3 Week 4 Storylines to Watch: Running Back Injuries and Time Shares
Week 3 was a reminder that things in the NFL can -- and routinely do -- turn on a dime.
Last week, we looked at the struggling Green Bay Packers' passing game. It's good to know that Aaron Rodgers reads my work and wanted to prove me wrong. Todd Gurley was must be a loyal reader as well, scoring his first two touchdowns of the 2016 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And finally, the Seattle Seahawks hung 37 points on the San Francisco 49ers after scoring just one touchdown in their first two games.
Now that we know it only takes 200 or so words from yours truly to get offenses back on track, expect touchdowns from all the players in the narrative that follows.
Onto Week 4.
Jordan Howard Steps In
Aside from the San Diego Chargers, few teams have been hit harder by injuries than the Chicago Bears. With both Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey now banged up, rookie Jordan Howard steps in as the lead running back.
A pre-draft favorite of many in the fantasy community, Howard profiles similarly to Carlos Hyde from an athleticism standpoint. He was not a prolific pass-catcher during his time at Alabama-Birmingham and Indiana, but he has hauled in six catches on eight targets in limited action this season.
Opportunity exists for Howard from a usage standpoint, and touches are what we should primarily focus on when making decisions about fantasy running backs, but we should also consider how bad the Bears’ offense is at the moment.
Chicago is the fourth-most pass heavy team through three weeks, potentially limiting Howard’s rushing workload. They also rank third-worst in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) on a per-play basis when adjusted for strength of schedule and 27th in run blocking, per Football Outsiders.
The Bears rank 25th in team defense according to our metrics, making it unlikely that Howard sees much positive game script moving forward. The upcoming schedule could mitigate some of these worries, with Chicago’s next three opponents ranking 21st or worse in run defense -- the Detroit Lions (28th), Indianapolis Colts (21st), and Jacksonville Jaguars (29th).
As the only show in town at the moment -- unless you count Joique Bell -- with three above-average upcoming matchups, Howard is worth a look for fantasy purposes, but it may be wise to temper your overall expectations.
The Disappearing Michael Floyd
Raise your hand if you predicted Jaron Brown outplaying Michael Floyd through the first three weeks of the season. As crazy as that sounds, it’s the situation we now find ourselves in, and it is a troubling one at that for both Floyd’s fantasy owners and the Arizona Cardinals' real-life football fortunes.
Floyd has been targeted 24 times, second-most on the team, but has just 9 catches for 134 yards and 1 touchdown. His 37.5 percent catch rate, well below his 54 percent career catch rate, ranks dead-last among 49 wide receivers with 20 or more targets. He also ranks 36th in Reception NEP per target among the same cohort.
What’s even tougher to explain is the fact that John Brown, the other piece of Arizona’s three-headed receiving monster along with Larry Fitzgerald, has struggled to open the season. With just 8 catches on 18 targets, Brown cannot be blamed for Floyd’s tough start.
Fitzgerald and running back David Johnson have combined for 49 targets, 40.4 percent of the team total, and have done well with them. Fitzgerald ranks 15th in Reception NEP among wide receivers while Johnson sits at 3rd among all running backs.
It’s clear that the Cardinals’ passing game has regressed from last year’s ridiculously efficient version, which may mean that what we’ve seen so far from Floyd is a sign of things to come. Without an injury to Fitzgerald or Johnson, Floyd’s target share is unlikely to spike, and given his incredibly inefficient start, this paints a grim picture for his prospects moving forward.
Latavius Murray's Shrinking Role
Below is a table showing the touch distribution among Oakland Raiders' running backs through three weeks:
The emergence of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard -- and to a smaller extent Jamize Olawale -- and the willingness of the Raiders’ coaching staff to use them in all types of game situations has really cut into Latavius Murray's role.
Murray has salvaged his first three performances by scoring a rushing touchdown in each game, but he has yet to eclipse 15 carries or 60 yards in any game. Touchdowns are great, but relying on a running back to score them when said player just isn’t seeing a ton of volume becomes a tricky proposition.
The upcoming schedule is palatable, with the Baltimore Ravens (sixth) as the only top-half run defense facing the Raiders over the next four weeks. Murray’s eight catches through three games does provide somewhat of a floor for fantasy production, and he showed ability as a pass-catcher in 2015, but the presence of Washington and Richard really put a cap on his potential production ceiling.
With a 2-1 record and the most efficient running game on a per-play basis according to our metrics, Oakland seems unlikely to undergo a dramatic shift away from the current deployment.
Take JJ Zachariason’s advice and shop Murray to another owner who may be focusing solely on three touchdowns in three weeks.