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28 Jul 2008

Every Play Counts: Michael Turner

by Doug Farrar

There are times when player analysis is a review, and other times when it becomes a prospectus. We use the disclaimer that short windows of performance are not season or career indicators, but when you're talking about a player who is about to get his first significant playing time -- well, short windows are all you have.

This was the issue when I wrote about Aaron Rodgers's three-quarter performance against the Dallas Cowboys last November, and it is this way when analyzing Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner, one of the most highly-prized free agents of the last few years.

Once upon a time, Turner was a hot small-school prospect out of Northern Illinois. NFLDraftScout.com ranked him as the sixth-best collegiate running back of the 2004 draft class after he rushed for 3,563 yards in his junior and senior seasons combined and ran a sub-4.5 40 at the Scouting Combine at 5-foot-10 and 237 pounds. Selected in the fifth round by the Chargers, Turner was a little-used player behind LT2, but the flashes of brilliance were enough to draw interest from several teams while Turner was playing out his rookie contract. He put together some intriguing numbers through his first four seasons -- 5.5 yards per carry on 228 rushing attempts, with runs for over 70 yards in each of the last three seasons. The perception: Here was the next great running back, hidden behind a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer who was also one of the most durable players in the game. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith tried dangling Turner for first- and third-round draft picks for a while, but decided to hang on to his toy. When Turner became an unrestricted free agent in 2008, someone was bound to splurge.

The Atlanta Falcons, desperate for a total makeover on and off the field, made Turner their big free-agent ticket in March. They signed him to a six-year, $34.5 million contract with $15 million guaranteed. The team's new coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, saw Turner as the centerpiece of their new power running game. They pulled the trigger on this deal after watching Turner's 2007 postseason, when he rushed 43 times for 164 yards in San Diego's three playoff games -- wins over the Titans and Colts and the 21-12 loss to the Patriots that ended both San Diego's season and Turner's time as a backup.

We'll put Turner's performance against the Pats under the microscope and see what it reveals. Then, we'll widen the view and talk about the contract and its implications.

New England 21, San Diego 12

Though New England's overall defense seemed less invincible after Rosevelt Colvin's season-ending foot injury in Week 12, their run defense was very solid in the postseason. Against Jacksonville, San Diego, and the Giants, the Patriots put up run defense DVOA ratings of -25.3%, -10.5%, and -20.2%, respectively. They allowed less than four yards per carry against the Jags and Giants, while the Chargers had a 4.73 yards per carry average in the AFC Championship Game. Turner had 17 carries in this game because Tomlinson lasted two possessions alternating with Turner and Darren Sproles. After that, he was seen mostly on the sidelines behind a blank facemask visor, with the media entertaining all sorts of speculation. (Quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates also missed time with various injuries.)

Turner also had 17 carries in the divisional win over the Colts the week before. Tomlinson left that game after seven carries with a bruised left knee. Turner gained 71 yards against Indy, and 65 against New England. His longest run against the Colts was 19 yards; his longest against the eventual AFC champions was 12 yards. Pretty similar results. Let's see how it happened against the Pats.

From the Inside

Dave Te' Thomas, who now writes the pre-draft scouting reports for NFL.com, wrote for NFLDraftScout.com in 2004 that two of Turner's primary characteristics as a college runner were a lack of top-level burst, and an ability to turn on the jets over time with a free lane in front him. I take that to mean that Turner lacked short-area quickness (either straight ahead or side-to-side), which is what I saw in this game. His default read seems to be either gap outside center, or an occasional shake outside the left guard. He seems to take an inordinate amount of time with runs that develop off-tackle. Right guard Mike Goff will pull left pretty frequently, and motion left outside left tackle Marcus McNeill presnap once in a while. I saw Turner run behind both guard motions in this game.

Turner displayed a smooth running style when the line created lanes for him. With 11:49 left in the first quarter, San Diego lined up in an offset I with fullback Lorenzo Neal, and Turner headed left with the handoff. Neal sealed linebacker Adalius Thomas outside, left guard Kris Dielman engaged end Richard Seymour inside, and Goff, pulling left, did the same with linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Receiver Vincent Jackson (whose willingness and ability to block really impressed me in this game) chipped free safety James Sanders downfield, and Turner rumbled for five yards before Rodney Harrison came up and made the stop.

