Is a Breakout Coming for Khiry Robinson in 2014?

The Saints backfield appears to be in transition. Is Khiry Robinson the one who benefits most?

Some NFL teams are simply full of fantasy goodness. When the perfect mixture of coaching, player talent, and sometimes faulty team defense collide, we as fantasy owners happily reap the rewards. We target the players in the best offensive systems for obvious reasons; chances are, they'll be put into the position to succeed on the field, and in turn, help us succeed in annihilating our friends’ fake football teams. I like to think of it as The Circle of Life - Simba and all that.

The New Orleans Saints, led by head coach Sean Payton, are one of those fantasy-friendly franchises. Aside from 2012 when he was banned for the season in the wake of the Bounty Gate scandal, Payton has lead the New Orleans Saints to the playoffs in five of his first seven seasons, averaging over 10 wins per season during that span.

It’s fair to say that by inheriting one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game in Drew Brees increased his chances for success dramatically. But as time has gone on, it seems that both Payton and Brees have mutually benefited from one another. And in turn, they've elevated the play of those around them.

Last season, the Saints finished fourth in the league in drop backs (689) and 26th in rush attempts (391). Only twice since 2007 have the Saints dropped back to pass fewer than 600 times in a season. It’s clear that Payton is infatuated with the passing game with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles benefiting the most up to this point.

Following three straight early playoff exits at the hands of physically superior teams – Seattle (twice) and San Francisco (once) - however, it would be no surprise if the Saints coaching staff re-evaluated their offense strategy in the off-season. They certainly aren't going to abandon the aerial attack, which features their most explosive playmakers, but expecting a somewhat more balanced offense in 2014 shouldn’t be out of the question.

With Sproles gone to Philadelphia, Khiry Robinson has been garnering a lot of buzz this off-season. A closer look into his situation sheds light on his possible breakout role in the Saints offense.

Robinson was an undrafted free agent who made the Saints roster last season and played well in limited opportunity, including 57 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks in the playoffs. He also ran well in Week 6 against New England, averaging over 7.5 yards per carry. Running with power and purpose in his limited opportunity last season, Robinson appeared to offer a new element to the Saints offense it had been missing.

While watching game film can be beneficial to the trained eye, it is only part of the picture. Looking at Robinson’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, however, tell a different story.

Below is a table showing how Robinson performed last season compared to other running backs with similar usage – in this case, 50-100 carries.

Rushing NEPRushing NEP per CarrySuccess Rate
-4.19 (8th)-0.08 (12th)37.04% (15th)

While Robinson ranked eigth in Rushing NEP out of 19 running backs, he was below average in Rush NEP per carry as well as Success Rate (the percentage of carries that positively affect a player’s NEP). On a per carry basis, Robinson was worse than Brandon Jacobs, Peyton Hillis, and his teammate Mark Ingram. For all of his hype as a potential breakout candidate this off-season, our metrics don’t necessarily support that narrative.

While the numberFire algorithms weren’t overly impressed with Robinson’s play last season, there is still something to be said about the obvious opportunity he has in 2014. I already mentioned Darren Sproles’ departure and the large amount of fantasy production that usually flows from the Saints offense. Going through the other running backs on the depth chart illustrates where Robinson could fit in.

Pierre Thomas' Role

For some reason, the general public always forgets about Pierre Thomas. He very quietly led the league in receptions by a running back (77) last season, which ranked second on the team behind only Jimmy Graham. According to MyFantasyLeague ADP data, he is currently the 35th back being taken in PPR drafts, which to me is still too low. Buy that now if you can.

With Sproles gone, Thomas figures to see the same amounts of targets, if not more this season. He has also been super efficient on the ground, finishing 3rd, 7th, and 22nd in Rushing NEP per carry over the last three seasons among all players with at least 100 carries.

A possible red flag with Thomas, however, is the downward trend associated with his NEP metrics over those past three campaigns.

YearCarriesRushing NEPRushing NEP per CarrySuccess Rate

This isn't to say that Thomas is guaranteed to fall off the cliff in 2014. But as a 29-year-old running back with a steady decline in efficiency over the past three seasons, it’s fair to raise the question. Add in the fact that Thomas has never eclipsed the 150-carry mark in a single season, and it seems like his role has been clearly defined - a pass-catching back who contributes efficiently, albeit somewhat marginally, to the run game.

Thomas isn’t the only Saints running back who has been trending downwards according to our metrics, either.

Mark Ingram's Ongoing Inefficiencies

Ingram has the dubious distinction of being one of the biggest NFL Draft busts (so far) of all-time. After winning the Heisman trophy as a sophomore in 2009, Ingram entered the league with a ton of promise. The Saints, who selected him with the 28th overall pick, figured him to be their future at running back. Now entering the last year of his original contract, without much consistent success to his name, Ingram finds himself needing an impressive showing to guarantee himself a spot on an NFL roster next season.

YearCarriesRush NEPRush NEP per CarrySuccess Rate

Not only has Ingram’s play declined in each of the last three seasons, but his efficiency has been markedly worse than Thomas’s during that span. In fact, Ingram has finished 28th, 30th, and 44th in Rushing NEP per carry among the same 75-plus carry grouping. Despite what appeared to be resurgence near the end of the 2013 season, according to our metrics, Ingram is slowly sliding away from relevancy and possibly off of the Saints roster after this season.

All of these factors combined open the door for Robinson, who has been drawing praise from the Saints coaching staff during off-season workouts.

So even though his 2013 season was not overly impressive from a metrics standpoint, if Mark Ingram fails to impress early, and if Pierre Thomas isn’t saddled with a career-high workload, Robinson should have no trouble becoming a large contributor as the between-the tackles banger in the Saints rushing attack in 2014. Add in the fact you can get him in the 12th round of most drafts - behind the San Francisco defense - he’s worth the flier playing in the Saints offense. Remember – The Circle of Life.