Isaiah Crowell Is Worth His Fantasy Football Draft Cost This Year

Isaiah Crowell has a one-dimensional skillset, but this limited NFL player presents a lot of fantasy value.

A few years back, I lived directly across the street from possibly the most heavenly place on earth. In the middle of a heat wave that summer, I realized that my apartment was a stone’s throw from Sebastian Joe’s: an old school ice cream place with funky flavors like the “Nicollet Avenue Pothole” (essentially Rocky Road) and the “Pavarotti” (caramel, bananas, and chocolate chips).

There is no possible way to make a bad decision there. That is, of course, unless you select the plain old boring vanilla ice cream sitting in the sad bucket in the corner of the cooler. “But vanilla is reliable,” you tell the visibly concerned ice cream server who waits for you to say “sike!” and pick a real flavor.

That kind of concern has to be how it feels to have someone try to convince you that Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell can be worth your while to draft in 2016. With all of the hype surrounding receiving back Duke Johnson and how he can be a force in new head coach Hue Jackson’s offense, talking about Crowell may make people wonder why your fantasy football tastebuds are dead.

Are they right? Should we care about Isaiah Crowell’s vanilla rushing style in fantasy football this year, or is his upside melting like a pushpop on blacktop?

Good Bye, Yellow Brickle Road

Let’s start with the negatives: Crowell is definitely a limited player. We have two years of NFL production for him now, and through 32 games, he has just 28 receptions (36 targets). Even at Georgia and Alabama State in college, Crowell caught just 26 receptions in three years. Receiving is just not a function of his game; Crowell is a running back, through and through.

That’s why many people see Crowell as a vanilla fantasy option. With only rushing the ball as his means of scoring points, he seems to have very little upside. Add in teammate Duke Johnson -- who is not only is an excellent receiver, he can also rush somewhat effectively -- and there seems to be some risk in The Crow’s statistical profile.

The table below shows Isaiah Crowell’s production (courtesy of the Rotoviz Game Splits App) when Duke Johnson has fewer than eight carries, versus eight or more carries. I also added half-PPR fantasy scoring to help illuminate this. How is Crowell affected by his peer’s workload?

Isaiah Crowell Games Rush ruYD ruTD FP
Johnson Fewer Than 8 Carries 12 10.50 34.00 0.08 5.53
Johnson 8 or More Carries 4 14.75 74.50 0.75 15.47

This seems counter-intuitive: when Johnson gets more carries, so does Crowell -- and therefore, when Johnson has more opportunities, Crowell’s production booms by about 200 percent. This really shows that when the Browns are leading and can salt away the game with the run, both Johnson and Crowell get more rushing attempts, and therefore Crowell’s production rises. When the Browns are losing, Crowell is game-planned out because he has little receiving value and doesn’t aid the catch-up effort.

When we look at the same split with the players reversed, Johnson’s half-PPR fantasy production is nearly identical, no matter how many carries Crowell gets. He gets his in any situation, whereas Crowell is very game script dependent.

This is reinforced when we look at other various factors to boot. When the Browns have been underdogs by a field goal or more over the past two years (-3 point spread or lower), Crowell has produced 3.72 half-PPR fantasy points on average. In games they’re favored by a field goal or more, he’s produced 8.15 fantasy points.

Crowell needs the right environmental factors to see use on the field and succeed on the fantasy gridiron. When everything swings his way he can be a big contributor.

Will he get more chances to show that in 2016?

Bohemian Raspberry

Perhaps the best two additions the Browns made this offseason were quarterback Robert Griffin III and head coach Hue Jackson.

We all know what Griffin can do for an offense when he’s right mentally and physically, and his influence extends to the running game as well. For instance, Alfred Morris had a yard per carry more and a full percentage point of rushing touchdown rate better when Griffin was his quarterback than any other Washington passer. A great deal of that is due to the running quarterback effect.

But head coach and offensive wizard Jackson is much more underrated for what he does to rebuild offensive impact and highlight a team’s strengths. Can his presence assist Crowell’s fantasy outlook?

Let’s compare the rushing attacks of the AFC North rivals, the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals (where Jackson was the offensive coordinator prior to his Cleveland hire), over the past two years. How prolific have the Browns and Bengals been on the ground? The table below shows the teams’ per-game averages from 2014 to 2015 in terms of rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. What do we find?

Team Rush ruYD ruTD
CIN 29.97 123.5 1.16
CLE 26.78 101.8 0.69

On average, the Cincinnati offense has attempted about three rushes per game more than Cleveland since 2014. While that may not seem like much, it adds up to about 50 rushing attempts over the course of a season, which can mean about 200 rushing yards of production (assuming 4.00 yards per carry). This isn’t by accident, either. The Bengals have a drop-back-to-run play-calling ratio of 1.11 over the past two years; the Browns is much more pass-heavy, with a 1.40.

The Bengals have also had a team average of 4.12 yards per carry over the past two years, while the Browns have averaged just 3.80. Added ground volume mixed with extra rushing efficiency means that the Hue Jackson offense could truly help Crowell’s skill set to thrive.

In particular, these additions should help Crowell thrive in the goal-line scoring role, which is exclusively his. In 2015, Isaiah Crowell saw 11 rushing attempts in goal-to-go situations; Duke Johnson saw just 2. Crowell picked up 18 yards and a touchdown on those carries; Johnson earned -2 yards and no scores.

It's great to see how much Crowell has monopolized those touches in close, but his 1.64 yards per carry in those situations is exactly league-average and his 9.09 percent touchdown rate is lower than the 28.32 percent average for running backs. Still, there's hope. The table below shows Hue Jackson’s running backs over the past two years, and their conversion rates in goal-to-go scenarios.

Goal-to-Go Rush ruYPC ruTD %
CIN Avg. 29 1.90 32.76%

Jackson’s Bengals have far outstripped the league average in conversion rate here, and while we can make the argument that neither Crowell nor Johnson are as talented as Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, the fact remains that the Bengals also call more running plays in close: their pass-to-run ratio inside the 10 is 0.58; the Browns’ has been 1.13, meaning they've been more likely to pass on the goal line than run.

The Americone Dream

Isaiah Crowell is limited, and one could even argue that his production profile is vanilla and boring for fantasy owners as a rush-only running back. By no means does he have the fantasy upside some people thought he would before his rookie year, but with an improved team, a competent coach who favors the run (especially in goal-line situations), and a better quarterback running the offense, he has situational upside. The real question will be if their offense can score more than the bad Browns’ defense gives up; if so, Crowell could be the stabilizing force that Jeremy Hill has been for the Bengals in recent years.

As the 33rd-best running back in standard fantasy scoring by numberFire’s projections but the 40th running back off the board in drafts (per Fantasy Football Calculator), Crowell presents an interesting value proposition with a more solid floor than we think.

Perhaps Isaiah Crowell’s fantasy potential is nothing exotic, but if this scoop of vanilla ice cream becomes even a chocolate sugar cone with sprinkles in 2016, you’ll certainly be pleased at the store-brand price he’s going for.