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Fantasy Football: Do Not Draft Larry Johnson

August 13, 2007 | By Andy Goldstein | comment on this post
Don't expect a big 2007 season from Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson.
After his huge workload last season, we’d suggest steering clear of Larry Johnson in 2007.

Fast forward to draft night. You are sitting with the third pick in the first round. The lucky jerk that got the first pick went with chalk. The guy (or gal) picking second took their time. They weighed the options, but eventually felt that Steven Jackson was the safer pick. And now you’re up. Sweat is starting to accumulate on your brow. Every fantasy publication, web site, and faux expert you have stumbled upon claims that Larry Johnson is the next best choice. But, now it’s real. You have to make the biggest decision of the draft, not just for your team, but your whole league.

It’s a nightmare for many. The holdout. The offensive line woes. Priest Holmes lurking in the background (and letting everyone know about it). Take a deep breath. Let me put your mind at ease. There should be absolutely no debate about Johnson, as he stands about as much chance to be a top 10 fantasy running back as say, RotoRob does. That means a zero chance (RotoRob is Canadian after all). [Note from the Editor: RotoRob is fairly certain he could be a useful CFL back.]

This might seem like blasphemy, but if one statistic proved to be about 95 per cent effective in determining future success of an NFL running back, it’s probably prudent to examine it. Football Outsiders first talked about this a few years ago, and you can read all about it here. Basically, running backs who get 370 carries or more in a season rarely are much of a factor the following season. Much like MLB pitchers can be overworked, NFL running backs are prone to breaking down.

The latest victim? Shaun Alexander. The physical running back was coming off of a 370-carry season in which he scored 27 touchdowns and ran for 1,880 yards. How about Jamal Anderson, Eddie George, Terrell Davis, and Jamal Lewis? All were successful right up until they clocked in at 370 or more carries. But it goes beyond runners from the late 1990s and early 2000s. George Rogers, Marcus Allen, and Earl Campbell all took statistical tumbles in the early to mid 1980s.

Yes, there are a handful of running backs who have been able to beat the odds. LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and, most notably, Eric Dickerson all excelled in years following 370 or more carries. Quick, who are the top five running backs of all time? Most lists will have Smith, Payton and Dickerson in some order. In a few years, Tomlinson will also make that list.

Sadly for Johnson, however, of the 21 NFL backs who have crossed the 370-carry plateau, 14 had significantly worse seasons, 10 ran for under 1,000 yards, nine suffered major injuries, and only two (Tomlinson and Dickerson) put together an equal or better fantasy season the following year.

Now, let’s go back to draft night. You’re up and Johnson is available. Skip him. Trade down. Take Frank Gore. Take Peyton Manning. Take Willie Parker. Hell, take anyone else in your top 15. It’s the least risky option.

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