Joseph Addai: 2010 Sleeper Pick

The Indianapolis Colts possess one of the most potent offenses in the history of the NFL, largely in part to the stellar quarterback play of Peyton Manning. There seems to be this notion that whoever lines up beside Manning is a worthy fantasy option. Whether it’s Wayne running slants, Garçon breaking tackles, Collie running through the slot, or Gonzalez showing off his great hands, the Colts have a plethora of options at the WR position. All of them have quite a bit of fantasy value and the team’s number two target, Dallas Clark, hasn’t even been mentioned.

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While knowing that Manning and the Colts have great fantasy options in the passing game, the question arises: Do the Colts have worthy fantasy options in their backfield? They have two young running backs that get the majority of the attention, fifth year back, Joseph Addai, and second year back, Donald Brown. Early thoughts last season were that Donald Brown would take over as the feature back for the Colts, but as the season wore on Brown battled numerous injuries and his transition to the pro game didn’t go as smoothly as expected. With that knowledge, Addai will go into the 2010 season as the Colts primary back and by getting the most touches he will be the most valuable Colts running back.

Obviously Donald Brown will still be a part of the offense, but he needs to be better acclimated to what this offense is all about. He’s not half as good at picking up blitzes as Addai — and until he’s able to do that he can’t be trusted to carry the full load. Addai also has an added incentive, for what it’s worth, to perform at a very high level. The 2010 season is the last year on his current contract. While it may sound silly, there has always been a notion that players (like Addai this year) like to put it all on the table when it’s their contract year.

Now another, more important question comes about, how good is Joseph Addai in the world of fantasy football? Addai was unable to break 1,000 rushing yards in either of the past two seasons. As a result of injuries, Addai was only able to play in 12 games gaining just over 500 yards in 2008. In 2009, Addai stayed healthy but was only able to rush for a bit over 800 yards. Looking just at the rushing yards it may be hard to think that Addai is a worthy fantasy option.

The fact of the matter is that the importance of yards gained on the ground is highly overrated in fantasy football. Steven Jackson gained over 1,400 yards rushing last season, Cedric Benson had over 1,250, and both Carolina backs (Williams & Stewart) gained over 1,000. What did they all have in common? They were all behind Joseph Addai in fantasy points scored last season. In fact, in standard scoring leagues, Addai was a top ten fantasy back last year (number 9). In addition, Addai has been a viable fantasy back in previous years, being the 12th overall his rookie year and the fifth overall in 2007.

Excellent versatility is the secret to Addai’s success. Although he was unable to break 1,000 yards rushing, he did manage to find the end zone ten times rushing and three times receiving. Addai was so versatile that he was the “QB” on the game-winning touchdown to Reggie Wayne in the Week 8 vs. the 49ers. That’s fourteen total touchdowns and we haven’t even mentioned the 300 yards he caught for out of the backfield. There were ten weeks last season where Addai accumulated double-digit fantasy points including a stretch in the middle of the season of eight weeks (Week 3-Week 11) in a row. Two of those games were against top notch run defenses in the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

Knowing of Addai’s fantasy value this past season and in years past, you would think he’d be considered a top flight fantasy option. The fact is, he’s not. Both ESPN and Yahoo Sports’ Brandon Funston have Joseph Addai ranked as the 20th RB available. Addai understandably may not be ranked as high as he deserves to be based on last season’s production since some of the players that were right behind him (Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams) were battling injuries and will most likely bounce back. That being said, there are issues with ranking Addai so far down amongst the RBs. ESPN’s rankings (updated August 3rd) had Knowshon Moreno ahead of Addai. Moreno has significantly strained his hamstring, according to NBC Sports (released August 1st – prior to the updated rankings), and there is no timetable for his return. Meanwhile, Funston has Jahvid Best ranked ahead of Addai. First off, Best is a rookie on one of the worst teams in the league and there’s no guarantee that he’ll even have the majority of carries. Kevin Smith, while having a down season rushing the ball, was a great pass catcher out of the backfield and hopes to build on that to have a better season.

Now onto the biggest issue of them all, Ryan Matthews of the San Diego Chargers is ranked as a top 15 running back according to those rankings. The Chargers running game was just as bad as the Colts last year so it’s not like Matthews will be gaining twice as many yards as Addai. That being said, the Chargers were able to put the ball in the end zone and their potent offense will give Matthews an opportunity to rack up the fantasy points. Matthews has great potential and will eventually be carrying a heavy load on his back as he’ll be the feature back in the San Diego backfield for years to come. However, he’ll start off slow just like most rookie backs. Shonn Greene, LeSean McCoy, and Chris “Beanie” Wells all got going as the season went along. None of the three came out of the gate and started putting up fantastic fantasy performances. Matthews may be big one day but he doesn’t deserve the pre-season ranking ahead of Addai this year.

What’s even more startling is Addai’s average draft position (ADP) in mock drafts on ESPN and Yahoo! Sports, the two major fantasy football platforms. In standard ESPN leagues, Addai is about the 47th player taken overall while Yahoo Sports! leagues have him being taken as the 71st pick overall. Since ESPN’s ADP is probably too kind and Yahoo! Sports’ ADP is probably too insulting, let’s take the average of those two picks – 59th overall. Depending on the number of teams in your league (most standard leagues are 10-12 teams), Addai would be drafted somewhere between the fifth and sixth rounds. Just sit there and take that in, a player with top ten fantasy value being taken in the fifth or sixth round of your draft. That’s the definition of a steal.

If you need more proof that Addai will perform to a similar level as last year’s, let’s take a look at the Colts schedule. They avoid the top four run defenses from last season and only face three top ten teams all year. Two of them, the Bengals and Redskins, held their opponents to minimal gains per rush but were unable to effectively stop the touchdowns. Facing the AFC West this season also gives Addai the chance to have some monster fantasy games. Kansas City and Oakland were just awful against the run last year while Denver and San Diego weren’t too far behind.

Another important note is that the key players in the Colts offense are all the same. In fact, the only possible change in their system is one geared towards running a bit more as that’s what a certain QB wants. Jason Cole isn’t the most loved media personality out there but he did have a direct quote from Manning in the article:
I think they know where my heart lies, I want to be balanced. I don’t want to go out there and throw it 50 times. We will if that’s what we have to do to win… we’ll do it and adjust, but I like that 28/28 (run/pass) balance. It gets everybody into it, keeps the backs into it, the line likes it, keeps the defense off balance.

Manning understands the value of a balanced offense and the Colts have done things to try and improve the running game. Case in point, the Brody Eldridge draft pick. There’s no doubt that Manning will try to give Eldridge a bigger role in the offense than some would think, but his run blocking was the reason he was drafted. Improving the run game is a top priority for the Colts in 2010.

Let’s recap what we’ve learned: Addai may not be a 2,000 yard rusher but he’s got a nose for the end zone. His spot as the starting running back is pretty safe and he has been a solid fantasy option for most of his career. All signs point to Addai putting up similar or better fantasy numbers as last year. The undervaluation of Addai gives fantasy owners the chance to grab (depending on draft position) another top ten back, two starting wideouts, and a stud QB before getting Addai himself. The point here isn’t that everyone should grab Addai in the first round just because he might be one of the top backs but if your fellow fantasy owners are undervaluing him just like many people seem to be doing, you might want to carefully form a solid team and let Addai and his fantasy points fall right into your lap en route to a fantasy title.