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2004 potential running back busts
By Greg Kellogg, Special to SI.com
When predicting boom-or-bust players, one has to look not only at the player, but at the team surrounding him. It is usually his supporting cast that will contribute to the surge or drop in production that dictates which players are which.
This article will focus on bust players. But first, let's discuss what exactly constitutes a bust.
First, any player who is injured is not a bust. Injuries are unpredictable. Some players seem to be more inclined to suffer injuries -- many remember ex-Minnesota Vikings RB Robert Smith. But Smith concluded his career with a season in which he started all 16 games and totaled over 1,800 yards. He also scored 10 TDs in what was his only season in which he didn't miss at least two games.
One might assume Marshall Faulk will miss games due to injury in 2004. After all, he's missed some in each of his last four seasons and didn't dress for five games last year. But you can never be sure.
So while you should take injuries into account, your assumptions should not be based solely on this one factor.
A bust is a player who performs significantly below what one can reasonably expect to be his draft ranking by position. Since every draft is different, that could mean that a player taken in the late second round could be a sleeper or boom player.
I was in a recent draft in which 19 of the first 24 picks were running backs. In this draft, Michael Bennett was the 25th player taken, but he was also the 20th running back taken. If he finishes 2004 in the top 10 running backs, then he will have played significantly better than projected.
An understanding of the Average Value Theory will help in making these determinations. The chart below shows how each of the top 32 slotted running backs has performed using WCOFF scoring. In other words, the fourth ranked running back has averaged 323.4 points over the past three seasons. The 16th ranked back has averaged 220.8. (There are no names associated with these slots because the players that filled them are not consistent from year to year.)
The next step is to determine which players should fill which slots. I am using a list generated at MyFantasyLeague.com from drafts, both real and mock, done over the past two months. This gives me a fairly large sample and should give a reasonable expectation of where individual running backs are being drafted. One thing to remember is that I am not so concerned with what round these players are being taken. I am only concerned with what rank they hold among other running backs.
I will also provide a list based on the current Fantasy Asylum Composite rankings as of this writing. This will give you some differences but will hopefully add to the overall quality of this analysis.
One thing that will not be considered is what round the player will likely be drafted. This is because some drafts are very running back heavy while others seem to concentrate on quarterbacks. In a 12-team draft, you are likely to see 50-60 running backs selected. If the 24th running back taken happens to be selected in the sixth round, but performs in the 50-60 range, is he more of a bust than the 23rd running back taken who was picked in the third round and finishes as the 30th best back?
Because every draft is different, it is difficult to figure out how much weight to apply to draft position. For one thing there is no magic formula that says the 15th-ranked running back will be taken in the fourth round. So for this article, I am going to list the average score made by the top 32 running backs, assign names to those slots based on drafts that have already taken place, and then study the situations of the players listed and provide my analysis to you. You will be able to take this and apply where you think the player will be drafted to determine how much of a risk you assign to the individual when you make your draft list.
Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins (MFL Rank 7th, FA Rank 8th, 282.5 - 295.6): He was a monster in his first season with the Dolphins. But in his second season he suffered a 24 percent drop in yardage and a 41 percent decline in TDs.
To add insult to injury, he has lost five offensive linemen (four starters), his starting fullback, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the man behind the discovery of a running game in Miami. Let us not forget how long the Dolphins struggled to find a running game before Turner and Williams arrived.
The quarterback position is in flux, but the addition of A.J. Feeley and WR David Boston shows that Miami is trying to upgrade the passing game. With the changes in place on the offensive line, this may be the part of the offense that gets the most attention all year.
Williams has had 1,245 touches (carries and receptions) over the past three years. That kind of wear and tear will eventually wear a body down. Williams averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in all but three of his 2003 games. He was under 3.0 ypc in five games. With a new line in place, these could seem to be good numbers.
Kevan Barlow, San Francisco *****, (MFL 12, FA 14, 230.7 - 243.9): He has been champing at the bit to become the starter for three years. In 2004, he will get his chance. He reported to camp in what coaches called "the best shape of his career." But he will be on a team that was decimated in the offseason.
Gone are starting QB Jeff Garcia, superstar WR Terrell Owens and locker room leader RB Garrison Hearst, although the loss of Hearst actually plays in Barlow's favor. But also out the door are two starting offensive linemen (Ron Stone and Derrick Deese).
Replacement QB Tim Rattay has already suffered a significant injury that has kept him out of preseason minicamps and is threatening his participation in training camp as well. That would leave untested Ken Dorsey under center. There are just too many questions surrounding this offense to expect Barlow to have a big season.
