When deciding between two similar players, you have to look at as many factors as possible, such as ability, opportunity, complementary players, coaching, statistical history and health.
That last one is possibly the most unpredictable and important factor for us fake football players. No matter how good your players are, if they aren't on the field, they aren't scoring you any points—duh.
I bring health up because it's extremely important when picking between Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson. If you look solely at production while on the field, McFadden has been a better running back than Johnson over the last two seasons. Of course, McFadden has also had trouble staying on the field due to injuries.
First let's take a look at the statistics. Last year for Johnson was quite horrible, as all of you know. He didn't miss a game, yet he tied as the 16th-ranked fantasy running back with Matt Forte, who missed four-plus games.
His four yards per carry were 40th for running backs that had 400-plus rushing yards. His 1,047 rushing yards were 15th overall, and 473 of those yards came in his three best games against three of the worst fantasy rushing defenses in the league, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Buffalo.
So, 45 percent of all Johnson's rushing yards came in three games against rotten run defenses. That's not too good.
Will Johnson rebound? It really would be hard for him not to. He'll have a full training camp, and his pride has to be somewhat compromised after many analysts have commented on his lack of "trying" last season. I believe he'll have a top-10 fantasy running back season, but after watching him decline statistically over the last two seasons, I'm not loving his upside.
Johnson has also been one of the most—if not the most—reliable players over the last four years as far as health. He seems safe, while McFadden seems unsafe—but is he?
There are plenty of anecdotal cases that can argue for injury-prone players having full productive seasons and vice versa. There is absolutely no way to tell if a player will or won't get injured; that's why we hang onto past injuries for so long.
We often hang on even longer when picking running backs compared to the other positions because they get hit more often. Last season, 10 of the top 20 drafted running backs suffered injuries that kept them out of two or more games.
So, the odds of your top two running back choices not playing a full 16-game season are quite good. But do injuries predict more injuries?
I believe the answer is probably yes and no. Of course, if you come back too early from an injury, you are more likely to suffer the same injury again, but if you sprain your ankle and then break your collarbone, does that mean your body is just naturally easier to injure?
I'm no doctor, and I surely don't play one on TV, but I believe someone who is unlucky with injuries does not automatically make them injury-prone for the rest of their career.
But I'm also not a complete moron. I realize that McFadden's past does not look good, and there is no way to get around the fact that he hasn't played a full season. Let's take a look at Johnson's and McFadden's last two years.
The numbers here are clearly in McFadden's favor on a game-to-game basis. He is averaging 118.9 total yards per game compared to Johnson's 96.1. And the always-coveted fantasy points are in his favor, 15.6 to 11.9. My favorite statistic, yards per carry, is on McFadden's side, 5.3 to 4.2.
And let's say McFadden does miss time again like he did in 2010. With just 13 games, he was still the sixth-ranked fantasy running back with 1,664 total yards and 10 touchdowns. So it doesn't take a full 16 games out of McFadden to give you huge games and a top season.
McFadden also lost goal-line carries to Michael Bush, who, in 2010 and the first seven games of 2011, had 23 goal-line carries for nine touchdowns to McFadden's seven carries for six touchdowns. So that means McFadden would have had 21 touchdowns. Perhaps not, but he would have had more chances, and he was pretty successful when he had a chance.
In my estimation, McFadden is a top-three running back. He has yet to put a full year together, but if it happens, he has the ability to be the No. 1 fantasy player in the league. That's the kind of reward I want, especially when I can get him at the end of the first or beginning of the second round versus sixth or ninth overall.
So far, the news out of training camp is that McFadden is fully healed and has his burst back. Does this mean you can now trust him to go 16 games with 400 touches? Uh, no.
The question you have to ask is: Does the reward outweigh the risk? I think it does.