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Fantasy Football 2014: A Quick Look at the Top Six Running Backs, from LeSean McCoy to Adrian Peterson

Philadelphia Eagles vs Detroit Lions

Who are the top six running backs in fantasy football re-draft leagues? I have not looked at average draft position rankings, so I sat down to begin to put together some preliminary rankings on my own before looking at what trends are emerging. I like to do several things, ultimately, in building projections. One underlying one is to look at the player’s past performance, and compare it to how similar players performed  in the past. This allows us to get a better grasp of things like age, and how certain types of players (touchdown dependent, receiving yard heavy) have held their value. No past case is truly identical, but it gives a framework for understanding regression as it is affected by these things.

Of course, that’s just a start. Other things I like to look at include historical coach/team trends in terms of production and usage of backs, roster changes (or team changes), and current form, especially for less proven backs or situations with more uncertainty.

For today, though, this is just a first pass exercise to look at a potential top six: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and DeMarco Murray. Eddie Lacy might be included, but as a rookie, I will look at him separately in a future post. Arian Foster is also a special case, as a back who was top 5 for multiple seasons but then missed several games with injury. The only other back in the top 8 in fantasy scoring last year I haven’t mentioned is Knowshon Moreno, but going from Denver’s offense to Miami’s offense is obviously a big factor affecting his value.

For each of the six, I looked at the 12 most comparable running backs since the NFL merger, by separately looking at total fantasy point production, rushing yards, receiving yards, and total touchdowns. Some of them had plenty of close comps, others did not. (Jamaal Charles, for example, only had Marshall Faulk as a comparable who scored more points than he did at the same age, while most backs with his extreme receiving to rushing splits did not have as many TDs).

Anyway, here is the percentage drop-off in fantasy points going from one year to the next, and an early number projection just based on last year’s production and player age, using comparable players.

top 2014 fantasy running backs

 JAMAAL CHARLES AND LESEAN MCCOY

Jamaal Charles touchdown against Oakland-a

 

Charles and McCoy are the clear top two options, and you are really splitting hairs trying to decide between them. Charles’ high yardage and receiving yards totals portend well for aging gracefully as he turns 28. He was the best all-around multi-purpose back at age 27 since Marshall Faulk. Brian Westbrook, Tiki Barber, and Lydell Mitchell also show up highly on his list. Is it likely that Charles’ touchdown numbers regress? Yes, but he’s still a pretty safe pick.

Meanwhile, McCoy will be 26, and is in the same offense that saw him lead the league in rushing last year. His touchdowns might actually rise, and he should hold his value well based on historical comps, which include names like Walter Payton, Thurman Thomas, LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, and Terrell Davis.

I suppose I might go McCoy, but having either the 1st or 2nd pick is a good place to be this year, and I suspect far more valuable than sitting 3rd.

MATT FORTE

Yes, he turns 29, so there is a little more downside risk, but there is also upside with Forte. For example, Priest Holmes became the top fantasy back at age 29, in his 2nd year in an explosive offensive system with the Chiefs in 2002. Forte is entering his 2nd year with Trestman, a much improved offensive line, and talented receivers. He is also still very productive as a receiver, suggesting he will age well, at least for one more year. I would probably have Forte as a solid 3rd in drafts.

DEMARCO MURRAY

 

DeMarco Murray runs over Damion Square-a

Okay, so a historical comp analysis is far more rosy on Murray than I expect general consensus to be. This is because he is entering peak age and does a little of everything well as a receiver and rusher. His 12 comps, as a group, collectively put up better numbers at age 26 than they did at 25. Old Cowboy fans will be happy to see both Tony Dorsett and Calvin Hill with similar seasons at age 25. Ahman Green put up similar numbers to Murray at 25. Steven Jackson, with a similar upright running style, shows up. If Murray is going to not realize his potential, its because of lack of touchdowns, like some other comparables like Warrick Dunn. If he’s going to be undervalued, it will be because of a general public belief in injury proneness, which he is able to mostly overcome.

MARSHAWN LYNCH

I have been out in front on Marshawn Lynch for several years, writing at the time of the trade from Buffalo that I thought he could have a Jerome Bettis-like revival in Seattle. I stated then, ” I can see him having an impact from age 24-27 like Rudi Johnson or Rodney Hampton or Greg Pruitt (for those of us that remember disco).”

That understated his impact, and he has consistently been on my fantasy rosters as I have valued him higher than consensus.

Of course, now, he is 28. Plenty of backs like Lynch (including some I listed above) fell off by 28. He is a back that is heavily dependent on rush yards and touchdowns for value. He’s still got upside playing in Seattle’s offense, and Terry Allen, one of his comps, finished #1 with a huge TD season. He also has downside, as others like Lynch declined or suffered injuries at age 28. Names like Chris Warren, Dorsey Levens, Ryan Grant, and James Wilder show up.

ADRIAN PETERSON

Adrian Peterson beastly run against the Packers-b

It’s not wise to doubt Adrian Peterson, or so I’ve been told. Two years ago, he was dropping into the RB 10 to 12 range coming back from knee injury (I was a little more bullish but did not foresee challenging the all-time mark). So all this comes with that caveat. My final projection will likely be higher than the above numbers, because, well, Adrian Peterson.

That said, his likely price is pretty expensive when you look at backs like Peterson who turned 29. He contributes basically nothing as a receiver and is a back who likes to deliver punishment. Guys like Earl Campbell, Michael Turner, and Jerome Bettis seemed to age overnight. Walter Payton shows up in the comps, but even the great Payton was in a nadir at age 28 and 29, and wouldn’t experience a revival until age 30 because of the offense around him. Peterson has plenty of question marks on his team as well. It is doubtful he ends up on my teams this year.

 

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