we now?
The Carolina running game is in good hands with Cam Newton as a serious threat in his own right. DeAngelo Williams has a $3+ million bonus and $8+ million total salary every season until 2016, when he would be a 33-year-old free agent; Essentially Williams is a Panther for life. Jonathan Stewart is now the Carolina running back on the free agent watch list. 2012 is Stewart’s final season under contract, but there has been talk that he is perfectly happy resigning with Carolina following this season. However, just like the 2010 offseason, the opportunity exists for both to be 1A backs on different teams in less than a year’s time. Mike Tolbert was added in free agency as the no.3 running back that will see time at fullback as well.
The early ADP shows that Williams and Stewart have flip-flopped their rankings from a season ago. Stewart is now the top Carolina target at RB23 according to MyFantasyLeague.com’s 12-team PPR leagues. Williams is down to RB37. Both are slightly higher in terms of PFF’s Dynasty ADP with Stewart at RB16 and Williams at RB31. The good news for Stewart owners and perspective buyers in fantasy is that he has very little mileage on his body – just 806 NFL touches. Stewart’s 4.8 YPC on 700+ carries with 20+ rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons puts him in elite company. Since 1970, only DeAngelo Williams (we just cannot separate these guys…) has a higher YPC (5.11) with that criteria. That list of 22 running backs is littered with many Hall of Fame players. Stewart has the lowest YPG (56.5) of all the guys on that list showing how his opportunity has yet to align with his production level. Maurice Jones-Drew and DeAngelo Williams are the only other backs on that list even under 70 YPG in their first four seasons. Stewart’s current career arc is very similar to Jones-Drew’s first three seasons: Timeshare situation, efficient, but under 14 carries/game each season. MJD has since become a workhorse back after surpassing an oft-injured, late-career Fred Taylor. That says to me that Stewart is still a patience play that can produce future value beyond his current cost.
Best and Worst Case Scenarios
Is it possible that Stewart resigns in Carolina in the offseason and remains one of the most frustrating fantasy players over the past four seasons? Yes. The other side of the coin is that Stewart’s resume of efficiency will outperform the 29-year-old Williams who has just one season of 13+ games since that 2008 monster campaign. Stewart was the preferred choice at the goal line and had his best NFL season on passing downs in 2011. When presented with a choice of teammate running backs, I will take the younger, more efficient back in a contract season every single time. Considering the lack of depth at running back in 2012 and the level of the Carolina offense, Stewart is a worthwhile pick in redraft and dynasty formats. While Williams could rebound to remain a prominent fantasy back as he approaches the dreaded age of 30, it is not the highest probability play. Stewart is playing for that elusive second contract for running backs. Even if Stewart remains in Carolina after this season, he will be just 26 years old and, at-worst, sharing the backfield with an oft-injured 30-year-old who has lost playing time to Stewart ever since 2008 (see SN%).
Fantasy owners have long and concrete memories about players as the years pass by. More remember Stewart as the highly touted stud in 2008 and 2009 that burned them, instead of the highly efficient back that has been steadily grabbing a larger role on a now-potent offensive team. Many remember Williams as the back that ruled the fantasy world in 2008, instead of the player with more than 155 carries just twice in six NFL seasons. A quick checklist for Jonathan Stewart: Talent? Check. Older competition for carries in the short-term with the possibility for increased volume? Check. High-level offense that can produce many chances for a running back? Check. Running back with PPR skills and goal line production in his background? Check. This offseason could very well mark the cheapest price to acquire Jonathan Stewart in the next 2-3 seasons.
It is time to take a stand on the running back that has been a breakout candidate year-in and year-out since 2008. I am buying.
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