Perception vs. Reality is a semi-regular premium-exclusive series that will focus in on a few players that for one reason or another (at least in the eyes of this writer), seem to have a slightly distorted value or a very wide range for their value in the dynasty community as a whole. The goal of this series will be to ignore the common perceptions that might be either too generous or much too harsh based on the name value of the player, the media coverage, or any other number of reasons.
This is not intended to be a buy or sell series, since some of these players will have owners that are extremely high on them, making them impossible to buy at decent value, while others will have owners that are extremely low on them. Instead, this is a series that will hopefully make you channel your inner Dennis Green and make sure that players “are who we thought they were.”
The previous installments can be found below:
Today we will take a look at none other than the DLF lightning rod of fantasy running backs with “potential,” Jonathan Stewart. Chances are, at one point in time, you’ve been on one end of the spectrum or the other with him. Some of you have thought that he was a top five running back in the making, while others have thought that he was little more than an overhyped bust. There are probably more than a few of you that have actually been on both ends of the spectrum with him over the years, which makes him the perfect candidate for this series.
Back in high school, Stewart was a very high profile athlete. He earned numerous national awards including being named to the All-USA high school team by USA Today and being the Gatorade player of the year for his home state of Washington. This put him on the radar of pretty much every high profile college program in the nation. In the end, Stewart ended up staying close to home and going with the flashy uniforms of Oregon.
As a true freshman, he scored on five of his first 20 touches – that’s 25% of the time. Just for perspective, at that pace, Adrian Peterson would have scored 97 touchdowns this season. As the year went on, Stewart tapered off a little bit, but still managed to score nine touchdowns on 72 touches which is a ridiculous 12.5%. During his second year in college, he continued to display triple threat ability by being the leading rusher while splitting time, catching 20 passes and being sixth in the country in return yardage while totaling 11 touchdowns.
Of his three years in college, his Junior season in 2007 is the one people remember. In that season, Stewart dominated many games on his way to nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage on about 300 touches with over 600 yards on 23 kick returns. His 6.2 yards per carry were impressive, especially when you look at some of his opponents that year which included three top ten teams. It was then that Stewart decided to take his talents to the next level.
It was at the NFL Combine in the Spring of 2008 that Stewart really stood out. Checking in at 5’10” and a rather chiseled 235 pounds, Stewart had the look of a power back. The 28 reps on the bench press and massive jumps of 10’8” board jump with 36.5” vertical backed up the strength of both his arms and legs.
Then he started to run.
His 4.46 seconds in the 40 yard dash with a 1.46 second ten yard split (which is better than just about any back you’ve heard of not named Chris Johnson) showed off his speed, especially for a running back of his size. His speed score is still one of the best ever. All of this led to him being picked at #13 overall in the draft, the second back taken behind Darren McFadden.
Upon his arrival in the NFL, Stewart flashed his talent many times. As a rookie, he rushed 184 times for 836 yards and ten touchdowns – that was good for 4.5 yards per carry. During his second season, he appeared to be turning into the elite runner than many of us expected him to be when he had 221 rushes for 1,133 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and ten touchdowns with 18 catches, 139 yards and one more touchdown through the air.
Unfortunately for Stewart owners, 2009 has been the high point of his career.
In 2010, he missed two games with an injury and was limited to 178 carries for 770 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and had only two scores. The following year, many had hoped that “lead” running back DeAngelo Williams would leave in free agency before the season began, putting Stewart in the feature role. As we all know, this didn’t happen. Stewart was more productive in 2011, but was used in a different role due in part to the presence of rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Stewart ended up with only 142 carries, 761 yards (5.4 yards per carry), and four scores. The good news on the 2011 season was his use in the passing game where he had 47 catches for 413 yards and a touchdown, giving some hope that he’d at least be a great PPR back.
Then the 2012 season crushed most of the Stewart fans who were still clinging to hope as he only played in nine games, had only 110 touches (93 carries and 17 catches). He had 336 yards on the ground (3.6 yards per carry) to go with the 157 in the air and only two scores on the year.
That brings us to the present day. Let’s take a look at some of the common perceptions about Mr. Stewart:
1.) “This will be his sixth season in the league. He’s getting pretty old and won’t produce now.”
