Is Frank Gore's Fantasy Football Value Being Overlooked?

Gore is still contributing in the NFL at age 33. Can he still be a fantasy contributor?

It’s important to work together in a relationship, even in Hollywood.

When I think of the 2016 Indianapolis Colts, I’m reminded of the teamwork exemplified by two Los Angeles policemen in the classic 1987 buddy-cop film Lethal Weapon. Veteran running back Frank Gore is nearly-retired veteran Roger Murtaugh to quarterback Andrew Luck's young-and-reckless Martin Riggs. In that film, nearly all of the trouble the pair of officers get into is a result of Riggs rushing headlong into action, and Murtaugh always mutters to himself, “I’m too old for this.”

A dynamic tandem like this was what fantasy owners were hoping to see when Gore signed with the Colts last season: maybe he would have fewer overall touches than when he was the entire offense in San Francisco, but playing with a cannon-armed quarterback like Luck would, in theory, benefit his efficiency.

Luck has continually taken most of the offensive responsibility onto his own shoulders, but the Colts fell apart when he succumbed to injury last year. His partner, Gore, ended up a solid fantasy contributor, but not a very efficient one.

Can Gore put on a vintage award-worthy performance in 2016, when the Colts’ debonair leading man, Luck, returns?

Tour de Force

When you look at Frank Gore, it’s hard to fathom that he’s already 33 years old. When you consider that he’s 33 and still playing at a high level, it’s hard to believe that he actually tore both of his ACLs in college before he even began his now 12-year NFL career at a position where longevity is a rare quality.

Frank Gore is the Betty White of the NFL: still cranking out hits well into the twilight years of the career.

But it takes a lot of weight to carry a feature performance for the entirety of an NFL season at Gore’s age. With 2,702 carries in his career, Gore’s star power is waning on his own, but he was forced to take the lead billing in nine of the Colts’ games last year when Luck succumbed to injuries. He played more than half of the season with bit-part quarterbacks such as Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst, Ryan Lindley, and Josh Freeman, the latter three of which combined for a startlingly bad 52.86 percent completion rate.

Despite defenses knowing they didn’t have to fear being beat by the pass, Gore still finished as the 14th-best scoring fantasy running back in half-PPR formats.

But was he better when playing opposite Andrew Luck?

I used the Rotoviz Game Splits app to slice apart Gore’s per-game stats with and without the Colts’ best passer. We’ve seen before that running backs from quality offenses perform better; is it the same for Gore? The table below shows these production splits in rushing and in terms of half-PPR fantasy points.

Split Games Rush ruYd ruY/A ruTD FP
With Luck 7 15.6 64.0 4.11 0.43 11.49
Without Luck 9 16.8 57.7 3.44 0.33 11.33

As expected, Gore had a higher rushing yards-per-attempt rate with Luck, if for no other reason than that defenses couldn’t ignore the passing power of Luck, a far superior quarterback to the Indy backups. Nevertheless, there was not a noticeable difference in Gore’s fantasy point production between the two, due to a slightly increased workload in Luck’s absence that offset his loss of efficiency.

This helps illuminate somewhat, but Luck himself had a 55.29 percent completion rate in 2015, so it’s not a guarantee that he was playing well at any given point in time. Can we break this down any further?

Bring in the Stunt Double

Exactly like I did in another running back article last week, I took Gore’s 2015 production by each game and split them by a few measures of quarterback quality.

The average NFL quarterback completion rate last year was 63.0 percent, and the average passing yards per attempt rate was 7.25. Unfortunately for us, there were just two games where the Colts’ quarterbacks as a unit surpassed a 63.0 percent completion rate, so I lowered the threshold to just 60.0 percent to get a more substantial sample size.

I also compared his production to the team’s week-by-week Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), and split it between negative and positive outputs. NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

How is Gore’s production affected by the quarterback? The first table shows his splits by team quarterback completion rate.

Split Games Rush ruYd ruY/A ruTD FP
60% or Less 10 16.1 59.4 3.69 0.30 10.79
More than 60% 6 16.5 62.2 3.77 0.50 12.42

This is an even muddier statement on Gore’s efficiency when helped by a quarterback. When the quarterbacks demonstrated that they were able to keep the chains moving, Gore’s rushing was minimally more effective across the board, but the real reason his fantasy scoring was greater was 1.5 points per game more of receiving value.

What about his splits when the passing game goes for more yardage?

Split Games Rush ruYd ruY/A ruTD FP
7.25 Yards per Attempt or Less 11 16.3 59.7 3.65 0.25 10.83
Greater than 7.25 5 16.0 62.8 3.92 0.75 13.10

This helps much more. When a defense has to respect the depth of the Colts’ passing attack more, Gore gets a slightly more open field to work with. The real difference here is in his scoring potential with the deeper passing attack. A more potent passing offense puts Gore closer to the goal line and therefore increases his chance to score touchdowns.

This is confirmed by looking at weekly Passing NEP as well: Gore had just 0.07 rushing yards per attempt more in positive Passing NEP games but produced all 6 of his rushing touchdowns in those games -- an average 0.55 touchdowns per game more than negative Passing NEP games.

That’s a Wrap

What we've found is that Frank Gore’s per-carry rushing doesn’t change much from situation to situation -- it’s below-average no matter what. What he will gain from Andrew Luck’s return to the Colts is more scoring upside; an improvement to the passing offense will put Gore in better position to score touchdowns consistently.

In addition, the more the Colts lead in games, the more they will turn to Gore to close them out by controlling the ball. In games the Colts won last year, he had 18.5 rush attempts per game; this rate would have resulted in nearly 300 carries if it had happened all season. Colts’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has also said they won’t cap Gore’s carries with an arbitrary number this year. If he can maintain his plodding, but effective, 3.72 yards per carry, he will likely see his volume of touches sustain.

Our algorithms at numberFire project Gore for a line of 219 carries for 814 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns, as well as 37 receptions for 282 receiving yards in 2016. This would put him at 158.1 half-PPR fantasy points, around the 18th-best running back last year and the 27th-best by our rankings going into preseason.

Going as the 30th running back by Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP seems about right, and Gore should be a strong RB2 fantasy partner to whichever running back you select first in your drafts this year. He’s not too old to contribute, and he could bring your team one more star-studded performance before he gets his well-earned pension.