Lance Zierlein

The Smash Mouth

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Putting in (Too Much?) Work

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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 1.91 285 5.3 5 1.7 32%
Reggie Bush 1.32 227 4.3 6 1.5 35%
Chris Johnson 1.34 276 4.5 6 1.6 35%
C.J. Spiller 1.67 207 6.0 6 2.2 36%
Matt Forte 0.56 248 4.4 5 1.9 44%

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.

Buyer Beware


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.


(2008-2012)GICarriesYPCYAC per AttemptYAC%
Adrian Peterson -0.30 1,516 5.0 2.6 53%

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.


Lynch (2012) 0.99 315 5.0 11 2.0 40%
Lynch (2007-2011) -0.44 1,137 4.0 35 2.2 56%

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.

Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
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