In my continuing quest to contribute to your draft-day domination, I will compose a series of blogs over the next few weeks that focus on players that are sure to create some hardship for fantasy owners: players on the same team who play the same position that will likely have a significant fantasy impact. For those of you who regularly read and contribute to the FF Today Forums, consider this short series a distant relative to “Look-Alike Players”. My goal is to create a compelling case for and against each player before handing down a final decision. Let’s get started:
The setup: Full-point PPR; 10 rushing/receiving yards equal one fantasy point; all touchdowns are worth six fantasy points.
Current ADP (courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator): Stewart – 7.05 Williams – 8.03
What’s at stake: Grabbing the better fantasy RB3 of the two the Carolina Panthers have to offer.
The case for Stewart: There seems to be very little argument that Stewart is the best “backup” running back in the league. Not only that, but Pro Football Focus has identified him as the NFL’s most elusive back in two of his four seasons in the league. And it isn’t hard to understand why: at 5-10 and 235 pounds, Stewart possesses the rare combination of power and speed that would make him the featured back on several teams around the league. When it became clear that QB Cam Newton was the real deal early last season, Stewart showed an ability in the passing game that few people knew he had simply because he had never really been asked to serve in that role in college (51 receptions in three years at Oregon) or the NFL (34 career catches prior to 2011). Stewart became the de facto third-down back when Mike Goodson could not stay healthy and, despite a career low in carries, managed his second-best fantasy season thanks in large part to a personal-best 47 catches.
The case against Stewart: Opportunity, especially now that “Double Trouble” may now evolve into “Triple Threat” with the addition of another capable big back in Mike Tolbert. Despite the Panthers’ assertion that Tolbert will merely serve as the fullback, most teams don’t feel compelled to dish out a four-year, $8.4 M contract to a player at that position when the combination of Stewart and Williams averaged nearly 5.4 yards per carry last season without him. In my opinion, Tolbert was signed for several reasons (in order): 1) serve as insurance against Jonathan Stewart leaving as a free agent after the season, 2) be the goal-line back in order to reduce the likelihood that Newton gets hurt, 3) act as the third-down back and 4) resume his role as a special-teams ace. Assuming any or all of the first three assumptions are correct, it is probably a safe to say that no player’s fantasy value is going up anytime soon. Additionally, OC Rob Chudzinski was on the Chargers’ offensive staff during Tolbert’s first three years in the league, including his 11-TD season in 2010. Stewart was already on the wrong end of carry split with Williams last year (155-142), so if Tolbert robs Stewart of a sizable portion of his work in the passing game and the carry split with Williams remains about the same, Stewart will have trouble maintaining any kind of relevance in fantasy.
The case for Williams: People have been quick to write off Williams because of the immense talent Stewart possesses, but the 29-year-old still has plenty of explosion left as his 69- and 74-yard touchdown runs from a season ago will attest. So will the fact that he’s averaged 5.0 YPC or better in four of the past five seasons. The fact the new coaching staff saw fit to give slightly more of the rushing workload to Williams, which may have simply been a coincidence or acknowledgement that since Stewart is a more trusted option in the passing game, Williams should receive a few more carries. Whatever the reason, Williams has held the edge in rushing attempts over Stewart in all three years the two have played together in which they both have been healthy, which includes a head coaching change and a two different offensive coordinators. And, of course, there is the huge contract Williams signed last off-season, which gives us a pretty good indication that Carolina expects at least 10-12 touches per game from him.
The case against Williams: Ironically, almost the same case that can be made against Stewart – opportunity. What was already an uncertain backfield picture got even messier with the addition of Tolbert, but the signs of Williams’ role decreasing were already present last season. According to ESPN, Stewart saw action in 55.2% of the team’s offensive plays last season while Williams took part in 42.7%. Furthermore, Williams handled just two carries inside the opponent’s five-yard line last season and only had 13 opportunities (12 rushes, one pass target) inside the 20. And despite a catch rate of 73.8% over the course of his career, Williams has never been a high-volume pass catcher with his 33 receptions as a rookie back in 2006 still standing as his career high. Add it all up and we’ve pretty much eliminated just about every way a running back can consistently score in fantasy.
The verdict: Hung jury, anyone? While Chudzinski has already proven himself to be a brilliant offensive mind, it will be nearly impossible for him to keep everyone happy. In all my years of playing fantasy football, I cannot recall a situation in which three running backs were able to maintain fantasy value at the same time, especially in one where the quarterback is a big part for the rushing attack. With that said, the Panthers’ running backs still finished 13th overall in PPR scoring last season even though Newton stole much of the goal-line work. So it is safe to say the idea this backfield doesn’t have much to offer in way of RB fantasy points is an illusion despite Newton’s 14 rushing scores. Since I am being asked to rule in favor of one of the men on trial here, I will lean slightly towards Stewart, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating the impact Tolbert will have on this backfield.