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The Case for #1: Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson?

So, through the tried and true approach of random number generating you’ve been awarded the first overall pick in your fantasy league, but who do you choose? It’s pretty rare that one player is seen as the only option at #1; usually there are at least two guys you could go with. This year those two are Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. Please, please, no hate mail arguing the attributes of Ray Rice or Maurice Jones-Drew or whoever else. Those backs may very well fit your league’s top pick best, but, for the sake of argument, we’re going with the most obvious top two choices for the majority of leagues out there.

So which one will it be? How do you decide? To help you out we’ve done some comparison work, reviewed both recent and career statistics, and taken into account other elements like contract status, health, off-the-field problems, and supporting cast and team personnel. By identifying and analyzing these factors, hopefully we can make the tough decision of which running back to take with your league’s first overall pick a little easier.

Following is a head-to-head statistical comparison between the two:

Player - Team Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Yds Rec TDs Rec FPts
Adrian Peterson – MIN 1,383 (5th) 18 (1st) 436 0 43 304
Chris Johnson – TEN 2,006 (1st) 14 (3rd) 503 2 50 363

Player - Team Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Yds Rec TDs Rec FPts
Adrian Peterson – MIN 1,760 10 125 0 21 256
Chris Johnson – TEN 1,228 9 260 1 43 223

 Careers (Peterson was a rookie in 2007, Johnson was a rookie in 2008)
Player - Team Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Yds Rec TDs Rec FPts
Adrian Peterson – MIN 4,484 40 829 1 83 805
Chris Johnson – TEN 3,234 23 763 3 93 586

In 2009 Peterson averaged a “measly” 4.4 yards per carry (ypc) while the explosive Johnson averaged 5.6. Among starters or regularly used backups, only Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and Felix Jones of the Cowboys had a higher average (5.9 ypc) than Johnson. Both backs get the ball about the same amount of time—22 carries per game for Johnson and 20 per game for Peterson. However, Johnson gets more receptions. He ranked 5th among all running backs and led his team, while Peterson was 11th overall—one spot behind teammate Chester Taylor. Also, Johnson was 2nd in the league in receiving yards by a running back (behind only Ray Rice), while Peterson was 5th overall. Peterson also had a lot more trouble holding on to the ball than Johnson did, doubling Johnson’s fumbles total 6 to 3, and leading the league for starting running backs.

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson: A one-man show.

In 2009 the Titans ran the ball 499 times while throwing 476 times; they became a running team (51% of the time), with quarterback Vince Young still maturing and getting re-acquainted with the offense, after a Week 6 benching of winless starter Kerry Collins gave Young another chance.

In the Titans running game, Chris Johnson was a one-man show. His backup, LenDale White, who had performed so well the year before, was the only other back on the roster who played with any regularity (Javon Ringer had eight total carries and Ahmard Hall had one carry all year). Still, White averaged only four carries per game; the Titans probably would have been better off letting Vince Young run option plays instead of handing off to White.

This year’s running game looks to be shaping up as it did last year, with Johnson playing virtually every snap and getting all the yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points. The only changes are at running backs coach and backup runners. Last year’s coach was replaced by Kennedy Pola—but really, how much can a running backs coach help or hinder Johnson? The Titans got rid of LenDale White during the offseason, so Johnson’s backup will be second-year man Javon Ringer. This means Vince Young is still the second-best run option the Titans have, but it also means Ringer becomes a very valuable handcuff/backup in your draft.

For the Vikings, Peterson got 67% of the team’s rushes, a total of 314 carries. Chester Taylor was the only other running back with any action last year, with 94 carries for 338 yards and 1 TD. This year I expect Peterson to increase his workload with the departure of Chester Taylor to the rival Chicago Bears—if, that is, he can hold onto the ball. Peterson’s main backup will likely be Ryan Moats, but rookie Toby Gerhart will see a significant chunk of backup play as well and is the “sexier” handcuff/backup option for most owners.

