Fantasy Football: Isaiah Crowell Looks Safe, But Does He Have Upside to Offer?
It's not often that you want to spend significant draft equity on a running back on a (likely) losing team, but for Isaiah Crowell, you should be willing to make an exception.
Crowell's Cleveland Browns have hype surrounding them (partly because Crowell himself thinks they can "shock the world" this season), yet Bovada set their win total at just 4.5, and our median-minded algorithms see them winning a league-low 5.7 games.
Despite that, Crowell has an average draft position (ADP) of 3.05 in 12-team PPR leagues, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, making him the 14th running back off the board.
That's actually quite reasonable even with all the concerns, but is there any chance Crowell surpasses expectations?
Let's get this part out of the way first. Again, it can be difficult to swallow an RB14 ADP for a dude on the Browns, so we'll tackle that part now.
Crowell was the RB14 in PPR leagues last year but the RB20 in PPR points per game among 125 backs with at least 10 games played. So, in a way, we're buying him at top dollar.
But Crowell go to that point on 198 carries, 20th-most among running backs. He saw 53 targets, 18th-most, and caught 40 passes with no touchdowns to boost his fantasy rank unsustainably.
And 23.8% of his non-red-zone carries came against eight-plus-man boxes, according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats. On those, he averaged 5.88 yards per carry, second-best among qualified backs. That speaks to his talent and his ability to overcome an iffy offense.
So he looks good enough to produce in a poor situation, and his workload is hard to match outside of first-round rushers. That's the safe, floor-centric view on Crowell.
Among RB15-or-better seasons since 2009 (120 in total), only 6 came on fewer than 160 carries, a mark that a healthy Crowell is all but guaranteed to hit.
All but 3 of the 80 top-10 seasons came on at least 175 carries. Unless his workload decreases unexpectedly (he was on a 212-carry pace through the first eight games last year and a 184-carry pace in the final eight games), he can get to that point.
Crowell also has some receiving upside, despite the presence of Duke Johnson.
In the first eight games of the 2016 season, Crowell was on a 38-target pace; in the final eight, he had 34 targets (a 68-target pace).
|Usage Splits||Wk 1-8 Carries||Wk 1-8 Tar||Wk 9-17 Rush||Wk 9-17 Tar|
To paint a clearer picture of Crowell's change in receiving usage, here are their snap counts (via FantasyData), rushes, and targets on a game-by-game basis in the 2016 season.
|Week||Crowell Snap%||Johnson Snap%||Crowell Targets||Johnson Targets|
Crowell was out-targeted by Johnson just once in the final eight games and out-snapped just once all season (Week 4).
So, even Crowell's second-half carry rate (184 totes) would historically be enough for a top-10 season, and the 68-target pace would have placed him seventh overall among running backs in targets last season.
That might sound like a case for his safety rather than his upside, but if the receiving game usage from the second half of last season sticks, Crowell could yet again have one of the 10-best workloads in the NFL among running backs.
Mostly, it's just the offense and the overall success of the team that's working against him. Crowell thrived in crowded boxes in 2016, though that's never something you want to bank on happening again.
And, yes, there are some added pass catchers who could siphon targets and touchdowns from Crowell.
Kenny Britt has a career touchdown rate (percentage of targets that were touchdowns) of 5.3%, though his catch rate has been just 54.6% -- think DeSean Jackson (5.2%, 55.8%). Britt's catch rate was 61.3% last season with the lowly Los Angeles Rams, and perhaps things start clicking for the new Brown.
By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Britt added 1.28 expected points on a per-catch basis last year. That ranked ninth among 41 receivers with at least 100 targets. He also ranked ninth on a per-target basis (0.78), despite playing on -- by far -- the least efficient passing offense in football.
Corey Coleman's presence could also limit Crowell, as the rookie receiver was hampered by hamstring and hand issues last season.
Coleman's 1.18 Reception NEP per catch (on 33 catches) ranked 14th among 41 receivers with between 65 and 100 targets (Coleman had 73 targets). Per target (0.53), he ranked 35th, thanks mostly to a crummy 45.2% catch rate for the deep threat.
However, Coleman did play primarily in the second-half of the season, when Crowell saw his receiving game boost.
|Corey Coleman||Snap %||Targets||Rec||Rec Yards||TD|
With Terrelle Pryor's 141 targets from 2016 vacated, there remains a significant portion of pass attempts to go around.
Of course, that will start with Coleman and Britt, but it's not as if Crowell's passing-game usage looks completely doomed by any means.
Crowell thrived despite a weak offense last year, and an increase in receiving work in the second half of the season should work to elevate his floor and ceiling.
Further, Cleveland bolstered their offensive line by bringing in Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter in the offseason. The unit is ranked second entering the season by ProFootballFocus.
Cleveland ranked 28th in adjusted line yards, by FootballOutsiders, in 2016, and Crowell still managed to post an above-average Rushing NEP per carry last season.
Even if his passing-game presence diminishes in favor for Johnson again, there is no reason to believe that Crowell won't have one of the larger rushing workloads in football.
And if he continues to contend with or overtake Johnson in the passing game, his workload and efficiency suggests he can produce a top-10 season, giving the solid RB2 an RB1 ceiling.
Our initial projections rank Crowell as the RB14 in PPR formats, right in line with his ADP.