Thomas Rawls Is a Sneaky Value Pick in Fantasy Football
Every season, a handful of undervalued players ultimately turn in the kind of season-long performances that can make an owner look like a fantasy football genius. And we all want to be that guy. The respect from our fellow league mates for spotting that diamond in the rough is great, but winning is even better.
Coming out of Central Michigan in 2015, Rawls went undrafted and was signed as a free agent by the Seahawks to provide depth behind Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. The 5'9", 215-pound wrecking ball was an instant success when Lynch went down with an injury -- Rawls looked like he was on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award until he suffered a fractured ankle and was placed on injured reserve before he could close out the season.
Among the 44 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2015, Rawls finished second in Rushing Net Expected Points per attempt (NEP is our proprietary metric which measures the impact of each play based on historical down-and-distance data), behind only David Johnson. He was also fifth among that group in Success Rate (45.58%), which is the percentage of plays that end in a positive NEP.
Basically, when Rawls was handed the ball in 2015, he was one of the NFL's best running backs. He finished his rookie year with 830 yards and 4 touchdowns over 13 games, which pegged him as the RB28 in standard fantasy scoring that season, per Fantasy Data.
The Sophomore Slump
Rawls missed most of the following offseason rehabbing his ankle, but still had an excellent opportunity to take over as the lead running back in 2016 after Marshawn Lynch retired in the most Marshawn Lynch way possible. But in Week 2, he suffered a fractured fibula and never really regained the confidence and violent running style he had tantalized the fantasy community with the year prior.
He started just seven games and finished the 2016 season with a Rushing NEP per attempt of -0.13 -- well below the league average of -0.02. Rawls was bad last year, but this really helps put it in perspective.
Among 768 RBs with 100+ carries since 2000, Rawls' 2016 featured the second-lowest Success Rate (@numberFire metric, % of positive EP runs).
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) August 14, 2017
Upon finally getting healthy at the end of the year, he came back to life in the Wild Card round against the Detroit Lions, rushing for 161 yards on 27 rushing attempts, which reminded us that he has elite potential when given a heavy workload. The following week, the Seahawks were demolished in the Divisional Round by the Atlanta Falcons, a game in which the score dictated fewer runs from the Seahawks, and we never saw Rawls get into a groove.
Heading into the 2017 season, the Seahawks signed Eddie Lacy to compete with Rawls for the starting running back job. In 12-team PPR leagues, Rawls is being drafted in the ninth round as the 41st running back off the board, only two spots ahead of another Seattle running back, C.J. Prosise, and a full round behind the 36th running back off the board, Eddie Lacy, per Fantasy Football Calculator.
But is Rawls' current average draft position (ADP) warranted?
Value in Context
In the Seahawks' first preseason game, he ran exclusively with the first team, while Lacy ran mostly with the second unit. Rawls won't play in Seattle's preseason game tonight as a precaution after tweaking his ankle, but he had a healthy offseason. He runs with authority and is the proven commodity in the Seahawks' backfield. Then again, Prosise is likely to steal a good chunk of third-down snaps given his versatility.
When Rawls showed his immense potential as Lynch missed games with various injuries in 2015, the Seahawks gave him 126 rushing attempts over the seven starts when he played a full game. He turned those carries into 712 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. That would give him per-game averages of 18 carries for 101.7 yards and 0.57 touchdowns. Extrapolated over a 16-game season, Rawls would have finished with 1,627 yards and 9.12 rushing touchdowns.
Is that the most optimal way to project Rawls for 2017? No, but it does show us the type of ceiling he might have if, hypothetically, he were a workhorse dominating the volume of carries (and operating at 2015 levels of efficiency). Even with Prosise taking the third-down role, Rawls has proven that he can deliver big numbers on fewer than 20 carries per game.
He's currently going in the same round as Jacquizz Rodgers, who's likely to only be a starter so long as Doug Martin is serving his three-game suspension to start the season. Given that Rawls has the potential to Seattle's lead back all year and not just for three games, he's being grossly undervalued -- if he's the Thomas Rawls of 2015.
His value is baked into his too-low ADP, so your risk -- the risk of him being the Thomas Rawls of 2016 -- is mitigated. And if he can get back to the flash he showed as a rookie while holding off Lacy and Prosise from eating into his touches, he'll be a ridiculous value.
Finding that diamond in the rough doesn't always mean discovering a player nobody knows even existed. Sometimes, all you need is to take a chance on a player whose perceived value is lower than his potential opportunity. Despite there being questions and concerns in Seattle's backfield, Rawls checks both of those boxes.