By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
Let’s start with the hot take: C.J. Anderson is a fraud. Now let’s go on a deep dive to back it up.
Heading into the 2016 NFL season, Justin Forsett was the Baltimore Ravens’ incumbent primary running back. He was the most familiar with the offense. He was a team leader. He was eventually cut.
I am old enough to remember Forsett’s unceremonious release and will be avoiding this season’s version in Fantasy Football leagues, which brings us back to Anderson. Like Forsett, Anderson tenuously sits in the No. 1 running back position for the Denver Broncos, and like Forsett, he may not open the season on the roster.
Looking back Anderson’s football resume, the perception of him being a talented, high-upside play is more myth than reality. During his time at Cal, the then 215-pound Anderson could not supplant 200-pound scat back, Isi Sofele, and underwhelmed statistically. Operating as the Golden Bears’ No. 2 running back, Anderson capped out at 790 rushing yards and never logged more than 15 receptions in a season. His muted role contributed to a lackluster 18.2-percent College Dominator Rating (22nd percentile among NFL running backs), measuring Anderson’s overall contribution to the offense at the college level, or in his case, a lack of contribution.
Here is a list of successful active NFL running backs who could not secure the No. 1 back role for a full season during their college careers:
Ty Montgomery (converted wide receiver)
Theo Riddick (converted wide receiver)
James White (usurped by future first-round pick Melvin Gordon)
At the close of an uninspiring college career, Anderson underwhelmed again at the scouting combine. His workout metrics: 4.60 40-yard dash, 113.9 Burst Score, and 11.27 Agility Score, and 17 bench press reps all fell under the 60th percentile. Even Anderson’s 100.1 Speed Score, which factors in Anderson’s above-average size and sturdiness, barely crested the 60th percentile.
Athleticism matters, especially for NFL running backs. Writing for Rotoworld, Kevin Cole found that size-adjusted athleticism is predictive of running back performance. Cole pinpointed five key variables for predicting success for pro running back prospects:
40-yard dash time
Coming out of Cal, Anderson’s prospect profile featured neither dominant rushing production, nor impressive athleticism. Then it got worse … Anderson went undrafted. A young player finding NFL success with a college prospect profile as weak as Anderson’s sounds like a fairy tale.
After going undrafted, Anderson signed with Denver and found himself buried as the third back on the depth chart behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. An unlikely star in a seemingly impossible situation.
After both Ball and Hillman suffered foot and ankle injuries in 2014, Denver coaches turned to the former college backup. Anderson went on to arguably become the greatest in-season waiver wire pickup in Fantasy Football history. From weeks 10 through week 17, Anderson was the No. 1 running back in fantasy football, ringing up 195.7 PPR fantasy points, exceeding even Le’Veon Bell’s epic second half fantasy point total (191.1). During that brief flash of greatness, Anderson was the quintessential league winner.
Fooled by Randomness
In his groundbreaking book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb explains that our innate desire to seek out shapes in clouds illustrates how the human mind is predisposed to identify causality, to find concrete explanations to any and all phenomenon. In this context, the fantasy football community’s reflex explanation for Anderson’s outstanding 2014 second half seemed reasonable: Anderson’s exceptional talent caused his fantasy heroics.
Perhaps fantasy football enthusiasts were fooled by randomness in 2014. Here is C.J. Anderson’s 2014 game log:
Week 10 – Oakland (No. 22 vs. the run): 26.3 PPR fantasy points
Week 11 – St. Louis (No. 14): 19.5
Week 12 – Miami (No. 24): 29.5
Week 13 – Kansas City (No. 28): 26.5
Week 14 – Buffalo (No. 11): 23.8
Week 15 – San Diego (No. 26): 11.6
Week 16 – Cincinnati (No. 20): 27.8
Week 17 – Oakland (No. 22): 30.7
During this span, Anderson averaged 28.5 fantasy points per game in two games against Oakland’s league-bottom overall defense (No. 32 in the NFL in points allowed in 2014), faced zero top-10 rush defenses, and only two rush defenses inside the top-20. Going a step further down this serendipitous rabbit hole, note that the Defense vs. the Run rankings are full season measurements – teams such as San Diego, Buffalo, and Kansas City were riddled with injuries by the time Anderson and his fairy godmother rode into town on a pumpkin carriage.
