In all my years of playing fantasy football, I’ve somehow managed to avoid owning Maurice Jones-Drew entirely. It hasn’t been for lack of opportunity. If I had to guess, I’ve played in more than 40 leagues in the seven years since MJD came into the league. I like plenty of short people. Folks with hyphens in their last names only bother me a little. So why have I gone out of my way to avoid one of the best fantasy running backs of this generation year after year? Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and examine the various (and mostly thick witted) postulations that have conspired to keep MJD off my rosters.
Me: “He’s a committee back. Fred Taylor takes away too many carries for MJD to have consistent value.”
In that three year span, Jones-Drew put up averages of 1,313 YFS, 12.6 total TD’s, and 4.8 YPC.
2009-2010 (After Fred Taylor left for New England):
Me: “He’s never averaged more than 12.1 carries per game in his career. There is no such thing as a 5’7” feature back. Huge injury risk.”
In those two seasons MJD averaged 1,358 rushing yards and 10 rushing TD’s, while missing only 2 games.
Me: “Blaine Gabbert.”
This was Jones-Drew’s finest work. He ran for a league best 1,606 rushing yards, and 11 total TD’s despite Gabbert’s dumpster fire rookie season.
Me: “How did Chris Johnson’s extended holdout turn out for his owners last year? Plus, MJD has touched the ball 1,084 times in the past three seasons. If I’m taking a risky running back at a discount, it’s going to be Ryan Mathews.”
It may have taken seven years, but I was finally half right (good thing Jody Smith handles the accuracy around here). MJD would appear in only 5 full games last season before suffering a murky foot injury that knocked him out for the remainder of the year. Prior to getting hurt, Jones-Drew was less than stellar, exceeding 77 rushing yards in only one game – a match-up against the league worst Colts run defense in week 3.
So what does the future hold for MJD coming off a lost season? To answer that question, I think we have to look at three main factors:
The Foot Injury
Any discussion on MJD’s 2013 prospects has to begin with the condition of his surgically repaired left foot. Jones-Drew hurt the foot in Jacksonville’s October 21st game against the Raiders. In the months that followed we learned precious few details about the exact nature of the injury (thanks a lot Mike Mularkey). All the Jaguars would reveal is that MJD was slated to miss “multiple” weeks while the foot healed. It wasn’t until Week 16 when he was still experiencing pain during running drills that the Jags placed him on IR, finally putting his bitter fantasy owners out of their misery.
We’ve since been told that MJD suffered a mid-foot fracture (notable that it was not of the dreaded Lisfranc variety). He was operated on to repair the break on December 28th, though Jones-Drew admits the obvious – he probably should have had the surgery at least a month earlier.
As of January 30th, MJD still had the left foot in a cast, and was getting around with the help of a Rascal. Here’s the projected time-line for his rehab per the Florida Times Union:
When he turns 28 on March 23, he hopes to be doing some type of rehabilitation. The first step is swimming pool work within two weeks before walking, jogging, running and then football activities by late May or early June.
“ll be doing the same kind of things I did after my knee injury [after the 2010 season],” he said. “You have to learn how to walk again.”
That whole “learn to walk again” thing is not particularly comforting, but it does seem like MJD should be ready for the start of the season. While there’s no telling how Jones-Drew’s foot will respond once he starts practicing, fantasy owners at least have some reasons for optimism regarding his health:
- He is not an injury prone player. Don’t let the lingering bad memories from last season misguide you. Before breaking his foot, the January 2011 knee surgery he mentioned above was the only major affliction on his resume.
- He’s a tough little dude. MJD played effectively through 14 games on that bad knee during the 2010 season. The very next year he came back stronger than ever, winning the rushing title.
- Running backs coming off serious foot injuries have not proven to be at greater risk of re-injury the following season. Brian Westbrook suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 13 of the 2005 season. In 2006 he rushed for a career high 1,217 yards, and played in all but one game. More recently, a Lisfranc fracture wrecked Darren McFadden‘s promising 2011 season. Sure DMC stunk last year, but at least no one’s blaming it on his foot (plenty of blame was placed elsewhere…I smell a segue coming).
The Switch to a Zone Blocking Scheme
Early indications are that MJD will be asked to run behind a zone blocking scheme next season for the first time in his career. If you had asked me before the start of last season what the scheme change would mean for MJD’s fantasy value, I would have told you to get excited.
After all, the Houston Texans have ridden zone blocking to phenomenal success on the ground in recent years. Mike Shanahan‘s Broncos teams utilized the scheme so well that zilch’s like Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns became fantasy stars. Then the 2012 season happened, and the Oakland Raiders assassinated the zone blocking scheme’s stellar reputation.
Oakland’s transition from traditional power blocking to a zone scheme was literally a historic disaster. Darren McFadden’s 3.3 YPC was the worst ever for a Raider with at least 150 carries. The major take away from the Raiders debacle (besides the fact that their personnel was a poor fit for the scheme) is that zone blocking can be quite difficult for offensive linemen to learn.
Bob Davie explains why it can be tough to master the nuances of zone blocking in this great piece written for ESPN.com. Here’s an excerpt:
“Picking up the zone scheme requires a great deal of practice because it involves offensive linemen working in unison and decisions have to be made while the play is taking place. In zone blocking, you don’t have a lot of different assignments, but you have a lot of techniques. It takes many repetitions to get the feel of working together as a unit.”
While that certainly means there’s a chance the Jacksonville linemen will adapt to the scheme as poorly as the Raiders did, I think we need to congratulate new offensive coordinator Jed Fisch for being a proponent of common sense. The Jaguars’ run game was rancid last season, finishing 30th in the league in total rushing yards. Why not burn it down and start fresh? It’s not like a switch to zone blocking can make the Jags’ rushing attack markedly worse than it already was.
In my opinion, making a talent upgrade on their offensive line will be more important to the Jags’ success on the ground than any scheme change. Outside of left tackle Eugene Monroe (who may be the best player on the entire offense), and OG Uche Nwaneri, the rest of the line is made up of replacement-level talent, or worse. Keep an eye on their off-season moves. If the Jags can bolster the O-line through the draft or free agency, I’ll feel pretty confident downplaying the significance of the change in blocking schemes.
That’s because for his own part Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t seem a terrible fit for zone blocking, even if he lacks experience in the system. MJD has always been a decisive runner with good field vision. He has no trouble identifying running lanes, making the right cuts, and hitting holes with authority, all admirable traits for a back playing behind zone blocking.
What do we do with MJD when it comes time to draft next season? I think it’s pretty clear that pulling the trigger on Jones-Drew this season is risky, but I will be interested to see if the profit potential outweighs that risk come August. Fantasy Football ADP Calculator currently has MJD going at pick 3.05, or number 31 overall. For context, that’s 5 spots later than Stevan Ridley and 1 spot ahead of Randall Cobb.
Barring any unforeseen changes (introduction of a platoon partner, foot falling off, etc.) I think Jones-Drew’s ADP will rise a bit from that spot come August, but not all that much. Worries about the foot and Darren McFadden flashbacks should keep him priced in RB2 territory. At that value, my take on MJD for 2013 would look something like this:
“Many fantasy owners will be comparing MJD’s situation to Darren McFadden’s last year, but that’s lazy analysis. We’re only one year removed from Adrian Peterson swinging tons of championships because injury concerns made him available as a RB2. I’m not suggesting MJD will challenge the all time rushing record, but at this point I don’t see any reason why he can’t at least perform in line with his career averages.”
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