Ask any NFL head coach about what they value most in a running back and chances are they will utter the phrase, “ball security,” near the top of the list. It may seem mundane to us, but to coaches, turnovers are like a new Nickelback record: nauseating.
No matter how gifted you are athletically, if you consistently fumble the ball, you will end up spending a large portion of your Sundays holding your helmet on the sidelines (see David Wilson following his Week 1 disaster last season).
If I were to describe to you a hypothetical player who, in his first three NFL seasons, fumbled the ball 20 times, more than likely you would assume that said player was either now out of the league, or at best fighting for a roster spot.
What if I told you that this same player, in his next four NFL seasons, amassed 5,631 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns, while cutting his fumble total nearly in half (11) along the way?
This hypothetical player is in fact very real; you probably know him as Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is the type of transcendent athlete who doesn't come around often, which makes him difficult to use in comparison to other players. But I find it very interesting that, in the early stages of his career, he would have been labeled a fumbler by today’s standards. The Vikings obviously saw Peterson’s enormous potential and decided to work through his troubles, and in doing so, made him the centerpiece of their offense.
While some players may always have ball-security issues, Peterson is proof that it can be remedied if the right steps are taken.
This brings us to Stevan Ridley.
Is Ridley Actually "Fumble-Prone?"
For all the positive things Ridley has done since entering the league in 2011, he's most known for being a fumbler. After all, if Bill Belichick says it’s so, it must be so. If a man is willing to wear a cut-off sweatshirt in public, you don’t go out of your way to question him. While there's no denying Belichick’s success in the NFL and his place as one of the greatest coaches of all-time, I do think it'a fair to question the way he has handled Ridley.
During his first three NFL seasons, Ridley fumbled once every 61.7 carries. In Peterson’s first three seasons, he fumbled once every 45.8 carries. Ridley’s workload during that time was admittedly much smaller than Peterson’s, but the comparison still holds merit.
By referring to numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see that during their first three seasons, Peterson and Ridley posted somewhat similar metric results.
|Year||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/Carry||Success Rate|
|Year||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/Carry||Success Rate|
I want to be clear about one thing; Stevan Ridley is not Adrian Peterson from a physical or talent standpoint. Few running backs will ever equal Peterson. Imagining Ridley’s career taking a similar upward turn, however, is not completely out of the question.
Last season, the Patriots had the luxury of having LeGarrette Blount as Ridley's backup, and could interchange the two during the course of a game as the coaching staff saw fit. In fact, as I noted last week, Blount was one of the most efficient runners in the entire league last year.With Blount now calling Pittsburgh his home, the Patriots may be forced to rely on Ridley more in 2014.
The Ridley-Vereen Combo
Assuming Shane Vereen is fully recovered from the wrist injury he sustained last season, he figures to play a large part in the Patriots offense in 2014. If you're figuring on him taking a large amount of carries away from Ridley, however, I wouldn't be so sure.
While Vereen has done well with the small amount of rushing volume he’s been given – finishing 4th in 2012 and 14th in 2013 in Rush NEP per carry among similar running backs – he has only eclipsed the 60-carry mark once in his career. While he is clearly not a volume runner, the advantage he provides comes in the passing game.
In 2013, Vereen ranked third in terms of Reception NEP per target among the 23 running backs who accumulated between 50 and 100 targets. The mismatch he presents running routes out of the backfield is a very real concern for opposing defenses. Where both Ridley and Vereen benefit is when both are healthy and getting snaps.
The wizards over at Rotoviz have a game splits application, which shows how certain players performed when other players either played or didn’t play. According to this information, in the 19 games that both Ridley and Vereen played since 2011, Ridley has averaged 0.63 rushing touchdowns per game. In the 23 games Vereen did not play, Ridley's per game average dropped to 0.35. Projected out to a full 16-game season with Vereen healthy, Ridley would be in line for 1,027 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. For people buying Ridley, a healthy Vereen should only boost his prospects.
This leaves Brandon Bolden and rookie James White as the only real threats to an expanded role for Ridley, assuming he doesn't have major fumbling issues.
Bolden has played well in limited duty during his two-year career in New England, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. It’s possible that the Patriots lean on him more in 2014, in the absence of Blount, but it’s hard to see him being truly fantasy relevant, barring injury.
White has been getting good reviews so far this off-season, including this NESN report that went so far as to question whether or not he could eventually supplant Vereen. His situation is certainly one to monitor in training camp, especially if you’re of the dynasty league persuasion.
Ridley in 2014
As with every decision we make regarding our fantasy football drafts, value is what we should ultimately be looking for. It’s not always about finding the most talented guy, but more often it’s finding talent that is being undervalued.
As of June 24th, Ridley is currently the 29th running back being selected in standard formats according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Ravens running back Ray Rice is being taken two spots earlier, despite his horrendous 2013 campaign and looming suspension heading into 2014.
In PPR leagues, Ridley is obviously less attractive because he simply hasn't been a factor in the passing game so far in his career. Factor in the return of Shane Vereen, and it doesn't seem likely that he will all of the sudden be peppered with targets.
But regardless of format, if you can get a possible 1,000-yard rusher with double-digit touchdown upside in the middle of the sixth round, you would be wise to jump at the opportunity. If he forces Belichick's hand by holding on to the rock, he could prove to be the middle-round selection that outperforms his average draft position and gives you an advantage on the rest of your competition. While Ridley will most likely never reach Adrian Peterson’s level, he can still provide value in 2014.