Turner's leg drive and ability to extend plays, were evident on his most productive play of the day. With 6:55 left in the first quarter, the Chargers lined up single-back on first-and-10 from their own 40. Center Nick Hardwick took tackle Vince Wilfork out of the play and to the ground. McNeill took end Jarvis Green away from the play outside, and Goff pulled to take Bruschi out again. Jackson chipped cornerback Ellis Hobbs on the edge. Turner headed left, got past Wilfork's outstretched hand and Harrison's tackle attempt, and fought for extra yardage after Thomas and Sanders tried to wrap him up. Turner broke two tackles on this play and displayed a good level of straight-ahead toughness.

However, what separates the elite power backs from the average is the ability to make things happen without textbook blocking, and that's what I didn't see with Turner. For every sashay through a free lane, there were two pile-pushers up the middle with no bounce outside or sneaking through seams. The downturn in productivity when Andrew Pinnock spelled Neal for certain plays was graphic and disconcerting. Neal has been one of the NFL's best blockers, regardless of position, whereas Pinnock blocks like a guy 30 pounds lighter than he really is. That's Pinnock's problem, but Turner's inability to transcend less-than-amazing blocking is now Atlanta's.

With 12:47 left in the second quarter, the Chargers had first-and-10 from the New England 39. The Pats had five on the line, and Turner had a lane between Hardwick and Dielman, but Bruschi shed Pinnock's "block" and brought Turner down after a 4-yard gain. One minute later, Turner's 1-yard gain on first-and-9 from the New England 8 was due to Pinnock's inability to contain Thomas. Turner looked like he wanted to bounce outside for a brief moment, but he had to head back in, where Ty Warren was waiting for him.

Sometimes, Turner will fail to take an available outside lane, as he did halfway through the second quarter. After New England's Kelly Washington volleyballed a Pats punt out of the end zone, starting the Chargers off at their own 4, San Diego set up in an I-formation, then motioned to an offset I with Neal in the backfield. Neal, as he did consistently through the game, took Thomas out at the edge. Dielman pinched Jarvis Green inside, and Goff pulled left to deal with the middle defenders. Turner had a hole between Neal and Dielman, and he didn't take it. He cut back inside, where Green and Wilfork stopped him. Turner got 4 yards on the play, but more were available. Vincent Jackson even had Sanders blocked out at the second level. Turner practically had a police escort outside, but you get the feeling after watching him enough that he might not have optimal faith in his own outside speed.

Of course, the one time he did bang it outside, Junior Seau stopped him dead in his tracks. This is a signature Seau play; I saw him do it to Brandon Jacobs in New England's regular-season finale/Super Bowl preview as well. On third-and-1 from the New England 4 and 9:22 left in the third quarter, Seau shot the left center gap on a delayed run blitz as Turner was looking for something outside, and busted him for a loss of two. As we detailed in the Championship Round of Audibles at the Line, New England was deadly with key third-down stops on this day, and this was Seau's contribution. Another field goal instead of a touchdown for San Diego, and the clock on the Chargers' season -- not to mention Michael Turner's time as an NFL backup -- was ticking.

What Does it All Mean?

Several things stand out with the Turner deal:

  • The "Breather Effect", which we featured in the Atlanta chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 -- that phenomenon which allows backups behind elite backs to shine in sample-size installments.
  • The "DeShaun Foster Rule," which decrees that, for whatever stupid reason, a team will give the preponderance of carries to the less effective back (the NFC South really took this one to heart last year). Conversely, there's the…
  • …Maurice Morris "What About Me?" factor, which tends to happen when the better back has to watch the free-agent straggler from another team come in, with his inferior numbers behind better run-blocking; and
  • The Cautionary Tale of Edgerrin James, which advises teams to learn from the 2006 Arizona Cardinals. To wit: Don't blow your money on a big-time back when your offensive line sucks eggs.

Let's take them one at a time. Turner hasn't proven anything in the NFL beyond the ability to entice several different front offices with a skill set that intrigues from a distance. That is not to say that he's a bad player; it's more to say that we don't know what kind of player he is. When Marshall Faulk first talked about the "Breather Effect" on the NFL Network's 2008 Combine coverage as it related to Arkansas back Felix Jones putting up gaudy YPC behind Darren McFadden, it made us ask the question: When are these numbers in small doses as much about defenses easing up when the big guy is out of the picture? What we found is that there is very little correlation between small-sample success and long-term marquee productivity. One does not foretell the other.