Last year the Vikings ran the ball 467 times, but threw it 553 times, a fairly even offensive distribution (54% passing, 46% ruishing). With Favre back for another season, Peterson's numbers will remain comparable to last year’s although with Sidney Rice out until mid-season after undergoing hip surgery this week and Percy Harvin battling migraines, it wouldn't take a great leap to think the Vikings might lean on Peterson now more than ever.

Peterson has missed just two games since entering the league in 2007, so he’s proven to be durable—more durable than many had expected. Johnson has missed just a single game since entering the league in 2008. Neither have had off-the-field problems or any character issues, so the discipline and durability categories are a wash. Both have been chosen for Pro Bowls, received votes for or won Player of the Year, and Johnson became just the 6th RB in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. That last number brings us to the “following season” curse. This happens when a player has a great season, then holds out for a new contract, gets it, and never again reaches the performance level that got him the raise (see fellow and former Titan “Fat Albert” Haynesworth).

More importantly, you should be aware of the following season’s statistics for the other five 2000-yard rushers. None of them even made it to 1,500 yards (Barry Sanders, DET, 1998: 1,491 yards; Eric Dickerson, STL, 1985: 1,234 yards) and a couple of them barely rushed for 1,000 yards (Jamal Lewis, BAL, 2004: 1,006 yards; O.J. Simpson, BUF, 1974: 1,125 yards), while one didn’t even get 500 yards the following year (Terrell Davis, DEN, 1999: 211 yards [injury]).

What, after all that you still don’t know who to take with the first overall pick? True, you could make an argument for either one and, barring an injury, be pleased with the results. Heck, you might as well just flip a coin, right? Not quite. Let’s summarize the value of each player by reviewing their pros and cons:

 The Good and the Bad
Player Pros Cons
Adrian Peterson – MIN 1. Healthy
2. Single backfield starter (no RBBC threat)
3. Explosive offense
1. Fumbling issues
2. Uncertainty at WR position
3. Balanced offense
Chris Johnson – TEN 1. Healthy
2. Single backfield starter (no RBBC threat)
3. Run-oriented offense
1. Unhappy over contract status
2. Coming off a 2,000+ yard rushing season
3. Only proven weapon on the team

Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson: The number one overall pick in fantasy football.

Okay, we’ve gone through all the important deciding factors and now it’s time to call out the name of the #1 overall pick, and it is… Adrian Peterson! The pros listed above easily cancel each other out. Comparing an explosive versus a run-oriented offense doesn’t help us much in choosing a running back. It’s pretty even ground. As for the cons, Peterson’s fumbling may give you pause and is a slightly larger issue than Johnson’s unhappiness. However, Peterson is the type to have worked all offseason on rectifying that, so I’m not much concerned about fumbles. Cons 2 and 3 are where the real answer lies. What may seem like good things on the surface to other owners have been labeled cons here, and for good reason.

Peterson gets my nod over Johnson because I believe Johnson will be worn out from last year’s extremely impressive campaign, and teams will be more focused than ever on stopping him by stacking the line and taking their chances on Vince Young throwing it downfield. Even if Johnson’s contract issue is resolved before the season starts, it’s going to have a negative effect on his performance. Plus, Peterson has proven he can put up similar numbers with or without Favre leading the offense, and while the offense was pretty balanced last year, it might be a little more run-oriented this year given the current wideout situation.

So that’s it. While no one is saying that Johnson isn’t the better overall fantasy back, his exceptional 2009 campaign put some extra wear on his tires and a target on his back. Even though the difference between the fantasy standings of both backs is slim, those two factors stand out. And it’s going to be tough for Johnson to reproduce something close to last year’s stats while overcoming the odds—odds that even three out of three Hall of Famers couldn’t beat. That right there is all the reason you should need to take Adrian Peterson over Chris Johnson as the first overall pick in 2010.