Fantasy Football Debate: Zac Stacy or Doug Martin?

Leo Howell and Joe Redemann debate which young back is the better fantasy option this season.

If you have the first pick in a fantasy draft this season, and your turn at the end of the second round comes up after spending a few minutes laughing at your league mates about getting Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy ahead of them, what will your next move be?

If you're thinking about taking another running back, you'll almost certainly have to decide between Doug Martin and Zac Stacy, two young runners who are short in stature but covered in potential.

So which player should you take? Leo Howell and Joe Redemann offer you their thoughts on the two young NFC tailbacks and their fantasy football prospects.

Assessing Opportunity

Doug Martin (By Leo Howell)

There have been rumblings about Doug Martin taking a back seat in the Tampa Bay offense after the team drafted Charles Sims and have openly discussed using multiple backs. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Bucs' young running back.

Last season, Martin was getting too many carries, and it was eventually going to break him down physically and limit his fantasy relevance. Luckily, Greg Schiano, Mike Sullivan and the backwards 2012-2013 offense are gone from One Buc Place, replaced with Lovie Smith and Jeff Tedford.

The new duo in charge of the Tampa Bay offense will lean toward having a balanced offense that effectively uses the skills Martin, Sims, Mike James and Bobby Rainey have at their disposal. Where does Martin stand out among those backs?

He has the most big-play potential, and he is by far the toughest to tackle due to his combination of balance, size and speed. That means he profiles as the best every-down back, as Sims doesn't have great vision, James isn't very fast, and Rainey struggles to get yards on his own.

So Martin may see some looks in the passing game disappear, but his role as the team's best rushing option secures him valuable opportunities for fantasy owners.

Zac Stacy (By Joe Redemann)

One would think that if a fifth-round running back turned in a highly successful, bell-cow rookie year, there would be no questions about who was leading a team’s backfield the following season. And yet, despite a showing of nearly 1,000 yards on only 250 carries, Zac Stacy's job security is in question in 2014.

The competition certainly isn’t internal. In 2013, Stacy’s most prolific backfield colleague was Daryl Richardson, who achieved a -11.15 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) total on only 69 carries last year. Among running backs with 50 to 100 carries, that was worst in the league. Richardson was benched, and subsequently cut in the offseason.

Stacy led the entire Rams backfield in Rushing NEP per attempt, Reception NEP, Target NEP, and was a very near second place in Rushing Success Rate (excluding Isaiah Pead, holder of only seven 2013 rushes).

The only potential competition Stacy faces in 2014 is from Round 3 draft selection, Tre Mason, out of Auburn. However, despite Mason’s relatively high draft position, his skill set doesn't offer much more than Stacy’s. Both are big-bodied backs with solid rushing ability, and neither of them are great receivers (among Mason’s 535 college career touches over three years, only 19 of them were receptions).

With only lackluster change-of-pace backs incumbent, and a rookie that profiles more as a backup to Stacy than a complete player and threat, Stacy’s opportunity shouldn’t be at all in question for 2014.

Predicting Production

Zac Stacy (By Joe Redemann)

Let’s get it out of the way immediately by saying that Doug Martin is clearly a better pass-catcher than Stacy, having a rookie season 0.37 Reception NEP per target to Stacy’s 0.16. Due to this skill, it can easily be argued that Martin’s ceiling is reasonable higher than Stacy’s. Yet, I'm certain that Zac Stacy is the far more reliable and certain contributor – while losing not much production potential – of the two of them. Consistency is one area where Stacy will far outshine Doug Martin in 2014.

Imagine, if you will, a situation in which one talented running back competed with two other terrible backs and one unproven player who profiles to a lesser version of the first back.

Now compare that to a situation where there is not only one talented runner, but one who compares favorably to Matt Forte, and two who performed better in the same offense as this backfield’s primary back.

