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I think DeMarco Murray took a long nap after the season.  436 carries and 61 catches (including postseason) takes a huge toll on the body.  That’s an average of 27.6 touches per game, and that’s not including all of his blocking assignments and routes run without a catch.  To put it in perspective, Murray totaled more rushes than any running back but one in the past 12 seasons.  Who was that other running back? Larry Johnson. I’ll let that sink in for a little bit. To analyze DeMarco Murray this season, we’re going to have to take a deep long look at history in order to create a presentable argument as to where we expect him to finish the year.

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The Workload

If someone asked me what per game stat measured in at 28 per week for the Cowboys, I’d probably say passing attempts. It’s borderline crazy to think that a skill position player can handle that kind of workload and live to tell the tale afterwards.  Murray had the 6th most touches in NFL regular season history and the highest total since 2002. He’s up there in good company alongside names like Eddie George, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky WIlliams, Marcus Allen, and the aforementioned Larry Johnson. (If you’re wondering, James Wilder holds the record at 492) That puts his workload in perspective. It wasn’t just excessive, it was pure madness. The Cowboys should consider it a miracle that he stayed relatively healthy all year given his previous durability issues.

Now, how do running backs perform after such heavy workloads?  It’s hard to look back more than 10 years for this as the game, sports science, and player’s body types have changed so immensely in just a short amount of time.

Larry Johnson 2006 - 457 touches, 2199 yards, 4.8 ypt 2007 - 8 games, 188 touches, 845 yards, 4.5 ypt
Eddie George 2000 - 453 touches, 1962 yards, 4.3 ypt 2001 - 352 touches, 1118 yards, 3.2 ypt
LaDainian Tomlinson 2002 - 451 touches, 2172 yards, 4.8 ypt 2003 - 413 touches, 2370 yards, 5.7 ypt
Edgerrin James 2000 - 450 touches, 2303 yards, 5.1 ypt 2001 - 6 games, 175 touches, 855 yards, 4.8 ypt
Steven Jackson 2006 - 436 touches, 2304 yards, 5.3 ypt 2007 - 12 games, 275 touches, 1273 yards, 4.6 ypt

 

A few things jump out at me immediately at this sample size.

  1. LaDainian Tomlinson was a freak of nature.
  2. Outside of the freak of nature, each player’s yards per touch totals dipped by an average of .6 yards per touch the season after.  This is probably due to two specific factors: fatigue and defensive focus.
  3. Three of the 5 players missed a significant portion of the next season.
  4. Outside of Edgerrin James, each player was on pace for a much lower touches per game rate than the year before, on average 4 less touches per game.
  5. Each one of these players was on the same team the next year.

While it’s hard to create a direct trend with these metrics, it does show that a player is likely to regress after such a heavy workload.  Outside of Tomlinson (and Jackson to a lesser extent), these players struggled with injuries for the rest of their careers. Johnson and George both immediately fell off a cliff in terms of production following their massive workload. It also shows that teams do understand that a player needs a lighter workload the year after in order to be effective and healthy to continue their dominance.

In today's NFL, the running back position is incredibly volatile.  New players come onto the scene every year and create a name for themselves (C.J. Anderson, Jeremy Hill, Justin Forsett), while others fall off into the pastures (Chris Johnson, Ahmad Bradshaw, DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, all of which were 100% relevant as early as 2013). While we won’t be seeing DeMarco Murray on that list just yet, it’s much more likely than not that we will see him there by 2020, if not earlier.  The shelf life for a running back is very short, and at the age of 27, Murray is at the point where he has likely reached his physical peak with the wear of his 1100 career touches beginning to slowly take his toll on his speed, elusiveness, and strength.  Let’s see how some running backs perform the year after they reach 1100 career touches.

  • Steven Jackson rushed for 4.1 yards per carry in a 12 game season on 250 carries.
  • Ricky WIlliams ran for 3.5 yards per carry on 392 touches before took some time off to do his thing.
  • Edgerrin James rushed for only 3.6 yards per carry but picked it up later in his career.
  • Chris Johnson rushed for 4 yards per carry, a career low until 2013.  While he was still effective, he was noticeably slower.
  • Michael Turner had a great statistical year at 4.5 yards per carry on 300 rushes. It was quite clear, however, that he wasn’t as dominant as he was in his early Falcon years.  The next year is when the burners turned off and he became a Flintstone-Mobile.

Without cherry picking specific players, it’s clear that some running backs do tend to wear down quite quickly once their carry totals begin to pick up.  There are, however, other factors that do contribute as well. Michael Turner was over 30 years old when he wore down and Chris Johnson is a twig compared to Murray that relied on speed, which regresses over time.

Before my analysis here, I expected to see some severe decline in production for just about every statistic I looked at.  While I did find that, there were some positives.  Each of these running backs see these excessive touch totals because they were some of the greatest backs of their era.  These massive workloads are what make them the legendary players they are (or infamous examples as Chiefs fans would like to point out).  Murray will be another example on this list, whether it be good or bad.

