It seems we say this maxim every year, but that’s only because it’s always good to have it in the back of your mind heading into draft season. You can’t win your fantasy league in the first few rounds of your draft, but you can definitely lose it. There’s no worse fate for a fantasy owner than seeing their first- or second-round pick go bust. At the same time, it is an immutable fact that at least a handful of the first 25 players off the board will fall short of expectations, some significantly so. That’s why it’s important to mitigate risk early and target players with high floors. It’s also why DeMarco Murray won’t be on many, if any, of my teams this year.
On the surface, that appears a potentially foolish statement. Murray led the NFL in rushing and was top among running backs in fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues last year. He carried the ball 392 times for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns, while adding 57 receptions and 416 receiving yards. He led all backs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards from scrimmage, outscoring Le’Veon Bell, who would be the consensus No. 1 overall pick this year if not for his suspension, by seven fantasy points. Running back may be a high-attrition position, but Murray is just 27. There’s admittedly plenty of tread left on his tires. So why am I avoiding him in 2015? Let’s take a look at the red flags surrounding the new Eagle.
While Murray may be just entering the last phase of his 20s, the case against him starts with last year’s workload. It’s not just the 392 carries he racked up during the regular season. Add in his receptions and work in Dallas’ two playoff games, and Murray touched the ball nearly 500 times last year (497 to be exact). That was good for the fourth-most touches for a running back in NFL history, trailing Emmitt Smith in 1995 (519), Jamal Anderson in 1998 (517), and Smith again in 1992 (516). Murray isn’t exactly in uncharted waters, but just because others have been there before doesn’t mean 2015 will be a walk in the park. Murray may have forerunners, but that doesn’t guarantee success.
In fact, those forerunners offer a cautionary tale. Anderson tore his ACL in the second game of the 1999 season. Smith was a freak of nature and a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a reason, but his production slipped in the seasons following both of his 500-plus-touch years. Here are Smith’s regular-season numbers in question.
Smith’s fantasy owners in 1993 and '96 likely weren’t disappointed with his numbers, but he still took a step back from the previous season in both cases. Before Murray ran 392 times last year, there had been 11 390-carry seasons in NFL history. Only four times did the running back reach even 1,000 yards the next year, and two of those seasons belong to the inimitable Eric Dickerson. It hasn’t been done since Dickerson pulled it off in 1987. Remember, too, that last year was the first time in Murray’s career that he was healthy for a full 16-game season. After all the hits he took in 2014, he could be at a heightened injury risk this year.
Moving on, Murray isn’t in nearly as beneficial a spot in Philadelphia as he was in Dallas. He was the only show in town for the Cowboys last year, ceding only the occasional carry to Joseph Randle or Lance Dunbar. That won’t be the case with the Eagles. The team also brought in Ryan Mathews during the offseason, and they didn’t give him $5 million in guaranteed money to spell Murray for a series every now and again. He’s going to have a role that should net him somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 touches this season. Murray won’t come close to sniffing the 392 carries he had a year ago.
Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense is generally good for a player’s fantasy value, but there’s little to suggest Murray specifically is in a better place than he was in Dallas. To be fair, the Philadelphia offensive line is just as good, if not better, than Dallas’. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded the Eagles as the best run-blocking team in the league last season despite all the attention showered on the Cowboys’ unit. Still, the rest of the offensive environment in Philadelphia could be a step back for Murray. Going from Tony Romo to Sam Bradford is a clear downgrade, and if the famously fragile Bradford gets hurt again, the Eagles will have to turn to Mark Sanchez. The Eagles also don’t have a weapon anywhere near the same caliber as Dez Bryant to take attention off the run game. Taking everything into consideration, the surroundings in Philadelphia are, at best, a wash when compared with what Murray had in Dallas last season.
Finally, the opportunity cost associated with a Murray pick is great. At press time, his average draft position sits at 15.7 overall and 10th among running backs. That may change a bit as we get closer to draft season, but it likely won’t fluctuate more than a few spots. Taking Murray will almost certainly mean passing on a group of receivers that includes Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and A.J. Green (this assumes Bryant, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas and Odell Beckham all have ADPs comfortably higher than Murray’s). It would also mean foregoing the two safest, most consistent quarterbacks—Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck—as well as high-ceilinged, and potentially safer, running backs, like Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Jeremy Hill and C.J. Anderson.
Murray could very well prove me wrong. If he does, my hat will be off to him and everyone who had the confidence to draft him. Still, I’m comfortable eliminating the risk associated with taking a running back with a checkered injury history who is coming off the fourth-most-active season in NFL history and entering a new situation with a capable backfield mate from my draft calculus.