Fantasy Football: Dwayne Washington Is a Must-Add
The word "project" gets tossed around a lot in the football community, usually in relation to a young player who is more athlete than football player.
On the season, he has just 70 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, but the Lions sent a message to the football world when they allowed a late-round pick to supplant Abdullah just two weeks into the season.
The team certainly could have brought back long-time Lion Joique Bell, who was available as a free agent until being signed by the Chicago Bears on Wednesday. Or they could have inserted preseason star Zach Zenner, a darling of the deep-stash fantasy universe who, at 222 pounds, certainly looked the part of a power back.
Instead, the Lions are placing their faith on a young back who was benched in college (when he wasn't injured) and whose limited production provide us little tape to evaluate. So who is Dwayne Washington, and what could his role and outcome look like in the fantasy landscape?
Washington was a star receiver during his high school career, posting 1,338 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, but was converted to running back in college in order to maximize his speed and athleticism. During his college career, Washington was a bit of an enigma, generating explosive plays and touchdowns while also battling injuries, fumbles (10 in three seasons) and inconsistency.
He had just 697 rushing yards during his best season and just 1,311 yards during his entire college career.
Still, his unique athletic profile got him drafted after an outstanding pro day, and it's easy to see how impressive he is in contrast to other NFL stars:
|Latavius Murray||6' 2½"||223||4.38||22||36"||124"||6.81|
|Dwayne Washington||6' 2"||226||4.44||21||37"||127"||6.90|
|Matt Jones||6' 2"||231||4.61||20||31½"||112"||6.84|
|Deuce McAllister||6' 1"||222||4.41||20||37½"|
|Ronnie Brown||6' 1"||233||4.43||18||34"||117"||7.10|
|David Johnson||6' 1"||224||4.5||25||41½"||127"||6.82|
|Larry Johnson||6' 1"||228||4.55||19|
|Le'Veon Bell||6' 1"||230||4.6||24||31½"||118"||6.75|
|T.J. Yeldon||6' 1"||226||4.61||22||36"||117"||7.19|
In terms of running style, the Latavius Murray or Matt Jones comparisons make sense, although in a straight line he is much more explosive than Jones is. Give him a crease, and he will outrun any linebacker and most defensive backs to the end zone.
Yet despite being an outstanding athlete, Washington struggled in his transition from receiver to running back, rarely demonstrating the creativity, instincts, and consistency needed to thrive at that position. Too often, he could be seen running into the backs of his offensive line, making the wrong cut or struggling to move laterally with any purpose.
At top speed, he was unstoppable, but behind the line of scrimmage, he could seem lost. As a senior, he was benched in favor of a freshman and struggled to find a way back on the field.
Still, the Lions have seen things they like, so should we?
With Riddick and Abdullah, the Lions had two excellent space players who excel in the passing game, but the team still lacked that between-the-tackles power element that most teams prefer to have.
Abdullah was clearly more competent if pressed into that role, and his absence was felt on Sunday with Riddick struggling to break tackles or push the pile on early downs. Riddick, also a former receiver, finished with 10 carries for just 9 yards, consistently being met in the backfield by the Green Bay Packers defensive line, the toughest rush defense in the league according to our metrics.
Riddick's inability to produce in a traditional running back role led the coaches to put Washington on the field, and while his results won't put him in the Pro Bowl just yet (10 carries for 38 yards), you could instantly see the upgrade in physicality and power. You could also see the impact of NFL coaching, with Washington appearing more decisive and even instinctive than he did in college.
Based on the first three games of the Lions season, there appears to be 10 to 15 carries reserved for this traditional back role, with Riddick occupying more of a receiving role and perhaps 5 to 7 carries.
In 2015, Abdullah and the powerful Joique Bell carried the ball a combined 233 times, with Riddick earning just 43 carries (yet 80 receptions). Even with a pass-heavy approach, Washington seems penciled in for 12 to 15 carries and goal-line work in an offense averaging 27 points per game through three weeks, which is tied for sixth in the NFL. They are fourth in the NFL in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play.
Even if the Lions never utilize the skilled rookie in the passing game (where he excelled in college), there is clearly significant value to be found until Abdullah returns.
On 28 carries, Riddick has a Rushing NEP per rush score of just -0.03, which puts him in league-average territory. He's averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, whereas Abdullah was at 5.6 and Washington is at 4.4 despite seeing work in short-yardage situations. Abdullah owns a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.14, and Washington's is -0.01 on 16 carries.
With the Lions' offense currently ranked fourth in Adjusted NEP per play, anyone who receives 10 to 15 touches per game in addition to goal-line work possesses clear fantasy viability. What we don't know, at this point, is just how good Washington can be based not only on this role, but also his talent.
While he is clearly a rare athlete with dangerous speed, can he develop enough in his understanding of how to play the position to move beyond just being a "tease" with unpredictable weekly appeal? And can he improve his ball security and earn the team's trust on a weekly basis?
The Lions certainly seem interested in seeing what they have in Washington, passing over free agent Joique Bell and allowing the rookie to pass Zach Zenner on the depth chart, who many assumed would be next in line if Abdullah got injured and Bell wasn't brought back. Further, the team seems to understand each week how limited Riddick is as a runner, and he seems to pose no threat to the carries Washington should see on early downs and at the goal line.
While his upside may be unknown, his outstanding athleticism and role in this explosive offense are certainly worth speculating on, and Washington is a player to be owned in every league. At worst, he offers flex appeal as the bye weeks approach, with the ability to return much more than that if he develops as the touchdown-scoring thumper this team has lacked since Bell was phased out of the offense last season.
Washington may be a project, but he's certainly a project worth taking on.