When Turner and Jerious Norwood are in the same backfield, or alternating playing time with fullback Ovie Mughelli blocking for them, what will we see? If 2007 plays true to form, we'll see Norwood and his $631,166 2008 salary cap figure out-producing Turner and his $3.75 million cap hit. The money dictates a different carry percentage than the numbers do. Turner finished first in DVOA among running backs in 2006, when the San Diego offensive line finished first in Adjusted Line Yards, 10+ Rank, and Stuffed Rank. When the line plummeted to 24th in ALY in 2007, Turner's DVOA went right along with it (you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find him), while Tomlinson still ranked second in DYAR and 11th in DVOA. Apparently, the Falcons didn't think a mid-round draft pick could mirror this type of production.

Meanwhile, in one of the more interesting statistical oddities in recent memory, Norwood finished first in DVOA last year among running backs with at least 100 rushes, despite the fact that Atlanta's offensive line ranked dead last in Adjusted Line Yards. It will be a while before you see anyone do that again. It will also be a while before Atlanta's offensive linemen are challenging for Pro Bowl spots.

We have seen a team with the worst line in football blow big bucks on a running back before -- the aforementioned Cardinals, after finishing 32nd in ALY in 2005, signed ex-Colt Edgerrin James to a four-year, $30 million deal with $11.5 million in first-year bonuses. James went from the league's best run-blocking line to the worst (according to ALY), with predictable results. After firing Dennis Green following the 2006 season, the Cardinals brought in a new coaching staff, including former Steelers line coach Russ Grimm, and have committed much more attention to the line. That's what it takes.

The Falcons aren't the only team this offseason to invest heavily in a back who displayed less behind a better offensive line than an incumbent. The Seahawks signed Julius Jones to a front-loaded, medium-sized deal. and he will lead Seattle's new committee approach. The problem? Longtime Seattle backup Maurice Morris was more productive than Jones in 2007, though Dallas's offensive line ranked higher in ALY. It really isn't possible to add this kind of average, line-dependent production through the draft, especially in one of the more stacked running back classes in recent memory?

The Falcons have decided that the numbers don't tell the story. The hope is that Michael Turner won't make them pay for it in more ways than one.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 28 Jul 2008

16 comments, Last at 06 Aug 2008, 10:47am by Hans Steiniger


by b roo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 1:59pm

He's going way too high in most fantasy drafts I've seen. I'll stay away and pick up Jonathan Stewart instead.

by langsty (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 2:34pm

"The downturn in productivity when Andrew Pinnock spelled Neal for certain plays was graphic and disconcerting. Neal has been one of the NFL’s best blockers, regardless of position, whereas Pinnock blocks like a guy 30 pounds lighter than he really is. That’s Pinnock’s problem, but Turner’s inability to transcend less-than-amazing blocking is now Atlanta’s."

The deal makes a lot more sense to me after reading this. They probably scouted Turner as a player who not only would make a good fit for Mularkey's system, but as one who could best make use of Ovie Mughelli (one of the better blocking fullbacks in the league)

As a Falcons fan, I wasn't really sold on the Turner signing when it happened, for many of the reasons outlined above. But I can understand the rationale, and I don't think it was a bad move by any means. The coaching staff has already indicated that Norwood is going to have a bigger role in the offense this year, and I'm hoping it's something like a 40/60 split, carries-wise, between him and Turner.

by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 4:38pm

Great article, but one topic that wasn't mentioned was receiving. By all accounts, Turner is essentially a zero when it comes to catching any kind of pass. And what about his blocking? I'm a Chargers fan and I have no idea if Turner was any good at blitz pick-up. I don't think he ever came in on third down when LT was healthy. Taken together, I predict that we'll rarely see Turner in on third down passing situations (and every third down seems to be a passing situation these days). I'm not saying it was a bad pick-up because I like Turner and I think he can be effective, but I do think that Atlanta overpaid for the services that he'll provide. Turner is a bruiser, I guy that we'll keep his legs moving and power through a tackle or three. He'll avoid any negative runs but miss out on some long ones because of it. I think he's perfect for a committee because he can tire out a defense and let another running back handle the playmaking, the receiving, and the blocking. If Norwood can do all that, I think we'll see a pretty good running tandem in Atlanta (assuming their offensive line does alright). But one of the main advantages of a committee is that you can save cap space by not overpaying any of your (fungible) backs, and this is where Atlanta is going to be hurt by the signing.

by dimeford (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 4:41pm

I'm happy Turner's getting a shot at a starting position but remember how good LT's previous back-up, Jesse Chatman, looked? Six yards per carry in 2004 with San Diego and he's been bouncing in and out of the league ever since. He had some other issues (namely weight) but being an effective back-up and being an effective starter are just completely different things.

by Temo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 4:41pm

2. If Norwood is supposed to play an increased role, then why give Michael Turner starting back money? Stuff just doesn't add up for me.

by The McNabb Bowl Game Anomaly (aka SJM) (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 4:43pm

This article sounds a lot like the one from a few weeks back about Ernest Graham. Maybe Turner is a little better than Graham, but not by the amount he's getting paid.