The extreme unlikelihood of a running back ever facing an eight-game stretch this easy is mind-bending (the actual probability is just under a 5 percent chance). However, being in the right place at the right time by itself is not an indictment of Anderson’s talent.
After 2014, fantasy analysts raced to spin Anderson’s success forward. Then, the clock struck midnight. His 2015 production fell below 10.0 fantasy points per game and outside the top-36 running backs. In 2016, he underperformed his average draft position (ADP) for a second consecutive season before a knee injury ended his year.
What happened? Looking at PlayerProfiler.com, an advanced stats and metrics authority, Anderson was relatively inefficient in 2015 and 2016.
-4.7 (No. 45)
-10.3 (No. 53)
Evaded Tackles Per Game
3.4 (No. 29)
4.7 (No. 9)
Juke Rate (evaded tackles per touch)
28.8% (No. 30)
26.2% (No. 23)
Receptions Per Game
1.7 (No. 41)
2.3 (No. 29)
69.4% (No. 58)
66.7% (No. 59)
.76 (No. 43)
.76 (No. 49)
Advanced efficiency metrics look beyond basic efficiency stats such as yard per carry (YPC), because YPC can be deceiving. For example, goal line backs, generally post low YPCs. PlayerProfiler’s Production Premium measures running back success by comparing per-touch performances against the league average output from any given down and distance. Production Premium also normalizes for game situation by discounting garbage-time scenarios.
From Production Premium to Juke Rate to Catch Rate, Anderson underwhelmed the past two seasons just as he underwhelmed in his two seasons at Cal. Anderson enthusiasts may point to his 2016 evaded tackles per game for a shimmering glass slipper of hope. Indeed, PlayerProfiler.com’s Josh Hermsmeyer pinpointed Anderson as an undervalued asset heading into 2017 based on evaded tackles per game. However, Anderson’s Juke Rate (measuring per-touch elusiveness) declined to a career-low last season and his 2.7-percent Breakaway Run Rate (No. 52 among NFL running backs) explains why he didn’t produce splash plays.
Is Anderson the player who won leagues in 2014, or the guy who posted two consecutive seasons of .76 fantasy points per opportunity? Zooming out, Anderson is a one-dimensional, relatively elusive between the tackles pounder. Beyond tackle breaking, Anderson lacks the burst to deliver big plays and adds no value to the passing game. Anderson’s full body of work paints the picture of a player out of his depth as a featured back.
Despite a lackluster talent profile, many remain eager to draft Anderson in the sixth or seventh round of early drafts. Why are gamers holding on to the perception that Anderson is a league winner, when his efficiency metrics reveal him to be a fantasy fraud? Psychologists call the phenomenon “vividness bias” manifested from a mental shortcut or availability heuristic. The most impactful events in our lives disproportionality skew our perception. In this context, it is understandable that gamers who still vividly recall Anderson single-handedly carrying their team to a championship in 2014 would continue to assign undeserved prestige to a player who sophisticated analytical analysis has revealed to be one the NFL’s quintessential just-a-guy running backs.
Downside Risk Aversion
Heading into 2017, Anderson is not merely overvalued, he carries the most downside of any player in fantasy drafts. Like Justin Forsett in 2016, Anderson’s floor is zero fantasy points, because he is an under-the-radar cut candidate.
The Broncos arguably have three superior running backs:
Jamaal Charles: Fading generational superstar clinging to relevance
Devontae Booker: All-purpose runner and seventh RB selected in the 2016 draft (although he suffered a fractured wrist and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks)
De’Angelo Henderson: College mega-producer with sub-4.50 wheels
To exacerbate matters, Anderson was 240 pounds at one point during the offseason and shortly after the Broncos signed Charles and drafted Henderson. Teams retain veterans who lead by example, but if Anderson’s training regimen is perceived to be setting a bad precedent that would spell trouble. As with Ravens’ divorce from Forsett, at some point familiarity with the offense is not enough to keep a veteran on the roster, even at an otherwise talent-thin position. Anderson’s parallels with Forsett make him a terrifying bust candidate.