Ameer Abdullah Is Being Overvalued in Fantasy Football
It's not hard to see when someone is the most athletic person on the field. Going back to grade school, I’m sure there was one guy in your class who everyone knew was the fastest or the strongest. Maybe some of you were fortunate enough to be that guy.
There's a good chance Ameer Abdullah has been that guy all his life -- with a 138.7 SPARQ-X score that ranks in the 98th percentile, he's basically an athletic freak. His talent was on full display during his college years with Nebraska and at the combine, which is likely a big reason why the Detroit Lions took him with the 54th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
He's a good player, but when it comes to fantasy football, we aren't drafting players solely on talent. Opportunity is everything with regard to fantasy production, and that's exactly what Abdullah currently appears to lack in the Motor City.
While he's technically the starter, there are other running backs on the depth chart taking up the two most valuable roles for fantasy points: goal-line carries and passing-down work. This makes Abdullah's average draft position (ADP) of 5.09 (RB20) in 12-team PPR leagues especially confusing.
Where Are the Goal-Line Carries?
Touchdowns will always outweigh yards gained in fantasy football, which is unfortunate because total touchdowns have just a 0.30 correlation from year-to-year for running backs. We do know, though, that two-thirds of all rushing touchdowns are scored from inside the five-yard line.
When the Lions find themselves in that area of the field, Abdullah is typically on the sideline -- he's only had two carries inside the five-yard line during his career (with no touchdowns).
Based off what they've done in recent years, Detroit simply opts to use bigger rushers near the goal line. The 220-pound Joique Bell was the choice in 2015, while these duties were split between Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington (both 223 pounds) last year.
Early on, it doesn't seem as if that strategy will change much this season, as Zenner has been used in goal-line packages during training camp. The situation could potentially get even more complicated for Abdullah with the addition of perennial touchdown vulture and quasi-fullback Matt Asiata.
Not being high in the pecking order when it comes to goal-line touches severely caps Abdullah's upside for touchdowns.
Not Involved Enough in the Passing Game
While playing at Nebraska, Abdullah managed a 9.4% target market share in the passing game, which was good for the 66th percentile among college running backs. He may be a capable pass-catching back, but unfortunately for him, he's begun his pro career alongside Theo Riddick, who gets a lot of attention in that situation.
In Riddick's last 16-game season (which came in 2015), he collected 99 targets despite Abdullah also appearing in all 16 games. When we use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see just how much more effective he was as a receiving back. NEP measures the expected point value of a play, given down, distance-to-go and yard line. A five-yard gain on 3rd and 4 is much different than a five-yard gain on 3rd and 10. NEP accounts for that. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
The below table compares the Reception NEP per target between Riddick and Abdullah from 2015 (when they were both active the entire year), along with their Success Rate, which is the percentage of catches that end in positive NEP.
|Player||Targets||Reception NEP per Target||Success Rate|
Riddick has the upper hand overall here, which is to be expected, and an underrated aspect of his game is his usage in the red zone. Not only did Riddick receive 14 red zone targets last year, but he was also efficient by converting 38% of them into touchdowns.
Abdullah may be a competent pass catcher, but Riddick should remain the Lions' go-to passing-down back. So, Abdullah isn't getting goal-line carries and a chance to score that way, along with having his upside in the receiving game be capped, as well. Not ideal.
It’s certainly possible Abdullah emerges as an RB2 this year. For example, Tevin Coleman scored 11 touchdowns and posted nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage despite seeing only three carries inside the five-yard line and 40 targets in the passing game in 2016.
Those are theoretically reachable usage marks for Abdullah, but let's not forget that Coleman was in a terrific situation. He played for a historically efficient offense and is the poster boy for touchdown regression in 2017. Everything broke Coleman's way last season.
In drafting Abdullah, the hope would be that his performance ends up being an outlier, although it still doesn't bring RB1 upside. Considering he's being selected as the RB20, it would make more sense to pursue running backs in more advantageous situations, like Mark Ingram or Spencer Ware. Both are going later than Abdullah in MFL drafts and make far better selections than the Detroit rusher.
Abdullah's talent is there, but his perceived place in the Lions' offense truly puts a cap on his upside, making it a better decision to avoid him.