2012 Fantasy Football in Review: Running Backs

Did anybody really think Jamaal Charles could come back and be a top ten fantasy RB? That's right, our stats did.

Yesterday, we took at look at the Top 10 Fantasy QBs from our preseason predictions and how they compared to what actually happened. Other than Matt Schaub flailing about in Houston, our picks were actually pretty good, especially trusting Matt Ryan more than others and Matthew Stafford less than others.

But would that success continue for the running backs? The answer is a resounding "Meh."

Some of the guys we liked more than others, such as Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, indeed did that well. And two of the guys we wondered aloud why they were first round picks in many drafts, DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden, absolutely flamed out.

But then again, others of our top selections such as Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner, flamed out, while the rookies Martin and Morris did better than our analytics even thought they would get remotely near.

The Top Tens

Preseason Draft Kit
1. Arian Foster: 280.78 Fantasy Points (FP)
2. Ray Rice: 253.89 FP
3. LeSean McCoy: 237.43 FP
4. Adrian Peterson: 212.94 FP
5. Maurice Jones-Drew: 208.15 FP
6. Chris Johnson: 199.51 FP
7. Steven Jackson: 192.57 FP
8. Marshawn Lynch: 176.21 FP
9. Michael Turner: 175.91 FP
10. Jamaal Charles: 171.33 FP

End of the Season
1. Adrian Peterson: 297 FP
T-2. Arian Foster: 248 FP
T-2. Doug Martin: 248 FP
4. Marshawn Lynch: 234 FP
5. Alfred Morris: 230 FP
6. Ray Rice: 207 FP
7. C.J. Spiller: 199 FP
8. Jamaal Charles: 192 FP
9. Stevan Ridley: 191 FP
10. Frank Gore: 190 FP

Right on Target, Sir

Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Preseason Projection: No. 10 RB, 171.33 FP
End of Season Total: No. 8 RB, 192 FP

Lost in all the commotion (and, I mean, it is deserved) is that he's not the only back to come off an ACL tear and be a top ten fantasy back this year. I mean, come on, who expected Jamaal Charles to come back after getting injured in Week 1, 2011, put up 10 FP per game, and be a top ten back right away?

Oh yeah. We did.

Because also lost in the commotion is that, well, Jamaal Charles' 2010 was the single most efficient season for a back with at least 150 carries since we our Net Expected Points (NEP) data began in 2000.

Our NEP formula measures just how many points a player gains or loses on average when compared to the league-average play in the same situation. Since passing is more efficient than running when compared to the average, most running backs score in the negatives in NEP. In fact, only two backs scored in the positives this year in NEP per rush average: C.J. Spiller and Adrian Peterson both ended at 0.03 NEP per rush.

Take a look at that number. Then realize that in his last full season, Jamaal Charles had put up 0.18 NEP per rush, and over 47 percent of his carries were successful in increasing the Chiefs' chance to score on the drive.

If Charles could even match a portion of that efficiency while staying moderately healthy, we knew he would be in for a big year. And he did just that: his -0.08 NEP per rush was tied for 10th among running backs with at least 200 carries, and his 285 rushing attempts ranked seventh in the NFL.

Coming Out of Left Field

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Preseason Projection: No. 27 RB, 135.39 FP
End of Season Total: No. 2 RB, 248 FP

Oh those rookies, giving our projections fits. Just like I talked about yesterday with RGIII, our current projection system doesn't take college stats into account. I mean, how much worse are the Mountain West defenses that Martin was facing while at Boise State? Ten times? Twenty times? In the case of the Buffalo Bills defense, maybe two times?

Because of that little wrinkle, all we can go on with fantasy backs is the average past rookie back, the overall efficiency of the rushing offense, and how many carries the back is expected to have. And none of those factors allowed Martin to stand out as a breakout candidate, and one even showed why he wouldn't perform well fantasy-wise.

Last season, while Tampa Bay performed poorly through the air, their rush game actually wasn't half bad. Their -0.08 NEP per rush actually ranked 16th among all NFL teams, so the framework was there for an average season, but not a great one.

What wasn't there, however, was a guarantee that he was going to get all of the carries. Remember LeGarrette Blount? He was actually on our draft kit this year, as our No. 44 RB. And there was precedent for a limited rushing total as well - Blount only had 184 carries as the starter in 2011 as the Bucs passed the ball on 63.0 percent of their offensive plays.

This year, though, the gameplan took a turn Martin's way. The Bucs only passed on 57.6 percent of their offensive plays, and Martin received 319 carries as compared to Blount's 41. And while he was middle of the road efficiency-wise - his -0.08 NEP per rush tied (with Charles as mentioned above) for 10th of the 23 backs with at least 200 carries - he was able to amass quantity over quality en route to a monster fantasy season.

Alfred Morris could also easily be in this spot, but nobody even knew he was going to start until right before Week 1. (Hilariously looking back, I had Evan Royster as a Week 1 sleeper. Hey, I was right about the Redskins running the ball!) With Doug Martin, though, we knew he was going to start and put up something. We just didn't know how much.

Back Into Hiding

Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
Preseason Projection: No. 9 RB, 175.91 FP
End of Season Total: No. 18 RB, 146 FP

Sure, LeSean McCoy didn't live up to expectations along with the rest of the Eagles team, and Maurice Jones-Drew apparently has a hit out on his foot by the Anti-Three-Named Mafia. But it brings me physical pain to think that the numbers were so high on Michael Turner entering 2012.

The main issue that everyone believed with Turner entering this season had to do with his high carries count over his past four seasons. And to be fair, they had a point: having over 300 carries in three of his past four seasons is usually not a recipe for success. But injury concerns never became an issue for Turner; he started all 16 games in the Atlanta backfield. Instead, as it usually is, it's all about the efficiency.

In his previous four seasons as the starting back in Atlanta, Michael Turner was never overly efficient, but he wasn't poor either. All three seasons, Turner averaged between -0.05 NEP per rush and -0.11 NEP per rush, totals that would put him in the dead middle of all starting backs in today's NFL. Even at the low end of that sliding scale, Turner's 2011 -0.11 NEP per rush average is still better than 15 running backs with at least 150 carries in 2012.

The problem is, one of those running backs is 2012 Michael Turner. And he was just plain bad when he had a chance to run the ball, there's no other way to say it. Turner averaged -0.21 NEP per rush on 223 carries, easily the worst average of his career. In fact, among the 23 NFL backs with at least 200 carries, only Darren McFadden (-0.27 NEP per rush) was less effective on average over the season.

That inefficiency led Atlanta to trust Turner less and less as the season went on. In Atlanta's first eight games, Turner carried the ball at least 14 times in five different contests; four games saw him above 16 carries and two games saw him above 20. But in the second half of the season, that all went away: his second half-high was 16 carries, and Turner only topped 13 carries in a game twice over that stretch. Backup Jacquizz Rodgers, meanwhile, saw four of his five highest rushing attempt totals after Atlanta's Week 7 bye.