The Myth of Beast Mode

Victor Cruz is widely considered to be the most surprising fantasy story of 2011, but if given a chance, I’d vote for Marshawn Lynch. Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats might not agree on much, but they both considered Lynch to be one of the worst backs in the NFL in 2010 . . . and 2009 . . . and 2008.

In previewing the 2011 season, I pointed out how Skittles has made virtually every run of his life equivalent to a goal line carry against the Steel Curtain and used him as the poster child for my Pro Football Focus article examining Vision Yards.

And then Lynch went out and finished as the No. 6 back in fantasy.

This leads to three questions for 2012.

1) Is Lynch a triumph of scouting over stats?

2) With the emergence and current ubiquity of PPR leagues, has the fantasy community become so enamored of receptions that good old fashioned bell cow backs are systematically undervalued?

3) Will Lynch be a good value in 2012?

Since those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it . . . well, actually, history is going to repeat itself regardless, fundamental human condition and all. That being the case, perhaps we can get on the right side of history, bet with the winners.

To generate players comparable to Lynch, I looked for RBs between the ages of 23 and 27 who posted a season with at least 1000 yards rushing and double digit TDs, but less than 4.4 ypa and fewer than 40 receptions.

Marshawn Lynch Historical Comparisons Since 1990

Rushing Receiving
Player Year Age Draft Tm Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G Rec Yds TD
Marshawn Lynch 2011 25 1-12 SEA 285 1204 4.22 12 80.3 28 212 1
Chris Wells 2011 23 1-31 ARI 245 1047 4.27 10 69.8 10 52 0
Rashard Mendenhall 2010 23 1-23 PIT 324 1273 3.93 13 79.6 23 167 0
Rudi Johnson 2006 27 4-100 CIN 341 1309 3.84 12 81.8 23 124 0
Rudi Johnson 2005 26 4-100 CIN 337 1458 4.33 12 91.1 23 90 0
Clinton Portis 2005 24 2-51 WAS 352 1516 4.31 11 94.8 30 216 0
Rudi Johnson 2004 25 4-100 CIN 361 1454 4.03 12 90.9 15 84 0
Willis McGahee 2004 23 1-23 BUF 284 1128 3.97 13 70.5 22 169 0
Travis Henry 2003 25 2-58 BUF 331 1356 4.10 10 90.4 28 158 1
Corey Dillon 2001 27 2-43 CIN 340 1315 3.87 10 82.2 34 228 3
Stephen Davis 2000 26 4-102 WAS 332 1318 3.97 11 87.9 33 313 0
Raymont Harris 1997 27 4-114 CHI 275 1033 3.76 10 79.5 28 115 0
Terry Allen 1995 27 9-241 WAS 338 1309 3.87 10 81.8 31 232 1
Rodney Hampton 1995 26 1-24 NYG 306 1182 3.86 10 73.9 24 142 0
Errict Rhett 1995 25 2-34 TAM 332 1207 3.64 11 75.4 14 110 0
Chris Warren 1995 27 4-89 SEA 310 1346 4.34 15 84.1 35 247 1
Barry Foster 1992 24 5-128 PIT 390 1690 4.33 11 105.6 36 344 0
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/15/2012.

Despite having had a far superior season, Lynch’s future prospects pale in comparison to those of CJ21K , even though Chris Johnson was this year’s most disappointing back. It doesn’t take much research to see the answers to our three questions are 1) Probably not 2) Definitely not 3) Only if Rashard Mendenhall carried you to a title in 2011.

But we’ll do that research anyway.

1) Almost all the players saw a subsequent decrease in their number of TDs. 17 of the 19 players saw their TDs fall the year after they appeared on this list and most fell significantly. Rudi Johnson and Terry Allen were the two exceptions.

2) Players who log a heavy workload but are not heavily involved in the passing game almost inevitably struggle with injuries. Rarely do they play well into their late 20s.

* Chris Wells fit the category this year but a string of nagging injuries mitigated his breakout.
* Rashard Mendenhall fell short of reprising his 2010 season when he blew out his knee down the stretch. Based on the patterns seen here, his career is now in doubt.
* A series of injuries kept Clinton Portis from reaching 1000 yards after age 27, and he was out of the NFL by 30.
* Rudi Johnson, who authored two successful followup seasons after first appearing on this list, was done at 28.
* Injuries quickly rendered Travis Henry fantasy irrelevant. His name would re-emerge occasionally due to the notoriety generated by his personal life.
* Stephen Davis, who hit 1600-plus yards from scrimmage twice more after appearing on this list, was done at 29.
*Raymont Harris, Rodney Hampton, and Barry Foster were all done by 27.
* Errict Rhett was injured the following year and managed only one more healthy season.
* The best longevity was probably seen by Corey Dillon, and Terry Allen, although only Dillon managed a 1000-yard, 10-plus TD season after turning 30.
* Willis McGahee actually qualified for this list after a rookie season that saw him return from a devastating knee injury. Although he has never again posted a 1000-yard, double digit TD season, at age 26 he went for 1438 scrimmage yards, 43 receptions, and 8 TDs.

Even in 2011 Lynch may have been more style than substance. He ranked 39th among RBs in Points Added Per Play. Based on the above analysis, he projects as no more than a 5th round fantasy pick for 2012. It’s always possible he sustains his performance as Rudi Johnson 2.0, but in all likelihood he’ll be one of the most overvalued players next year.

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