True, 2013 will be his sixth year in the NFL. However, keep in mind that he didn’t have a redshirt season in college and he had just turned 21 when he was drafted. He’ll enter next season as a 26 year old, which still gives him several more years to be productive. When you add in the fact that he’s had only 818 carries in the NFL, plus 516 in college, there is a lot of tread on the tires.
2.) “He’s one of the most injury prone back in the league, just like McFadden.”
This really isn’t a fair comparison at all. Stewart has played in 71 out of 80 possible games in his pro career. That’s almost 89%, which is pretty good for a running back. In fact, he has only missed games in two of his five seasons – two games in 2010 and seven in 2012. This perception has come about because of his frequent appearances on the injury report, though he almost always plays. That doesn’t exactly mean he is healthy, though. Even going back to college, Stewart has had issues with his ankles and toes. He did have toe surgery just before the draft and recently had surgery on the ankle that kept him out of the seven games this year.
3.) “He is a top 5 talent in the NFL. All that he needs is the opportunity!”
Maybe, maybe not.
In the nine games he played in the 2012 season, he averaged over 4.0 yards per carry only twice. Combine that with his season yards per carry dropping to just 3.6 this season and he isn’t trending in the right direction. 2011 was better with 9 of his 16 games topping the 4.0 yards per carry mark, where he had 5.4 yards per carry on the season. Overall, Stewart does have a career mark of a respectable 4.7 yards per carry. It is true to say he hasn’t had much of opportunity, though. In the last two seasons, he has had only a single game with over 15 carries. If you go back to 2010, he had four games over that mark with six more in 2009 – that’s only 11 games in the last four years. For comparison, Adrian Peterson had over 15 carries in all but one of his games this season and he had exactly 15 carries in the one he didn’t.
4.) “He will never get the opportunity due to Williams, Newton and Mike Tolbert.”
We’ve already seen he hasn’t had the opportunity with that cast. The question is if that will change. Williams will be 30 at the start of next season and will make nearly $5 million in base salary next season, almost $6 million in 2014, and about $7 million in 2015. It will be very surprising if he makes it one more year, let alone two. Tolbert is signed rather cheaply at just under $2.5 million for each of the next three seasons, so he isn’t going anywhere. Newton isn’t going anywhere, either. He’s clearly their quarterback for the next few years at a minimum, and he is good running the ball. In fact, he’s had right about 120 carries for 700 yards both years. He’s also had just over 20 goal line carries each year. Don’t expect too much of that to go away, which means Stewart will definitely be sharing the load even if Williams leaves, but 250 carries definitely isn’t out of the question, which would be just over 15 carries a game.
5.) “Maybe Stewart will get traded to a different team and be a stud there.”
This is pretty unlikely.
Stewart has a base salary this season of only $1 million. There isn’t any way he is being traded or sent elsewhere for the 2013 season. Before the 2014 season, things get a little bit cloudier. He is due a $9 million dollar bonus before the 2014 season. If 2013 goes the same way that 2012 does, it is tough to picture the Panthers picking that up. If it goes more like his earlier years, it is hard to envision them passing on it. Aside from that roster bonus, the rest of his new contract is rather team friendly and reasonably incentive based. In other words, if you think Stewart is an asset, you need to count on him being with the Panthers long term.
Stewart does and always has had a very special physical skill set. No one can deny that. The question is if he will ever get the opportunity to show that before age and injuries steal what made him special, if they haven’t already. He is one of the best lottery tickets in fantasy football right now, not because he’s ever going to be a top five back, but because so many of his former supporters are ready to take whatever they can get for him as they jump ship.
There is definitely a chance he never gets the opportunity or fizzles when he finally does, but I feel that it is more likely that he posts very solid RB2 numbers and ends up being a top 20 RB for the next few seasons. I doubt he will ever get a big enough share to reach RB1 numbers, though. Like pretty much all players who will be featured in this series, what you do with him all comes down to price. If someone will sell him at backup running back prices (which is very likely in many leagues), I would suggest buying and taking the risk. If they want starter prices, I don’t think there is enough reward to balance that same element of risk – he’s just not worth it.