NFL Hypotheticals: Using career-best RB stats to project 2017 teams

By Ryan Fowler

At 31 years old, this may be running back Chris Johnson's ninth and final NFL life. After only 25 carries in four games last season, his reunion with the Arizona Cardinals this week was a matter of urgency and roster depth following David Johnson's wrist surgery that will place the stud running back on the shelf for the next 2-3 months.

Although D.J.'s injury all-but-sunk the Cardinals' chances in the NFC West and beyond, C.J.'s signing got us thinking. What-if active running backs produced their most elite single-season stats on their current teams? The simulation exercise promoted the players to lead back (no RBBC) and assumes the same production regardless the current state of the offensive line, quarterback, etc.

So, in the case of Arizona, they would enjoy CJ2K's 2009 production when he averaged 5.6 yards per rush and 10.1 per reception. By comparison, D.J.'s 2016 Rush/Rec averages were 4.2, 11.0, respectively. If you break it down by touch, C.J. averaged 6.1, while D.J. averaged 5.7 yards. Not exactly 1:1, but further illustrates the talent the Cardinals just lost.

Using Prediction Machine's NFL simulation engine, we played out the Cardinals 2017 season with and without 2009 C.J. as their lead back. Without him and D.J., the Cardinals fell from 9th to 17th in our Week 2 NFL Power Rankings. Here are the rest of the numbers:

Cardinals Without 2009 C.J.:
PPG: 23.67 vs. league avg. defense
Wins: 8.2
NFC West Title: 23.1%
NFC Championship: 5.1%
Super Bowl: 2.0%

Cardinals with 2009 C.J.:
PPG: 27.73 (+4.06)
Wins: 9.4 (+1.04)
NFC West Title: 39.2% (+16.1)
NFC Championship: 9.6% (+4.5)
Super Bowl: 4.1% (+2.1)

Now we know what some of you are thinking, how can a running back be so valuable when, typically, an elite running back missing from the starting lineup on any given week only impacts the point spread by ½ point? Well, we're talking about elite yards-per-touch production – near the extremes. That 1.5 yards per touch difference can swing win expectancy drastically. For example, a running back who averaged 4.0 yards per carry would be facing 3rd-and-2's, while an offense whose running back averaged 5.5 per carry would often move the chains on second down.

Multiple knee surgeries over the past few seasons forced 30-year-old Jamaal Charles to miss 24 of 32 games. The scars also ended his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs earlier than many probably expected just a few years ago. Charles averaged better 5.0 yards per carry through his first eight seasons in Kansas City. He peaked in 2010 – his third NFL season – when he averaged 6.4 yards per rush and 10.4 yards per reception.

What-if the 2017 Broncos – whose offense looked better than projected aside from the 4th-quarter turnovers in Week 1 - featured 2010 Charles in their backfield?
Broncos Without 2010 J.C.:
PPG: 22.25 vs. league average defense
Wins: 9.0
AFC West Title: 22.8%
AFC Championship: 7.4%
Super Bowl: 3.6%

Broncos with 2010 J.C.:
PPG: 29.7 (+7.45)
Wins: 11.2 (+2.2)
AFC West Title: 60.6% (+37.8)
AFC Championship: 15.9% (+8.5)
Super Bowl: 7.8% (+4.2)

Peak Charles, currently known in Denver for his fourth quarter fumble against the Chargers, would make the Broncos a legitimate force in the conference, but that AFC West is so tough, 29.7 points per game, an elite defense and 11 projected wins still only gives them a 60 percent chance to win their division.

What's so remarkable about Adrian Peterson's 2012 season – in which he averaged 6.0 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per reception - is the fact he returned from a torn ACL & MCL in less than 10 months before racking up 2,097 rush yards. The Saints haven't had a running back rush for more than 1,043 yards since 2006. Looking at 2012 A.P.'s impact on the 2017 Saints, one thing is abundantly clear.

Saints Without 2012 A.P.:
PPG: 29.62 vs. league average defense
Wins: 7.4
NFC South Title: 9.1%
NFC Championship: 1.4%
Super Bowl: 0.6%

Saints with 2012 A.P.:
PPG: 35.21 (+5.59)
Wins: 7.8 (+0.4)
NFC South Title: 11.6% (+2.5)
NFC Championship: 1.7% (+0.3)
Super Bowl: 0.7% (+0.1)

The Saints defense is atrocious. How else does a team that projects 35.21 points per game only improve 0.4 wins and marginally improve their chances to win their division, conference and any shot at raising the Lombardi Trophy? Peterson's NFL peak production would be wasted on the 2017 Saints. Now the question becomes would Peterson be more frustrated with his elite talent wasted or with the lack of touches in the current running back committee?

Although Frank Gore hasn't missed a regular season game since 2010, the 34-year-old running back's production has dipped significantly over the past six seasons. He hasn't averaged 4.0 yards per carry since 2014. He may have fought Father Time and bucked the NFL trend that knocks overused running backs out of the league within five years, but Gore peaked in 2006 - his second season. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry (312 att.) and 8.0 yards per reception. So, would his best NFL season spark a Colts offense with Scott Tolzein / Jacoby Brissett behind center?

Colts Without 2006 F.G.:
PPG: 20.89
Wins: 4.3
AFC South Title: 1.3%
AFC Championship: 0%
Super Bowl: 0%

Colts with 2006 F.G.:
PPG: 24.86 (+3.97)
Wins: 5.8 (+1.5)
AFC South Title: 5.9% (+4.6)
AFC Championship: 0%
Super Bowl: 0%

The short answer is no. Similar to peak Peterson featured on the 2017 Saints, Gore improved the Colts scoring offense, but failed to significantly impact their win expectancy and division, conference and Super Bowl odds. Indy is a lost cause for the moment.