The Collapse of the Running Back Position And Its Implications
Last week I wrote that fantasy football's gotten harder. By that I didn't mean it's harder to win your league - obviously your league is only as hard to win as the competition level and the number of owners in it, no matter what the format. I meant it's harder work to manage your team than it used to be.
But one thing that's gotten easier is making up for a bad draft or - put differently - your draft means less than it used to for many of the reasons I enumerated last week.
This year might be especially that way given how many of the first and second-round running backs have been busts this year. Let's take a look:
Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, David Wilson, Steven Jackson and Stevan Ridley have been big disappointments so far this year. Arian Foster is hurt, and even LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson are in bad situations team-wise. For example, while McCoy is on pace for 2,014 yards from scrimmage, he's only scored three touchowns. And while Peterson's scored seven TDs in seven games, he's only on pace for 1,589 yards from scrimmage - about the same number Ryan Mathews had in 2011. And those are two of the stars at the position.
Only McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch have really met their draft-day expectations among first rounders, and only Matt Forte (who just lost his quarterback for a month) and Reggie Bush among second rounders. Alfred Morris is only a mild disappointment, but rumors he'd catch more passes were unfounded.
Backs from the third, fourth rounds and fifth rounds aren't exactly picking up the slack. DeMarco Murray's hurt, Darren McFadden's production has been erratic and underwhelming and Lamar Miller hasn't been given much of a chance. Le'Veon Bell has been hurt and mediocre when he's played, Montee Ball lost the job, Ahmad Bradshaw's out for the year, Darren Sproles has had one good game, Darryl Richardson lost the job, Shane Vereen got hurt, Giovani Bernard's in a timeshare and even Eddie Lacy and Ryan Mathews who have been okay, have combined for only four touchdowns, and neither is averaging more than 4.1 YPC. The only difference-maker in that group is Frank Gore, though Lacy's prospects look good going forward.
As a result, most people's early round backs - who comprise more picks in that range than any other position - have been disastrous, and a greater portion of team production has come from players in the later rounds and off the waiver wire. But not too many later-round backs have made big contributions, either.
Moreno, Fred Jackson, Andre Ellington, Brandon Jacobs, Peyton Hillis, Jacquizz Rodgers, Bilal Powell, Zac Stacy, Danny Woodhead and Joique Bell are the ones that come to mind, and aside from Moreno and Jackson, none has been a major difference-maker.
In short, running backs are no longer driving the results in fantasy football, and that means either deeper positions (quarterback) or more volatile ones (receiver) are having bigger impacts. And in a 12 or even 14-team league it's not too hard to find a competent quarterback with a decent matchup on the waiver wire, or a receiver who can go off in a PPR format.
Running back is the most scarce position, so when they're scoring the most fantasy points, your team is in big trouble when it's weak there. But when the position is less relevant - after all, in Week 8, there were only two 100-yard backs (Ellington and Stacy) - you can win without them. And that means you can do more in season to make up for a poor draft.
On the one hand, this is a positive development - it's nice to be free from the tyranny of having to take running backs early and needing to hit on those picks, but it's also means our draft-day beliefs diminish in importance. Moreover, because backs - whose carries were assured and production typically consistent - are not the drivers of fantasy outcomes - it seems one's virtual defense, i.e., your ability to prevent your opponent from scoring on you (otherwise know as dumb luck), is more important than ever. The more volatility there is, the more crucial it is to catch your opponent in a down week, regardless of how good your team is.
The bottom line - the game has changed quite a bit from being determined mostly by your draft-day running back choices to being more of an in-season hustle for players getting opportunities and catching your opponents on down weeks. That makes it easier to recover from draft-day mistakes but also harder to have a juggernaut that doesn't require much maintenance over the 16-week season.
A Few Noteworthy Facts Through Eight Weeks
• Yards per carry are down league-wide (4.0). The average was 4.3 in both 2012 and 2011.
• The 49ers have 15 rushing touchdowns as a team, the Broncos are second with 11. League average is 5.6, and the Rams have none.
