I’ll get this out of the way: I believe injury risk in fantasy football is overrated. Yes, some guys can never stay healthy, but risk is often used as an excuse for biased picks or hunches. When we are talking about running backs, everybody carries an enormous amount of risk. Running backs typically only last in the NFL for a few years due to the extreme wear on their bodies, and of fantasy-eligible players, running backs take the most hits.
DeMarco Murray has missed 7 games between 2012 and 2013, which is not ideal for a player who should be among your most valuable and reliable. According to FantasyPros.com, which averages average draft position (ADP) from the major sites (only Yahoo and Fantasy Football Calculator are factored in this early), Murray is being drafted at 18th overall and as the 10th running back. In some early mock drafts I have either seen or participated in, other backs such as Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, and Zac Stacy have leapfrogged Murray.
In the next few paragraphs, we’re going to examine the data relevant to Murray. As you’re looking through, try to ask yourself why Murray is inherently more risky than the aging Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch, "injury-prone" Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, or Arian Foster, or plagued-by-nagging-injuries Calvin Johnson or Jimmy Graham.
In 2013, Murray rushed 217 times for 1,121 yards, good for a 5.2 yards-per-carry (YPC) and 9 touchdowns. Using ESPN’s standard scoring, Murray tied with Chris Johnson as the 8th-best running back. However, according to some, Murray’s performance ranked better than 8th among running backs.
Football Outsiders evaluates running backs by adding context to numbers with the stat Defense-Adjusted Yards Over Average (DVOA). This means that a five-yard run on first-and-10 will be worth more than a five-yarder on third-and-20. DVOA is recorded in percentages to indicate how much better a player performs than the average. As the name suggests, the opposing team’s defense is taken into account in an effort to remove lurking variables.
Using DVOA, we can measure efficiency in a way other than black-and-white YPC. In 2013, Charles finished as the top fantasy running back and 7th in DVOA at 13.7%. LeSean McCoy followed up as the 2nd-best running back, and placed 3rd in DVOA with 18.1%. As expected, two of the NFL’s most elusive threats are highly regarded in terms of efficiency. In first place, with a whopping 24.0% DVOA is….
DeMarco Murray. That’s right, he was the NFL’s most efficient running back in 2013. Chris Johnson, one of the biggest fantasy headaches last season, did tie in fantasy points as mentioned above, but only managed a 1.5% DVOA. Of course, Johnson is now a member of the New York Jets and ranks much lower going into this season, but my point is that most fantasy owners only look at raw fantasy point totals when they draft. Think about it: if you were told that two players would average similar totals per game but one was an injury risk, you would probably select the "safer" player. If you recognize this, you can find some nifty value.
What Murray Cannot Control
I am a fan of the Washington franchise, so I don’t think too highly of the way Dallas runs its team. But biases aside, Dallas misused one of its best weapons by attempting the 2nd-fewest rushes in 2013. This did reduce injury risk, but Dallas has a league-average passing game and average overall stats. It’s only logical that running the ball more often would provide more yards and take some of the pressure off Tony Romo. Maybe new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, who served as the offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions for the last few seasons, can talk some sense into Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
DVOA does not take the offensive line into account. Football Outsiders produces another stat, called Adjusted Line Yards (ALY), to help distinguish the performances of the running back and offensive line. Once again, Dallas ranks highly, this time at #4 with 4.23 per carry. Using Second Level Yards and Open Field Yards, Dallas still ranks among the leaders, which indicates that Murray an co. are capable of doing more than just taking what is provided. For anybody who thought I am anti-McCoy, I point out that the Eagles ranked 25th in ALY, although McCoy dominated the Second Level Yards and Open Field Yards leaderboards. The point is that Murray is not really the best running back in football, but he plays well with his teammates and translates that into a successful run game. Murray also achieved similar ALY rankings that separate based on where the play goes, ranking 8th or better in all directions except plays towards the left end.
If I am ranking running backs, I might put Murray as high as #5. In snake drafts, almost all of the selections in the first round are running backs, and sometimes only because we want to take running backs there. The two main reasons a player can be drafted in that round and not perform at that level are injury and lack of effectiveness. Although they can both hurt your team in the standings and we cannot forecast either one, I would rather have a guy whom I can count on when he plays. Ray Rice owners probably kept the Raven in their lineups for most of the season, but if he got hurt, his owners would have gotten closure and selected a replacement. Once you get over the fact that all running backs are risky, it becomes clear that the consensus is undervaluing Murray this season.