Fantasy Football: Danny Woodhead Is Riskier Than You Think
We might hate to admit it, but we’re all a little bit hipster.
Each of us likes to claim we were the first to eat at the cool new restaurant in town, that we saw the hip new trend emerge first, that we heard that band before they were so overplayed on the radio.
This even bleeds into the fantasy football world, where we staunchly defend our claims as the first people to know about the next big thing on the virtual gridiron. That “next big thing” has been Baltimore Ravens running back Danny Woodhead for many an analyst and fan alike this offseason.
Woodhead was always destined to be a big part of the Baltimore offense this year, but with potential backfield challenger Kenneth Dixon out for the year with a knee injury, he seems even more like a surefire fantasy fad worth buying in on.
Looks can be deceiving, though. However hipster of me it might be, Woodhead appears sneakily risky as a fantasy football option in 2017.
Woodhead is one of the most beloved scatbacks in the NFL today, but he looks more like the guy you knew in high school who would play 18 hours of Skyrim and Call of Duty a day (all while slamming a pallet of Monster energy drinks) than a fantasy football star.
Perhaps that’s why the 5’8”, 200-pound Raven is so undervalued annually: he just doesn’t look the part.
Still, his versatile skill set has proven valuable in the NFL and the fantasy gridiron for years. Across his nine-year career, Woodhead has topped 100 carries just once and 50 targets only three times, all while never being the primary or traditionally-used running back in the offense. That said, in his most recent healthy seasons with the Chargers, Woodhead has averaged 1,053 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns on just 180 touches – that’s an average fantasy season of around 159 points in standard scoring.
Woodhead doesn’t look like a traditional NFL player and doesn’t rack up his points like a traditional NFL running back, but he finds a way to make it work.
As the years have gone on, fantasy players have taken note. The table below show his average draft position (ADP) among running backs in standard 12-team fantasy leagues each season, per Fantasy Football Calculator, as well as his fantasy finish at his position in that season.
This is the brilliant conundrum of Danny Woodhead. He’s historically been a low-volume player in a game where volume is king, and he has incredible downside (2009, 2011 underused; 2014 and 2016, injured). Still, when he gets his touches, he finds a way to turn them into value, averaging an RB28 finish in the five years he’s played at least 14 games in a season.
That upside to finish in the top-20 was what made Woodhead such an asset when he could be drafted in the 12th round of fantasy drafts in previous years as one’s RB4 or RB5, but his ADP has steadily increased -- boosted by his current situation in Baltimore -- to slot him in as an RB3 in 12-team leagues. The riskiness of his profile hasn’t decreased, but his draft slot has still risen (as high as the early seventh round in recent weeks) regardless.
Let’s put it this way: if you bought a cheap used car five years ago and someone offered you an identical car now – five years’ more of miles and all – for more money, you would turn them down immediately, right? Danny Woodhead is the same kind of impending clunker.
The same way that a car with more and more miles on it gets less fuel-efficient, Woodhead has gotten less and less efficient with his touches, both by traditional box score measures and advanced analytics like our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric here at numberFire. NEP is a metric that 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.
By traditional measures, such as rushing yards per attempt and receiving yards per target, Woodhead has gotten less efficient every season, slipping from 5.64 rushing yards per attempt in 2010 to a measly 3.43 in 2015 (he tore his ACL in Week 2 of last season). Nearly every year in between was a gradual decline in efficiency for him. Outside of one outlier low 2011 season, his receiving yards per target have slumped annually to boot.
The charts below also show Woodhead’s rushing and receiving efficiency over his time in the league, this time by Rushing NEP per attempt and Reception NEP per target.
It’s clear as day that Woodhead is getting significantly less effective on the ground (and at least is getting no better in the receiving game) having slipped from a hyper-efficient 0.25 Rushing NEP per attempt in 2010 to 2015’s clip of -0.05. Add in the fact that lower body injuries (read: legs) have cost him the majority of two seasons in the last three years, and you have a case for major concern for an over-the-hill running back.
Yet he’s still a fantasy darling somehow.
Here’s the other thing: he’s not the only back in Baltimore. We might believe he’s more valuable than Terrance West in fantasy football and Dixon's season-ending injury does open up guaranteed usage for Woodhead, but things don’t bode well for Woody in a timeshare if West sees significant touches.
Over the course of Woodhead’s career, he’s always been a complementary back; in 2017, that may happen again.
Using Rotoviz’s Game Splits App, I looked at Woodhead’s fantasy production in games each year in which another back saw at least 15 carries in a game (in 2011 and 2014, I reduced the threshold to 12 carries to get more balanced game samples). The table below shows his per-game production and workload when another back gets significant work.
|Woodhead||Other RB 15 or More Attempts||Other RB Less Than 15 Attempts||Difference|
Volume is king, especially in standard scoring. Woodhead has to share touches, and that makes him a riskier play than we want to imagine. Even though West and Javorius Allen are not supreme talents, Woodhead will likely have to split time with them, and that dings him, even if he sustains his rates into this year.
Even though our projections peg him as the 30th-best running back in fantasy this year, Danny Woodhead is no longer the undervalued fixed-gear bicycle that we cool kids who wear 90’s windbreakers ironically can slide into the late rounds of our drafts. He’s now a name-brand fixture, a fantasy fad that’s past its coolness date.
When players like Theo Riddick are almost exactly the same by our models but going three or four rounds later by ADP, take the bargain bin option and start the next cool trend instead.