• The Packers have pulled ahead of the Broncos in Yards Per Play (6.5 to 6.4). The Bears and Chargers are next at 6.1. The Jaguars started off at an historically bad pace, but are now tied with the Bucs at 4.5.
• The Browns and Seahawks have allowed the fewest yards per play (4.6). The 2-6 Giants are sixth at 4.9 allowed. League average is 5.3, and the Chargers are last at 6.3.
• The Packers lead the league with 8.8 yards per passing attempt. The Broncos, Chargers and Saints are close behind. The Vikings are 30th at 6.2, the Patriots are 31st at 5.9 and the Bucs dead last at 5.7. League average is 7.2.
• The Bears have allowed the most yards per passing attempt (8.7). The Rams, Chargers and Redskins have allowed 8.4. The Browns lead the league at 6.0, the Seahawks are second at 6.1 and the Giants are third at 6.3.
• When you include sacks, the Seahawks are first at 4.9 YPA, and the Bears are last by a mile at 8.1. The Giants slip from third to 11th (5.8). League average is 6.24.
• The Vikings have 763 kick return yards and two scores. (23 returns). The Falcons have 144 kick return yards and no scores (six returns). The Chiefs have 387 punt return yards (36 punts) and one score. The Jaguars (13 punts) have only 35 punt return yards.
• The Packers have allowed 808 kick return yards (25 returns), the Raiders 158 on eight returns.
• None of Florida's three teams has won a game since Week 3.
• Matthew Stafford once again leads the league in passing attempts (338), but Matt Ryan is on a bigger pace (305 in seven games). Tom Brady and Eli Manning are tied for third in passing attempts, behind only Stafford and Peyton Manning.
• Andrew Luck is 20th in YPA, behind Terrelle Pryor and Geno Smith. Luck is 13th in adjusted YPA which accounts for TDs and interceptions. Eli Manning is 29th in AYPA, just behind Tom Brady.
• Alfred Morris is the only qualifying running back averaging more than five yards per carry.
• Calvin Johnson leads the league in receiving yards despite missing a game with an injury. Despite playing only seven games, Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 57 catches.
• Among receivers with 35 or more targets, Jordy Nelson leads the NFL with 12 YPT. Terrance Williams is second and Keenan Allen third.
Week 8 Observations
• I was with Dez Bryant even before it turned out his sideline outburst was benign. Bryant is so obviously what's right with the Cowboys, it's amazing how much attention was devoted to making him a symbol of their problems. What cost the Cowboys the game is Jason Garrett's lack of courage and poor decision making on fourth downs. If you're a Cowboys beat writer - or the beat writer covering many other NFL teams for that matter - and you don't question these cowardly fourth-down decisions in the post-game press conference, you're simply not doing your job. Cowboys fans should put pressure on their local writers to ask these questions - if they care about the team winning, that is.
• RGIII is not a top-10 quarterback. I said he was top-five last week, but he looked terrible against a beatable Denver pass defense. That said, Denver's pass rush looked better, particularly Von Miller in his second game back, and the play calling was poor given the circumstances. But Griffin also missed open receivers and made poor decisions. Maybe he's a top-10 going forward, but his "turned the corner" game in Chicago now looks like it had more to do with the Bears terrible defense.
• Along with the Bears, the Falcons are a bottom-10, possibly bottom-five, defense and you'll want to start everyone you can against them.
• Matt Ryan threw 60 passes for 300 yards, or five yards per attempt, and that's not even counting the four picks. Unless Roddy White miraculously gets 100 percent healthy soon, expect Ryan to be a poor man's Matt Stafford circa 2012 - tons of volume, poor per-play numbers, not many TDs the rest of the way.
• Speaking of Stafford, I've dogged him a lot for his weak per-play numbers despite having Calvin Johnson and playing in a dome. But his throws on the team's final drive were as good as it gets, particularly the zipped 40-yard pass up the sideline to Kris Durham. His decision not to spike the ball and instead reach forward for the touchdown showed massive poise in a high-pressure situation as well.