Charlie Garner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (MFL 27, FA 28, 151.8 - 158.9): He was reunited with former his old Raiders coach Jon Gruden, prompting many to hand him the starting job. He may very well earn it, but it will have to be done on the field and that competition won't take place until training camp. Right now we know that his primary competition for the spot will come from last year's starter, Michael Pittman.
Since Pittman's suspension is only three games, Tampa may hold on him. Also muddying the picture somewhat is the fact that Tampa brought in Antowain Smith for a tryout. Should they sign Smith, you can expect no Tampa running back to be worthwhile. Additionally, former Browns RB Jamel White is now a Buccaneer. White has gained 533 yards and scored five TDs on third down over the past three years, making him the consummate third-down player.
Any player stuck in a running back by committee situation has to be an amazing athlete to be a worthy fantasy player, because their touches are going to be severely limited. Garner has never been a TD machine and if his touches are limited, so will be his yardage totals. And at 32, he is no spring chicken.
Thomas Jones, Chicago Bears (MFL 26, FA 24, 161.9 - 176.7): The second running back selected and seventh overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2000 NFL Draft has been a spectacular failure.
Then Jones found himself with the Bucs last year, and, due to injuries, even started three of the last four games. It was in these games that his stock once again rose to a level that a team was willing to take a chance on him. That team was the Chicago Bears who brought in a new head coach, Lovie Smith, to retool the Bears' offense.
While I fully expect Smith to improve the woeful passing attack of recent years -- the addition through subtraction of Kordell Stewart ensures that -- I remain unconvinced Thomas Jones is the equivalent of Marshall Faulk or Priest Holmes at tailback.
When I think of Jones in comparison to those two, I see an image of Dennis Hopper in a ratty old referee's uniform holding up one of Barry Sanders' shoes and saying "This is Barry Sanders' shoe, man -- he's scary." Jones is to Holmes/Faulk, as Hopper is to Sanders. Well, maybe not that bad - but close.
Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals (MFL 17, FA 17, 217.7): He is all this year's rage, thanks to the the trade of Corey Dillon to New England. So why didn't the Bengals make a bigger effort to sign him to a long-term deal? And why did they draft rookie RB Chris Perry? Perhaps they are not as enamored with the kid as most of us in the fantasy world are.
Cincinnati will be starting the equivalent of a rookie quarterback this season. Carson Palmer will have big days, make no mistake about that. The kid has a tremendous arm and will be a very good quarterback. Chad Johnson is a superstar in the making with the perfect attitude. Even Peter Warrick is showing signs of the talent that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2000 draft.
With weapons like this surrounding him, you have to figure Johnson is in the perfect place. Remember, this is Cincinnati after all. The line is marginal at best, having lost three of their offensive guards from last season. And I can't shake the feeling that Perry, taken with the 26th overall pick in this year's draft, is going to get significant playing time.
Stephen Davis, Carolina Panthers (MFL 15, FA 16, 220.8 - 227.2): I have to say I hate this choice. Stephen Davis is the perfect running back for the Carolina offensive system. He is a big, between-the-tackles type of runner who gets stronger as the game goes on. And he had a huge season in 2003.
But he does have DeShaun Foster waiting in the wings and I still believe Foster has as much raw talent as any back taken in the 2002 draft, which included Clinton Portis. Reports out of Carolina indicate that Foster will get as much as 50 percent of the carries in 2004. While I don't believe that, I do think he will get considerably more than the 22 percent (113 carries) he got in 2003.
Foster is more of a three-down threat than Davis, and with Davis turning 30 this year, Carolina has to start planning for a future without Davis. In the playoffs, Foster was even more impressive, gaining 231 yards and scoring two TDs in part-time duty.
Michael Bennett, Minnesota Vikings (MFL 19, FA 18, 206.2 - 209.0): He is back from injury and slated to move back into the starting job. Two years ago, Bennett showed what he is capable of as a feature back, gaining over 1,600 total yards and scored six TDs.
But last year, Bennett missed the first half of the season and then was eased back in, even though he started, when he returned. All told, Bennett only carried 15 or more times twice last year. In the meantime, Onterrio Smith averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored five TDs with just three starts. You also have to consider Moe Williams, who will undoubtedly retain his third-down job after he totaled nearly 1,400 yards and scored eight TDs. Even during Bennett's breakout season in 2002, Williams stole over 600 yards and 11 TDs.
