Fantasy Football: Jordan Howard Is a Value in the Chicago Bears' New-Look Offense
Over the past few months, the niche micro-blogging site known as Twitter has had many users claiming that Jordan Howard can’t return fantasy value in 2018 because of his inability to produce as a receiver. While some cite Howard's own weaknesses (which he's reportedly trying to improve upon) in the passing game, others point to the offensive philosophy of new head coach Matt Nagy or a combination of the two.
Since the early reactions, we've seen Howard and the Chicago Bears' offense drawing more positive notes -- so much so that they might just be going overhyped, with Howard being overvalued in light of Vegas' win totals.
But is this the case, or should you be taking Howard at a nice discount?
Howard has played two season in the NFL and finished as a top-12 back both times. In these seasons, he has scored 76.9 percent of his fantasy points on the ground.
For those new to numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP) is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team side being adjusted for strength of opponent. A five-yard run on 3rd and 4 is wildly different than a five-yard run on 3rd and 8, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
Based on one form of our in-house metric, Reception NEP per target, Howard adds just 0.04 points to his team's expected point total on a per-target basis. He isn’t exactly a liability in the pass game, but he adds next to no value.
More importantly, he wasn’t used as a receiver last year, which is really what matters. He saw 23 targets and a mere 6.25 percent of his teams targets in 2017. Both marks were lower than those from his rookie campaign. He might not be the worst pass-catcher, but the Bears treated him as if he was.
At 5’6” and 179 pounds, Cohen doesn’t profile like a back that can steal significant carries, but his role as a pass-catcher is cemented, and it shows up in Howard's snap counts from 2016 to 2017. As Jim Sannes pointed out last month, Howard was limited to fewer than 60 precent of his team's snaps in 10 of 16 games a year ago. The year prior, he played over 60 percent of snaps in 12 of 15 games as the team's bellcow back.
If Howard is going to provide fantasy value, it will have to come on the ground.
Howard has been able to shoulder the workload for the Bears, seeing just over 65 percent of the team's carries in consecutive seasons. And when he’s gotten the ball, he’s produced fantasy points.
He’s averaged 0.62 fantasy points per carry, largely based on his share of the Bears' red zone carries. In his career to date, Howard has accounted for 65.3 percent of his team's total red zone carries. It's clear that the Bears have and should continue to utilize Howard in this role.
The Bears' offense is primed for a rebound with Matt Nagy taking over as head coach in place of John Fox. Howard exceeded expectations under Fox last season, despite playing in an offense that ran the 2nd-fewest plays and ranked 27th with -0.04 adjusted NEP per play. And they didn’t run so few plays because they couldn’t move the ball.
In 2017, the Bears were also second-slowest in seconds per play (via Football Outsiders), meaning that they slowed down the game with the intent of keeping the game low-scoring and within reach, as was evident from Week 13's 14-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, who kicked five field goals and took the win.
In further support of that notion, since the year 2000, the Bears boast 2 of the top-10 fewest plays ran in a game, and that's just from last season alone (per Pro Football Reference). Nagy stands to improve this offense by virtue of not being John Fox, but he's also a proponent of more offense. In his one year as offensive coordinator in Kansas City, the Chiefs' offense was just 30th in seconds per play, but they ran 51 more plays and were 10th in time of possession, compared to Chicago's 28th.
So it's likely that they will score more points with or without improvement from second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. And if they do see the progression of a learning quarterback, the red zone trips and positive game script could lend itself to Howard being used even more on early downs. In the same offensive system that ranked second in adjusted rushing NEP per play, that's a recipe for success.
In contrast, Trubisky was 29th in passing NEP per drop back last season among all passers with 200 or more attempts, and even though Fox slowed down the team's ability to score points, Trubisky’s performance didn’t do the Bears any favors either.
If he doesn't improve improve and the Bears' offense follows suit, the 2018 season could look similar to last year's. Touchdowns are a fluky stat and Howard had nine of them last season on the Bears' atrocious offense. That could easily come down if they repeat their 2017 performance and Howard isn’t as lucky in the scoring department. This would easily ruin Howard's fantasy output at his current draft cost.
Ceiling Over Floor
In standard 12-team leagues, Howard's currently going as the 12th running back, based on Fantasy Football Calculator's average draft position data. He has produced multiple elite fantasy seasons on a stagnant Bears offense, but that’s hard to accomplish and a risky bet to make again.
However, his quarterback is likely to improve and he’ll be playing in a modern NFL offense for the first time in his career. His high-volume of carries leaves his mid-second-round price as a likely floor, but he has the ceiling of a top-5 back if everything breaks his way in the Bears' new-look attack.