Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and the Value of Vision Yards
If you approach fantasy football from the same angle as everyone else then your chances to win are roughly one in 12, or 12 minus the number of people in your league who don’t take it seriously. The key to approaching things from a different angle is asking interesting questions. The genius of the Pro Football Focus database comes in delivering the information necessary to start generating tentative answers.
Frequent readers will know that one of my favorite questions is this: Do we spend too much time focusing on yards after contact? I think the answer is yes.
Generating yards after contact is clearly a skill. Adrian Peterson is the best tackle-breaker in the NFL, and he consistently generates big yardage after first contact. Does this make him the best running back in the NFL?
Before the 2013 season, I proposed a contrarian conjecture. Jamaal Charles is the top runner in the NFL because, while he posts solid after-contact numbers, he is unparalleled before contact. I have previously dubbed these as Vision Yards. My belief was that this also translates better into fantasy football and that Charles was an easy pick at No. 1 in PPR formats. In support of that conjecture, I offered up the following chart.
|Jamaal Charles||Adrian Peterson|
|Vision Yds/Att||Run Block Rk||Vision Yds/Att||Run Block Rk|
As you can see, Charles consistently generates more yardage before contact despite receiving similar or worse blocking. Here are those same numbers for 2013.
|Name||Run Block Rk||VY/Att|
|Adrian L. Peterson||6||1.57|
Both runners came in right around their career averages with Charles gaining over a yard more before contact despite receiving inferior run blocking according to PFF charters. For Peterson fans, it’s also disconcerting that my previous research has suggested a link between Vision Yards and use in the passing game. Some of this has a tautological aspect. Certain runners look good before contact because they’re frequently deployed on passing downs where defenses have a very different approach.
On the other hand, we tend to also see this phenomenon with true feature backs, which is problematic for those who might claim that Vision Yards and receiving yards are linked only due to usage. As a result, I tend to believe a specific talent/skill profile is causing both results.
Who Else Put Up Good Numbers in the Vision Yards Category?
The Vision Yard leaderboard is littered with elite names. In addition to Charles, players like LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, and Matt Forte are yearly inclusions on this list. These players combine vision and lateral explosiveness in a package that allows them to consistently gain significant yardage before first contact. Reggie Bush has a well-deserved reputation for going down at first contact, but his specific gifts make him one of the best pre-contact runners in the NFL.
Moreover, while many elite VYA runners are poor at breaking tackles, their pre-contact abilities can lead to a lot of yardage for every tackle they do break. In previous columns I’ve addressed the pre-contact struggles of players like Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode looks good on television because he breaks tackles at a ridiculous rate, but he also generates a low number of yards per missed tackle. In fact, in 2013 the only back with at least 100 carries who gained fewer yards per missed tackle than Lynch was Trent Richardson. Eddie Lacy, another back who provides surprisingly little yardage per “wow” play, ranked 41st in this category. (You could even abbreviate this yards per forced missed tackle statistic as YPW or yards per wow.)
On the other hand, while the number of broken tackles for the Vision Yard Elite tends to be lower, the value of those missed tackles can be extreme. Charles led the NFL in yards after contact in 2009. LeGarrette Blount led the league in 2010. C.J. Spiller finished second to Adrian Peterson in 2012, and Andre Ellington finished second in 2013.
If you spent 2013 playing in a PPR league, targeting the Vision Yards All-Stars was especially favorable. This group caught 459 passes. The after-contact Top 10 caught only 259. The gap closes when you look at receptions per snap, but the VYAS caught passes on 7.4% of their snaps as compared to 5.9% of snaps for their competitors.
Are We Looking at This Whole Thing Backward?
So much excellent football coverage exists on the web these days that the remaining inefficiencies are small. The emphasis on how a running back generates his yardage is one of the biggest, and it may be mostly in the wrong direction. Although pre-contact yardage is usually attributed almost entirely to offensive line play, three of the highest profile Vision Yard stars – Charles, McCoy, and Forte – finished 1-2-3 in both PPR and standard formats.
While fantasy projection models should still be heavily predicated on overall touches and goal line opportunities – two areas that still favor prototypical, post-contact bellcow backs – the recent trends suggest NFL teams are subtly moving in favor of make-you-miss backs or at the very least that some of the leading coaching minds are finding ways to deploy their laterally explosive runners even more effectively.
The larger football community may be missing this trend. Eddie Lacy was voted Offensive Rookie of the Year after a season that was solid but unspectacular. That would be fine if not for Keenan Allen’s ridiculous campaign. Marshawn Lynch is frequently referred to as the heart and soul of the Seahawks even though any reasoned analysis of the Super Bowl champions wouldn’t put him among their 10 most important players.
The fantasy community tends to be more forward thinking, but as recently as a year ago the value of pre-contact yardage wasn’t widely recognized. While I argued that Adrian Peterson shouldn’t be drafted in the Top 5 picks and wrote about Vision Yards at length in the PFF Draft Guide, he was the unanimous No. 1 in all formats, including PPR. Purple Jesus had a very normal Purple Jesus season – his per play efficiency tracked very closely with the trends he established between 2008 and 2011 – but he slipped behind the more well-rounded backs.
While you won’t receive the same discount on Charles, McCoy, and Forte that you did a year ago, the types of seasons turned in by the elite pre-contact backs are more easily repeated than those of their tackle-breaking brethren. As a result, Vision Yards should be a key component in your 2014 player projections.