Fantasy Football: A Roundtable Discussion on the Packers' Running Back Dilemma
The Green Bay Packers entered the 2017 season with a very unconventional stable of running backs. The incumbent starter, Ty Montgomery, was a converted wide receiver, and the team drafted three running backs -- Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays -- after losing veterans Eddie Lacy and James Starks to free agency.
Mays was the only one not to play the lead role at some point last season. It was Montgomery who opened the campaign as the Packers' starter, but an early rib injury in the first quarter of Week 4 left the rest of Montgomery's season in jeopardy as he was eventually put on injured reserve after Week 10. Jones got the first crack at replacement duties, but he suffered an MCL sprain, which opened the door to massive volume for Williams, who held down the fort for the rest of the season.
Here is a look at how the work was split between those three through all 16 games in 2017.
Recently, a two-game suspension was announced for Jones to start the 2018 campaign, adding another variable to an already muddled backfield. How in the world should we approach this situation in fantasy?
Well, today we have three numberFire analysts who are set to defend the player they believe has the best chance to return value for the Packers in 2018. Eli Weiner and Akash Bhatia have joined me to debate the merits of the three running backs, and we each have our own preference.
Let's break it down.
The Great Debate
Eli: The case for Aaron Jones is simple: he's the best running back on the Packers' roster. In 2017, he wasn't just the most efficient back on the Packers, he was actually the most efficient back in the entire NFL on a per-carry basis, per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, among backs with at least 80 carries. If Jones wins the starting job, given his efficiency and ripe offensive situation, he could be a league-winning pick.
Akash: While a lot of the buzz lately out of Green Bay has been about Ty Montgomery, his role appears to be as more of a hybrid running back/receiver than a true running back. And with Jones out for the first two weeks, Williams will have a chance to do exactly what he did last year -- seize the opportunity and never look back.
Justin: I also was concerned about Montgomery heading into this off-season. I mean, Jones dwarfed TyMont and Williams from an efficiency standpoint last year, but I think the Jones suspension changes everything. From a team signaling standpoint, it's notable that despite the reasonable success of Jones and Williams (in different ways) and a glaring hole at the third receiver slot, the Packers opted to keep Montgomery in the running back room to compete for touches. I think he opens the season offset beside Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, and if he plays well, he should have a role all season long.
Eli: The issue with TyMont, for me, is that the Packers don't believe in him as a lead back, so why should we? After winning the starting job in 2016, Green Bay went out and spent three draft picks on the position. While the converted receiver held onto the starting job, his role was reduced to just 7.5 touches per game upon returning from injury. And despite his size, durability is still an issue. Montgomery played in just seven full games last season, and his efficiency was putrid when handling a full workload over the first three weeks. Only twice in his career has TyMont been given more than 12 carries in a game, further evidence the Packers' coaching staff doesn't view him as a lead back.
Justin: Montgomery's biggest problem has nothing to do with his play -- he simply has a branding problem. He catches a lot of grief for his status as a converted wide receiver, "hybrid" label, and his ungodly 88 jersey number. As a result, fantasy owners tend to think this means he is a tiny guy who cannot handle workload as a result. But at 6'0" and 216 pounds, he has the size of an NFL workhorse. By comparison, Ezekiel Elliott checks in at 6'0" and 228 pounds while LeSean McCoy is 5'11" and 210 pounds -- both of those guys carried the ball more than 300 times last year. By comparison, TyMont is larger than Williams (6'0", 201) and Jones (5'10", 207). Montgomery is a skilled runner and dynamic receiver, and he is the most versatile player in the backfield. Granted, he showcased these skills better in 2016 than he did last year.
Akash: While Aaron Jones is certainly a good runner, today's NFL is all about receiving running backs, and that is where Jones really struggled. Among the 72 running backs who had at least 50 carries last year, Williams ranked 35th in Receiving NEP. Montgomery ranked 39th, while Aaron Jones was just 69th. Williams ranked 10th in Receiving NEP per Reception. Montgomery ranked 41st, and Jones was dead last. In terms of Reception Success Rate, which is the percentage of catches that went for positive NEP, Williams ranked 11th, while Montgomery was 51st and Jones was again dead-last.
