We can learn something from history, or at least I hope we can because there’s an entire section of our elementary and high school education dedicated to that practice. It’s also known as nap time.
One NFL year is the equivalent of about seven years as a normal human, meaning it’s on par with dog years. A lot changes between seasons, a process which starts even before the current season officially ends, with Black Monday shattering the dreams of a handful of head coaches (seven this year), and usually their entire coaching staff by extension. Then the coaching carousel begins to spin, and when it stops many offensive and defensive schemes have changed drastically once we reach September. The landscape is always shifting.
But that’s not necessarily always true for fake footballing, a land of make belief where a dominant player can continue to do dominant things for several seasons, and continue to be treated as such by fantasy owners each August. So as a way to wrap up our mini series in which we explored/debated the first overall pick in drafts this year, let’s embark on a little journey that may be filled with regret and shame, and we could learn something too. Let’s look back on the first overall picks in each of the past three seasons (based on the ADPs at Fantasy Football Calculator), and see what we can see.
Mostly, this exercise should re-affirm a long-held scary truism: predicting things is hard.
2012: Arian Foster
Those who held the first overall pick a year ago were faced with what should have been an easy decision, but too often it wasn’t. In every league everywhere, Foster should have been the No. 1 pick, and therefore a pick which addressed position scarcity immediately. Since the guy holding the sacred top pick isn’t on the board again until the 20th overall slot in 10-team leagues and 24th in 12-team leagues, an RB is the instinctive click.
Yet too often, Aaron Rodgers crept up into that spot a year ago, with Foster holding the top ADP by only an extremely narrow margin (finished at 2.0, while Rodgers was at 2.1). Rodgers finished third overall in fantasy scoring with 331 points, which is swell. But looking down just a little, it’s not nearly as nice that Robert Griffin III finished only 18.5 points behind him, and he was available on average about 92 picks later.
What we learned: It can’t be repeated enough that last year napalmed the notion of the early round quarterback. While the likes of Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady (all first rounders) didn’t separate sufficiently from mid rounders like Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Peyton Manning, Foster finished second in scoring at his position (250.5 points), and 58 points ahead of a fifth rounder like Stevan Ridley.
2011: Adrian Peterson
This will always and forever be remembered as the year Peterson broke. He rather infamously tore his ACL and MCL during the Vikings’ final game of the season, which in hindsight is when history started. He’s not of this Earth.
But that injury now dramatically overshadows the other three games he missed with an ankle problem, giving Peterson owners even more hurt. Unlike 2012, this was a fantasy draft season which will likely mirror this year, with a lot more normalcy at the top. Running backs dominated, with Peterson easily the top pick (ADP of 1.5) after his 1,639 all-purpose yards in 2010 and 13 touchdowns, and he was well ahead of Ray Rice (ADP of 2.3).
What we learned: The top five picks were running backs (rounded out by Foster, Chris Johnson, and Jamaal Charles) and in a normal year that wasn’t decimated by a lockout, that would have been wise. Unfortunately, defenses league-wide decided to just screw off to sweet beaches with white sand everywhere. You’ll recall this was the season with three +5,000 yard passers, which resulted in the aforementioned inflated quarterback values in 2012.
Most of all, though, what we learned in 2011 was more of a reminder, and a rather painful one: running backs break easily. Although rolling with running backs early is almost always the right move (or at least it’s rarely the wrong move), the combustion factor was high. Beyond Peterson’s three missed games, Foster also missed three, and Charles only appeared in two. In total, that’s 20 missed games spread between three of the top five picks in 2011.
I’m only just now recovering from my fork wounds.
2010: Chris Johnson
Being the unanimous first overall pick usually happens when you set the single-season record for yards from scrimmage, as Johnson did with his 2,509 yards in 2009, and 2,006 of those yards came on the ground. Johnson wasn’t Peterson circa 2012 with his rushing yardage, but over 2,000 yards is still pretty OK. We’re supposedly at the peak of a passing era, and yet only seven running backs in NFL history have surpassed 2,000 yards in a season, and two of those efforts have come over the past four years.
What we learned: Mostly, a lesson which could apply to this year, and cause great depression. Setting records is hard, and sustaining a record-setting pace is even harder.
Much like Peterson this year, most sensible minds were willing to accept a drop off in production from Johnson. Again, since only a handful of running backs in the history of the league have rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, doing it two years in a row is highly improbable, and it isn’t something that sane-minded folk should reasonably expect. But with Johnson in 2010, the fall was especially jarring.
After such a prolific season, a decline to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,600 or 1,700 yards would be completely within the realm of none-insanity inducing production. But Johnson’s rushing total fell by 642 yards, and his overall yards from scrimmage went down by 900 yards. Ughhhh.
Of the seven members of the 2,000-yard club (which is far more prestigious than the mild high club), no one has rushed for more than 1,500 yards the following season. O.J. Simpson’s tumble in 1974 was pretty cliff dive-y too (from 2,003 yards to 1,125), Ditto for Jamaal Lewis (2,066 yards to 1,006) and Eric Dickerson (2,105 yards to 1,234), and Terrell Davis never rushed for more than 700 yards again. Barry Sanders had the best follow-up season coming just shy of that 1,500-yard plateau (1,491 yards).