Fantasy: The Contrarian – Vision Yards

| 5 years ago

Fantasy: The Contrarian – Vision Yards

At this point everyone is familiar with PFF’s Elusive Rating, one of the best football stat innovations and a great tool for fantasy prediction. The Elusive Rating focuses on yards after contact and forced missed tackles, cornerstone attributes of the workhorse back.

Intuitively, it makes sense to think of yards after contact as being solely the result of a running back’s skill, but yards before contact are highly contextual. A team’s blocking and the down-and-distance situation might have more of an impact than player ability. However, an analysis of the three years for which PFF has data suggested RBs might be more responsible for this part of their performance than it seems at first glance.

For ease of discussion, I’m going to refer to this component as Vision Yards (because Vision-and-Lateral-Explosiveness-Plus-First-Step-Quickness Yards doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue).

In a series of preseason Contrarian articles, I made the following predictions based on the belief that looking at Vision Yards could give us a competitive advantage.

  • Adrian Peterson should not be selected No. 1 overall. True
  • Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson are the best picks in standard formats. Injured and False
  • Ray Rice is the best pick in PPR formats. Emphatically True
  • You should stay away from drafting Steven Jackson, Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, Tim Hightower, and Marshawn Lynch. Wash, Wash, True, True, Blatantly False.

Let’s start with the No. 1 pick discussion. Despite fitting a profile of RBs with a slightly lower injury risk – all RBs obviously sport a high risk in this area – Charles was injured too early in the season to be worth discussing.

Here’s a closer look at the other two RBs who squared off in that analysis.

2008 to 2010 2011
YACo/Att YBCo/Att Avg OL Rank YACo/Att YBCo/Att OL Rank
Adrian Peterson 3.09 1.55 22.7 3.13 1.54 1
Chris Johnson 2.97 2.04 19.3 2.11 1.91 17

Adrian Peterson is a metronome. While Johnson’s three year averages include a lot of variation, the splits for AP are almost exactly the same year after year. Because Peterson’s runs at and after the point of contact are so breathtakingly physical, and because his fully built up speed is so electric, it can be easy to overlook his minor weakness in seeing and hitting the crease. Among the top 10 backs in fantasy points per game, Peterson posted the lowest number of Vision Yards, a full 0.5 yards per carry lower than the average.

In the past, it’s been easy to blame these results on his atrocious blocking. Unfortunately for Peterson apologists, the Vikings rose all the way from 28th to 1st in the 2011 rush blocking rankings. (Pro Football Focus is the only site on the internet where you can find offensive line rankings based solely on the performance of the offensive linemen as opposed to rankings extrapolated from RB success.) Combined with his drop in receptions, Peterson sports more red flags than just his knee injury.

Chris Johnson’s season is much more surprising. Without his signature long runs, CJ was one of the biggest busts in fantasy history. Coaches and scouts have questioned his vision and suggested he’s lost his incredible long speed. The splits tell a different, or at least more complicated, story.

Although slightly below his three-year average, Johnson’s 1.91 Vision Yards was actually the second best number of his career and in line with the average of the elite backs in this area. His collapse occurred almost entirely after contact where he morphed from Jamaal Charles-lite into a pre-Dolphins version of Reggie Bush. (Incidentally, partly due to usage, Bush has a very high career average in Vision Yards and an egregiously low Elusive Rating.)

In 2011 Johnson’s ratio of missed tackles to rushing attempt was 0.11. From 2008 to 2010, the ratio was 0.13. This may seem like a small difference, but for someone with Johnson’s speed, such a difference can be everything. (Ryan Mathews, who averaged 3.2 yards after contact, had a 0.135 ratio in 2011.) Simply put, Johnson’s demise almost certainly stemmed from running with less authority at the point of contact.

Despite his disastrous season, Johnson’s closest historical comparisons are still very favorable. Still young enough to be near his peak for a couple more seasons, he represents a tremendous buying opportunity in 2012. In fact, even if Peterson were healthy entering 2012, I would rank Johnson ahead of him again.

The second part of my preseason analysis looked at a handful of RBs to avoid at all costs.