This is the reality of the difference between Stacy and Martin in terms of team situation. Without the kind of unchallenged volume that Stacy will see, Martin’s floor becomes much lower, meaning he will have to rely on pass-catching upside for value. Unfortunately for him, the Bucs drafted Charles Sims in 2014’s third round, who is a Forte-esque player that is already projected to sap significant passing-down work from Martin.

Despite Stacy being a slightly less efficient runner (-0.04 rookie Rushing NEP per attempt for him, 0.03 for Martin), the two players had very similar Rushing Success Rates, with Martin only 2.31% higher than Stacy. This means they were making positive contributions at nearly the same rate for their teams in their rookie seasons. The only difference was that Martin added more value per rush, likely partially due to his team’s 19th-ranked offensive line in 2012 per Pro Football Focus.

PFF, however, ranks the St. Louis Rams’ 2013 offensive run blocking 17th in the NFL, and the Rams have added the top offensive lineman in the 2014 NFL Draft in Greg Robinson. The road-grading nature of the Rams should only increase in 2014, thus adding to Stacy’s Rushing NEP per attempt. This will give Stacy a great value floor to work from as he grinds out a lot of sturdy yards in a Jeff Fisher run-first offense.

One more note: comparing their rookie years, Doug Martin had five out of 16 games with more than 100 rushing yards. Zac Stacy’s number? Four in only 14 games as the starter. However, Martin also had four games with fewer than 60 rushing yards; Stacy had only two. Consistency is Stacy’s middle name.

Doug Martin (By Leo Howell)

Unlike Stacy, Martin's rookie season was both a fantasy success and a Net Expected Points success.

In fact, his rookie season was superior to Stacy's in every way according to our data, and ranks 12th among all backs (veteran and rookie alike) with 200 or more carries over the past two seasons.

Last season, Martin's numbers took a step back, but that had more to do with the horrible offense around him and the strong defenses he faced. Our Brandon Gdula pointed out in a recent article that Martin faced three top-six defenses before getting injured, and still had a higher Success Rate (percentage of plays producing positive NEP) than Stacy did last year.

Martin was put in a very difficult situation as the star of an offense featuring an all-time awful quarterback in Josh Freeman and a rookie deer-in-headlights under center in Mike Glennon. This season, with infinite times more stability on offense, he figures to return to his productive, efficient ways as a rookie, with a more manageable workload.

Determining Value

Doug Martin (By Leo Howell)

Currently, Martin is being selected at the end of the second round of fantasy drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. This is terrific value, considering that Martin is being selected behind Gio Bernard and Le'Veon Bell, both of whom are only as efficient as Martin was last season (in a down year on a bad offense), and don't hold a candle to his 2012 production.

And while Bell (and Stacy) might be more of a "workhorse" for their teams, volume is the enemy of efficiency. Martin's reduced role truly should produce a better end product, as the Boise State product will be fresher later into games, and will catch defenses off guard more often.

Martin is better on a per-carry basis for his career than Stacy, and has way more big-play potential than the Rams' runner. Opportunity isn't the only thing to consider in fantasy football, and in this case, I'm going with the better player who will be in a more favorable role in a better system this season, and that's Doug Martin.

Zac Stacy (By Joe Redemann)

Zac Stacy is being selected as an early third-round fantasy pick, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. For a bell-cow back projected at around 300 touches this season, that’s an insane value. So what if his game isn’t elite efficiency like other players? Stacy and the Rams win by grinding down opposing defenses and will continue to do so in total volume.

Martin has shown that his slightly smaller stature cannot take the pounding of a 370 touch season, like 2012 was. Stacy, a built 5’9", 225-pound human bulldozer, has proven his reliability over 276 touches both as an NFL and fantasy back. He has less top-five running back potential than Doug Martin, but a far lower chance of falling out of the top 10 or 15.

Volume should not be a scary word. In today’s NFL, where "running back-by-committee" dooms backfields like Tampa Bay’s, a durable and reliable volume back like Zac Stacy is exactly the kind of comfort fantasy owners need to rest easy at night.