Warholabowie: Rashard Mendenhall: Currently the second-best ranked player, Green risk AND some playoff bonus?!?! I find it hard to imagine that it's just because of: 1) Big Ben's suspension 2) no Santonio Holmes 3) no Willie Parker. Did the Steelers improve their o-line? Did they get an easy-to-run against schedule? I'm very interested to see why KUBIAK thinks so highly of Mendenhall.
Aaron Schatz: So, this seems to be the most controversial projection in this year's KUBIAK. Not a shock, because Mendenhall is our "surprise entry" into 2010's fantasy top five. It is a little weird for people to be that surprised, because it isn't like the same five running backs repeat as the most valuable players in fantasy football year after year. Nonetheless, let's go through some reasons.
1) He has no job competition. The backup running back, Mewelde Moore, is basically just a third-down back. Third-stringer Jonathan Dwyer is a promising late-round draft pick, but still just a late-round draft pick. There aren't going to be a lot of running backs with less competition for carries -- and two of them are the player ranking ahead of Mendenhall in standard leagues (Chris Johnson) and one of the three players who rank ahead of Mendenhall in PPR leagues (Maurice Jones-Drew).
2) Pittsburgh will run much more than in 2009. If you've read the book, you already know that we're going against conventional wisdom by projecting a defense-driven playoff appearance for Pittsburgh despite the Roethlisberger suspension and other issues. More wins means more carries and more touchdowns. In addition, it's pretty darn likely that the Pittsburgh offense will feature a higher percentage of runs in the first six weeks with someone other than Roethlisberger under center.
3) Schedule does play a factor. Projecting run defense is a lot harder than projecting pass defense, but we know that the defenses of the AFC East and the NFC South are both generally better against the pass than against the run.
4) General trends are in Mendenhall's favor. We're talking about a first-round pick in his third season moving into the starting lineup. That's usually a recipe for success. Two-year similarity scores for Mendenhall highlight a good number of breakout running backs. The most similar two-year span belonged to Wendell Tyler in 1978-1979, which doesn't tell us anything because Tyler injured his hip in an offseason auto accident and only played four games at the end of 1980. However, the second most similar span belongs to Rudi Johnson in 2002-2003. Like Mendenhall, Johnson took carries away from a struggling veteran and then took over the starting job the next season -- with a dozen touchdowns and over 1,400 yards.
Other similar players and what happened to them the next season: