Is Michael Turner a lock to finish as a top-five running back?
As a fantasy analyst, you know when you are writing a column how well it will be generally received: pick on anything Cowboys or Steelers and expect a backlash, compliment the Patriots and expect to be accused of a New England bias. It comes with the territory, so I'll let you know up front that I expect several comments below within ESPN Conversation that will convey how "highly" I am thought of by some readers and how they could do this job better. Go ahead, let 'er rip. My job isn't to write columns that will be widely accepted and ignored; rather it is to present information to you that will help you make an informed decision on draft day, so hear me out.
Buried behind LaDainian Tomlinson for four years in the San Diego backfield, Turner teased fantasy owners by averaging 5.5 yards per carry in mop-up duty for the Chargers. Finally unleashed by the Falcons in 2008, Turner didn't disappoint at all as he posted elite-level statistics of 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Since everyone who waited for this future stud to get an opportunity to shine was proved right, it's easy to see why owners love Turner this year. But should they?
A main contributing factor to Turner's awesome 2008 was the way he dominated in games versus bad competition. Specifically, he played six games against teams that ranked in the bottom seven in the NFL in terms of rushing yardage allowed per game (Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, St. Louis Rams). You won't find any of those teams on his 2009 schedule, nor will you find the Cleveland Browns, the only team in the bottom seven last year that he didn't get to party against. Why does this matter? In terms of strength of schedule, last season Atlanta played the third-easiest rushing schedule in the NFL. In 2009, that will drop to dead last. If you want a more realistic idea of what to expect from Turner this year, then try this out:
If you prorate the 10 games Turner played against non-bottom-seven rush defenses last season, his stats for 2008 would have been 1,322 yards and 13 scores. All in all those numbers are solid, but definitely not worthy of top-five, or even first-round status. Those stats equate to 210 fantasy points, which places him as the 10th-best running back according to our 2009 projections.
I understand that some will have issues with projecting him over just those 10 games, but consider this: Turner's opponents in those 10 games last year averaged 108 rushing yards against per game. His complete 2009 schedule allowed 102 rushing yards per game last year. This means his 2009 schedule is even tougher than his 2008 schedule after you remove the six easiest opponents from last year's schedule.
Then, there's the passing game. As a rookie last season, Matt Ryan demonstrated he is more than a capable quarterback, he's a future star. By adding Tony Gonzalez to the receiving corps, the Falcons are signaling to all that Ryan will be increasingly responsible for moving Atlanta down the field through the air. Any extra yardage gained through the air means fewer opportunities for Turner on the ground.
At the end of the day, you need to take these two factors into account when projecting Turner's 2009 performance. Do you expect that he's going to improve on his 4.5 yards per carry from last year? Do you expect that he's going to get more touches this season? Do you believe that the splits versus normal teams and the bottom feeders are enough to move him down in your own personal rankings? Personally, I put a lot of stock in those splits and can't see an improvement in either of the other two metrics. Therefore, for me, Turner is severely overvalued this season and won't find his way onto any of my rosters this year.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available here.