Draft Strategy

Fantasy Asch Experiment: What Is Jonathan Stewart?

Jonathan Stewart is in the exact same situation as last year, and is getting drafted far too low in fantasy leagues. 

The Asch Conformity Experiment (or Asch Paradigm) is a psychology experiment conducted by gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch in 1951. Merriam Webster defines gestalt psychology as:

The study of perception and behavior from the standpoint of an individual’s response to configurational wholes with stress on the uniformity of psychological and physiological events and rejection of analysis into discrete events of stimulus, percept, and response.

The simple explanation of his experiment is he put eight people in a group, where seven of them repeatedly gave an obviously wrong answer, in order to see if the eighth person will then also give that obviously wrong answer. Asch found, unsurprisingly, that humans often conform:

Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority. 

Over the 12 critical trials about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.

In fantasy football, we want to believe we are never that 32 percent. That we aren’t repeatedly, broadly conforming to something obviously wrong, just because everyone else is. We may be willing to admit sometimes we are susceptible to being in the 75 percent who unwittingly conform on one thing here or there, but a whole lot more than 25 percent of people believe they are the ones who never conform.

The Oracle wrote about how the Asch Experiment pertains to fantasy football for FantasyLabs this winter:

Especially in the echo chamber of Twitter, it’s easy for us to conform and to develop an informational bias by believing that which others have essentially told us to believe. For instance, my very use of the phrase “echo chamber” is a function of my existing within an echo chamber that likes to overuse that particular colloquialism. 

In the fantasy industry, it’s really easy for us to be swayed by the opinions of others, especially when they have numbers and rhetoric on their side.

And on that note, here are my numbers and rhetoric on why people are failing an Asch Experiment when looking at Jonathan Stewart.


Stewart had the kind of season that people forget pretty easily, finishing as the overall RB24, and only RB21 in points per game. Especially forgettable was his early exit due to injury in the first week of most people’s fantasy playoffs, Week 14, after only ten carries and one target, then missing both Weeks 15 and 16, fantasy football’s high holy days.

Making it particularly frustrating was his incredibly easy fantasy playoff schedule, against the Giants once and Falcons twice. New York and Atlanta were the third and seventh most generous teams to running backs in terms of fantasy points allowed last season, and they ceded the second and seventh most rushing touchdowns of any team.

However — opportunity is still king, and Stewart had one of the best opportunities in all of football. Running back scoring is heavily reliant on positive game flow, and no one had more of it than the Panthers. They led the league in any scoring stat you can come up with, having the most points per play, points per drive, and points per game, as well as a league-leading average scoring margin per play of +5.5 points, and average scoring margin per game of +11.9 points.

carolina team splits

This resulted in them having the most rushing attempts, and scoring the most rushing touchdowns. Consequently, Stewart, despite missing more than three games, led the league in red zone rush attempts:

PlayerRushes Inside Opp 20Rush Yds Inside Opp 20Rush TD Inside 20
Jonathan Stewart551406
Adrian Peterson511057
Devonta Freeman4711410
DeAngelo Williams4613511
Doug Martin41866
Jeremy Hill388211
Chris Ivory38936
Frank Gore35615
Ronnie Hillman33805
Latavius Murray33665
LeGarrette Blount32675
Cam Newton328910
Mark Ingram31926
Giovani Bernard301422
Matt Forte301014
Chris Johnson30452
Isaiah Crowell29744
Todd Gurley281029
DeMarco Murray28625
C.J. Anderson27524

When broken out on a per-game basis, Stewart’s opportunity is just gaudy. He finished second in rush attempts per game, fifth in rushing yards per game, and seventh in snaps per game, for all running backs. He had 20 attempts eight games in a row following the team’s Week 5 bye, averaging 21.6 carries per game. To contextualize how absurdly high that is, Adrian Peterson‘s 20.4 carries per game led the league last season, and no one else averaged even 19 a game.

So what do you see when you look at Stewart’s 2015 season? Do you see what was one of the most valuable running back roles in all of football? If seven people say they see the overall RB24, do you still see one of the most valuable running back roles in all of football?


What’s changed?

