A huge chunk of player potential in fantasy football – redraft leagues, at least – comes down to opportunity. Because of opportunity, a mediocre, slow, boring player who sees the field on a regular basis can often outproduce a talented, speedy, fun one who doesn't. If you don’t believe me, 2012’s Shonn Greene is laughing at you.
Part of the reason a lot of folks are so interested in Titans’ new running back Bishop Sankey right now is because he not only was the first running back selected in the NFL Draft, but he’s probably got the best opportunity to produce when compared to any upcoming first-year runner in the league. If you don’t believe me, 2014’s Shonn Greene is laughing at you.
The truth is, unlike last year where players like Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell had clear paths to being high-volume running backs during their rookie campaigns, the 2014 season doesn’t really bring the same type of obvious opportunity for rookie runners. Or at least, that’s what it initially looks like.
There’s actually another guy I’m really interested in, and he’s one that may be off the casual NFL fan’s radar. It’s Devonta Freeman, a fourth-round selection that landed in Atlanta, a place where Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers look to be the only roadblocks to his first-year potential. Sign me up.
Again, there are two sides to this equation. While opportunity is one of them, talent is the other. If a player really is going to become relevant in fantasy, he needs a bit of the latter, regardless of the number of carries or catches he’ll get. And because Freeman was the ninth running back off the board last week, it’s clear that there may be some concern over his potential in the league.
But my goodness, let’s not overlook the opportunity he has.
Steven Jackson’s the lead back in Atlanta, and will enter the season as a 31-year-old player. Last year, the ex-Ram missed four games due to injury, and totaled -12.67 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). Among the 35 running backs with 150 or more carries, that ranked 23rd. And on a per rush basis (Rushing NEP divided by rushes), Jackson ranked 27th.
While his Rushing NEP score wasn’t the worst of his career, a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was the first season since his rookie year without 200 or more carries. In truth, Jackson’s -0.08 Rushing NEP per tote average tied him for the worst one he’s had over his entire 10-year NFL stint. Had he seen his usual volume, it would have probably gone down as one of the worst aggregate seasons of his career.
Backup Jacquizz Rodgers doesn’t look any better. The fantasy community has wanted him to be good since entering the league in 2011, but he’s produced some really awful numbers. Without even reaching 100 attempts in a single season, ‘Quizz has a worse Rushing NEP per rush average over the course of his career than what Jackson saw last year (-0.08 vs. -0.10). Considering that's with little volume, Rodgers doesn't look like a huge talent in the way of Freeman.
Lastly, there's Antone Smith, who, in 49 NFL games, has six rushing attempts.
That’s it. That’s Freeman’s competition. An aging running back that showed signs of it last year, another guy who’s been incredibly inefficient on the ground during his first three years in the league and a player with six rushes in five years.
If Freeman isn’t any good though, then this really doesn’t matter. Fortunately, using our READ metric, we can see the potential he has during his first year in the league. READ looks at combine results of a player, pairs them to players with similar numbers and attributes, and spits out a number of comparables. Then, since we know the kind of offense Freeman is moving into, READ will adjust these comparables to only show players who played in a similar offense.
The top comparable for Freeman, given his opportunity and metrics, is Domanick Davis. While that may be a turn off, remember that Davis was actually nice fantasy back during his rookie year, finishing 13th within the running back position while rushing for 1,031 yards and scoring 8 times. The second-best comp is Ronnie Brown, who also was pretty good during his first year in 2005, finishing the season as the 24th-ranked runner. Knowshon Moreno's rookie year ranked third, and he was even better than Brown, scoring nine times.
His comps are by no means beastly, but they're serviceable for a player who may not even be close to a thought to fantasy football owners right now. And while plenty still has to play out, knowing that there's opportunity for Freeman could pay off towards the tail-end of a fantasy draft.