Wisdom of Crowds 2011: RBs
by Danny Tuccitto
For this week, our Wisdom of Crowds feature shifts to the running back position. As was the case with the quarterbacks, we chose backs who aren't near the top of the fantasy rankings, and who also have a reasonable level of uncertainty surrounding their prospects this season. According to their average draft positions (ADPs) over the course of hundreds of recent mock drafts, all five in this week's group have a 40-to-50-pick range between their earliest and latest selections. For instance, in 12-team leagues, Felix Jones is going as early as the second round, but as late as the sixth round. We think that's a perfect situation to use our ask-the-audience lifeline. Besides, we know you guys and gals are up for the challenge.
To refresh the memory of veterans (or create a memory for newbies), the way this all works is that we tweet a new player every weekday using Football Outsiders' Twitter account, and a small army of followers reply with their predictions for each player's season stats. The only rule of the game is that the predictions must assume the player will not miss any games. In exchange for letting us force an unrealistic assumption, we try to avoid choosing players who most sentient humans know will not play a full season. For instance, this sentence is the last time you'll see Joseph Addai, Reggie Bush, or Frank Gore in this article.
From here on out, what you'll see for each player are his average reader projection (with a margin of error), his best-case scenario projection, and his worst-case scenario projection. Because there was some confusion about this in last week's comment thread, the best and worst-case scenario projections treat each individual type of stat separately (for instance, yards separate from touchdowns). They're not the complete projection from our most and least-optimistic contributor. So, as an example, if Ickey Woods' best-case-scenario projection for 1988 was 400 carries for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, it doesn't mean Sam Wyche chimed in over the public address system with that exact prediction. Rather, Anthony Munoz predicted 400 carries, Max Montoya predicted 2,000 yards, and Rodney Holman predicted 20 touchdowns -- at least they would have if Football Outsiders and Twitter existed back then.
Monday: Knowshon Moreno
Average: 249 ± 22 carries, 985 ± 98 yards, 7 ± 2 TDs
Best-case scenario: 320 carries, 1350 yards, 13 TDs
Worst-case scenario: 150 carries, 600 yards, 3 TDs
Over the course of an injury-plagued 2010 season, Moreno ran the ball 182 times for 779 yards and 5 touchdowns in 13 games. That prorates to a 16-game performance of 224/959/6, which leads us to believe that the crowd thinks one of two things. Either an injured back in Josh McDaniels' allergic-to-the-run offense is the same as a healthy back in Mike McCoy's offense or Willis McGahee is likely to steal a lot of carries from Moreno. I'm assuming it's most likely the latter.
The Broncos appear to be setting up a thunder-and-lightning backfield situation ala the Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster days in Carolina. If that's the case, it makes sense that Moreno's touchdowns would be limited. However, given that McCoy's entire playing and coaching history has been in the passing game, it's not clear as of yet how the team will split carries in non-short-yardage situations. If McGahee ends up just being the team's short-yardage specialist, and if Moreno can stay healthy, it's possible that he'll beat the crowd's average projection. Those are two pretty big ifs, but that was kind of the point in choosing him for this little exercise.
Tuesday: Felix Jones
Average: 233 ± 14 carries, 1005 ± 68 yards, 7 ± 1 TDs
Best-case scenario: 350 carries, 1500 yards, 14 TDs
Worst-case scenario: 128 carries, 490 yards, 4 TDs
We're not sure whether or not Dallas is still America's Team, but America was awash in Jones predictions last week: He received the most responses to our Wisdom of Crowds tweets. After a few years of moonlighting between training table regular, returner, and one-third of the league's most undecipherable running back depth chart, Jones finally gets his chance to be a featured runner. His competitors for carries in the Dallas backfield include an injured rookie and an injured scat back who might not make the team, so the opportunity exists for Jones to have a season that approaches our readers' best-case-scenario.
