Is Michael Turner being undervalued in fantasy drafts?
It was one of the most heated debates of our annual fantasy football summit, one with compelling arguments on either side.
It was also one of the most polarizing. The facts are there in black and white. Come summit's conclusion, we "agreed to disagree" and placed Michael Turner 16th among running backs, 37th overall. But you can be sure, members of neither camp -- the pro- and anti-Turner sides -- were celebrating that rank.
That's why, as "Decisions 2012" shifts its focus to Michael Turner's fantasy prospects, we're taking a different approach. We've asked two of our most fervent Turner backers, Ken Daube and AJ Mass, and two of our most vehement Turner detractors, Tristan H. Cockcroft and Jim McCormick, to weigh in.
With which analyst do you agree? Read on, and we'll see which side of the fence you settle on at the end.
Cockcroft: History is not on Turner's side
Fantasy football is a game of odds. We know that the NFL can be an unpredictable game, bereft of guarantees.
As fantasy owners, therefore, our goal is to play the percentages, draft players with the highest probability of success, and hope we catch the right breaks.
Unfortunately, history says that Turner's odds aren't especially good, that running backs typically suffer a steep decline at approximately age 30 the birthday Turner celebrated on Feb. 13. At some point -- some point soon, say the history books -- the odds say that Turner's production will suffer a dramatic drop.
You do not want to be left holding the bag when it happens.
The pro-Turner crowd will stress that he has more tread on his tires than a typical 30-year-old, that four years working as a backup with the San Diego Chargers, totaling 228 carries, has kept his legs somewhat fresh. They'll point out that 57 players in NFL history had more than Turner's 1,417 carries by their 30th birthdays, describing it as if he's a 30-year-old with a 28-year-old's legs.
While it might be true that Turner's odds of a collapse are smaller than that of a 30-year-old with a greater amount of career usage -- think Edgerrin James or LaDainian Tomlinson -- they're also substantially greater than that of a 28-year-old with equal wear and tear to the four-year, 1,189-carry workload Turner has endured with the Atlanta Falcons. The truth is that any 30-year-old running back, regardless of style, role or workload, faces a historical pattern that indicates a probable 15 to 20 percent drop in production.
To illustrate, consider that the 10 running backs closest to Turner's career carries total at the time of their 30th birthdays averaged a 94-point seasonal fantasy total. That represents a 57-point drop from their seasonal averages as 28-year-olds.
To illustrate it another way, one even more relevant to Turner's example, I isolated from my all-time age-30 study players whose seasonal rushing attempt trends most closely followed Turner's career patterns. The chart below lists the 13 closest career comparables to Turner in descending order of their similarity ("Sim. score"), illustrating how each fared as a 30-year-old.
These 12 most similar running backs -- excluding Cedric Benson, who has yet to play his age-30 season -- collectively lost 31 percent of their per-game fantasy production and played 25 percent fewer games as 30-year-olds than they did during their ages 26-29 "workhorse" seasons. Only four -- Barber (293), Jones (225), Walker (174) and Taylor (107) -- managed a 100-point fantasy season at age 30.
Now, I'll readily admit that shrinking a larger sample size -- my past age-30 studies have examined more than 100 players -- to a mere 13 presents dangers. Turner's is a unique case, not necessarily perfect parallels to Murrell, Johnson or Allen. But neither is it fair to selectively compare him to only Walker, Jones or Barber. The upshot is that this group, as a whole, exhibits identical aging trends to the entire pool of 30-year-old running backs in history. There will always be outliers, but the lesson is clear: Every running back faces overwhelming odds against maintaining career production at age 30.
Couple that with Turner's history of late-season decline, a point that colleague Jim McCormick will detail below, as well as the Falcons' own recognition of the need to curtail Turner's workload in 2012, and there's little question that his downside exceeds his fantasy upside.
