Amid the Chris Johnson hype, is LenDale White undervalued?
LenDale White's and Chris Johnson's values are linked because they share a backfield, so it seems only reasonable to say White can't be undervalued unless one of two things is true: 1. Johnson is being elevated higher than he should be or 2. It is unreasonable to expect production similar to White's 2008 campaign.
Let's start with an attempt to ascertain whether Johnson is being overvalued.
As a rookie, Johnson amassed 251 carries and 43 receptions. That total of 294 touches was 12th-highest in the league among his positional peers. Because he likely will be in some sort of time-share, expecting a significant increase in touches should be ruled out. Likewise, we can expect a significant reduction in touches only if we can reasonably predict a decrease in Johnson's individual effectiveness or expect the Titans to lessen their commitment to running the ball. Because Tennessee has the most rushing attempts in the NFL in the past two seasons with 1,051 attempts and went an NFL-best 13-3 during the regular season in 2008, it seems unlikely that the Titans would change their offensive focus.
From 2000 to 2007, there were 41 instances of running backs who carried the ball at least 100 times and averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry in a season. In the next season, only four of those backs achieved that same level of performance. Even more significantly, the yards per carry dropped 0.85 yards for the 36 backs who received at least 100 carries again in the next season. To put that in perspective, such a decline in Johnson's production likely would cost him about 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns off his 2008 stats. That drop of 32 points would lower Johnson's final 2008 rank among running backs from 11th to 19th or, perhaps more interestingly, just one spot ahead of where White finished.
Verdict: Based on historical trends, Johnson should not be expected to repeat or improve upon his 2008 fantasy production.
Next, let's determine whether it is unreasonable to expect White to replicate his 2008 campaign.
White's main value came as a goal-line beast. Of his 200 carries, 28 came inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Of his 17 scores, 16 occurred during those aforementioned 28 carries, which means he scored on 57 percent of his carries inside the opponent's 10. For comparison's sake, the 25 running backs with the most carries inside the opponent's 10-yard line scored only 34 percent of the time. Although a regression to the norm would mean a loss of six scores, such a regression also could produce additional opportunities for White, as the subsequent downs still would be inside the opponent's 10, likely producing a wash or only minimal loss in fantasy production.
White's secondary value comes in yardage. Last season, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on attempts between his goal line and the opponent's 10-yard line. That number is in line with what above-average starting running backs average (see: Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Steven Jackson and Maurice Jones-Drew). Assuming he can maintain that level of production, it is not entirely unlikely that White can be expected to carry the ball three or four more times per game, especially if Johnson regresses based on historical occurrences as demonstrated before. Three more carries per game would mean 200 to 250 more rushing yards, or 20 to 25 more fantasy points. Such a gain would allow for White's touchdown total to drop by three or four yet not change his fantasy value.
Verdict: Based on goal-line efficiency and rushing success outside the 10-yard line, White can be expected to maintain his 2008 fantasy production.
Non-statistically speaking, the early training camp reports on White are extremely encouraging. He has quit drinking tequila, which has permitted him to drop more than 30 pounds since last season. White should be quicker and more elusive, a potentially favorable situation for his owners this season. So, back to the original question
Yes, White is indeed being undervalued this draft season, and even though I wasn't asked, you should think twice about investing a high pick on Johnson.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. Check out his ESPN.com fan profile here.