Can We Trust C.J. Anderson in Fantasy Football This Year?
When I was a kid, it was always my dream to gain supernatural powers and become a superhero.
As a superhero, you could use your super-strength, super-speed, or powers of flight -- or all three, if you got particularly good exposure to gamma radiation -- to save people just in the nick of time, stopping villainy and tyranny in its tracks. I always thought of heroism as doing something dramatic when all appeared lost.
Now that I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to a different understanding of that word. When I look at many of the students I teach, I realize that being a hero to them is more often just doing the mundane things, like considering their opinions, treating them with respect, and just being there consistently. Heroism, when it’s not illustrated by Jack Kirby, is really just making sure things don’t get bad enough that you have to swoop in and save someone.
As fantasy football players, we love to tell the stories of triumph where a player came out of nowhere to save our seasons, and Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson did just that in 2014 down the stretch. He was still a fantasy football fledgling back then, but as he enters his fourth season in the league, perhaps he too will become less Bruce Banner and more “steady Eddie.”
Can we trust C.J. Anderson to be a consistent fantasy hero in 2016?
For those of you who like summer blockbuster scripts in your football games, Anderson has done plenty to dazzle in his short time in the NFL thus far. Consider just his Week 12 performance against the New England Patriots last year: starting quarterback Peyton Manning is injured, and -- despite it being his fourth year in the league -- Brock Osweiler is struggling. The Broncos think all is lost against the then-undefeated Patriots, until a grizzled voice emerges from the backfield saying, “I’ve got this.”
Anderson put up a Superman-esque performance that night, with 113 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 15 carries, not to mention 4 catches for 40 yards receiving. It was a vintage showing for the former bell cow, who -- until that point -- had gone over even 50 yards rushing in a game just once in the 2015 season. From that point onward, however, he crossed 50 yards in a game just twice again. The Broncos were dead-set on using a running back timeshare in 2015, which made Anderson potentially more efficient but certainly less consistent.
I looked at every running back who registered fantasy points from 2014 to 2015, ranking their weekly outputs and then comparing their percentage of “RB1” finishes (defined as a top-16 finish in a given week) and startable percentage (a top-48 score, assuming two running backs plus a flex).
The table below shows Anderson’s percentages and rankings in these categories in each of 2014 and 2015.
Our perception of Anderson is that he is a stalwart running back going into the 2016 season, but his game-by-game finishes show us a different image, as he has been startable as a fantasy running back a total of just 60.0 percent of the time over the last two seasons.
Anderson’s 2014 performance -- where he was a top-tier running back in six of 15 weeks (excluding the unpredictable Week 17) -- has definitely has influenced our perception of him (especially when he actually took over down the stretch), but he had just two top-16 weeks last year. The running back timeshare head coach Gary Kubiak employed last year made him startable on a more regular basis but definitely capped his weekly upside.
If this holds up into 2016, Anderson will certainly have taken on a more mundane (yet consistent) role in the fantasy football multiverse.
2016 will be the first year Anderson plays without the steady hand of Manning at the helm of the offense, however, and we all remember the fantasy football “Manning Effect”. Anderson did have his explosive Week 12 performance with the clearly lacking Osweiler, but is it possible for his production to hold up consistently with lesser quarterback talents under center?
I took a look at Anderson’s game logs from the last two seasons and figured out his splits with a few different quarterback parameters attached. The first table below shows Anderson’s per-game averages in games with and without his quarterback completing 63.0 percent of their passes -- last year’s league average -- including his average half-PPR fantasy point score.
|Comp %||Games||Rush||Rush Yards||Yards/Carry||Rush TD||Half-PPR Points|
|Greater than 63%||15||11.7||57.7||4.92||0.53||11.23|
This isn’t a stark difference in Anderson’s rushing value, but the gap is at least measurable. When his passers have played poorly, Anderson sees fewer rushes on average, earns fewer yards both in total and on a per-play basis, and therefore scores fewer fantasy points. The main reason that his fantasy scoring doesn’t deviate too much between these splits is because he earns about 0.60 more receptions on average and picks up 1.17 more yards per reception when his quarterbacks complete fewer passes.
This is a good start, but what about when the passing game isn’t working efficiently? The 2015 average yards per passing attempt was 7.25; does Anderson see a noticeable difference between games when his quarterbacks surpass that mark or fail to reach it? The table below depicts this.
|Pass YPA||Games||Rush||Rush Yards||Yards/Carry||Rush TD||Half-PPR Points|
|Greater than 7.25||18||11.4||56.5||4.96||0.56||11.14|
There is a definite difference between the two, but once again, it’s not as wide as we might like to see for it to be a definite causation.
Every category favors the more productive passer yet again, which at least reinforces to us that the effect is real, if not distinctly emphasized in his production profile. Part of this is certainly as a result of the 2015 season in which both Denver passers struggled mightily at various points in the year.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Considering how ineffective both Manning and Osweiler were in 2015, there may not be a distinct difference in the quality of quarterback play for the Broncos in 2016, even with Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian tossing the rock. Instead, the difference may be made with how often they can get ahead and stay ahead in games again.
There were just four games in 2015 where Denver trailed by at least a touchdown at the half and two where they were back that much going into the fourth quarter. Banking on your defense controlling every game, every season, is a risky call.
Will trailing more often put a dent in Anderson’s fantasy appeal?
Using the Rotoviz Game Splits app, we can see that there is a much bigger difference in his per-game production.
This is where we see the real difference in value. Anderson isn’t often used as a receiver regardless of situation; he averages just 2.67 targets per game over last two years, so when the Broncos are behind (negative game script), his rushing attempts are about halved from when they lead (positive game script).
This diminishment of volume leads to a diminishment of value, of course; Anderson’s average fantasy score when the Broncos trail totals just over half of his score when they lead.
Our algorithms project him as the 18th-best running back for fantasy this year, but the average draft position data at Fantasy Football Calculator has him going as the 15th back off the board and rising. This value is not pricing in his tremendous statistical downside, and that's without even considering that Devontae Booker, a much better receiver, may play spoiler to Anderson.
With even less potential for the Broncos' passing attack to jump out front and give Anderson a chance to salt away the game with the power run -- not to mention that they lost defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, who really helped control the game on the other side of the ball -- Anderson may be not be the fantasy hero we all hope for in 2016.