During ESPN's fantasy football rankings symposium in late April, I tried to make a case for Thomas Jones as the No. 16 running back. Laughter filled the room, but I made the case over and over again until the group consensus placed Jones as the 22nd best running back.
Fast forward to today, and I'll continue to make the same case.
Let's start with the negatives because, frankly, without them there'd be no case to make:
He'll be 30 years old next week. That's usually a death sentence for running backs when it comes to fantasy relevance.
The metrics most people would use to measure his effectiveness have decreased in each of the past three years. Specifically, his yards per carry average dropped from 4.3 to 4.1 to 3.6, and his total touchdowns dropped from nine to six to two.
Taken in a vacuum, those brief negatives should drop Jones from your draft board altogether. But, I'm advocating the exact opposite.
Let's look at those negatives and see if they should really worry us. The effect that age has on a running back is generally driven by the amount of punishment a running back has received during his playing career. Jones' recent workload -- between 330 and 340 touches -- in each of the past three years isn't high and by itself poses no discernable threat as a reason for decreased production. Furthermore, over his eight-year career, he has averaged only 238 touches per season, a low number when you compare him to other runners nearing the age of 30. The soon-to-be 29 year-old Jamal Lewis has averaged 331 touches in his seven NFL seasons. If you have no issues with Lewis' workload or age, to hold similar concerns against Jones is unfair.
This brings us to the metrics and whether the decline in production the past two years is something that should send us in another direction. The easy explanation for why these metrics have fallen is that defensive coordinators were able to put eight men in the box to stop Jones because of the limited skill sets of Rex Grossman and Chad Pennington, Those coordinators dared Grossman to beat them over the top and knew that Pennington couldn't throw it deep enough to hurt them. The end result, Jones faced more compact defenses that could eliminate cutback lanes, eliminating Jones' big play potential.
So are there any positives?
Next, consider the recent upgrades to the offensive line, Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. The Jets were atrocious when it came to running the ball inside their opponents' 5-yard line last season. Jones, the sole ball carrier in all of their attempts in that range, had 15 carries but managed only three total yards. When an offense blows up like that, it's the offensive line's fault. It didn't give the skill players the time they needed to execute plays.
Jones converted only one of those 15 carries into a touchdown. That seven percent success rate was by far the worst in the league among backs who had at least eight carries in that situation. If Jones could have converted just four more of those carries into touchdowns, which still would have still been below the league average, his 2007 fantasy production would have finished on par with Maurice Jones-Drew.
Finally, take a look at the Jets' schedule this season. They face only four games against defenses that finished in the top 10 in terms of rushing yards per game allowed, and two of those games are against the division rival Patriots. Their 2008 opponents allowed an average of 120 rushing yards per game in 2007. That would rank as 24th in the league, meaning New York plays an extremely favorable schedule when it relates Jones' expected performance.
Based on this, here's my expectation for Thomas Jones this year:
4.1 yards per carry: last year's average plus 0.5 ypc to account for Favre's presence and the upgraded offensive line
7 rushing touchdowns: one based on last year's production, four for better performance inside the 5, and two I think he can break from outside the 5, based on the Favre/O-Line upgrades.
30 catches: average over the past three seasons
5.7 yards per catch: average over the past three seasons
1 receiving touchdown: if he could do that last year ...
1 lost fumble: he's lost only one in the past two years
Those projections amount to a prediction of 187 fantasy points for the season. Last year, that would have placed him as the 10th-best running back.
Jones' current average draft position places him at 46.8, which means he's currently a mid-fifth-round pick in ESPN.com standard leagues. Of course, the player taken immediately before him in terms of average draft position is Edgerrin James. Last I checked, Edge is 30 years old and has declining production metrics. Did the Cardinals get Favre and a new offensive line, too?
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for espn.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available at: http://myespn.go.com/KenD17.