In Defense of Plodders: Part 1

We’re a snobbish bunch sometimes.

We roll into our August fantasy football drafts with very firm ideas of who we want, and who we don’t. Our approach is too often rigid, our confidence in evaluations unwavering. The best of us know this approach is misguided, and if a value is there, we take it.

Defending the plodding running back, the guy who gets what is blocked and no more, the perpetrator of the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, feels silly. In fact, I hate myself for doing this. I’ve shunned them for years, and with special and renewed vigor in 2012. No plodder would be seen on my rosters.

I overvalued upside to the determent of value. It’s not an either-or proposition, by any stretch, but forgoing unimpressive running backs who plummet in drafts as fantasy pros drive down their value in the waning weeks of summer is foolhardy. When a useful fantasy commodity drops, we shouldn’t be too smart to take advantage.

Please don’t misunderstand: Scooping up runners with game-breaking skillsets is as important as ever. You’re going to win precisely never if you don’t.

Sometimes though we think we know more than we really know. We’re convinced head coaches and offensive coordinators will free our potential running back studs because their potential is so glaringly obvious. We draft Kendall Hunter or David Wilson, sure that after a few weeks as bench stashes, they’ll slide into their respective starting lineups and validate our collective genius. We don’t listen when coaches tell us, in interviews and on the field, that they’re married to the plodder.

I’d never encourage you to shy away from running backs who jump off the screen, who would be a locked-in RB1 if their chance ever came. Keep drafting them, and keep hoping. Stevan Ridley, as one shining example, was taken an average of 20 picks after Shonn Greene. C.J. Spiller was selected 45 picks after his backfield mate, the ever-plodding Fred Jackson. Spiller and Ridley outperformed their ADPs by leaps and bounds. Don’t mistake this article as a call to load up on plodders and eschew the Spillers and Ridleys of 2013. Nothing would submarine your fantasy team’s chances with more haste.

Don’t ignore volume runners with built-in goal line roles, especially if your league members let them trickle into the late rounds. This, of course, requires you to have some feel for how your rivals value certain players, a critical part of any successful draft. Knowing what your league mates think of players offers a sizable advantage, like getting a glimpse of your buddy’s poker hand. You wouldn’t pretend you didn’t see that pair of kings, and you shouldn’t ignore what owners divulge in the days and weeks before draft day.

Plodders have real value if taken late enough – more, I think, than most people realize.

I’m going to look at four running back plodders from 2012: Shonn Greene, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Michael Turner, and Frank Gore. Gore doesn’t seem to fit this mold, but his workload coming into 2012 and the presence of Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, and LaMichael James scared owners away from Gore in many leagues.

Green and Green-Ellis are up first, with Gore and Turner explored in the second part of “In Defense of Plodders.” I’m not going to project the 2013 prospects for these plodders – it’s far too early. It’s important though to take advantage of some fantasy owners’ refusal to draft plodders with enormous workloads and goal line work. Never overdraft them. Wait until you can get a deal, and try your best to ignore the mocking of owners who think they know better.

Shun plodders no more.

Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets – Green was the 15th highest scoring running back in 2012 after being the 23rd running back off of draft boards. Injuries to 2012 disappointments like Ryan Mathews and Darren McFadden played a part in Green’s final standing – a phenomenon that neither began nor will end in 2012. It should be discounted. Green went in the fifth round of 12-team drafts, and in two of my four drafts, he fell to the seventh round or later.

Greene, like a reliable plodder, has close to no lateral ability and can hardly outrun anyone on the field. This much was fairly reliable though: Greene was going to get the ball, and get it often, as evidenced by his 276 carries, as many as Chris Johnson and ninth most in the NFL. Greene was force fed at the goal line for much of the season – Bilal Powell eventually relieved Greene of some of those chances in November and December – scoring eight rushing touchdowns, three more than Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte, and one fewer than Ray Rice.

I turned up my nose at Greene even when he smiled at me from the draft board in the late seventh round. I snickered at the owner who finally took Gang Green’s plodder, not knowing that a 1,000-yard rusher had been taken with the 92nd pick of the draft.

Greene only averaged a plodder-like 66 rushing yards per game despite his heavy workload, scoring less than seven fantasy points seven times in 2012. He was far from an every-week starter. Greene was a more-than-useful flex play who proved to be the epitome of the plodder whose price fell to a far more reasonable level.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Bengals – I joined Twitter threads last August in which fantasy obsessives mocked those who considered drafting the Law Firm. He was so thoroughly unimpressive in the rare times he broke into the open field during his Patriot days. Backup Bernard Scott, or someone, anyone, had to usurp Green-Ellis at some point in 2012, we agreed, even as Bengals coaches insisted that Scott was nothing more than a complementary back.

It only matters what coaches think. I think we should remember that.

“That’s what we’re going to do; come right out on the goal line and smash it early,” Bengals’ offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said in a July interview. “We’re not going to try and Tricky Dick anybody. In short yardage on day one we’re going to try and jam it up the gut.”

That, in case you were wondering, was coachspeak for “I heart the Law Firm.”

Green-Ellis finished 2012 as the 19th highest scoring running back, a ranking anchored in his one total point in the final two weeks of the season. He had been a high-end RB2 before that disastrous stretch.

He had the eighth most carries of any runner, totaling 1,094 yards with a ho-hum 3.9 average yards per carry. He ran for 73 yards a game and scored six touchdowns. The Law Firm is a prototypical plodder.

Green-Ellis was the 25th running back taken in 2012 fantasy drafts (well above Ridley and Spiller).

This is where understanding who your opponents value comes into play. If you hear them badmouthing someone like the Law Firm, see if he’ll drop to a more reasonable round. If he doesn’t, oh well, you didn’t miss out on a whole lot. If he does though, and you can have him for a proverbial song, then you’ve secured a top-20 running back for virtually nothing.

Green-Ellis plummeted to the 100th pick (eighth round) of one of my drafts last August. Once again, I scoffed when he was taken, because I’m an elitist fake football snob, perhaps like you.

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