That's not to say Turner shouldn't be picked at all, not in an era in which running production across the league has dropped. But come the time of his No. 34 overall average draft position, I'd prefer Fred Jackson, if I must choose a running back, otherwise I'd advise looking at another position (Julio Jones?).
Daube: The bias against the predictable
I love statistics and will usually side with the mathematics portion of the argument, but sometimes common sense needs to be injected into the discussion. Using a group of 13 running backs to determine how the 14th will react is very questionable mathematically.
For instance, the closest comparable in Cockcroft's study is Adrian Murrell. Murrell averaged only 2.9 yards per carry when he was 29 and signed with another team to be a backup at age 30. The second most similar, Larry Johnson, shouldn't really be viewed as comparable, either. Johnson had two amazing seasons and then became a malcontent, which culminated in him getting cut after seven games in the 2009 season. His age 26-29 split is very misleading as he dominated the NFL at ages 26 and 27, but was a below-average back by the time age 28 rolled around. When significant holes can be poked into the reasoning for the inclusion of a small sample size, the sample size becomes too small to be mathematically viable and it therefore become illogical to base decisions on that data.
Turner's detractors will also note that his performance during the second half of last season dropped compared to how he started. They'll claim it's indicative that his age finally caught up with him and he wore down. In my view, that decline was probably significantly more attributable to the quad and groin injuries he played through during that time frame. Even with that diminished production because of those injuries, Turner finished with 4.5 yards per carry and tied with Marshawn Lynch with 203 fantasy points, the fifth highest total for running backs last season.
This argument shouldn't really be about Turner's age or muscle pulls that occurred last season. It should be about his value this season. Our team projects Turner to score 183 fantasy points, a total that would have been good for sixth last season, but we rank him 16th among running backs. That difference is mostly attributable to the fact we aren't projecting injuries, but the reality is that the only injury that has kept Turner off the field was a high ankle sprain that occurred when his leg was awkwardly landed on by a linebacker, so his risk for missing games due to injury is low.
I personally believe that a bias exists in fantasy football that elevates those who excel unexpectedly (see: Lynch, Marshawn) rather than those who meet expectations (Turner), even if at the end of the day their performance is comparable. I believe that bias is manifested in the ranking of Turner this season and I look forward to exploiting those rankings on draft day.
McCormick: Cracks in the foundation
We've witnessed Turner's production erode in the later stages of the past two seasons. In September 2010, Turner averaged 5.6 yards per carry (YPC) and in December 2010 just 3.4 YPC, while in September of last season his YPC was 4.89 and in December just 3.5. In Atlanta's three playoff losses since 2008, he's averaged just 2.8 YPC.
Whether these dips in effectiveness and efficiency over the past two seasons are due to age, mileage, poor blocking and play calling, injuries or some blend of these factors is difficult to discern, but the results are disconcerting nonetheless.
It's not lost on the Atlanta coaching staff that their bell cow has worn down the past two seasons, and particularly in the playoffs, where jobs are on the line. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has talked up the idea of sharing the workload more, with a focus on getting second-year speedster Jacquizz Rodgers the ball to operate in space.
"We need to keep Mike healthy so that he's as good at the end of the season as he is in the front of the season," Koetter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this summer. "The way this roster has been built, we have some other backs that are very capable."
With an extremely limited role in the passing offense, the team asks Turner to churn out yardage on first and second downs to help set up manageable third downs. A red flag in this regard is that while Turner had, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the second most carries in the NFL on first-and-10 with 165, he was stopped for no gain or negative yardage on 50 of those. That 30.3 percent "no gain" rate was the worst in the NFL among the 33 running backs with at least 70 carries on first-and-10 last season.
In his role as an early-down back, Turner's production on first downs wasn't impressive when compared to his peers who played similar roles on their teams. In what is expected to be an increasingly confined early-down role for Turner in 2012, will these issues with gaining positive yardage on first down compel the team to pass the ball more on early downs and share the rushing work more, cutting into his work?