OTOH, the one caution about Norwood is that he seems injury-prone and can't carry a heavy load, so the Falcons did have to add somebody. I agree with Farrar that it would have been wiser to turn to the draft though, rather than paying star money to a limited player.

by MC2 (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 6:10pm

I seriously doubt that the Falcons' O-Line is actually the worst in the league, at least not when it comes to run blocking. Much of the problem last year was not the inability of the line to open holes, but rather Dunn's complete lack of the burst necessary to go through them. I saw this with my own eyes, and the stats back it up. How else can you explain the fact that Norwood lead the league in DVOA, while Dunn finished dead last (among those with 100 or more attempts)? You can't blame all of it on the line. After all, Norwood was running behind the same line.

by Dave Gerczak (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 6:15pm

Another excellent article by Football Outsiders. This is such quality, detailed information about why to avoid a player like Turner. I personally feel that making a list of players to avoid can be as helpful as finding players to target.

Great information and please, keep it coming!


by Dachs (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 9:55pm

Great article, I was considering taking him in the 2nd or early 3rd round of fantasy drafts, now I'll be reconsidering that.

But like #7 said, Atlanta's OL can't really be the worst in the league if Norwood was #1 in DVOA, can it? It's not like the line fell down and Norwood pulled a Tecmo Bo on every carry.

by Alex (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 11:18pm

2. If Norwood is supposed to play an increased role, then why give Michael Turner starting back money?

Because they had to give him that much money to get him to sign with the team, whereas Norwood was already on the team, signed to a cheaper contract? What, were they supposed to re-sign Norwood for starting RB money, too? Exactly why would they do that, when they already have him signed to a less expensive contract?

They can increase Norwood's role in the offense considerably without spending another dime. And they probably will. But even after they do that, there will be plenty of carries left over for Turner. For instance, if the Falcons give Norwood and Turner 330 combined carries (which is what they gave Dunn and Norwood, combined, in 2007), and split carries evenly between the two, they'll be increasing Norwood's carries by over 60%. If they give them 385 combined carries (which is what they gave Dunn and Norwood, combined, in 2006), and split carries 40-60 between Norwood-Turner, they'll still be increasing Norwood's carries by about 50%.

And it's not like they think Turner's 6 times as good as Norwood just because his cap hit is 6 times greater. There's no way of knowing how much they would be willing to pay Norwood if he were a free agent, so I'm puzzled at all the talk about how "The money dictates a different carry percentage than the numbers do." Do you really think teams determine the carry percentage based on the cap numbers? Somehow, I think other factors are far more important.

For example, in each of the last two years, Fred Taylor's cap hit has been roughly 10 times greater than that of Maurice Jones-Drew, but MJD still got over 40% of their combined carries. They're paying Fred Taylor starting RB money, while they pay MJD about half of what an average backup RB makes. Yet MJD still gets a good portion of the team's carries. And in 2007, the Broncos gave Selvin Young almost as many carries as Travis Henry, despite Henry's cap hit being over 6 times greater than Young's, and the signing bonus he received in 2007 ($6 million) being 30 times greater than Young's ($20,000).

This is known as the "Draft Picks on their rookie contracts have lower cap hits than Free Agents" phenomenon. It does not dictate playcalling. All it dictates is the number the team has to write on each player's paycheck.

by Alaska Jack (not verified) :: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 11:59pm

"The “Breather Effect”, which we featured in the Atlanta chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 — that phenomenon which allows backups behind elite backs to shine in sample-size installments."

I thought this was called the "Barry Redden effect."

- Alaska Jack

by Temo (not verified) :: Tue, 07/29/2008 - 12:06pm

10. You misunderstand my post. I'm not saying that Norwood should make more money; I understand what rookie contracts are. But in a league with a salary cap you should strive to get the most value for your money. So I don't understand the rationale of giving Turner so much money (and it's not just starting-back money, but really good starting back money) if you're not going to use him as a starter.

Especially with how fungible the RB position is, you could have probably done just as well rolling the dice on a 2nd or 3rd round RB pick and have him split carries. Maybe you don't get Turner's production, but you save on the money and probably get more value per dollar. The only way I could see giving up this much money for a part-time back is if you're close to having a great team and you want to push yourself over the edge (i.e. the cowboys using a mid-1st round pick on a 3rd down/special teams RB). And even that I think is a little excessive.

