Fantasy: The Contrarian – No. 1 Pick in the Draft

| 6 years ago

Fantasy: The Contrarian – No. 1 Pick in the Draft

This is the conclusion of a two-part series examining the role of Yards Before Contact in running back efficiency. In Part One, I proposed that achieving YbCO is a skill and noted some big name backs who struggle in that area. In Part Two, we’ll look at the No. 1 pick dilemma and try to deduce which of the top runners might have the highest ceiling.

When you have one of the top picks in the draft, it’s easy to feel more pressure to hit on your selection. For starters, you have to decide on your risk profile. Do you want to select a player who could single-handedly win the league for you, or do you want to make a safer pick and rely on the rest of your draft? It’s been a few years since rostering players like Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, or LaDainian Tomlinson could almost guarantee a spot in the playoffs. Even CJ2K’s eponymous 2009 season fell far short of those standards. In 2011 the decision at No. 1 is harder than it’s ever been.

In preparing your RB cheat sheet for the draft, you have several important criteria to consider:

  • Projected Total Carries
  • Goal Line Looks
  • Receiving Targets

A huge workload, a plethora of goal line attempts, or heavy use in the passing game can all offset concerns about efficiency. Having said that, if you have a pick in the top half of the first round, it’s imperative to examine how much value a runner is likely to get from each individual touch.

In deciding who to pick No. 1 overall, I want a player who has the potential to put together a transcendent season, especially if the same logic used to find that runner also protects me against significant downside.

One easy way to do this is to search for RBs who possess an elite profile in both yards after contact (2.8 YaCo/Att) and yards before contact (2.0 YbCO/Att). Even though this only equals a baseline of 4.8 yards per carry, it’s still a very demanding threshold. It gives an idea of just how difficult it is to reach a 5.0 yards per carry average, much less the 6.3 Jamaal Charles managed last year.

Here are the 2008-2010 results for the five backs currently in the conversation for the No. 1 pick. I’ve included their individual seasons as well as the final averages. Yards before contact is the highlighted column.

Player Year Att. Yds Avg. OL YaCO/Att YbCO/Att.
Jamaal Charles 2010 231 1466 6.35 7 3.09 3.26
Jamaal Charles 2009 190 1120 5.89 29 3.62 2.28
Jamaal Charles 2008 67 357 5.33 18 3.10 2.22
488 2943 6.03 3.30 2.73
Chris D. Johnson 2010 316 1365 4.32 32 2.83 1.49
Chris D. Johnson 2009 358 2037 5.69 12 2.99 2.70
Chris D. Johnson 2008 251 1228 4.89 14 3.11 1.78
925 4630 5.01 2.97 2.04
Ray Rice 2010 307 1220 3.97 20 2.28 1.69
Ray Rice 2009 254 1338 5.27 6 2.83 2.44
Ray Rice 2008 108 454 4.20 14 2.52 1.69
669 3012 4.50 2.53 1.97
Adrian L. Peterson 2010 283 1298 4.59 28 3.10 1.49
Adrian L. Peterson 2009 315 1394 4.43 32 2.90 1.52
Adrian L. Peterson 2008 363 1760 4.85 8 3.23 1.61
961 4452 4.63 3.09 1.55
Arian Foster 2010 327 1616 4.94 3 2.59 2.35
Arian Foster 2009 54 257 4.76 19 2.52 2.24
381 1873 4.92 2.58 2.34

* OL represents the PFF offensive line ranking for the runner’s team that season.

As you can see, only Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson are elite in both categories when we look at their three-year averages. Here are a few of the other important takeaways:

  • Only four individual player seasons met the criteria (minimum 150 carries): Charles (2009, 2010), Johnson (2009), Rice (2009).
  • Jamaal Charles has never averaged less than 2 yards before contact. If you exclude Foster’s rookie season (54 carries), no other player has more than one season at that benchmark.
  • During this same time period, Adrian Peterson has never averaged more than 1.61 yards before contact. Among the potential No. 1s, only Chris Johnson (2010) has a season below that level.
  • Jamaal Charles has easily the best season at 3.26 (2010). The next two best seasons are Chris Johnson’s 2.76 (2009) and Ray Rice’s 2.44 (2009).
  • While offensive line strength appears to play a role, it certainly doesn’t explain all of the differences in yards before contact. Charles put up an elite number in 2009 when his OL was terrible, while Peterson put up a pedestrian mark in 2008 when his line was well above average.
  • Johnson and Rice both failed to maintain the extremely high YbCO/Att numbers from their breakout campaigns. Foster’s 2010 performance is likely to regress for a variety of reasons. This is another red flag.

