Fantasy Football: Has the DeMarco Murray Hate Gone Too Far?

DeMarco Murray is going as just the 16th running back in fantasy drafts. Is that too low?

Exotic Smashmouth: it’s the craze that’s sweeping the nation, the business buzzword jargon of the offseason… and the butt of most jokes regarding the Tennessee Titans’ rebuilding process in 2016.

Perhaps we should have a little more reverence for the admittedly funny term that Titans head coach Mike Mularkey coined to describe his run-first ideology going into the 2016 season.

After all, with how much the running back-by-committee (RBBC) approach has decimated that position’s fantasy value, increasing a team’s overall volume of rushes is the easiest way to get bull market values at a bear market fantasy position.

That’s what we’re going to look at today: the Titans have said repeatedly and shown in their offseason transactions that they are emphasizing the run this year, so what should we expect from their backfield in fantasy football?

Could DeMarco Murray be reliable a fantasy asset in 2016 despite Derrick Henry's presence?

Lots of Moving Parts

It’s always a nerve-wracking situation for a fantasy football owner to stare down a muddy running back depth chart (or worse, a timeshare) and try to project who will earn the more valuable part of the usage. It’s worse when we have a former fantasy football star going up against a top-50 drafted rookie; there’s little ability to make an immediate judgment with those kinds of pedigrees.

It’s time to actually look at the quarterly reports, then.

When it comes to figuring out shares of touches, I always begin by looking at the team’s usage in similar situations. Can we parse anything out of Mike Mularkey’s past as a coach that will help us understand the 2016 Titans?

It’s worth noting that, in his stops as a head coach for the Buffalo Bills (2004 to 2005) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2012) and as the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Mularkey had three incredible bell cow running backs that he featured in his offense: Willis McGahee, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Michael Turner.

When he afforded these players 20 carries or more in a game, they had full-season paces to be the top fantasy running back in half-PPR formats; McGahee scored 17.66 points per game, Jones-Drew 26.30 (on 20 carries minimum), and Turner 19.56. Even when these players took fewer than 20 carries a game, they were on pace for top-30 finishes.

Mularkey has a strong history with running the ball, and it’s clear that his schemes benefit the running back well. But does he prefer a bell cow or a timeshare?

I also examined the games that Mularkey coordinated or head coached from 2008 onward to see how many times he kept a one-back scheme and how often he shared touches. The table below shows the per-game production splits for Mularkey’s lead backs when their backups receive at least five rushing attempts versus games that they received fewer.

Have his runners been better with all the attempts, or sharing?

Split Games Rush ruYD ruTD Targ recYD recTD FP
Solo 65 19.32 78.25 0.48 1.78 10.51 0.02 12.49
Timeshare 49 18.71 82.69 0.88 2.08 11.63 0.02 15.57

This is unexpected.

There are a similar amount of games to look at, so it’s not like there is a sample-size error occurring here; Mularkey’s running backs have simply been more efficient when they have a tag-team going than when they carry the load by themselves. In fact, when in a timeshare, the lead backs in these offenses have had a nearly 10 percent increase in yards per carry and a 25 percent increase in half-PPR fantasy points all while losing no volume of touches.

We may argue that Turner was a limited, run-only power back who needed a change-of-pace back to keep him in peak form, and that Jones-Drew was diminished at that point in his career as well. Still, this data takes into account game-by-game leaders; hey, Jalen Parmele and Montell Owens.

Mike Mularkey may be a legitimate RBBC whisperer; can he get the most out of DeMarco Murray too?

Synergy, Synergy, Synergy

DeMarco Murray -- now 28 and with 1,127 career carries under his belt -- may be entering a similar point in his career to these older backs, like MJD, when Mularkey got his hands on them.

Murray was coming off a 450-opportunity season in 2014 and rushed for a career-low 3.64 yards per carry last year and a near-low 12.87 attempts per game in 2015. A large part of this can be attributed to working in Chip Kelly’s spread offense that featured the running back but was a mismanaged mess. Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles each saw an average of five carries a game last season, but there was little rhyme or reason to each of their usage on a game-by-game basis.

What is compelling about his statistical showing, however, is that when the Eagles used him as a one-two punch with Mathews, Murray’s efficiency and production was actually much better. The table below shows Murray’s splits in games where Mathews had at least five rushes versus games where he had fewer (courtesy of the Rotoviz Game Splits App).

DeMarco Murray Games Rush ruYD ruTD Targ recYD recTD FP
Fewer than 5 Carries for Mathews 8 10.12 32.75 0.38 2.75 15.88 0.12 8.99
5 or More Carries for Mathews 7 16.14 62.57 0.43 4.71 27.86 0.00 13.47

Pretty remarkably, Mathews’ usage as a breather back coincided with more touches per game for Murray, better efficiency on his touches, and more fantasy points. So why was Murray such a disappointment last year? He had to split rushes with both Mathews and Sproles, and when Sproles saw at least five carries in a game, Murray had a third of the fantasy points he did without that extra mouth fed on carries.

As long as Mularkey and the Titans don’t employ a full-blown three-headed monster, it appears that Murray’s skillset could actually be conducive to having some relief from another power back like Derrick Henry in similar game scripts.

Opening the Kimono

While it defies all traditional logic about our understanding of the way running back committees work, Mularkey and Murray both have had success in recent years with backups spelling the leader.

There’s no reason to expect Murray won’t handle the bulk of the receiving work for the Titans’ backfield, considering Henry had 17 career college receptions. This means a slight boost in fantasy value for Murray, though Mularkey often doesn’t afford many receptions to his backs anyway.

The biggest concern is that the Titans will be on the back end of losing games often and will abandon the run. Mularkey did a great deal of losing at the end of last season, however, and still allowed the likes of David Cobb and Antonio Andrews to trudge the ball 20 times. In addition, Murray’s career splits in games where his teams are underdogs by at least three points are nearly identical to those where he’s on a favored team, so he seems to be somewhat matchup-agnostic to boot.

Our algorithms project Murray for 193 carries for 840 yards and 4.74 touchdowns, as well 38 receptions for 290 yards and 1.14 touchdowns, as the 21st-best fantasy back this year, but that may be low. It’s time we look past our perceptions of both Murray and Mularkey and really listen to what the data is telling us. We can squeeze out some serious value if we do.