Each year, a few players instigate massive controversy in the offseason. Last year, Marshawn Lynch was at the center of a hurricane of debate. The dispute raged around whether a then 31-year old running back who had been retired for over a year could return to fantasy relevance. One side adamantly argued that Lynch was talented enough to dominate again and that the year off would help him stay healthier this time around. The other side vehemently disputed these claims, saying that Lynch’s body was ready to break down, especially after a year away from NFL-level workouts and activities. Dynasty valuations varied from mid-1st all the way down to late-3rd round rookie picks. It was the biggest battle since Team Captain America faced off against Team Iron Man in the airport scene during Captain America: Civil War.
So how did it all turn out?
It might surprise you that Lynch finished as the RB24 in PPR leagues with 164.2 points, good enough to serve as a low-end RB2 or high-end RB3 in most leagues. Excluding his 0.9-point showing against the Chiefs before his removal from that game, Lynch’s per game fantasy production over a full 16 games would’ve netted him 187.6 points, good enough to be the RB17 in 2017 just behind Dion Lewis and Lamar Miller. In total, Lynch accumulated 1,042 offensive yards from scrimmage and seven rushing touchdowns last season. And let’s not forget that he did this while playing in essentially only 14 games. Lynch was ejected from the Week 7 game against Kansas City after making contact with an official, an act which also earned him a one-game suspension for the following week’s matchup at Buffalo.
And yet, the majority of dynasty owners still vastly undervalue Lynch as a fantasy asset. A quick Twitter poll suggests that 64% of the poll’s 333 respondents value him as a 3rd round rookie pick or less. The full results of the Twitter poll are shown below:
Why is Lynch still so undervalued despite delivering a reasonably productive fantasy season? Yes, he will be 32 years old to start the 2018 season, but Frank Gore has averaged nearly 1,000 rushing yards in the three seasons since joining the Colts as a 32-year old running back after leaving the 49ers. Oakland boasts an offensive line that is a much better run-blocking unit (ranked 10th in adjusted line yards per Football Outsiders in 2017) than Indianapolis (ranked 18th), and while Gore and Lynch are not the same people, they are stylistically similar backs in their rushing techniques and strengths.
All the evidence suggests that Lynch can also perform at a high level into his thirties. For one thing, Football Outsiders ranked Lynch as the ninth-best RB regarding DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. Moreover, per Pro Football Focus, Lynch tied for fifth in forced missed tackles on the ground (42) and tied for fourth in yards after contact per attempt (3.09) among running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts in 2017. His strong performance came despite Oakland underperforming on offense for much of the season which could partially be attributed to Derek Carr’s regression after a strong 2016 campaign, potentially due to a back injury suffered early in the season during the Week 4 game at Denver. A healthy Carr would only help lift Oakland’s offensive production and scoring opportunities in 2018.
Of course, one lingering issue is whether Lynch will even be a Raider at the start of the coming season. At the time of this writing, Oakland has about $19 million in salary cap space. Lynch accounts for about $6 million (ninth-highest paid RB in 2018) and would have no dead money should Oakland choose to cut him. However, it would make little sense for the organization to part ways with Lynch given that part of the reason for acquiring him was to ease the transition of the team to Las Vegas. But it’s still possible that newly unretired head coach Jon Gruden could fail to see value in retaining his fellow “un-retiree,” with Lynch being on the short list of cuts along with Michael Crabtree if Oakland wanted to free up cap space to pursue one or more high-end free agents.
Nevertheless, there is some reassurance that Lynch stays given Gruden’s comments at the NFL combine. Gruden said of his running back: “He’s still a beast that’s hard to bring down…I’m counting on him being a big part of our football team.” Gruden also commented on potentially using Lynch as a “feature back” as well as possibly bringing in a fullback and a blocking tight end to help Lynch and the ground game. These statements should be taken with a grain of salt though, as coaches often make comments in the offseason that never reach fruition. But given that Lynch already received 65% of the carries and 28% of the targets of the Oakland halfbacks in 2017, any increase to that workload could propel his fantasy potential even higher in 2018.
Regardless, given the reward of another year or more of RB2 production, any 3rd round rookie pick for Lynch would be well worth the risk. We’ve seen older players like Gore and Larry Fitzgerald and Jason Witten put up consistent fantasy production season after season despite being sold off every offseason for peanuts by dynasty owners. Contending teams would do well to invest in Lynch at his current market value, as he would help far more in a title run than running backs like C.J. Prosise and T.J. Yeldon, both of whom are still consistently being ranked ahead of and valued over Lynch. Don’t underestimate Beast Mode. Lynch may yet have enough in the tank to help win you a fantasy championship in 2018 or maybe even beyond.