How you decide to use this information will depend on your league’s scoring format and your personal projections for the workloads of the backs. Before Foster re-aggravated his hamstring injury, he and Peterson were going 1-2 in most drafts. Foster’s mediocre performance in yards after contact combined with the strong likelihood of regression in his yards before contact moves him out of contention for the top spot on my board. Peterson is a safe pick, but his inability to completely transcend a lousy situation – a la Charles – also eliminates him for me.

Rice is not on the same talent level as Charles and Johnson, but numerous parallels between him and the Priest Holmes of Chiefs vintage keep him in the conversation. Except for goal line carries, his 2009 season was stronger than Foster’s 2010. Either he or LeSean McCoy will lead the league in RB receptions, making Rice the best pick in PPR formats.

In standard formats, two runners stand above them all. Charles is the NFL’s biggest rushing talent. His per carry numbers through three seasons are the best the NFL has ever seen. The Chiefs appear committed to giving him more carries this season. Logic and the weight of history suggest a steep regression, but Charles could lose a yard per carry off of his 2010 average and still be the best in the NFL.

Despite missing all of the preseason, Chris Johnson should easily surpass 350 touches again in 2011. He’s almost as good as Charles in the short and intermediate areas and possesses even better long speed. How you perceive the risk of the two players depends upon your injury philosophy. Do you think an additional 5 carries a game improves your safety net as a fantasy owner, or does it dramatically increase the risk of losing your best player to injury?

When you’re on the clock this weekend, don’t be cowed by the ADP of those who’ve drafted before you. Selecting Purple Jesus No. 1 is a cascade phenomenon, not the true wisdom of crowds. Don’t let it move you off of your conviction in Charles or Johnson.

  • uppercut

    very convincing argument for Charles/Johnson>Peterson, and not just in fantasy but on the field as well (what with the consistently higher YbCo despite (at-times)equal offensive line play). This leaves me a little confused though given praise (for Peterson) I read here (a little off topic though). This is a rough memory, but bear with me. I believe it was post-09 (so before 2010, when he was arguably more polished than he’s ever been), and while I don’t remember who it was I recall a staffer/writer saying that while AP was rough in his receiving & blocking, as a pure runner he was heads above anyone in the league including Johnson (who just had the great 09, and Charles had led in PFF rush-ranking). Granted stats don’t always reflect who’s the best, nor does production reflect “potential” (the most hair-pulling term in football :p ) — but I just remember this person responding as if there was no question AP was the top runner. Had this come from some random MIN fan I’d take it w/a grain of salt, but coming from someone whose job includes watching the games play-by-play, I took it as an accurate call (ie: you guys wouldn’t make some bold statement with feeling you could back it up).

    • Shawn Siegele

      I think the more information we get on Charles, the clearer it becomes that he’s the best runner in the NFL. Peterson is incredibly gifted in gaining yards after contact, around the goal line, and in generating ‘wow’-type runs. However, the stats would suggest that he takes a little longer to reach top speed than Charles or Johnson and that he isn’t quite as talented in setting up runs.

      Because they are so incredibly fast, Charles and Johnson tend not to receive credit for their tactical brilliance. Both players are very good in short yardage situations despite their slight builds. The Titans realized this and stopped bothering with LenDale White. The Chiefs struggled in short yardage last year because they gave so many of those carries to Thomas Jones (who is awful in short yardage at this point in his career). When you compare the performance of Charles to that of Larry Johnson (2009) and Thomas Jones (2010) it becomes even more amazing.

      • uppercut

        I guess it would have been (much) more helpful if I had remembered who it was that said that about Peterson (given Peterson was only 8th in rush-grade – with Charles & Johnson #1 & 2 respectively – and said person still felt confident to make the claim (despite being part of the team that makes the grades that ranked Peterson lower)).