I was high on C.J. Spiller last year when the new coaching staff in the preseason was talking about feeding him until he puked. Well, he did puke . . . all over fantasy hopes. I wasn’t alone, as Spiller was going in the top 5 in re-drafts on average. The year before, he had a breakout where he averaged over 100 yards from scrimmage per game and scored 8 touchdowns. Last year was a season of frustration. Spiller suffered an ankle injury in week 4, and while he only missed one game, it limited him for most of the year.
As a result, expectations are very tempered for Spiller, and needless to say, he’s not going top 5 anymore. He’s still expected to be the lead back, with Fred Jackson continuing to find the fountain of youth at age 33, and the team adding Bryce Brown. According to CBS data, he is going 17th at RB in drafts so far.
Doug Martin, meanwhile, suffered a shoulder injury that cost him most of the season, after being drafted in the top 5 also. At the time, he was averaging 21.2 rushes a game, leading the league, though he wasn’t producing the big plays from the year before. He is being drafted 13th on average.
They aren’t the only two. The 2013 draft was filled with disappointments at running back, who are still in the fantasy relevant conversation this year as we prepare for draft time: Steven Jackson, Maurice-Jones Drew, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, Chris Johnson and Stevan Ridley are some others who are being drafted far below last year’s prices as a result of last year.
So, I was curious about cases like Spiller and Martin, where a back had high expectations, disappointed, but was still seen as a fantasy starter the next year. To examine, I looked at all average draft positions (ADP) going back to 2000, and found the following backs:
- Were being drafted with an ADP of 16 or better among running backs one year;
- The next year, were still being drafted with an ADP of 24 or better among running backs; and
- Were drafted at least 8 slots lower in the second year than they were in the first.
For example, Joseph Addai was being drafted 4th overall in 2008 at age 25. The year before, he had been 5th in fantasy points. However, in 2008, he missed 4 games with injury, saw his YPC drop to 3.5, and finished outside the top 30 in fantasy points. He was being drafted 20th on average in 2009, at age 26. He finished 9th in points, playing in 15 games.
Thirty-five backs since 2000 meet the above criteria. We can then compare their performance to what is expected based on draft position, utilizing the expected points from this post on the most undervalued and overvalued players. For example, the median RB with an ADP of 20 is expected to score 148 (non-PPR). Addai scored 201.
Compare all of them, and the results are that these disappointing starting backs, a year later, have outperformed their similarly drafted cohorts. They were on average, drafted 8th overall at RB, the previous season, and 18th overall after the disappointing campaign. 60% of them scored more fantasy points than expected based on draft position the next year, with the average difference being +13.4 points over expectation. This would equate to about 5-6 spots in the running back rankings.
When we look at age, a clear pattern emerges. Feature backs who disappointed but were not past their prime were far more likely to rebound nicely and outperform expectations, somewhat justifying the previous unrealized optimism of the year prior.
Just over half the backs in the study were age 27 or younger in the “rebound” year. 13 of the 18 outperformed expectations (72.2%) with an average points over ADP slot expectation of 35 fantasy points. To put that in perspective, they were being drafted as a low-end RB2, and providing production in line with what you should expect from the 8th RB off the board.
The backs who were age 28 and 29, meanwhile, were right on expectation as a group. Half outperformed, 1.7 fantasy points below ADP expectation on average. The feature backs who were 30 or older, meanwhile, underperformed by 20.4 fantasy points.
The biggest over-performers (compared to draft slot expectation) were: Ahman Green in 2003 (345 fantasy points drafted as RB10), Tiki Barber in 2004 (300 fantasy points drafted as RB20), Adrian Peterson in 2012 (309 fantasy points drafted as RB10), Clinton Portis in 2007 (238 as RB18), and Matt Forte in 2010 (216 as RB23).
The biggest under-performers were: Ahman Green in 2005 (40 fantasy points, knee injury ended season after drafted as RB14), Brian Westbrook in 2011 (58 drafted as RB11), Cadillac Williams in 2007 (41 points drafted as RB23), Terrell Davis in 2001 (77 points drafted as RB17), and Marshawn Lynch in 2009 (75 points drafted as RB21).
In total, nearly 30% of them (10 of 35) provided a major boom of at least 50 points over expectation based on draft slot. Of those, all but Tiki Barber were between the age of 25 and 27 in the rebound season.
I know it’s hard to have faith in a back who disappointed the year before, but it’s important to look at why. Are they broken down and damaged goods (see Terrell Davis and Cadillac Williams)? Or are the issues that affected their performance likely to be improved?
In the case of Spiller and Martin, they are young enough to rebound from those lost seasons. News out of Buffalo that the Bills might trade Spiller (probably not happening) or that the Bucs might use more of a committee approach (always said after a back is coming back from injury to temper expectations) will conspire to keep their value reasonable. History shows that you might find bargains if you return to last year’s hot prospects, after everyone else has gone with this year’s.
Related: An Early Look at the Top 6 Backs