Can Toby Gerhart Carry the Load for Jacksonville?

The Jacksonville Jaguars are gambling on running back Toby Gerhart to be their workhorse this year. Will it be a risky bet or did they do their due diligence?

In 2008, Michael Turner was picked up by the Atlanta Falcons after four years in the shadows of soon to be Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Atlanta's new GM at the time, Thomas Dimitroff, saw that Turner had the potential to be a lead back from the limited opportunities he saw from Turner in San Diego. Atlanta picked him up quickly when he reached free agency that year, and the gamble paid off, as Turner rushed for 1,699 yards on a whopping 376 carries.

This off-season, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a similar gamble in their acquisition of former Minnesota Viking running back Toby Gerhart.

Emerging from the shadows of another potential Hall of Famer in Adrian Peterson, Gerhart has been finally granted his time to shine as the lead back for a team. In fact, head coach Gus Bradley will utilize his new weapon early and often in 2014. "He (Gerhart) has the ability to play all three downs," stated Bradley. Gerhart is likely to get the bulk of the carries in Jacksonville this year.

The truth is, Toby Gerhart has very little competition in Jacksonville, a team that seemed to put all of its eggs in the Gerhart basket. The depth chart behind him includes unproven UConn product Jordan Todman, former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and newly acquired seventh-round pick Storm Johnson. It's not a particularly threatening group to take away carries, or even targets, from Gerhart.

Gerhart will likely see heavy duty on all downs and provide Bradley with a legitimate building block for his offense until Bradley's ready to let rookie quarterback Blake Bortles take over incumbent Chad Henne as the starting quarterback. Gerhart has already displayed his effectiveness on third down while in Minnesota, and will help tremendously for either quarterback on quick screens or dump offs in the passing game.

Although let's not overstate what Gerhart can do in the passing game. Over his four seasons in Minnesota, Gerhart has averaged a Reception Net Expected Points per target score of 0.25. In essence, this tells us that Gerhart is adding roughly a quarter of a point for his team each time he's targeted. How does that stack up to other running backs? Not extraordinarily well. Among the 20-plus reception running backs in 2013 (47 of them), Gerhart's average through the years would have placed him 28th in efficiency. Moreover, only one of Gerhart's four years in the league has seen his per target efficiency through the air above .23, which, as shown above, is a below average rate. So while he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he doesn't exactly do it incredibly well.

But being a bigger back listed at 6'0" and 231 pounds, Gerhart is more of a bruiser, forcing many defensive backs to adjust their technique in wrapping him up. Gerhart's brash running style allows him to push forward through defenders picking up those valuable extra yards. He's shown great vision and patience, being able to plant his foot and accelerate through the hole as he averaged 7.9 yards per carry on minimum attempts last year. He'll certainly drive the pile behind Jacksonville's offensive line, which will get back last year's first-round pick Luke Joeckel as he returns from injury. Jacksonville also added one of the top free agent guards in former Denver Bronco Zane Beadles, who will also be an asset helping in the run game.

A Fantasy Football Value?

In terms of fantasy football, opportunity is the name of the game, and Gerhart has shown the ability to take advantage of the chances he's been provided so far. Looking at running backs who eclipsed 35 carries last season, Gerhart ranked ninth in numberFire's Rushing Net Expected Points metric. Granted it was a small sample in 2013, but Gerhart proved when given the chance that he has the tools to succeed.

What's Even more impressive is that Gerhart ranked first in Rushing NEP per carry among qualifying running backs that exceeded 35 carries last year.

RushesRush NEPRush NEP/Carry
Toby Gerhart369.610.27
James Starks8917.200.19
Donald Brown10213.910.14
LeSean McCoy31437.120.12
Ahmad Bradshaw414.840.12

As small a sample as it may be, it's at least something worthwhile to note. However, it's also difficult to ignore that Gerhart likely saw softer defenses as a backup, and much of his score can be credited to a few big plays. Ranking higher than last year's league-leading rusher in efficiency will certainly garner attention from some fantasy enthusiasts, but it's important to tame these high expectations before claiming Gerhart will lead the league in 2014.

Over the course of his four years in the league, Gerhart's total Rushing NEP per carry has been -0.01. That's not a terrible mark, as rushing is less effective than passing. To put that in perspective, that value would fall right in line with Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles from 2013. While Ivory and Sproles are two solid backs on their own accord, I doubt many people are running to Vegas to put money on those two to win this year's rushing title.

But let's not downplay the opportunity that Gerhart has in 2014. His current average draft position is well below where he will likely end up. Currently ranked between the 20th and 30th running back, Gerhart is likely to climb up each board as the start of the 2014 season draws closer. With only 276 carries over his career, he still has very fresh legs that could be a valuable fantasy asset for many teams in 2014. Gerhart will be this year's offensive focal point, which could translate into a big payoff this year picking up a worthwhile RB2 where typical RB3s are being drafted. The former Heisman finalist is being drafted among running backs with numerous questions, timeshares possibilities, and aging (slowing) veterans.

Why not take a chance on the new Jaguar?