Sleeper Alert: Mike Tolbert is Fantasy Relevant Again

Is it time for Mike Tolbert to become fantasy relevant again with Jonathan Stewart on the PUP?

The Jonathan Stewart news keeps getting worse.

Just a little over a month ago, I wrote an article warning fantasy owners about him and his dysfunctional ankles. At the time, he had just missed a measly golf outing – nothing major. But now, Stewart has been placed on the Panthers physically unable to perform list, and may not even be ready when he’s eligible to come off the list in Week 7.

Before we crowd the DeAngelo Williams bandwagon, let’s not get overly excited about a 30 year-old runner who hasn’t carried the ball 200 or more times since 2009. His opportunity will be there, especially over the first six weeks of the season, but Williams won’t be the only one benefiting from Jonathan Stewart’s fragile leg-to-foot connectors.

Fantasy football, let me reintroduce you to Mike Tolbert.

Tolbert’s NFL Career

Tolbert went undrafted and signed with San Diego back in 2008. He wasn’t a noteworthy runner (mind you, he’s a fullback) until the 2010 season, where he ran 182 times for 11 touchdowns alongside rookie running back Ryan Mathews. And although the multi-dimensional fullback only rushed for a 4.0 yards per carry average that season, his 11 scores showed that he had a knack for the end zone.

Tolbert finished that season as a top-20 fantasy running back.

Over the next two years – one with the Chargers and one with the Panthers – Tolbert would go on to score 15 more times. That's 9th best among all NFL running backs during this time. Counting his 2010 campaign, Mike Tolbert has five more rushing touchdowns than Chris Johnson, and seven more than Frank Gore.

Now, mind you, three of his touchdowns in 2012 came in Week 17 – a week that means next to nothing in fantasy football. But Tolbert had exactly two games in 2012 where he had more than five carries. And in those two contests, he scored five times.

Believe it: Mike Tolbert is a touchdown machine.

Tolbert’s scoring production isn’t the only thing to get excited about, either. Take a look below at his rushing efficiency rankings during the three seasons where he had 50 or more totes. And for fun, let’s compare DeAngelo’s over the same period.

PlayerYearRush AttemptsRush NEP/Attempt Rank
Mike Tolbert201018226th of 68
DeAngelo Williams20108763rd of 68
Mike Tolbert201111934th of 72
DeAngelo Williams20111555th of 72
Mike Tolbert2012545th of 72
DeAngelo Williams201217333rd of 72

Since becoming a relevant force in the ground game, Tolbert has yet to rank outside the top-50 percent in terms of rushing net expected points per attempt among 50-plus attempt runners. This number looks at how many points a player adds to his teams score, accounting for field position and game situation. It’s not just touchdown dependent. It’s efficiency dependent.

You could argue that Tolbert’s been better than Williams over the last three seasons on the ground. Williams has seen about 80 more touches, but had an incredibly poor 2010 season and a mediocre one in 2012. Tolbert, on the other hand, has been much more consistent.

Our own Nik Bonaddio summed up DeAngelo’s play perfectly:

“He's been average/below-average longer than Nickelback (not a single season in the RNEP top 20 since 2008) and he's the definition of winner by default: he is and has been the defacto starter in Carolina only because the other options are terrible and/or injured. Cam Newton clearly doesn't trust him, nor do the coaches - there's a reason why Cam himself (or worse, Mike Tolbert) gets all of the rushing calls in the red zone.”

Running Back Usage and Age

Let’s play a game called “Jonathan Stewart Isn’t Playing Football in 2013”.

Outside of Armond Smith’s three carries last year, Carolina running backs saw a total of 318 attempts. In 2011 with Cam under center, they ran their running backs 304 times. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume 310, even though this could fluctuate with new coordinator Mike Shula.

Let’s now take a look at the final five weeks of the Panthers 2012 season – games that Jonathan Stewart was absent for – to see how running back duties were split.

OpponentWilliams AttemptsTolbert Attempts

Williams saw 82 of the 113 carries between the two running backs, accounting for 72.5 percent of Carolina running back touches. If we were to assume this type of time share continues for an entire Jonathan Stewart-less season, DeAngelo would finish with around 225 touches, while Tolbert would get 85.

It should be noted that, since 2000, there have been just 19 30-plus-year old running backs with 225 or more carries in a single season (29 instances). Players like Emmitt Smith, Warrick Dunn, Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber accomplished this feat multiple times. But for the most part, we’re talking about incredibly accomplished running backs carrying the load at such an age. Can we say that about DeAngelo Williams? I have to question whether or not he can do it because he’s been anything but consistent over the years. That’s opportunity for Tolbert, folks.

Fantasy Football is a Value Game

I’m not saying that you should be ranking Mike Tolbert ahead of DeAngelo Williams entering 2013. That's just silly. I simply believe we may be overlooking the potential opportunity Tolbert has in the Panthers offense this year.

In all honesty, Tolbert could be the best Panthers fantasy running back value in 2013. Before you click the “X” in your browser and never come back to numberFire again, hear me out. Williams is risky. To me, very risky. The high-end of his potential carries this season seems to be just 225, and given his past efficiency, I’m not sure he can do a whole lot with the touches he does get. When you factor in his age and how many running backs actually gathered that type of volume at such an age, you get a concoction destined for failure given his sixth-round ADP.

On the other hand, Mike Tolbert is going undrafted. Nobody wants him. Yet, he clearly has touchdown potential, and if Williams does indeed drop off, he would see far more than 85-touches in a Jonathan Stewart-less offense. The best part? You're not having to spend any sort of high draft choice if Stewart comes back 100 percent.

This all comes down to two things. First, DeAngelo Williams is being overvalued. Not only is the Jonathan Stewart situation still filled with ambiguity, but even if Stewart doesn't play, Williams is going to have a hard time reaching a volume of carries that makes him worthwhile as a sixth round draft choice. Second, we can't - and shouldn't - overlook Mike Tolbert. He's been fantasy relevant in the past, and has had underrated efficiency scores in the NFL.

Tolbert isn't a sexy pick. His yards per carry average won't be high, and his 243-pound frame won't scamper for 50-yard scores. But given ADP, if you have to carry a Carolina Panther running back, he's the better value.