Like an increasing number of football writers, I live in three types of football worlds: NFL draft, fantasy, and standard NFL coverage. I've written and done radio around all three for a decade now, and it is rare when a football topic can live in all three worlds.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing "running back durability and career expectancy."
NFL front offices have had internal debates about how to prioritize the running back position during their draft thanks to value-based studies of productivity versus salary. NFL writers engage in debates about whether or not a running back is too old to hold up to the rigors of the NFL and how a player's decline could impact the way a team drafts.
Fantasy writers view running backs as volatile commodities who can make or break a season. Running backs can be blue-chip stocks, high risk-high yield stocks, or even penny stocks. Alfred Morris was a penny stock early in the 2012 fantasy process while Maurice Jones-Drew was a declining blue-chipper. Adrian Peterson? He was that high risk stock that I passed on. Way to go, me.
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To properly analyze running back stock, we have to find the right predictors for future success or failure. The most commonly accepted measure of a running back's workload is "total touches" which makes perfect sense. It won't take you long to find running backs used as workhorses (even over a relatively short period of time) who've seen their productivity fall off.
I'm a proponent of analytics in football, but I think it has to be properly positioned and balanced with what your eyes are telling you. In other words, analytics doesn't work in football the same way it does in baseball or, to a lesser extent, basketball.
When I make fantasy observations, it is based on data and what I'm seeing. I don't sit in a room by myself staring at box scores and live scoring screens all day long watching incremental, minute-by-minute changes in a matchup between "Mr. Ass" and "Youth In Asia".
I'm watching the games, bro. I might be grinding on a multi-screen setup at a sports bar or at home working the controller for Sunday Ticket like a boss, but I'm watching games and watching players.
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New Predictors for Decline at Running Back
For fantasy owners, monitoring a player's total touches is the right thing to do, but we all know that touches are not created equally. I want to take things a step further by trying to quantify how hard running backs are having to work for their yardage.
Back in July, I was studying offensive line effectiveness and used data from STATS Ice to create a new metric called 'clean yards." Clean yards shows the percentage of yardage that a running back or running game is getting before contact or without any contact. I used this study to help understand which offensive lines were creating the best running opportunities for their backs.
I moved this study from the team level over to the individual running back level, separating "clean yards" (yards gained before or without contact) from yards gained after contact. Runners who gain yards after contact are valuable to their teams, as they finish runs and get the most out of carries. The flip side is that many of those same backs are having to work extremely hard for their yardage, and it stands to reason that those runners may break down sooner than backs who don't run as hard or who have better offensive lines creating more "clean yards."
Obviously, factors such as player age and total touches must be factored into our decisions about "buying" and "selling" running backs, but I'm also looking at factors like yards after contact, broken tackles, and clean yards to better anticipate a running back's effectiveness from year to year.
Grind On, Grinders
When I call a running back a "grinder", it is not meant as a compliment. In the poker movie "Rounders", did Mike (Matt Damon) mean it is as a compliment when he referred to Knish (John Turturro) as a grinder? No. Grinders are backs who have to work exceptionally hard for their yards/touchdowns/points. Those kinds of backs are also fairly replaceable. Grinders usually lack quickness and have to rely on physicality, which means they are more likely to wear down sooner.
Eddie George was able to carve out a nice career as a grinder, but he wasn't a RB1 for very long in his career. Michael Turner was a bruising, valuable fantasy back, but the Falcons' poor run blocking forced him to grind and you could see the tread coming off of those tires before last year. Shaun Alexander wasn't a grinder, but his workload was such that he finished as a high-end fantasy option at the age of 29 after a spectacular five-year run.
Here are backs who had to grind it out in 2012:
* YAC/Att and YAC% is rounded
* GI = "Grind Index." This number represents the difference between "clean yards" per attempt and yards after contact per attempt.
* YAC per Attempt: This number was derived by using the "yards after contact" from the STATS Ice database and dividing it by carries.
* YAC %: This measure the percentage of a running backs total yards gained that came after contact.
Doug Martin and Trent Richardson -- Both of these backs are just a year into their careers, so they should be able to handle the heavy workloads and hard work for a while. Richardson was hampered by lingering injuries and poor QB play, which likely led to a lower YAC/Attempt average, but he had to work very hard for his yards. Martin was extremely productive despite spotty guard play due to injuries. Martin worked hard for his yardage, but he's hardly a "grinder" at this stage of his career.
Mark Ingram and Ryan Mathews -- The diminishing passing attack of the Chargers combined with atrocious run blocking led to an unusually high percentage of Mathews' yardage having to come after contact. This is a bad sign for a back who his already oft-injured. Ingram ran behind an inconsistent offensive line last year, but I expect that line to be better in 2013. However, based on the Saints running style (straight ahead) and Ingram's inability to make guys miss, he is headed straight for a "grinder" tag.
