Fantasy Football: Can Ty Montgomery Be Green Bay’s Full-Time Back?

Ty Montgomery was explosive in his first chance at playing running back. Can he sustain that success?

Donald Glover is a man of many talents. As Childish Gambino, he has released exceptional musical albums. As a writer for 30 Rock and Community, he gave us a chance to laugh and cry with some of our favorite bizarre comedy characters. But as a stand-up comic, he’s helped us to see universal truths (or at least new, weird ways of looking at things).

I was watching Glover’s comedy special the other day, and one moment stuck out for me: “[Being an entertainer] is also the only job where you have to keep proving you can do it. If you work at Staples, you don’t have to prove you can move paper…. [It’s] like I’m just going to forget how to act one day.”

That got me thinking about Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery, whose situation heading into 2017 is a fascinating crossroads of the NFL’s “what have you done for me lately” mindset and football analysts’ distrust of little track record.

Montgomery, as most of us know, came into the NFL as a wide receiver but always had the skillset to play running back. When the Packers’ backfield depth evaporated in 2016, he was tapped to lead the charge. Now, however, the Packers have a newly replenished depth chart and although Montgomery stands atop it, he does so with just half a year as a runner under his belt.

Can Montgomery prove once and for all that he deserves to be the Packers’ full-time lead back?

A Wild and Crazy Guy

By all accounts, Montgomery’s first test as an NFL running back was a success.

Last season, he totaled 457 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 77 carries (5.94 yards per carry), while adding 348 receiving yards on 44 catches (56 targets). His versatile dual-threat profile makes him an intriguing player to consider in the Packers’ wide-open spread offense. Unlike the Eddie Lacy–James Starks tandem, where Lacy was used as an early-down bruiser and Starks the passing-down complement, in theory Montgomery could be used as both.

On MockDraftable, which examines players’ NFL Combine measurables and compares them to historical Combine data, the 6’0”, 220-pound Montgomery matches up closely to the likes of Montario Hardesty, Marion Barber, David Johnson (yes, that one), Zach Zenner, and Kenneth Dixon.

But we don’t need hypothetical measurables to show us how good Montgomery is in the backfield; we saw it on the field and in the data, especially by numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the run-and-catch Montgomery’s production by Rushing NEP per attempt and Reception NEP per target, as well as his Success Rates (the percent of plays resulting in positive value) in each. His rankings among the 56 running backs to top 75 carries last year are shown for comparison.

Player Rush NEP/Att Rank Rush Success % Rank Rec NEP/Targ Rank Rec Success % Rank
Ty Montgomery 0.08 9th 45.45% 13th 0.37 19th 68.18% 18th

It’s nice to see a player with such a high per-play average in Rushing NEP that also has a strong Rushing Success Rate. This indicates to us that not only was Montgomery impactful, he was consistent. An explosive runner can have a high Rushing NEP per attempt, but if they hit home runs every so often and also get stuffed a ton, their Rushing Success Rate will be low; that’s not the case with TyMo.

In addition, Montgomery’s solid receiving chops are shown here. Part of this is clouded by his early-season work as a receiver, but his receiving work didn’t drop off much once he moved to the backfield full-time (he lost only 1.19 targets per game).

By Rotoviz’s Game Splits App, in fact, once Montgomery became a running back in Week 12, he was on a full-season pace for 832 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns on 131 carries, with 288 receiving yards on 59 targets. The 203 PPR fantasy points he was on pace for would have made him the 15th-best running back in the 2016 season.

Those are pretty impressive numbers all around, and they are the kind of versatile impact that Montgomery has at his peak if the Pack let him tote the rock full-time.

Bring the Pain

Here’s the bad news: the Packers drafted three running backs this past spring. Those players include Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, who are known for their between-the-tackles running – something Montgomery’s detractors claim he can’t do.

But is this true? Can Montgomery run between the tackles? The table below shows the 2016 Packers’ running backs to attempt 25 or more rushes, with their Rushing NEP per attempt split by attempt direction: left, middle, right.

Rush NEP/Att Left Middle Right
Aaron Ripkowski -0.11 0.36 -0.44
Christine Michael -0.30 -0.31 0.46
Eddie Lacy 0.00 0.18 0.09
James Starks -0.40 -0.26 -0.22
Ty Montgomery 0.23 -0.21 0.10

Among these players, only one besides Montgomery had a worse Rushing NEP per attempt up the gut than to either side of the line. Still, part of that was simply due to him never earning a touchdown on one of his 12 middle rushes. Using Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Index, we can see that the Packers averaged 3.86 yards per rush on middle attempts, while Montgomery averaged 4.92 yards on those attempts – 13th-most among running backs with at least 10 attempts up the middle. Only Aaron Ripkowski beat him in this metric on the team.

Still, consistency is key. It’s entirely possible that he loses some of these bread-and-butter carries to Williams and Jones in 2017, and gets used as a larger version of Darren Sproles once again. It’s also entirely possible that the Packers trust him to carry the load, as every scrap of news out of Green Bay indicates that TyMo is – for now – RB1.

It’s also entirely possible it doesn’t matter.

The Packers have called significantly fewer and fewer running back rushing attempts over the last four years, while increasing the passing targets doled out to them. The table below shows the total running back carries and total targets, as well as the percentage they take up of total team play calling.

GB Team RB Rush % of Plays Team RB Targ % of Plays
2013 402 41.4% 81 8.3%
2014 371 40.9% 90 9.9%
2015 357 38.4% 93 10.0%
2016 292 32.0% 104 11.4%

That could be good news for Montgomery, whose comparatively elite receiving skill makes him a unique player in the Packers’ backfield. In the spread offense, the Packers need a great receiver and pass protector, and that’s what Montgomery brings.

Montgomery is a fascinating test case for fantasy football players and NFL fans alike. Perhaps his versatility makes him a high-upside fantasy option in 2017, but it’s also possible that the erosion of the running volume in the Green Bay lead back role makes him a volatile weekly asset.

Our models project Montgomery for 715 rushing yards and 5.78 touchdowns on 155 carries (4.61 yards per carry), adding 41 catches for 329 receiving yards and 1.27 touchdowns, in the 2017 season. That would put him as the 21st-best running back in fantasy, and that’s the range you want to take him in.

The 2017 season is a turning point for Ty Montgomery, and if he proves himself to be a solid RB2 in fantasy, that will be an impressive achievement.