The major point is: Don’t believe that just because Murray received a massive workload last year automatically makes him a poor draft choice.  While history indicates he is likely to dip in production, he is still in his prime years and a slight dip still would mean a strong fantasy season for Murray.  The worry of a massive decline, ala Johnson, is real, and the injury risk ala Steven Jackson or Edgerrin James is as well.  If he were in the same situation as last year with the Cowboys, I wouldn’t be interested in him as a top 5 back, but I’d be happy to land him in the end of round 1 with what history shows me.

 

The New Team

Talk about a change of scenery.  One of the NFL’s best current rivalries just got a bit more exciting with DeMarco Murray landing in Philadelphia. How is this new team going to affect his value? Let’s take a look:

Scheme: Chip Kelly wants a downhill runner. Even though Chip hasn’t specifically mentioned it, it has been known for years that Kelly preferred a running back that is able to pick up consistent yardage between the tackles without dancing (basically the anti-LeSean McCoy). While the Eagles offensive line isn’t Dallas’ by any means, it’s certainly still something to write home about, even without Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. To put it bluntly, they are huge athletic maulers. While losing the two aforementioned guards will hurt, the Eagles boast three players that are in the top tier of their position, and while the two potential guard replacements (Andrew Gardner, Allen Barbre) aren’t on the same level as Mathis or Herremans, they still showed decent promise as fill-ins last year.  The Eagles ranked first in run blocking last year according to PFF (yes ahead of the Cowboys) despite all their injuries, so even a slight dip in effectiveness is still more than likely going to be enough to be an elite level offensive line.

Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles: How are the carries going to be distributed this coming year?  First, lets look at Sproles. Last year Sproles had 40 receptions to McCoy's 28.  That number should stay similar this coming year as he’s used mostly in a 3rd down role where he thrives on limited touches. Mathews is the current question mark, but Murray is still expected to be the lead dog.  The contracts they received this spring say it all while both local and national insiders alike believe that Mathews will see more of a complementary role to Murray in order to keep him rested and fresh.  I would actually consider this a huge plus to the value of Murray as he’s more likely to last a full 16 game season by not overworking himself.  While there will be occasions where Mathews may vulture touchdowns or get drives to himself, this offense is still surely Murray’s.  A split 60/30/10 seems likely. The Eagles had 474 carries last year, which leads to 285 carries for Murray, which is more than enough to provide huge fantasy potential, and low enough to at least give him a better shot at staying healthy and in shape.  That carry total could even rise to the 500 area this year.

Red Zone: Touchdowns mean a ton for fantasy running backs and Murray’s 13 helped vault him to the top of the running back rankings this past year.  He had 56 carries in the red zone last year, converting 12 for touchdowns.  LeSean McCoy had 56 carries for only four touchdowns.  After watching a lot of the Eagles red zone carries to get an idea as to why that TD number was so low, it was blatantly obvious that the fault was more on McCoy than the scheme as he took way too much time to force himself through the line of scrimmage.  Even if that number dips for Murray, his touchdown total should still hover between 8-12.

 

The Schedule: 

Team 2014 run defense ranking
Redskins x2 12
Cowboys x2 8
Giants 30
Falcons 21
Jets 5
Saints 29
Panthers 16
Dolphins 24
Buccaneers 19
Lions 1
Patriots 9
Bills 11
Cardinals 13

 

Only 5 of those teams ranked in the bottom 10 this past year in terms of run defense with both the Dolphins and Saints expecting improvement up front. That’s not an easy schedule for DeMarco Murray but neither is it daunting.  His schedule itself shouldn’t change his draft position as much as some other players. 

Other factors: Through two seasons in the NFL, Chip Kelly has sported the healthiest team in the NFL by a wide margin (courtesy of /u/deadprez1)

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Consider this a positive to keeping Murray healthy for the 2015 season.  While Murray has struggled with injuries in each of his NFL seasons, his fitness was never a question and reports have him working to keep his fitness level at an ultimate high.  We can expect bumps and bruises but his severe injury risk is slightly mitigated due to the overall way Chip Kelly manages his players' health.

 

So, Where do I Draft Him?

The potential is there for DeMarco Murray to have another monster year, however, there are also multiple signs showing the opposite. Outside of CJ Anderson, there are probably no other players as high risk/reward as Murray in the first round.  A strong prediction on his line would be 1150 yards with 11 touchdowns and 200 receiving yards. That would make him a top 8 player as long as he plays a full 16 game season.

Murray's current ADP is RB10 in both standard and PPR, which is just one lower than where I currently have him ranked. (I have McCoy lower than his current ADP). His ADP already appears to be factoring in the workload worry that so many people justifiably have. He would be a great choice in the early 2nd round as a player that can provide you which consistent high-upside week-to-week performances. It’s all about whether you want to take that risk.

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