There are just too many weapons to expect any one of them to have a breakout year. So while Bennett has world-class speed, the options available to the Vikings make him a prime suspect to under perform expectations.
Travis Henry, Buffalo Bills (MFL 16, FA 15, 220.8 - 227.2): Much like the Stephen Davis, I hate putting a warrior like Travis Henry in a list like this. But one has to be honest when evaluating players, and Henry has a player who, were it not for a severe knee injury, should have been a top-five draft pick who will be pushing for time. Henry is the epitome of a throwback player -- the man played through a severe rib injury last year and still finished with over 1,500 yards and 11 total TDs.
Willis McGahee has made it through every workout and has not been limited at all. Still, he faces his biggest challenge; the first hit on the knee that will assure him everything is OK. The Bills retained all but one starter on the offensive line, so the only concern facing Henry is how many carries he loses to McGahee.
LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers (MFL 1, FA 2, 385.4 - 434.5): I know what you are thinking. "You must be nuts, Kellogg! How can anyone think Tomlinson could be a bust?" Well, being a bust is related directly to what your expectations for Tomlinson are, and whether or not he can meet or exceed those expectations. Chances are they are pretty high for this kid. Understandably so, since all he has done in his three years as a pro is get better each season. Last season, Tomlinson put up 2,300-plus yards and scored 17 times.
So what has changed to make me think he won't be worth one of the top two picks in this year's draft? The Chargers have lost nine offensive linemen in the offseason. A 10th, Toniu Fonoti, has entered a three-week weight-loss clinic because his weight has risen to nearly 400 pounds that caused him to miss a crucial mandatory mini-camp. OG Mike Goff sustained an abdomen strain that caused him to miss time at the same mini-camp, though he is expected to be ready for training camp. Finally, center Jason Ball is unhappy in San Diego and has asked for a trade.
David Boston and Stephen Alexander are gone, and while they haven't been the superstars many thought they would be, they were legitimate threats when they were on the field. The Chargers will probably be starting a rookie quarterback as well. But the biggest offseason loss, in my mind, is punter Darren Bennett. This loss will affect the way the team calls plays on third down. When you know you have one of the top punters in the game, you are more likely to be conservative in your third down play calling.
This is not to say that Tomlinson won't have a good year. I believe he will have a good year -- just not one worthy of being one of the top two picks in the draft.
Priest Holmes, Kansas City Chiefs (MFL 2, FA 1, 385.4 - 434.5): OK, I concede I have Holmes ranked as my second-best running back. The thing to remember is that being a bust is based on one thing and one thing only -- failing to live up to preseason expectations. The expectations for Priest Holmes are so high he could conceivably finish as the second-best back and still be a bust.
Over the past three seasons, the top-ranked running back has averaged 434.5 points per season in WCOFF scoring -- the second best runner has averaged just 385.4. So if you take Holmes with the first pick, and he finishes second, you are giving up (potentially) 49.1 points. That's a lot of jack to go missing.
There have been two other running backs in the history of the NFL with two consecutive 20-plus TD seasons. In 1994 and 1995, Emmitt Smith had 22 and 25 total TDs, respectively. He also had 1,800-plus and 2,100-plus total yards in those two seasons. In 1996, his yardage fell to 1,400 and his TDs to 15 (three of them receiving). Good numbers, but a noticeable decline.
Marshall Faulk had over 2,100 yards and 26 total TDs in 2000 and followed that up with 2,100-plus yards and 21 total TDs in 2001. In 2002, his numbers dipped to 1,400-plus yards and 10 total TDs. While past performance by other players is not a perfect indicator of future performance by others, it does show just how difficult it is to reach 20 total TDs in a season and how doing that in consecutive seasons can lead to a dip in production in the third season.
So there you have it -- the top 10 players most likely to disappoint in 2004. While I do expect several of them to have good seasons, most notably the aforementioned Holmes, I do think most of them will fail to live up to their AVT expectations. My advice for this year, to those holding a top three pick, is to try to trade down to the middle of the first round and "settle" for a player like Deuce McAllister, Ahman Green or Clinton Portis, while improving your pick in the second and potentially other rounds.
Greg Kellogg is a co-owner of the Fantasy Asylum and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America trade association. He has been writing about fantasy football on a national stage since 1996.
Re: 2004 potential running back bustsSo what has changed to make me think he won't be worth one of the top two picks in this year's draft? The Chargers have lost nine offensive linemen in the offseason.
Re: 2004 potential running back bustsOriginally Posted by Ferter
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