It's a murky market for tailbacks, but Turner's case isn't adding much clarity to the talent pool. I'd rather invest in ADP peers Fred Jackson and Darren Sproles, but really prefer wideouts in that range and favor netting multiple upside backs like Peyton Hillis, Isaac Redman and Doug Martin later in drafts.
There is no denying that Turner remained quite effective in 2011 with more than 1,500 total yards and 11 scores, but it should be equally undeniable that there are some numbers beyond the season totals that suggest cracks are forming in his foundation as a feature back.
It's not that I'm predicting a cliff is just a few yards off, but there are some forming fallibilities that we should acknowledge. Getting stuffed behind the line, having what grades out as a middling run-blocking offensive line, wearing down at the end of the past two seasons (when fantasy seasons and Atlanta's playoffs hopes are decided) and having increased competition for work are legitimate factors to consider.
Mass: No evidence the end is nigh
Haven't we heard this song before? Last year in the preseason, the Atlanta Falcons said they were going to try to cut back on Michael Turner's workload. How did that work out? All Turner did was carry the ball 301 times, second only to Maurice Jones-Drew in all of the NFL. Oh, and where has Dirk Koetter been coaching since 2007? That's right, in Jacksonville.
I'll believe that Turner gets the ball less when I see it.
As for "when" Turner gets the carries, I don't see the big deal. So what if he primarily touches the ball on first and second downs? He was fourth in the league in rushing yards on first down last season and second on second downs. I'm not losing any sleep over the 15 carries he'll miss out on if the team decides never to play him on third or fourth downs all year long. To me, this is a non-issue.
What boggles my mind is that we're looking at a running back in Turner who has proven over the past four seasons to be one of the most productive in all of football, yet his ADP in ESPN standard leagues thus far ranks him as the 15th running back off the board. Only 10 backs have averaged at least 70 rushing yards per game with at least 40 starts since Turner became a regular starter, and at 89.5 yards per game, Turner finds himself behind only Adrian Peterson (91.7 ypg) and Chris Johnson (89.6 ypg) on this elite list.
Are you seriously telling me that you'd put Turner behind every single one of these backs being taken ahead of him: Trent Richardson (a rookie with bad knees), Steven Jackson (a greater injury risk and also could see carries stolen by Isaiah Pead), Jamaal Charles (surgically repaired knee), Darren McFadden (too many injuries to count), Adrian Peterson (just taken off the PUP list, returning from a torn ACL) and DeMarco Murray (seven career starts and coming back from a broken ankle)?
I'm not saying some of these guys won't end with more fantasy points than Turner, but most of them probably won't. Even with only 17 receptions last season, Turner still finished fifth in fantasy scoring among running backs. As the NFL has become more and more a passing league, Atlanta has consistently won by keeping the ball on the ground. In games where Turner has rushed for more than 100 yards, the Falcons are 22-3. When Matt Ryan passes for more than 300 yards, they're 4-6. I don't care if Roddy White and Julio Jones are both on the roster. This team can throw for more than 4,000 yards, just as they did last season, and Turner's production won't change at all. That's why I will absolutely be ranking Turner as a top-10 back for the 2012 season.
Look, at the end of the day, you can crunch the numbers and make all sorts of valid arguments both pro and con regarding every single player on the draft board, just like the four of us just did on Michael Turner, who for whatever reason, ended up being one of the most polarizing names at our ranking summit this year.
However, when you're on the clock, you have a very limited amount of time to make your final decision on which player to select. Even after working hard to give you our honest opinion on how we think Turner will do this season, the fact remains that none of us is 100 percent certain we're right. That's what makes fantasy football such a fun endeavor. Players can and often do surprise you. But we all believe we're right and will act accordingly on our own draft days.
My best advice to you is to get as much information as you can on as many players as you can. See which arguments move you the most and when all is said and done, trust your instincts and go with your gut. And when you ultimately decide to pass on Michael Turner, just remember I told you so.