Let me ask you this: do you ever see a team like the Colts or Patriots giving up this much money for a part time back? If you can find a young, stud player who is going to anchor the position for you for a long time and give you good production then it's worth it. Otherwise, you've just wasted money.

by Alex (not verified) :: Tue, 07/29/2008 - 1:43pm

But in a league with a salary cap you should strive to get the most value for your money.

Not with your starters. You can get the high value production from backups. With starters, just get the best lineup you can. The salary cap isn't the only restriction on personnel, and certainly not the most important one.

So I don’t understand the rationale of giving Turner so much money (and it’s not just starting-back money, but really good starting back money) if you’re not going to use him as a starter.

Well, if it's the difference between having him on your team and not having him, and your salary cap situation isn't too dire, it might make sense to pay more for a good RB to be part of a RBBC. Remember, if they're paying Norwood less than $1 million, they can afford to pay Turner starting RB money and not spend any more on the RB position than most other teams. Look at it this way: they can spend about as much as an average team does on their RBs, and get two starting quality RBs who can split carries, keeping each other fresh and guarding against injury. That's not such a bad deal, in that light.

Especially with how fungible the RB position is, you could have probably done just as well rolling the dice on a 2nd or 3rd round RB pick and have him split carries.

See, that's why the salary cap isn't the most important restriction on personnel. To get a RB of Turner's quality cheaply, they would've had to use a draft pick. That draft pick could've been used on a player at a position they can't fill with a good FA, but now they'd be using that draft pick on a RB.

Basically, getting Turner as a FA meant they were trading salary cap space for a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick. And I'd say it was well worth it to make that kind of trade. That freed them up to fill a hole at LB or WR that they might not have been able to fill in FA.

Maybe you don’t get Turner’s production, but you save on the money and probably get more value per dollar.

But what do you do with this money you save? If you don't have another FA in mind to spend it on, then you haven't increased the value on your team. You can't just draft another player and spend it on them, because then you'd have to get another draft pick. So unless you have some other FA to spend it on, that money won't increase your team's value. And since the salary cap is fixed, your value per dollar won't increase, either.

They could either go into next year with their current roster + Turner, or with their current roster + extra salary cap space. Now, I'm not sure how well Turner follows blockers, breaks tackles, etc, but I bet he does it better than a giant pile of hundred dollar bills.

Now, I know what you're thinking, "but they could spend that extra salary cap space to extend talented, young players who are already on the team, so that they don't lose them to FA in future years. That would make their team better down the road."

And, in theory, that makes perfect sense. That's what teams like the Chargers and Colts do. Trouble is, the Falcons don't have that many talented, young players on their team already. They went 4-12, after all. So they spent that salary cap money to add more talent to the team. I see that as an uncharacteristically wise decision by the Falcons front office.

by pete (not verified) :: Tue, 07/29/2008 - 2:55pm

#9, if you have a top pick, then a wrap around i think you could do much worse than Turner in rd 3. He will be a solid no 2 fantasy back if you have a top 3 guy (which you would have with an early first round pick). all depends on how the draft is going

by cowfez (not verified) :: Fri, 08/01/2008 - 12:27am

So, what now? Why is everyone posting here acting as if this article is the final word on the matter? How many of you actually watched Turner play for the last four years?

The guy is a legitimate starting quality running back and a good one. Chatman put up similar numbers to Turner for a couple seasons, but anyone who watched the two of them could tell you that there is no way Chatman is any more than a third-string runner.

Yes, Turner showed considerably less burst in '07 than in previous years. He may have been injured, or he may have been protecting his body. This is the only concern I would have with him.

Is anyone on the Outsiders staff willing to wager a copy of PFP on Turner having a strong year behind a poor line?

I am absolutely certain that, barring injury, Turner will have a very good career.

by Hans Steiniger (not verified) :: Wed, 08/06/2008 - 10:47am

Excellent article. Michael Turner is sure to go extremmely high in fantasy drafts this year becasue he was the marqee free agent acquisition at the running back position this offseason. The problem with the second string running back, toiling in anonymity behind the starter, is that when they get their shot they rarely produce. The backup running back on every team is always a popular guy ... all he needs is "his big break" or a shot at a starting gig. If a guy is riding the pine on an NFL team, there is generally a reason for it ... how many second string guys have made the transition to starter and blown away the competition in terms of fantasy football numbers? Do the names Chester Taylor, Derrick Blaylock, Kevan Barlow, LaMont Jordan, or Jesse Chatman strike you as fantasy football all-stars?