Can C.J. Anderson Be a Fantasy Football Playoff Asset Again This Year?

As Anderson starts to heat up, can he be counted on when the games matter most?

Everybody loves a good redemption story.

Adrian Peterson is working on one this year. Eric Berry too, but for an entirely different reason.

But how about C.J. Anderson? While lacking the off-field drama of Peterson and Berry, Anderson’s story has been compelling as well.

The last 12 months have been an absolute rollercoaster ride for the third year back. And fantasy owners have been sick to their stomachs watching it unfold.

On Sunday Night Football in Week 12, Anderson reached a new peak as he rumbled 48 yards in the snow to seal the overtime victory for Denver, handing the Patriots their first loss of the season.

But even before that beautiful run, Anderson had been quietly playing excellent football in the month of November.

Most fantasy owners probably wrote off Anderson after his abysmal September and October performances. But maybe it’s time to let Anderson back into our lives.

After all, everyone deserves a second chance.

Maybe C.J. Anderson can win you a(nother) fantasy football championship this year.

How Good Was Anderson in 2014?

For those who don’t recall, C.J. Anderson was an unknown commodity when the 2014 season began.

But as the temperatures dropped, Anderson heated up. He scored seven touchdowns in December after hitting paydirt only three times up to that point. Despite not becoming the starter until Week 9, Anderson still finished the year with the third highest Total Net Expected Points (NEP) among running backs with at least 100 carries. His 45.12 Total NEP was bested by only Le'Veon Bell (82.85) and Marshawn Lynch (46.38).

NEP is our key metric at numberFire. Using NFL data dating back to 2000, we are able to analyze the outcome of every single play and measure a player’s output versus expectation. The higher a player’s Total NEP, the more he is contributing to his team’s ability to score points. To learn more about NEP, check out our glossary.

Anderson had crammed a lot of production into eight weeks. He finished the 2014 season ranked sixth in Rushing NEP, despite being the only top-10 running back with fewer than 200 carries.

He had been insanely efficient, and the thought of 16 weeks of Anderson as a feature back on the Denver offense had fantasy owners salivating at the draft table this past August.

A Tale of Two Seasons

This year, Anderson was a consensus first-round pick in fantasy football. Owners built their rosters around the budding superstar. The sky was the limit, so it seemed.

And then it happened. Week 1: clunker. Week 2: clunker. There were six straight weeks of terrible football to start the season from the former undrafted free agent. Through Week 6, Anderson was averaging 2.69 yards per carry and had scored zero touchdowns. It was official: C.J. Anderson was a first-round bust.

And then the undefeated Broncos went on their bye, and C.J. Anderson got some much needed rest.

Maybe he wasn’t totally healthy during the early part of the season. Maybe he just needed some time away.

Whatever happened in Anderson’s week off, it worked. Really well.

Since Week 8, Anderson has been a different player. He’s averaging a whopping 6.32 yards per carry and has scored 3 touchdowns in his last five games. His workloads have been spotty, but his efficiency has seen marked improvement.

When Anderson bottomed out during the Denver bye, his Total NEP was -18.86, dead last among the 32 running backs with at least 65 carries.

After his Week 12 performance against New England (15 carries, 113 yards, 2 touchdowns), Anderson has his Total NEP up to -1.92, meaning his play has contributed almost 17 points to the Broncos' expected scoring in the past five weeks. All this while continuing to split carries with Ronnie Hillman.

Anderson Versus Hillman

While the Broncos are mired in a pseudo quarterback controversy, it’s reasonable to ask which of the two lead runners have been better for Denver this year.

Anderson’s numbers seem to indicate he may be back to his 2014 form. Watching him play shows a shiftiness that wasn’t present earlier this year.

But the Broncos have embraced a two-back system in recent weeks. Hillman has played well at times and should continue to see significant running back snaps. How do the two backs compare through 12 weeks?

Player Rushes Rush Yd Yd/Carry Targets Rec Rec Yd TD Rush NEP Rec NEP Tot NEP
C.J. Anderson 117 496 4.2 27 21 162 3 -7.86 5.94 -1.92
Ronnie Hillman 138 587 4.3 18 11 23 6 -0.24 -4.38 -4.62

It’s easy to look at this chart and note that Hillman has been the more efficient runner, while Anderson is the better receiver. But a deeper dig reveals that Anderson’s Rushing NEP has improved by 13.39 in the past five weeks.

In that same span, Hillman’s Rushing NEP has decreased by 5.00, despite receiving 22 more carries than Anderson.

In the past five weeks, Anderson has been far more efficient than Hillman. We have to wonder if head coach Gary Kubiak is seeing the same thing.

The Home Stretch

It’s been impossible to predict the running back usage for the Denver Broncos this year. Luckily for fantasy owners, we’ll get one more sneak peek before playoffs begin -- for most leagues -- in Week 14. Even more fortunate, the Broncos will travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers in Week 13. The Chargers entered Week 12 ranked 31st against the run, according to our schedule-adjusted metrics.

From there, the Broncos play the Raiders, Steelers, and Bengals during the fantasy playoffs. These squads entered Week 12 ranked 27th, 1st, and 15th, respectively, in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

Whether you’re an owner who drafted Anderson and brushed off the misstep to make the playoffs or a savvy fake-footballer who plucked Anderson off the wire when nobody else wanted him, you’ve found yourself with a player who has the potential to blow away projections down the stretch.

Just like he did last year.