Since Jason Garrett took control of the offense in 2008, Dallas backs have averaged about 370 carries per season. With a similar number of running back carries in their winning 2009 season (394) as in their losing 2010 season (364), there is a reasonably predictable workload to spread around whether the Cowboys re good or bad in 2011. In that context, and with little to no competition, it seems unlikely he'd have as few as the crowd predicts, unless perhaps Tony Romo gets hurt again, the Cowboys trade for Tim Tebow, and Garrett switches to a Gators-style spread offense.
Wednesday: Beanie Wells
Average: 223 ± 20 carries, 901 ± 84 yards, 7 ± 2 TDs
Best-case scenario: 300 carries, 1300 yards, 15 TDs
Worst-case scenario: 138 carries, 596 yards, 4 TDs
In contrast to Jones' favorable situation, Wells finds himself in yet another competition for carries on a team that runs as infrequently as any in the league. What's worse, the fact that there even is a competition is Wells' fault as much as anyone's: His inefficient 2010 season (40th of 46 qualifying running backs in DYAR) was one reason the team drafted his biggest competitor for playing time, Ryan Williams. Wells may start the season atop the depth chart, but it's quite possible he won't finish it there. Therefore, his best-case-scenario projection makes us think we need to go back and see if three of the Twitter replies were from @beaniew, @christopherw, and @cwells26.
Given his situation, the average projection seems much more plausible. Wells' prorated stats for 2010 would have been 143 carries, 489 yards, and 3 touchdowns. With the much-more-reliable Tim Hightower gone, and the aforementioned timeframe for Williams, a doubling of Wells' fantasy production is pretty likely, even though it still doesn't amount to what it could be if he ever convinced his team that he's any good.
Thursday: Mark Ingram
Average: 209 ± 16 carries, 903 ± 74 yards, 8 ± 2 TDs
Best-case scenario: 349 carries, 1500 yards, 18 TDs
Worst-case scenario: 160 carries, 672 yards, 3 TDs
It's common fantasy football knowledge -- or at least it should be -- that rookie running backs have a long history of immediately becoming elite running backs. However, it's not often that one enters a situation with such countervailing forces. New Orleans is a prolific offense, but a large majority of their yardage and scoring comes via the pass. Ingram's physique and skill set are perfectly suited for a feature-back role, but he got drafted by a team that legitimately goes four deep at his position when all are healthy.
Clearly, by the disparity between Ingram's best- and worst-case projections, readers are as confused as we are. One shake of the Magic 8 Ball confirms he's an absolute fantasy beast. The next confirms he's an absolute fantasy Beanie. (And the next mocks us with, "Ask again in 2012.") The Saints don't figure to -- or at least don't hope to -- go through another injury-driven running back carousel this season, so one indicator of how carries might be allocated this season is what happened in 2009. With Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell both reasonably healthy, their 319 carries were split 54-46, and averaged 4.5 yards a pop. (See, told you I wouldn't mention Reggie Bush again ... doh!) If we adjust this to account for the fact that Ingram is more talented and more of a team investment than Bell, then the average crowd projection looks promising.
Friday: Ryan Mathews
Average: 220 ± 28 carries, 901 ± 110 yards, 7 ± 2 TDs
Best-case scenario: 300 carries, 1250 yards, 10 TDs
Worst-case scenario: 140 carries, 550 yards, 4 TDs
If the Cowboys are America's Team for how many Felix Jones predictions we received, readers must consider the Chargers to be North Korea's Team (or possibly the Film Actors Guild's Team if readers are following this Team America: World Police joke). The lack of interest is why the error margins for Mathews are the largest of the week.
Of course, lack of interest might also be due to not really caring about the fate of a running back who almost certainly will be persona non grata near the goal line, and also figures to lose carries to Mike Tolbert far from said line. There are a couple of things working in Mathews' favor, though, which suggest he might match or exceed his average crowd projection. First, he's finally healthy after spending most of last season fighting the dreaded nagging groin injury. Second, Norv Turner has spent the last two decades coordinating offenses defined by a quintessential feature back. If Mathews shows he's up to the task early in the season, his role will likely expand.