Spencer Ware Should Remain the Chiefs' Starting Running Back in 2017
Without revealing too much about my age, I am a parent of two. I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter and a three-year-old son.
Navigating the highs and lows of emotions between two siblings of different maturity levels can be challenging. A good example is how my stepdaughter went through period of acting out once her brother was born.
We knew it was because she was jealous and didn't yet know how to handle sharing her family with another little human. And she recovered after a few short months.
But people tend to act out of character when a new kid comes to town. A similar principle plays out when it comes to backfield competitions in the NFL.
And because of the Kansas City Chiefs' addition of running back Kareem Hunt to their backfield, Spencer Ware’s Average Draft Position (ADP) has fallen a full round and a half since mid-May in 12-team PPR leagues, per FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Are people just over-reacting to the addition of Hunt? Or is Ware really destined for a running-back-by-committee situation in 2017? Let's dig into the numbers and find out.
It's easy to look at Ware's box-score stats from his 2016 season and worry. He only produced one 100-yard rushing game. His 4.31 yards per carry were a steep decline from his 5.60 yards per carry in 2015, although those numbers were posted on a limited 72 carries. And he didn't break into the 1,000-yard rushing club.
Fortunately, numberFire's signature in-house performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), helps contextualize true player performance above-or-under expectation. NEP uses historical down-and-distance data to determine what's expected of a player on each individual play. If a player outperforms said expectation, they're credited with positive NEP, and vice-versa. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.
Here are Ware's marks in those two seasons.
|Season||Rushes||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Success Rate|
Ware accumulated a -15.09 Rushing NEP and an inefficient -0.07 Rushing NEP per rush for the season, which obviously is not good when you're taking away from your team's expected scoring. But rushing is inherently less efficient than passing, and the league average for running backs in 2016 stood at -0.02 Rushing NEP per rush.
Digging deeper, it becomes clear that Ware's three fumbles contributed heavily to his overall inefficiency. Removing those fumbles from Ware's record last season, his 211 non-fumble carries would have produced a 0.00 rushing NEP per rush, which is above league average.
If Ware continues having trouble holding onto the football, well, that's probably a good reason to worry about Hunt as competition. But his 1.45% fumble rate was actually less than that of stud running backs Carlos Hyde (1.84%), David Johnson (1.71%), Ezekiel Elliott (1.55%) and Jay Ajayi (1.54%). So he wasn't surrounded by a cast of scrubs with his fumbling issues last season.
A better metric to determine how well Ware performed in 2016, due to the outsized role of his fumbles, is his Rushing Success Rate, which is the percentage of rushes that contribute positively to NEP. Ware's 44.86% Success Rate was actually really impressive, ranking sixth-highest out of the 27 running backs in the league with at least 150 carries. So Ware was consistently moving the chains when given the ball.
For more context, teammate Charcandrick West posted a dreadful Success Rate of just 26.14% on his 88 carries.
Moreover, Ware was a beast through the air last season. His 0.72 Reception NEP per target ranked second among the 32 running backs with at least 40 targets. And his 81.82% Reception Success Rate ranked first among that cohort.
So save for a few fumbles skewing his efficiency stats, Ware has shown himself to be productive in all facets of the game.
Reid Between the Lines
Andy Reid, thankfully for us, has a long history for us to analyze in terms of how he utilizes running backs. One trend that's emerged in Reid's tenure as the Chief's head coach is that he's actually become a more run-friendly coach than he was from 2000-2012 when he was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles.
In fact, all four of his seasons with the Chiefs rank in the bottom half of his 17 seasons in terms of pass-to-run ratio. So as long as Alex Smith remains the team's signal caller, expect that trend to continue.
Reid also tends to reward consistent running backs, which, again, is primarily associated with a running back's Rushing Success Rate. Below is a graph of the percentage of total team running back carries shouldered by the team's lead running back versus their rushing success rates.
Save for a few odd deviations, Reid's lead running backs tend to
shoulder a higher percentage of the team's total running back carries the
higher their rushing success rate goes. The red plot represents Ware's
output from 2016, in which he amassed 68.2% of the teams' running back carries.
And that's while missing two games. So
Reid knows he has a good running back in Ware, and utilized him as such in 2016.
The Hunt for Ware’s October
The case for Hunt taking over the job stems from his high productivity level in college, and from the fact that the Chiefs traded up in the third round to draft him. His 6.3 yards per carry over four years at Toledo University bests that of Ware's 4.2 yards per carry in his college career at Louisiana State University. His 41 catches in his senior season indicate passing game acumen. And his three straight college seasons hitting pay dirt more than 10 times suggest a nose for the end zone.
But remember that Hunt's competition in the MAC conference was nothing compared to what Ware faced in the SEC.
And more importantly, Ware isn't in college anymore. He might be a rarity in that he has played better in the NFL than he did in college. But he's a proven NFL player. He's going to have to perform poorly to have the starting job taken from him. And the numbers show he's good at football.
Having a new kid in town can make people behave out of character. And as a result of Hunt coming to Kansas City, people are getting scared to draft Spencer Ware these days.
But our algorithms project Ware to finish as the 16th-best running back on the season, and my bet is that could end up being conservative based on his past efficiency. So, please, don't let the narrative of the Chiefs' trading up to get Hunt make you assume he's destined for Ware's role in 2017. Because Spencer Ware is good enough to hold him off.