The other running backs expected to be on this team are the same as they were last year, in Cameron Artis-PayneFozzy Whittaker, and Mike Tolbert. None of them, even with Stewart missing more than three games, totaled more than 62 rushing attempts or 23 targets. Combined they had the same number of rushing attempts as Cam Newton, and fewer targets than Jerricho Cotchery or Corey Brown.

Somehow, the three of them managed to combine for six total touchdowns compared to Stewart’s seven, despite having only 64.7 percent as many touches. Considering Newton also had 10 rushing touchdowns, the odds Stewart’s total touchdowns go up this year seem incredibly high.

While Kelvin Benjamin expects to return to the lineup, his presence is unlikely to dramatically shift the game scripts, as the other four main receivers were all extraordinarily efficient in his absence, and are all back this season. Greg Olsen is still the starting tight end, Newton is still the quarterback, and perhaps most importantly, all five starting offensive lineman are returning this season. Thomas Emerick of Sporting News explained last year that offensive line continuity is essential to running back success, and is a strong predictive measure for choosing running backs in fantasy.

When you hear someone say Stewart is injury prone or guaranteed to get injured, just laugh and walk away. Yes, he hasn’t played 16 games in a season since 2011, but he’s only missed six combined in the last two seasons, from two different, unconnected injuries, both of which he returned from that season.

After a knee injury Week 3 in 2014 he missed the next three games, but then played the entire rest of the season, performing exceptionally well:

Jonathan Stewart 2014 game splits

That 84.7 scrimmage yards and 12.1 fantasy points on 16.5 touches per game is a remarkably efficient pace of 0.733 fantasy points per touch. It’s even more efficient than what he did last season, when he had 0.668 fantasy points per touch. In 2015, his 0.62 total touchdowns per game compensated for his reduced role in the passing game, which resulted in 83.7 scrimmage yards and 13.3 fantasy points on 19.9 touches per game.

Jonathan Stewart 2015 game splits app

In that Week 14 game against Atlanta he sprained his foot, and the team cautiously held him out the rest of the season in anticipation of featuring him heavily in the playoffs, where he had 52 touches over their three games.

I’m not sure there is a single indicator to suggest Stewart won’t be featured in the same way, and continue to be afforded a similarly fantastic opportunity by his team’s overall awesomeness.


FantasyPros has compiled the way-too-early average draft positions on the six major redraft platforms, which is showing a disappointingly high RB18, 3.09 or 45th overall. In those normal redraft formats with weekly waivers and trades, where Zero RB theory capitalizes and should be applied the most vigorously, he’s probably a fade that high.

In Myfantasyleague.com Best Ball leagues, however, where Zero RB is a lot less effective or desirable, his ADP is bizarrely low at RB29, 7.04 or 76th overall. Last year, his ADP was 3.07 or 43rd overall, and despite only playing in 13 games, he had the 53rd highest win rate of all players.1 He also had the 12th highest win rate for all running backs, and the only running back with a higher ADP than him that had a better win rate was Lamar Miller. 

He’s cheaper than a similar-but-less-productive Jeremy Hill, who had two fewer fantasy points per game than Stewart, despite having five more rushing touchdowns. He’s also cheaper than Frank Gore, who is almost four years Stewart’s senior, and really testing the inevitability of the age cliff. He’s only slightly more expensive than receiving backs Charles Sims, and Theo Riddick, the latter of which might be the third running back on his own team.

ADP Mid round Rbs

As Chris Raybon explained, people think receiving backs provide the high volatility that wins best ball scoring leagues, however, rushing touchdowns are just as much a cause of volatility, and important to target:

“The pass-catching backs are often high-floor options because targets, receptions, and receiving yards are a lot more consistent from week to week than touchdowns. However, since I’m usually waiting on running back in best-ball, I’m actually seeking out volatility.

Presence or lack of touchdowns is a major driver of volatility, and the pass-catching backs usually aren’t the goal-line backs. Since I don’t have to make start/sit decisions, I want to benefit from the swings caused by touchdowns, and I can live with the low floors.” 

So, again, what do you see when you look at Jonathan Stewart? Is it what’s actually there, or are you seeing what the other seven people in the room say they’re seeing?

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  1. Win rate is the percentage of teams rostering any one player than won an MFL10 league.  (back)
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