2011 All-Avoid Team

2008-2010 2011 2011 RB Fantasy Rank
YACo/Att YBCo/Att. YACo / Att. YBCo/Att Total Points Per Game Per Opp.
Marshawn Lynch 2.94 1.02 2.53 1.69 6 13 27
Steven Jackson 2.85 1.23 2.56 1.86 10 15 37
Michael Turner 3.17 1.27 3.05 1.44 8 17 36
Cedric Benson 2.43 1.29 2.06 1.88 26 32 50
Tim Hightower 2.75 1.25 2.36 1.46 68 21 46

Here are some interesting takeaways:

  • All five players improved their Vision Yards.
  • All five players declined in yards after contact.
  • Excluding Hightower due to his season-ending injury, the runners posted better overall numbers than per game numbers.
  • The healthy players were significantly worse in points scored per opportunity than overall points.

The 2011 splits for these runners would seem to be a textbook lesson in regression. These players were previously so bad in terms of Vision Yards that their yards after contact numbers almost had to be unsustainably high simply to keep them in the NFL. It should not be a surprise that their numbers on both sides of the ledger regressed toward the mean.

On the other hand, the size of the improvement in Vision Yards was somewhat stunning. The 2008 to 2010 sample represented 15 individual player seasons and in only one did a player from this list hit 1.6 yards before contact per attempt. In 2011 the group averaged over 1.6 Vision Yards. By the same token, the size of the decline in yards after contact was also striking. With the exception of Turner, the group lost an average of nearly 0.4 yards per attempt.

Implicit in the original analysis is the idea that players who fit this profile tend to have all of their upside priced into their ADPs, and little of the downside. For four of these players that was the case. (Although Jackson and Turner reached the expected value of their ADPs, the winner of your league almost certainly got more value out of his 2nd or 3rd round selection.) As a result, the most interesting member of the group was Marshawn Lynch.

Marshawn Lynch

From 2008-2010 Marshawn Lynch was the worst high profile RB in football. When Lynch was traded to the Seahawks, it was more likely he’d be out of the NFL by 2012 than looking at a long term megadeal. As a result, he was the 31st RB selected in 2011 fantasy drafts.

In a season that saw only two running backs carry 300-plus times, Lynch finished fourth in carries with 285. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns by increasing his TD percentage from 2.7% to 4.2%. As a result, he finished 6th in total fantasy points at the position.

Ironically, for a player who’s built his mystique on tackle-breaking ability, it was Lynch’s improved vision and burst before contact that fueled his breakout season. Despite several high-profile Beast Mode runs – including a couple on Monday Night Football – Lynch actually saw his yards after contact fall into the mediocre range in 2011. He notched his worst Elusive Rating of the past four years.

As a result, Marshawn Lynch should headline your Do Not Draft list again in 2012. Because he finished as the No. 6 RB, most drafters will look beyond his low yards per carry and pedestrian fantasy points per opportunity. A player with Lynch’s profile needs a very heavy workload and a continued high TD percentage to be worth a pick in the first three rounds. Lynch’s closest historical comparisons have almost unanimously failed on both accounts.

Going Forward

PFF’s premium stats provide access to these splits for the rest of the RBs in the NFL and the data is fascinating. Entering 2011 I thought examining yards before contact might be valuable, but I still assumed that yards after contact would be the more stable component.

I’m no longer sure this is the case. A high degree of variability exists in both halves of the equation, but it now appears possible, if not probable, that some RBs have more control over their yards before contact and some have more control over their yards after contact. A future Contrarian column will examine this issue in more detail.

  • CaptainHuggyFace

    I purchased Premium Stats but cannot find these splits. Can you point me in the right direction?

    • Shawn Siegele

      On the RB page, total RB yards per carry (avg.) and yards after contact per carry (YCo/Att) are in columns separated by total yards after contact (YCo). The quickest way to look at yards before contact is to eyeball the two columns and do a quick subtraction. If you’re wanting to do an in-depth analysis, the best method is to copy the RB page into a spreadsheet and create an extra column for yards before contact.