Who Should Be the Number One Running Back?

The numberFire football writers debate whether Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy should be the top fantasy running back in 2014.

Fantasy analysts don't always get along. They don't always agree. And while our algorithms spit out some amazing projections each and every year, we're bound to disagree with the computers at times.

Insert the fantasy football roundtable, where the football guys here at numberFire are able to disagree and argue for a particular player or ranking in fantasy football. The topic for today: Who should be the number one running back in fantasy football?

The Argument for Jamaal Charles

From Drew Lieberman

If you have the first overall pick in fantasy football this year, Jamaal Charles should be your choice.

Charles tops our FireFactor rankings, which uses a player’s projected point total against the value of a replacement at the position. In a standard scoring setting, Charles’ FireFactor number tops 235, over 15 points higher than second-place LeSean McCoy and over 40 points higher than Adrian Peterson. Just know that our computers love him.

Charles’ career began in 2008, but he didn’t break 70 carries in that season, so his real usage began for all intents and purposes in 2009. Conveniently, that was LeSean McCoy’s rookie year, and Adrian Peterson’s third year in the league, so the numbers of all three can be compared pretty easily since 2009.

NameTotal NEPTotal NEP RB RankRushing NEPRushing NEP RB Rank
Jamaal Charles192.342nd83.631st
LeSean McCoy172.473rd58.122nd
Adrian Peterson109.918th 50.593rd

The above table looks at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric as well as Rushing Net Expected Points (Rushing NEP), both of which help determine how a player’s performance impacts his team’s final score. As you can see above, since 2009, Charles leads the three running backs in both categories, despite missing most of the 2011 season to an ACL injury. With a healthy 2011 campaign, there's not much reason to think Charles wouldn’t be significantly further from the pack.

With Andy Reid still the head coach in Kansas City, I think Charles could very well perform at a similar level as last season in which he amassed the third-highest point total by a running back since 2009, while only participating in the team’s first 15 contests.

A big reason for this was the offense’s reliance on Charles inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, where Charles totaled 14 of his 19 total touchdowns on 32 touches. When comparing this to his six touches inside the 10 in 2012 and 12 in 2010, it's clear that he's more of a focal point near the end zone than he was before Reid arrived in Kansas City.

But why I think Charles can provide value that McCoy and Peterson can’t is ultimately his contribution to the passing game. Last season, Charles set career-highs in pretty much every receiving category. He had nearly as many yards receiving as McCoy and Peterson combined (693 versus 710), over double their receiving scores (seven versus three) and now McCoy has Darren Sproles to compete with on third downs and for passes out of the backfield. Five of Charles’ touchdowns and nearly half of his yards came from passes outside of the backfield, and with the football in his hands, he's a threat to score from anywhere on the field.

Charles’ role in the passing game provides him a high floor that the other two backs don’t necessarily have, especially in PPR formats. Even if his carries take a dip, Charles is still going to produce elite numbers. No disrespect to McCoy or Peterson, but a healthy Charles will be the best fantasy running back in 2014.

The Argument for Adrian Peterson

From Brandon Gdula

I'm not afraid to take on the challenge of suggesting that Peterson should go first overall. Jim Sannes did a good job discussing why Peterson may be fade-worthy this season, but every back in the discussion has some question marks. Every player does.

The main issue with fantasy backs is regression. It's not often people are willing to vault unproven rushers into the number-one discussion, so it's not a surprise that the two prime candidates are Charles and McCoy, two guys who have track records of being near the top of the fantasy leaderboards.

However, top-level fantasy production can come and go and never come back. That's never been the case with Peterson, even during his down years. Sure, Peterson has had his struggles from injury and from poor supporting casts, but he's never failed to place outside the top eight at running back in seven years.

Three of his seven seasons were good for first or second. That's absurd.

He's also been able to produce elite Rushing NEP marks as well. He finished second in 2011 and first in 2012 in the metric. Aside from finishing 33rd in 2009, he's never finished outside the top-18 in his career, and 4 of his 7 years were top-10 Rushing NEP finishes.

The point is, all backs regress to an extent, and Peterson's steps back have only been temporary. Charles could repeat as the top fantasy back, but history isn't on his side. Here's how the top fantasy backs fared in subsequent years. The drops don't deem former-number-ones useless, but repeating as number one is optimistic at best.

SeasonFantasy RB1PointsFollowing Year PtsDifferenceRank
2012Adrian Peterson307.4203.7-103.78
2011Ray Rice298.8222.1-76.76
2010Arian Foster327.0250.1-76.94
2009Chris Johnson345.9229.9-116.05
2008DeAngelo Williams285.6177.9-107.714
2007LaDainian Tomlinson307.6224.6-83.06

Fourth is the highest a back has been able to achieve after leading backs in scoring. So while scoring leaders dip, others have to take over. And the runner-up doesn't get to snag the crown the next year.

SeasonFantasy RB2PointsFollowing Year PtsDifferenceRank
2012Doug Martin262.656.2-206.458
2011LeSean McCoy281.4145.3-136.122
2010Adrian Peterson240.9187.9-53.07
2009Adrian Peterson282.8240.9-41.92
2008Michael Turner273.0146.6-126.423
2007Brian Westbrook280.4215.8-64.610

Peterson owns the two smallest drop offs of the 12 top-two backs in the sample, but also owns a tangible decline last year, in fairness. But since we're being fair, he missed two games and would have been top-five last season, and dropping 74.6 points from his league-leading 2012 season.

That would give him three of the four smallest declines out of the 12 backs in the sample. You can cite his age and his injuries and his sub-par teammates. But regression is real, and Peterson is the least affected by it of anyone (thanks to his 10-plus touchdowns every season), which is why I'd draft him all day over Charles and McCoy whose quest to the top in 2014 would be quite historic.

The Argument for LeSean McCoy

From Daniel Lindsey

You want to judge a running back by how he's used, right? You want him to get enough carries to make a difference, and a few receptions out of the backfield doesn’t hurt either. Take a glance at the table below to see how Shady, Jamaal Charles, and Adrian Peterson were all used in 2013.

RushesRush NEP per RushSuccess RateReceptionsReception NEP per TargetSuccess Rate
LeSean McCoy3140.1251.30%520.4981.3%
Adrian Peterson2800.0340.36%290.2172.50%
Jamaal Charles2600.0546.15%700.5367.14%

McCoy didn’t just outrush both backs, but did it more efficiently as well. He had over 300 rushing attempts for the first time in his career, yet still destroyed the other two rushers in Rushing NEP on a per attempt basis. And we should expect that to continue with Chip Kelly’s offense. Charles, on the other hand, had over 70 receptions (on 104 targets) with Andy Reid at the helm. While I still think Charles could catch a lot of balls this year, that's quite a jump in just one campaign with a new captain. McCoy has averaged 58 receptions per season over the last four years, whereas Charles’ never had more than 45 receptions before last season.

Another thing to point out is the fact that McCoy's Success Rate both on the ground and through the air a season ago trumped the other two runners. This measures the percentage of rushes or receptions that contribute positively towards a player's NEP, which is a clear sign of consistency. McCoy wins that debate.

Charles may not regress in receptions, and Peterson could even see an increase over his usual 29 receptions per year with Norv Turner. But there’s no denying the fact that, of the running backs considered to be the top ones overall, it's LeSean McCoy who has done well consistently both on the ground and through the air through the years. That's why he should be the first running back selected this year.