Eli: Sure, Jones' numbers didn't shine through in the passing game. But it's hard to glean much from a super small sample of just 18 targets. In his final two healthy seasons at UTEP, Jones caught a combined 58 passes, averaged 9.1 yards per reception and scored 6 receiving touchdowns. His larger sample size shows he's a capable receiver. With only 81 carries in 2017, Jones, unfortunately, didn't have enough attempts to qualify for Football Outsiders' Success Rate metric. But outside of the players with at least 100 carries, Jones' had the highest Success Rate in all of football.
Justin: Sample size is another reason that gives me confidence in Montgomery. In two years with 70-plus carries, Montgomery carries a respectable Rushing Success Rate of 45% (2016) and 51% (2017). His 5.9 yards per carry in 2016 was even better than Jones' 5.5 from last year. Montgomery has proven that he can run effectively.
Akash: If we are going to laud Jones’ small-sample efficiency on the ground (which is the only thing going for him right now considering draft capital and the suspension are working against him), isn’t it fair to criticize his small sample ineffectiveness through the air? Also, I think Jones' suspension helps Williams more than Montgomery. It seems the Packers want to use Montgomery’s versatility as a receiver and in two-minute offense, but there’s nothing to indicate that Williams is in danger of losing early-down work. The Packers trusted Williams enough to give him more carries last year than they’ve given Montgomery in the latter's entire career.
Eli: That's fair, but not exactly the point I made. My point was that over Jones' larger sample size of receiving dating back to college, he was more than competent. While 81 carries is already a much larger sample size than 18 targets (and large enough to qualify for numberFire's Success Rate metric, where he ranked second), Jones' 6.3 yards per carry on 658 college attempts paints a larger picture of efficiency. But honestly, I don't expect Jones to win a passing-down role given Montgomery's receiving chops and Williams' pass blocking. I expect him to win the lead-back role, where he'll naturally see some passing-game work.
Justin: You're right that this is Rodgers' offense -- that's why I think the Packers will identify Montgomery as the best running back to mesh with their signal caller's tendencies. TyMont offers a unique blend of rushing ability and passing-game skills. He got the nod to start 2017, showing the coaches preferred him at this same time last year. Since then, Williams has proven to be an ineffective rusher, and Jones has been equally as injury prone and a bit of a letdown catching the football. Hopefully neither of these players will have to catch balls from Brett Hundley.
Akash: And ultimately, the most important factor in getting snaps in Green Bay as a running back may be pass protection. Protecting Rodgers is key, because he is that entire team. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams ranked 5th in pass blocking last season, while Montgomery was outside the top 30 and Jones outside the top 50. Williams has shown he can protect the quarterback, and he’s also shown an ability to operate as a workhorse.
Eli: The elephant in the room for Jones is, of course, his two-game suspension. It certainly puts him behind Williams and Montgomery to open the season, so he may face an uphill battle toward winning back those snaps. This is less concerning to me in a backfield that's clearly up for grabs; after all, Jones was third on the depth chart last summer, as well. Given Montgomery's durability issues and Williams' lackluster efficiency, Jones will likely get a shot at some point if no one runs away with the job while he's out. But the positive part about the suspension is how much it helps fantasy owners targeting Jones. Per Fantasy Football Calculator, since just July 4th, Jones' average draft position has slipped from 7.06 to 8.03 in standard leagues. That's almost a full round. And he's down to 8.09 in PPR leagues. The more drafters get scared by his suspension, the more he'll slip. With the lowest cost of the three running backs, Jones arguably offers the most bang for your buck.
There is a lot to consider when drafting any of these Packers running backs as they all have compelling cases for lead-back duties in one of the league's most potent offenses.
So, perhaps the best strategy is to embrace the variance and unknown and settle for the cheapest option available, whoever that ends up being.
Each player excels in a different way, and the Packers could realistically use all three backs in their base offense. Green Bay's coaching staff will eventually settle the debate for us. Which traits -- and therefore which back -- will prove to be the most valuable to them? Place your bets.