Bryce Brown and LeSean McCoy -- Both of the Eagles backs simply suffered from an offensive line decimated by injuries. If anything, their YAC numbers tell a story of two running backs with the ability to break tackles and then make plays with their quickness after breaking those tackles. I'm not worried about either one of these guys this season.
Steven Jackson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- Green-Ellis is a textbook grinder. He isn't going to threaten the edges and he's fairly adept at ducking his head and gaining tough yards. From a fantasy standpoint, there is waning value in Green-Ellis as the Bengals want their running game to be more than a "cloud of dust" attack. Jackson has been that rare runner doomed by subpar QB play and poor offensive lines and yet he's still churned out solid numbers. While his rushing TDs should finally land above six for the first time since 2008, keep in mind that he has had to gain 51% or more of his yards after contact in six of his last eight seasons. There can't be much left in the tank for Jackson, and the Falcons' weak offensive line will make him work hard for his yards.
Safe Running Backs
We would all love to live in a fantasy football world where every starting running back got over 270 carries and there were no "RBBC" approaches, but those days died in the mid-2000s. With the emergence of PPR leagues, however, running backs don't have to be workhorses or goal-line monsters anymore to still gain high RB1 status.
The easier the work is for the running back, the more likely it is that he is able stay healthy and break off some big games (including big runs) by the end of the year when fantasy playoffs are on the line. Here are five backs who are poised for solid seasons based on the lack of wear and tear from last season.
Jamaal Charles -- His speed combined with the zone scheme means Charles has the ability to get into open spaces and break big plays. It also means that he is less likely to take big shots from linebackers and safeties coming downhill. An incredible 68% of Charles' yardage came before or without contact.
Reggie Bush - The looming spectrum of Calvin Johnson will keep safeties a mile away from the line of scrimmage, and Bush seems to be improving as a running back. While Bush won't break many tackles (only 1.5 of his 2012 yards per carry came after contact), he hasn't taken much of a pounding during his NFL career and that includes last year with Miami.
Chris Johnson - Johnson was run into the ground by Jeff Fisher and the Titans back in 2009, but he was young enough that his 358 carries shouldn't have buried him in terms of productivity. Johnson gained 51% of his yards after contact in 2009, but just 42%, 41% and 35% since then. With new and improved guard play in Tennessee, Johnson should be rested and ready for what could be a big year.
C.J. Spiller - By all accounts, the Bills are going to get their money's worth from Spiller, but that should be no problem as the Bills' spread offense under Chan Gailey kept him grind-free and running in open spaces. It will be interesting to see how Spiller holds up to his expected surge in touches as this is going to be a big step up for him in terms of workload.
Matt Forte - Surprised to see him here? Forte doesn't have the best offensive line in front of him, but the Bears have improved that area. Keep in mind that Forte hasn't been overly burdened with carries, and his YAC yards have never gone above 47% of his total rushing output in any single season. The data says that Forte shouldn't be wearing down yet, and the Bears' new offense figures to increase his workload out of the backfield -- key for the PPR crowds.
Adrian Peterson is the ultimate football outlier. He has that rare combination of size and breakaway speed that we see once every 25 years or so. Who comes back from an ACL tear at the end of a season and slaps 2,000 yards on the league the next year? Only Adrian Peterson. With that said, Peterson has had to work extremely hard for his overall yardage over the last five years and I would be a fool not to mention my findings.
YAC per Attempt
Peterson doesn't fit the physical profile of a grinder by any means, but the way that he has had to work for his yardage most certainly does. A negative Grind Index over a five year span is a concern. Will I draft him if I have my shot? Of course I will, but Peterson wouldn't be the first runner to take a step back after a 2,000-yard season. And his five-year run of power running might take its toll sooner rather than later.
The same can be said for Marshawn Lynch's running style and work after contact. You don't get the nickname "Beast Mode" by avoiding contact and running out of bounds. Lynch seeks out contact and revels in the physicality of the game. In a strange twist, last year's numbers came substantially easier than usual.
This data spells out just how different 2012 was for Lynch than the all of his previous seasons in the NFL.
As a fantasy owner and value analyst, I have to take several things into consideration for Lynch.
1. He is 27 years old and should still be within his prime.
2. Lynch is a physical runner by nature and his clean-yardage numbers may have been an outlier. We may see a regression to the (very physical) mean in 2013 in terms of his running style.
3. Even if he turns back into a banger, should that sway me from targeting him as a RB1 for this young, explosive team?
Ultimately, I'm not going to be too afraid of taking Lynch this season, but it also wouldn't shock me if he fell out of the top 10 fantasy running backs based on his style and previous workload.
All running backs work hard, but some work much, much harder than others. As a fantasy owner, knowing when to bail on a back when to keep riding a back is critical, and I hope this piece will help give you a new perspective for future drafts.