Does Donald Brown Have Legitimate Fantasy Value?
In what has been an odd year in the NFL for running backs, perhaps the strangest situation in the league resides in Indianapolis.
Through his first four years in the NFL, Donald Brown was largely a below-average running back - a fantasy non-factor despite being blessed with the opportunity to play alongside Peyton Manning and now Andrew Luck. Producing a negative Net Expected Points per Rush even while playing in many NEP-boosting 3rd-down situations, Brown’s biggest claim to fame was being lambasted for a missed blitz pickup by Manning (for all to hear, too).
Yet, somehow, even with the Colts acquiring the now-disappointing Trent Richardson, Brown has been a completely new running back in Indianapolis over the last couple of weeks.
Can You Trust Donald Brown?
Now, part of Donald Brown’s opportunity comes from Richardson’s lack of success, but we can't discount Brown’s efficiency. His workload and playing time has seen a significant increase over the past five weeks, and Brown has taken advantage.
Looking at running backs with over 40 carries this season, Brown leads the way in NEP per carry. He’s adding an average of .18 Expected Points to the Colts’ side of the scoreboard each time they hand him the ball. That puts him in line with other high-efficiency backs, like Andre Ellington and Rashad Jennings, who have had limited opportunity as well. Brown also ranks first overall in success rate at 59.65%, meaning he produces a positive NEP play about 6 out of 10 times he carries the ball.
This efficiency is not going unnoticed by the Colts staff. Brown’s increased snap counts is promising, but even more telling are the situations that Brown is remaining on the field for.
In Week 11 against the Titans, Brown was trusted with the ball in the first quarter and in the fourth quarter. He was trusted with the ball on first down and on third down. At one point, midway through the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Brown received four straight carries and reeled off 32 yards. Most importantly for fantasy owners, he received red zone touches. He capped the game-winning drive, in which he was heavily involved, with an 11-yard touchdown run. He has shown great burst through the hole, something Trent Richardson has certainly lacked, and a patience that did not seem to exist prior to his recent outburst. His patience was on display against Tennessee as the Colts continuously gashed the Titans with counter-action, with Brown riding his pulling blocker until a lane opened up.
Donald Brown's Rest of Season Outlook
Having recently spent a first-round pick on Richardson, I can say with near certainty that the Colts are not going to hand the full-time job over to Brown. That fact, along with the Colts’ upcoming schedule featuring two top-10 Adjusted Rushing NEP defenses (Cincinnati and Houston) curbs my enthusiasm.
Still, Brown’s opportunity as a runner and receiver sets him with a playable matchup-based point floor in PPR leagues. Though he has 16 receptions on only 20 targets, he ranks second amongst running backs with at least five targets with a per target NEP of .61. That coupled with his ramped up involvement and efficiency in the running game sets his ceiling high enough to warrant flex consideration even against the looming top-10 defensive match-ups.
After a disappointing individual performance this past week against a stout Cardinals defense, Brown has a rematch with the Titans defense he gashed in Week 11. The Titans have proven to be a middle-of-the-road rush defense, as their schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP allowed per Rush ranks 18th in the league, trending downward through the latter portion of the season. If the Titans don’t make serious adjustments in defending the counter, Brown could have another big day.
Looking further ahead, matchups with Cincy and Houston, ranked 9th and 12th respectively within the same schedule-adjusted metric referenced above, follow. The Colts then face off against Kansas City in Week 16. Like Tennessee, the KC defense has been moving downwards as a whole over recent weeks, and hasn’t defended the run well all season. They sit 19th, one spot behind the Titans, in Adjusted Defensive NEP per Rush.
Unfortunately, a juicy matchup with the 22nd-ranked Jaguars rush defense doesn't come until Week 17, when respectable fantasy leagues have already crowned a champion.
Brown will have the opportunity to eat in Weeks 13 and 16; if you are left in position to play running back by matchup through your fantasy playoffs, don’t let Brown’s reputation, or lack thereof, scare you off. The bottom line is that Donald Brown, in his fifth season, has finally married efficiency to opportunity. As a result, he’s become a fantasy asset heading into playoff time.
Here's numberFire's 40th-ranked running back from here on out, so don't take his opportunity out of context. But if he continues to see more snaps, that ranking could jump. There are worse options out there through the end of the fantasy season.