Alex Collins Is Shaping Up as a Nice Fantasy Football Value
By signing his exclusive rights tender, Alex Collins ensured that he would be returning to the Baltimore Ravens' backfield for the 2018 season. It doesn't sound like a headline move, but Collins was one quietly of the more efficient running backs in the league last year on a per-play basis.
There's still a lot of offseason left, including the upcoming NFL Draft, so plenty could change between now and August. But as things stand, Collins appears to be set for a high-volume role in 2018, which makes him a very appealing option at his current cost of RB30 in PPR formats, per average draft position data from MyFantasyLeague.com.
After the Seattle Seahawks thought they'd get on just fine without Collins and released him, he was signed to the Ravens' practice squad. He wasn't there for long and made his regular-season debut in Week 2.
In his first three games, he did not get significant time on the field, seeing seven, nine and nine carries, respectively, but he was excellent in limited work, amassing 206 yards in those three outings at a ludicrous 8.2 yards per attempt. The Ravens got the memo and started letting Collins run the show, giving him 12 carries in Week 5, and he didn't have fewer than 10 in any game for the rest of the season.
Collins finished the campaign with 212 carries, making him one of only 18 running backs to rack up more than 200 attempts. These carries brought him 977 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. While 14 backs rushed for more yards than Collins, he was among the league leaders at his position on a per-carry basis.
We can see just that by using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player increases his team's expected points for the drive, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance. We'll also peep Success Rate, which is the percentage of carries that resulted in positive NEP, so unlike yards per carry, one big run doesn't hold too much weight.
Of the 18 running backs with at least 200 carries in 2017, only one (Kareem Hunt) had a better clip in Rushing NEP per carry than Collins' mark of 0.04. Collins' Success Rate was 44.81%, which was tops among all 200-carry backs and ranked sixth among backs with at least 100 carries.
Comparing a player to his teammates is a good way to see how impactful a running back is -- since his teammates are operating within the same offense and environment -- and when we do that with Collins, the numbers are pretty staggering.
Collins looks really good by more traditional stats, as well. He finished 9th in yards per carry (4.6) last season among qualified backs, and he checked in 10th in rushing yards per game (64.9).
No matter how you slice it, Collins was one of the NFL's better running backs last year.
Driving the Ravens' Offense
It's not too far-fetched to give Collins much of the credit for any success the Ravens had on offense last season.
According to our numbers, the Ravens had the 22nd-best overall offense in terms of schedule-adjusted NEP per play in 2017, but they were carried by Collins and the ground game, coming in a mere 26th in Passing NEP per play while ranking 10th in Rushing NEP per play.
But despite teams not having to respect the Ravens' passing game, Collins still enjoyed considerable success. According to PlayerProfiler, Collins averaged 5.3 yards per attempt when facing a stacked defensive front, and that was the fourth-best mark in the league last year in such situations.
In terms of splash plays, he once again finished among the league leaders, ripping off 16 runs of at least 15 yards, the second-most such runs among all backs.
The only real area in which Collins was unable to deliver stellar results was in the passing game. He caught just 63.9% of his targets and finished the season with 23 receptions and 187 yards. Javorius Allen was not in Collins' ballpark as a rusher, but he caught 46 of his 60 targets for 250 yards and 2 scores, serving as the pass-game back once Danny Woodhead went down.
Collins led the Ravens' backfield in carries in all but one of the team's final eight games, with Allen edging him 13-12 in one contest -- although, oddly enough, Collins had 5 catches to Allen's 1 in that game.
Assuming the Ravens do not spend an early pick on a running back, it looks like Collins will enter the season as the starter. For his fantasy ceiling to reach higher levels, though, he'll need to secure more high-leverage work as Collins had 28 red-zone touches last year, compared to Allen's 37. There were also 11 red-zone touches for the now-departed Woodhead as well as 5 for Terrance West.
It's April, so we're a long way from deciphering training camp news and preseason games in an effort to get a read on roles, but going by advanced stats, Collins was clearly Baltimore's best runner last season and should be their clear starter with the depth chart the way it is now.
There are some caveats here. For one, the Ravens could use a draft pick on a back, especially given the fact that Allen and Collins are due to be free agents at the end of the 2018 season.
Secondly, don't completely write off Kenneth Dixon. Despite producing very little in his NFL career thus far due to injury and suspension, Dixon has quite the pass-catching pedigree from his college days and was a promising prospect. He caught 30 passes in each of his last two seasons with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, with 13 touchdowns among his 63 receptions. It is at least somewhat notable that Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh listed Dixon along with Collins and Allen when talking about his backfield options for 2018, but within that statement, Harbaugh also said "we have a starter, and Alex has proven that," seemingly anointing Collins as his guy.
Again, it's April, so we have a long way to go until draft season heats up, but it does appear as if Collins is one of the more underappreciated backs in fantasy. Currently the RB30 and 93rd overall player in PPR leagues, Collins is a mid-eighth-round pick. That deep in the running-back pool, it's hard to find players who are both good and in a starting role. Collins checks both of those boxes, making him a sweet value right now.
If he expected to be the Ravens' clear starter going into Week 1, his stock will likely rise as we get closer to peak draft season, but for those drafting now in best-ball formats, Collins is a great player to target once the first few tiers of running backs are off the board.