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Fantasy Football: Peyton Hillis Is Undervalued Because People Believe in Curses and Flukes

Peyton Hillis is on the cover of Madden. This little piece of news has caused mass hysteria among the fantasy football public, because when I ran the average draft position stuff last week, he was the 14th Running Back, available in the 3rd round, and I’ve seen his average ranking plummeting even further this week since he missed a game with the taint of Madden upon him.

If you have read me at all, you probably can guess that I don’t believe in floating pieces of wood to determine who is a witch, and I don’t believe in any thing called a Madden Curse. Doug Drinen did a fairly good takedown of the ridiculousness and selective bias of Curse proponents a few years ago. Lots of people, though, do for some reason believe in curses, and I’m not sure whether to blame the parents or the school systems. Of course, Hillis tweaked his hamstring last week, and sat out the preseason game as a precaution. This is obviously the first sign of a curse. I couldn’t go find 10,000 articles about running backs with minor leg muscle strains in the preseason that sat out because it’s, you know, the preseason, but that’s mainly because Google News Archives has done something. I digress. Point is, people are ignoring far more serious issues with other backs while acting like a minor muscle issue that happens to a lot of backs in the preseason is the sign of the devil. I mean, I got 1,980 hits for “Peyton Hillis”, “hamstring injury”, and “Madden Curse”.

So, let’s set the curse aside for now. What about the flukish way in which he had a career year last season after never doing it before? Peyton Hillis was 24. People act like he was some journeyman who bounced around the league then got lucky. The dude put up over 1,600 yards from scrimmage, starting 14 games, on a team that was in the bottom quarter in pass efficiency and 2nd to last in points last year.

So, I went and found every other running back in history who had between 1,500 and 1,800 yards from scrimmage at age 24, after never having even been in the Top 40 in any previous year. We are looking for breakouts who had never accomplished anything before, at the same age as Hillis. Only 6 names appear on the list: Deuce McAllister (2002), Shaun Alexander (2001), Jamal Anderson (1996), Terry Allen (1992), Gerald Riggs (1984), and Leroy Kelly (1966). Lots of flukes there! (sarcasm font). Those guys also resemble Hillis physically (well, once you get past the superficial skin color thing where you must compare him to Mike Alstott), as did a guy I compared him to last year, but didn’t have his breakout until age 25, Stephen Davis.

Allen tore his knee in training camp (though he would bounce back to finish 11th, 7th and 1st in fantasy points the three years after that). The others averaged 1710 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns at age 25. They held their value well.

Now, add in the fact that Hillis produced that 2nd place finish despite playing on an offense with a bad passing attack and that finished 31st in points. Three years ago, I looked at fantasy running backs and the quality of their passing game. The quick summary: a lot of top backs played on very good passing offenses. However, the following year, those backs that were able to finish near the top despite a bad passing attack held their value much, much better, regression to the mean and all. 

I know it’s hard, but lets do a quick taste test while removing names.

Running Back A: Age 29, led league in rush attempts previous year, barely used as a receiver (<100 receiving yards) on a team that won 13 games, and had a 2nd half lead in two of three losses. (Fantasy finish in 2010: 9th)

Running Back B: Age 26, 8th in rush attempts, two consecutive top 10 finishes previous two years, but slowed by a knee injury at end of season, and hasn’t returned to action because of same injury yet. Offensive line issues, and may have a rookie QB starting. (Fantasy finish in 2010: 12th).

Running Back C: Age 25, finished 2nd in fantasy points in first season starting, despite being outside top 10 in rush attempts and 9th in total touches. Played for a team that was near bottom in scoring and went 5-11. Very useful as a receiver (61 catches). Offensive line intact and one of the best. Rookie QB last year, who was best on the team among 3 that started, now moving into second year.

Running Back C, of course, is Hillis, and he is going much lower than either Michael Turner or Maurice Jones-Drew, despite having advantages in a) how good he was last year, b) his age, and c) his team situation and regression to the mean. People point out that Hillis “wore down” last year, averaging 3.8 ypc in his last 5 games. I could point out numerous backs that averaged 3.8 ypc over a 5 game stretch. For example, some guy named Michael Turner, four years older, averaged 3.6 ypc over the same stretch, and he didn’t play 3 top rush defenses like Hillis. They’ll point to his hamstring injury in camp, while drafting him behind Jones-Drew, with a far more concerning knee injury.

I’m going to do my updated running back rankings before the end of this week, and assuming we don’t hear anything more severe about Hillis such as he is going to miss time in the season, he’s moving up my board as situations become clearer. I feel like I’ll be a little low even, but he’s in the 5-6 range, not the third round for me. I think he’ll get a lower percentage of running back team touches than last year, when he led the league in that category, and he’ll experience some regression. I think it will be offset by the Browns improving offensively, still having an excellent offensive line, Hillis being a red zone beast, and the Browns running more offensive plays. You can absolutely win your league again with Hillis, because getting a top play in the 3rd round is huge. Okay, he had never done it before last year. Why is there a two round difference between the two 24 year olds who came out of nowhere to finish 1-2 in fantasy in 2010? Whatever the reason–Madden curse, belief in decline, his skin color and inappropriate comparisons–he seems like a huge value right now to me.

[photo via Getty]

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