• The Giants are now only two games behind Dallas and play them again at home. It's odd because as bad as the team's season's been, the only difference between them and Dallas is that sixth turnover (returned for a score) late in the fourth quarter of Week 1 while they were driving. Had the Giants keep going (as they had easily through out the second half), both teams would be 3-5. As it stands, if the Giants win the second matchup, they still have a good chance to catch up. The Eagles look done (though that can change), and the Redskins could re-group, but they're certainly a surmountable obstacle. The Giants were 300-1 two weeks ago to win the Super Bowl and 150-1 before the Eagles game, but most of the value's probably squeezed out of that prop now.
• The cause for hope in New York is that the defense has actually been pretty good, owning a streak of 10 quarters without allowing a touchdown and nine without any score at all. (Both the Eagles and Vikings scores were on special teams). Getting Jon Beason at linebacker has helped, and Terrell Thomas (back from his third knee surgery) has been a boost to the secondary. The main problem has really been Eli Manning and the offensive line, and when the problem is Eli there's a chance of him going on a run as he has in the past. The schedule is not easy - four of their eight games are against Green Bay, Seattle, in San Diego and in Detroit.
• How great is Charles Barkley - during the Chris Berman halftime interview, he talked about drinking 12 beers before playing golf.
• The bookies and sharps got destroyed on Sunday with the six biggest favorites (Bengals, Saints, 49ers, Packers, Chiefs and Patriots) all winning outright and five of six covering ATS. They won some of it back Monday night on the Rams at least.
• Speaking of which Zac Stacy looked great against a stout Seattle defense, but he sprained his ankle and yielded carries to Daryl Richardson late. It looks like Stacy has only a low-ankle sprain, so it's possible he won't miss any time.
• I didn't really care once the Rams locked up the cover, but it was sad to see them fail at the goal line on a bad fade pass that had no chance to a receiver who was never going to win that one on one battle. A QB draw against the aggressive rush or at least a roll-out with some options would have been far better.
• I'm not sure why Brady's struggling so much, and I expect him to play substantially better in the second half, if only due to basic regression. Even if he's not the Hall of Fame level guy anymore, there's no way he's more than a yard below league average (7.2 YPA). I'd guess 7.2 YPA the rest of the way, and with a fair number (300?) of attempts, that's good for 2160 yards and probably 13-15 TDs. Jeff Erickson and I debated whether we'd rather have him or Andy Dalton on the SXM show Monday, and I initially said Brady, but don't think I'd bet on it.
• It was nice to see the Bengals air it out so much Sunday. The Jets blitz a lot and leave their corners one on one, so why not take a shot with playmaking receivers, rather than running the ball into the teeth of a top-five run defense?
• Curt Menefee's game breaks should begin with: "My apologies to those of you with the red-zone channel, but here's something that happened 30 minutes ago you've already seen five times."
• One thing that annoys me about all commissioner services is the inability to have your lineup auto-switch players when one is scratched with a pre-game injury. I had Mike Williams going Thursday night, and I had to wait until the last second to check whether he was playing. (Mercifully he's on the IR, so that's no longer a problem). Why in 2013 are we forced to sit by our computer or be somewhere our phone gets decent 3G reception when clearly we'd never start a guy who was hurt. Yahoo!, ESPN, CBS, etc. should really add an opt-in feature so you can go about your day without worrying about that crap. It's even worse in Yahoo!'s daily fantasy baseball leagues where you always have guys go off on your bench unless you commit to being around right before game time.
• Another improvement would be for DirecTV to allow you to rank your games 1-9, and when Game 1 goes to commercial, it switches to Game 2, and back to Game 1 when its commercial ends. If both are on commercial it goes to Game 3. Hell, if all nine are on commercial, shut the damn thing off until one comes back. I realize advertisers wouldn't like that, but the red-zone channel has no commercials, either, and everyone's forced to watch that which gives you a disjointed experience of the games.
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