Ito Smith Is a Great Late-Round Lottery Ticket in Fantasy Football
If you look at raw counting stats, you would probably have a pretty low opinion of Ito Smith.
The fourth-round pick had a golden opportunity in 2018 -- the Atlanta Falcons' workhorse back, Devonta Freeman, barely played -- and yet Smith finished his rookie season with 90 carries for just 315 yards (3.5 yards per carry) and 4 touchdowns, tacking on 27 receptions for another 152 yards while mostly filling a backup role to Tevin Coleman. By comparison, Coleman racked up 800 yards and 4 touchdowns on 167 carries, good for 4.8 yards per carry.
If you were to look at these numbers and nothing else, it would be fair to say that Coleman thoroughly out-classed Smith. But that's not the whole story.
Let's take a look at Smith's rookie season and see what it means for his fantasy football value moving forward.
Despite the apparent disparity between Smith's numbers and Coleman's efficiency, the Falcons kept giving Smith a fairly steady diet of touches. It was a somewhat baffling if you judged it via the game logs, but numberFire's Rushing Success Rate metric can help illuminate why the Falcons kept Smith on the field.
Rushing Success Rate looks at a running back's rush attempts and determines whether or not that back added expected points to his team's total. In 2018, running backs across the league averaged a 41.2% Rushing Success Rate. Smith led all Falcons running backs with an above-average 43.33% Rushing Success Rate. Coleman checked in at a below-average 38.32% rate.
Coleman out-produced Smith in the box score -- and thus for fantasy football -- but Smith helped sustain drives and added value to the Falcons' expected points total more consistently than Coleman did.
Truthfully, neither back was particularly exciting for fantasy in the 2018 season. Circumstances in Atlanta were somewhat to blame for this as their defense was completely decimated by injuries very shortly into the season. The team allowed the fifth-most yards to opposing offenses as well surrendering the eighth-most points. The team played from behind on 50.5% of their plays in 2018, while playing with a lead just 30.7% of the time. This contributed to the Falcons becoming one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league, calling pass plays at the third-highest rate (65% of offensive plays), per SharpFootballStats.com.
As a result, the Falcons ran the third-fewest rushing plays (351), which marked the first time since 2014 that the team totaled fewer than 400 rushes. The volume just wasn't there for top-end fantasy success, especially with two backs splitting the workload.
Their offensive line situation made things even worse. The team lost left guard Andy Levitre early on, while their unit as a whole struggled enough that the front office opted to select two offensive lineman in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Per PlayerProfiler.com's run blocking efficiency metric, which measures how effective an offensive line was at blocking for each individual back on their team, the Falcons' line ranked 30th in the league when blocking for Coleman and 58th for Smith. And according to FootballOutsiders.com, the Falcons had the second-highest rate (25.3%) of stuffed runs in the league while blocking for the ninth-fewest adjusted line yards per rush.
All in all, this was a poor situation for running backs in 2018 after being a pretty fantasy-friendly backfield in years prior.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Falcons -- and particularly Smith -- heading into the 2019 season. Atlanta's offensive line should bounce back with the injection of new young talent. The defense will hopefully be much healthier -- or at least able to keep the team competitive in games. As a result of a healthier and better defense, rushing volume should return to a level more conducive to fantasy success. And Smith will likely assume a similar role to the one he held last year, operating as the team's change-of-pace back after Coleman departed in free agency.
That role has been productive for fantasy football in the past. Coleman shined alongside Freeman in 2016, scoring 11 total touchdowns, and still had splashy weeks in 2017 when the two played together. Coleman's volume in a number-two role was pretty steady over those two seasons. In 2016, he averaged 9.1 rushes and 2.4 catches per game, and he followed that up with per-game averages of 10.4 carries and 1.8 receptions in 2017.
Going off how Atlanta split up things in the past and assuming Freeman is healthy, Smith might see around 10 touches per game, including some work in the receiving game. That alone, at a minimum, puts Smith on the RB2 (top-24) radar, as Coleman rode that kind of volume to PPR finishes of RB17 in 2016 and RB22 in 2017. Of course, it's not a lock that Smith is used in exactly the same way Coleman was, but this team has proven in the past it likes to get its number-two running back on the field fairly often and that's something that's not being captured by Smith's current draft cost, which is outside the top-100 picks.
On top of that, Freeman's health isn't a given for this coming season, so Smith offers some pretty nice upside. Last year, Freeman injured his knee in Week 1. In his first game back from that knee injury, he hurt both his foot and his groin. He played in just two total games -- both partial games -- over the course of the season and logged just 14 carries.
These injuries came after Freeman played through PCL and MCL sprains toward the end of the 2017 season -- injuries that continued to bother him throughout the following offseason. His efficiency took a notable nosedive at the end of that season, as you'd expect. His yards per carry dropped from 4.63 through his first 12 games to 2.64 from then on. Freeman also has also suffered three documented concussions since the 2015 season as well as other injuries to his lower body. Now 27, it's not a guarantee that Freeman stays healthy or effective in 2019.
If Freeman misses time, Smith should be in line to assume lead-back duties. While he is small for a running back at 5'9", 200 pounds -- not too far off Freeman's 5'8", 206-pound frame -- Smith was a prolific workhorse at the college level, posting more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 200 touches in each of his final three seasons. He caught at least 40 passes in each of those seasons, as well.
The Falcons have shown a willingness to feature under-sized backs, and with little other identifiable talent on the depth chart behind him (Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner and rookie Qadree Ollison), Smith would benefit greatly if Freeman missed any time.
According to Draft.com's average draft position data for May, Smith is currently going off the board around the 120th pick in best-ball drafts. That's a pretty low cost for a running back who should see consistently decent weekly volume. Smith's workload might be enough to make him a solid standalone play, and he is one Freeman injury away from seeing heavy volume.
If you're in need of high-upside running back depth toward the end of your draft, Smith should be your guy.