Rap Battle: Marshawn Lynch is a Strong Sell


Later today Jon Krouner will take the affirmative in this battle and explains why Marshawn is a strong buy.

Everybody loves the wild Beast Mode moments.

Marshawn Lynch is a scout’s dream. He runs violently to contact. He never stops his legs. He pushes the pile. If all you knew about Lynch came from highlight shows and scouting reports, it would be easy to conclude that Skittles is not just a man who knows his candy; he’s one of the best backs in the NFL.

I don’t actually expect to convince many people, but this is, in fact, not the case.

Marshawn Lynch carried the ball 315 times last season for 1590 yards and 11 touchdowns. That raised his career yards per carry average to 4.2. Lynch has now played six seasons in the NFL and has crested 4.2 yards per carry only one time.

Now it hasn’t helped Lynch that he started his career in Buffalo behind a terrible offensive line, but it’s also worth remembering what happened with the Bills. Lynch was the 12th overall pick of the 2007 draft and was expected to be the future at the running back position. By his third season he’d been conclusively beaten out by Fred Jackson. (Fred Jackson, who played at DIII Coe College and worked his way up through the various arena leagues, owns a career 4.5 yards per carry average and has only been held below 4.2 one time.)

2009 Buffalo Bills RB Stats

Age G Att Yds TD Y/A Rec Yds TD
Fred Jackson 28 16 237 1062 2 4.5 46 371 2
Marshawn Lynch 23 13 120 450 2 3.8 28 179 0

Lynch was so bad that the Bills used another top 15 pick at RB the following season, this time on C.J. Spiller.

The Seahawks traded for Lynch, and Beast Mode proceeded to average 4.0 yards per carry over his first 440 carries with Seattle (2010-2011). Then a funny thing happened, but I doubt it had much to do with Marshawn Lynch.

Whatever You Do, Do Not Run to Daylight

Skittles is a force of nature at the point of contact. Despite meager yards per carry averages, he consistently finishes near the top of the PFF’s yards after contact metrics. That leads to Lynch being vastly overrated for two reasons.

  1. Those are the yards that tend to stick in our minds.
  2. Commentators and scouts strongly prefer those yards from a football aesthetic.

I’ve labeled the other type of yards, the ones that come before contact, Vision Yards. Traditionally, credit for this type of yardage is given almost entirely to the offensive line. I’ve also written extensively on the way in which this connection seems to be more tenuous than people believe.

A Short Digression (In Which We Learn Purple Jesus May Not Be the Best RB in Football)

Consider the 2012 splits from the two best running backs in the NFL (courtesy Pro Football Focus).

Run Block Rk Vision Yds/Att Yds After Co/Att
Adrian Peterson 3 2.1 3.9
Jamaal Charles 8 3.1 2.2

I like this comparison because both backs had similar offensive line play and both backs had to carry their offenses without the slightest semblance of a passing game to keep the defense honest. Despite running behind a slightly inferior offensive line, Jamaal Charles averaged a full yard more per carry before being contacted by a defender.

The two players are different. Charles is better before contact, Peterson after. We tend to think of Peterson as the better player because of recency bias, but Charles has averaged 5.8 yards per carry for his career, Peterson 5.0. Charles has averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry every year of his career. Peterson has only managed more than 5.0 in two out of six.

If you believe Peterson is the far better player, you could argue that his usage conspires to depress his efficiency numbers. If you believe that Charles is better, you could argue that his transcendent vision and burst insulate him against bouts of inefficiency.

I don’t expect this to ever catch on in the mainstream – and it may even turn out to simply be incorrect – but I think a somewhat revolutionary thesis explains the difference between the two backs. Yards before contact are actually more important than yards after.

When we bring this back to Lynch, we find his recent efficiency improvement comes entirely before contact.

Marshawn Lynch Vision Yds/Att Yds After Co/Att
2008 1.1 3.0
2009 1.0 2.8
2010 0.9 3.0
2011 1.7 2.5
2012 2.1 2.9

Lynch’s numbers support the more conventional thesis that he’s good, but only as good as his offensive line. When a player captures our imagination, we blame the offensive line for his failures. When a player doesn’t, we refer to him as a system back. (The mild concern here would be that Lynch’s ability to generate yards after contact has actually diminished ever so slightly since his move to Seattle. That makes sense for a back with 1,600-plus touches on his odometer, but it’s a possible sign that he’s on the descent. Or at least that his supposed renaissance is a mirage.)

While he has the reputation of a game-changing back, Lynch’s true talent level probably lies more in the Michael Turner or Willis McGahee range. The “funny thing” I mentioned earlier was obviously Russell Wilson’s star going supernova. Skittle’s meteoric efficiency improvement resulted almost entirely from gigantic holes created by a franchise quarterback with the freakish ability to both threaten the defense with his running ability and make surgical strikes deep down the field.

But since Wilson will be in Seattle for at least the next decade, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? Unfortunately for Lynch, he may have only 12 regular season games remaining as a Seahawk.

Actionable Fantasy Intelligence: I Recommend the Pump-n-Dump

Here’s a quick look at the near and long term problems Lynch will face in retaining fantasy relevance.

1. We don’t have any clarity on his DUI situation. I’m projecting a 4-game suspension. Losing a quarter of a season would be a dagger for his redraft value.

2. Lynch will lose more carries in 2013 either way. Robert Turbin was very underrated coming out of Utah State. While not the same type of tackle-breaking behemoth, he has the kind of size the Seahawks prize and possesses better vision, initial burst, and lateral agility than the veteran.

3. The selection of Christine Michael spells the imminent end of his Seattle tenure. Actually, Lynch was likely to be released anyway. A team as savvy as the Seahawks was probably never going to pay a system back $6 million-plus in 2014. But the selection of Michael paints a clear picture of their intentions. Like Turbin, the Texas A&M product is at least mildly underrated. He’s an Agility Score star with comparables like Matt Forte.

I don’t expect many people to agree with my belief that Marshawn Lynch will be the third best back on the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, but you don’t have to. You only need to think the gap between him and the others is small enough for them to siphon a handful of touches a game. After all, Lynch only scored 11 touchdowns and caught 23 passes last year to start with. He can’t lose many opportunities and remain a RB1. His current risk in redraft is massive and his reward paltry.

In dynasty, he’s just flashing a bright red sell sign. When Lynch is released at the end of the year, it’s unlikely he goes to a team with a system in place that will create the types of holes he needs to be effective. It’s far more likely that the exact opposite type of team signs him – a team that prizes his tackle-breaking ability and wants to pound him into the line. We’ve already seen what Lynch looks like in those situations. He looks like Beanie Wells.

Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Redraft Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.
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