Decisions are hard. Choosing which pants to wear in the morning is difficult enough, but clicking the right name once the cold sweats kick in and you’re stuck between two similar players at the same position is undoubtedly the hardest decision of your life. We’re here to help, or maybe make this worse and more confusing.
Yes, welcome one and all to our weekly debate session. Please, take your seat, and I promise this debate class will be much better than chess club, or at the very least on par with everybody gets a trophy day. That was my favorite day of pre-school.
Each week (or maybe even twice weekly…no one ever said anything about planning stuff around here), we’ll select two players at a position who are currently carrying a similar fantasy price tag, and being drafted at around the same sacred territory in the everyman’s draft. This means you could very well be faced with a decision that leaves you reaching for bottles which were previously locked away and presumed empty. The fantasy life is a hard life.
First up, we’ll go with Chris Johnson vs. Maurice Jones-Drew, a death duel that has many parallels. Currently, the two running backs are late second rounders or early third rounders in 10-team leagues, and they’re being separated by three slots in ESPN drafts, three at Fantasy Football Calculator, and just one over at FantasyPros.
So let’s go exploring, and then attempt to arrive at some sort of conclusion.
Calling Johnson maddening is an insult to things that really are maddening, like normal people who use golf umbrellas while walking on the sidewalk. Or pulp in orange juice (all nine regular readers will know that I have a vendetta against pulp).
Johnson is more than maddening. He can be terrifying to own in fantasy, and also in reality too I can imagine. With the way Bud Adams treats his cheerleaders, it’s clear that he’s a man who enjoys not wasting his money on useless things. Trouble is, Johnson isn’t useless. Sometimes.
He’s been wildly inconsistent despite his blazing speed, and therefore impossible to project. That speed is nearly useless if you can’t identify a hole and hit it with the proper velocity, and as our boy Alen Dumonjic chronicled late last September when Johnson was at the lowest part of his lowest valley, that’s a core skill he simply forgot, albeit briefly. On his way to three games with 25 or fewer yards over the first five weeks (which incredibly includes just 4 yards on 11 carries in Week 1), Johnson bounced, bobbed, weaved, and mostly went nowhere.
Of course, that stretch also includes a 141-yard game in Week 4, which only furthers Johnson’s unpredictable reputation. Although his overall rushing total in 2012 was fine and decent (1,243 yards) and so was his yards per carry (4.5 yards), it takes true determination to rush for 120 or more yards in five games, and 50 or less in six others.
Seriously, that happened. And when we take his extreme booming and busting further, over half of Johnson’s rushing production (56.7 percent) is contained in just nine games over a 32-game stretch dating back to the beginning of 2011. Trust issues end in a lot of couch sleeping, and tears.
But that two-year spiral (and especially 2012) wasn’t all Johnson’s fault, which allows us to grasp at glorious hope looking forward. Namely, he was hit in the backfield constantly, and so much that over the first two weeks of last season, he had more yards after contact (23 yards) than he did before (21). Obviously that’s a narrow and small sample size, but it doesn’t matter. That should never happen.
Good news, Chris: there are two new large bodies in front of you to keep other large bodies away until at least the line of scrimmage, and hopefully beyond. Recognizing their weakness, the Titans gave all the money to Andy Levitre, and then spent their 10th overall pick on Chance Warmack.
That alone raises Johnson’s 2013 outlook. Then when we toss in the addition of Justin Hunter as another weapon in the passing game alongside Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright (though we do need to pour one out for Jared Cook), maybe if Jake Locker can stay healthy and be at least a league average quarterback, we’ll see far more of Johnson’s upside than his backside.
In 2012, he was drafted as an RB1, and routinely selected late in the first round. In return, Johnson gave you an average of 10.2 fantasy points per game, poor enough for 13th at his position, and 54th overall. Yes, Johnson had fewer fantasy points than Blair Walsh, and Blair Walsh is a kicker.
It’s appropriate that Jones-Drew and Johnson are grouped together, because their situations are similar, but for very different reasons.
Both of their quarterbacks (Locker for Johnson, and either Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne for MJD) are questionable, and that’s being quite kind. Locker and Gabbert have struggled with injuries while showing brief/fleeting/barely there flashes of competence. And although Justin Blackmon will miss four games due to a suspension, both passing games support their quarterbacks — and by extension, their running backs — with multiple options. For Gabbert (for our purposes here we’re assuming Gabbert wins the job, but who the hell knows), it’s Blackmon and Cecil shorts.
There’s also lingering doubt over each running back’s ability to return to his former, elite self this season. But that’s where the similarities end, because with Johnson that doubt has mostly been generated by factors far within his control, and Jones-Drew’s value has plummeted because he broke.
Jones-Drew suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 7 last year which ended his season, and he’s only recently returned to full health. Any foot ailment is a scary thing for a running back, but that’s especially true for a runner like Jones-Drew who’s style isn’t rooted in power, or straight line running. No, he needs lateral movement, and burst to hit the hole and break away.
But if we take Jones-Drew’s word as his bond and assume that he is indeed just fine, and he’ll continue to be just fine throughout training camp, what kind of numbers should we expect from a healthy MJD in 2013? Many crooked ones, and many that have three digits.
In certain situations we can put too much emphasis on a supporting cast for a player in any one situation. The truly elite running backs — and a healthy Jones-Drew is a member of that group — are free from the shackles of reliance. This was the case with Adrian Peterson during his near record-setting season, as after Week 9 when Percy Harvin went down, he still averaged 162.9 rushing yards per game.
We can’t make much of a judgement on Jones-Drew’s 2012 season since it was essentially five games long. But we can look back on 2011, and soil garments while remembering that Jones-Drew led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards, and he did it despite Gabbert doing rookie quarterback things. Oh, and despite this…
That’s seriously the Jaguars’ receiving leaders in 2011, a chart that’s an insult to the very word “leaders”. Their top receiver finished with less than 500 yards, and Jones-Drew himself (reminder: he plays running back) was third, and only 41 yards behind Mike Thomas.
Winner: If both players remain at or around their current ADPs throughout the rest of July and August (which is very possible), give me all your Jones-Drews. Hopefully concerns about his health will actually work in your favor and present something rare: a (mild) bargain on a premier running back.
Prior to last year, Jones-Drew had three straight seasons with at least 1,600 all-purpose yards, a mark Johnson hasn’t seen since 2010 despite not missing a single game during that span. The absence of Blackmon will hurt, but again, Jones-Drew is invisible when faced with such petty problems. Also, his carries and touches will increase, and the Jaguars may give very few craps about the workload of a 28-year-old running back who’s in a contract year.