Is Zac Stacy a Safe Third-Round Fantasy Football Selection?

Zac Stacy has a good chance to have a healthy amount of carries in 2014, but can we really expect him to improve on his 2013 season?

Fantasy football is a decision-making game as much as it's anything else. Whether you watch game tape, scour through analytics, read expert opinions, or play with your instincts, everything funnels down into an ultimate decision on how you feel about a particular player or strategy.

No matter how much time you spend on your research, there are going to be players about whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. For me, one of those guys is Zac Stacy.

I've read plenty on him (including a Stacy versus Doug Martin debate), and I know the usual arguments both for and against Stacy. But I still don't know if he's worth his current ADP (3.04 per Right now, our fantasy football cheat sheet has him as the 14th running back and 21st overall, which would make his third-round draft price a bit of a bargain, but a sizable rookie workload isn't enough to convince me he can make a significant jump in production.

In terms of Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), Stacy ranked just 13th out of 22 running backs with at least 200 rushes last year, posting a Rushing NEP of -10.41. Don't let the negative scare you - 12 of the 22 had negative marks because running the ball is often futile (especially in the NFC West last year).

But overall, Stacy is a back who held up while undertaking a starting role as a rookie, finishing with 250 carries, 973 yards, and 7 touchdowns. That's pretty rare company for rookie backs, so I decided to take a look at rookies who have had a similar baseline in the past decade to see how they stacked up and to figure out if I can help convince myself how I feel about Stacy.

Rookie Work Horses

It's easy to get excited about immediate contributors, but avoiding getting caught up in the moment can be crucial in this decision-based game. For this reason, I posit that looking back can be helpful in looking forward.

I gathered the NEP data for rookie running backs since 2003 who had at least 250 carries, 900 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Additionally, I gathered the offensive line rankings from to see what these backs were running behind. Here's what I found.

PlayerSeasonRushing NEPPer RushSuccessAdj. Line YdsRank
Steve Slaton200812.420.0542.16%4.1910
Alfred Morris201210.850.0346.13%4.248
Doug Martin201210.180.0340.31%4.0913
Eddie Lacy20132.320.0142.46%4.115
Chris Johnson2008-0.140.0039.44%4.0720
Willis McGahee2004-5.67-0.0242.91%3.9324
Cadillac Williams2005-9.58-0.0340.69%3.8521
Zac Stacy2013-10.41-0.0438.00%3.9512
Marshawn Lynch2007-14.29-0.0538.93%3.9524
Trent Richardson2012-17.80-0.0740.45%4.0320
Matt Forte2008-18.28-0.0636.83%3.9624

Out of this group, Stacy's ranks are not very impressive, but all of the backs were top-19 fantasy rushers in their rookie years. He had the eighth-best Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per rush, and the 10th-best Success Rate. His offensive line did have just the eighth-best Adjusted Line Yards of the bunch, but their score was 12th in 2013, meaning Stacy's rookie line was better than all but three lines these rookies ran behind.

Basically, Stacy ranked poorly despite having an above-average offensive line. This tells us a bit about Stacy's situation: mainly that a good deal of his rushing attempts were thwarted and provided no benefit to the Rams' pursuit of points.

If the you of 2013 could see the future, and you read that previous sentence, there's really no way you would have expected him to be the 18th-best fantasy running back. But that's where he ended up at the end of 2013 because raw production is all that matters in fantasy football.

Production: Year Two

Of course, we're not just interested in Stacy's comparisons during rookie seasons. What really matters is trying to look ahead and see what similar types of players were able to do in the following season. Big jumps would be good news for Stacy, but that's not really the case.

PlayerRushesRushing NEPPer RushSuccessAdj. Line YdsRank
Chris Johnson35832.440.0940.22%4.0122
Marshawn Lynch251-3.47-0.0139.44%4.1214
Alfred Morris276-4.15-0.0244.93%3.7523
Doug Martin128-12.64-0.1039.06%3.6327
Willis McGahee325-15.53-0.0542.46%4.0314
Steve Slaton131-26.80-0.2033.59%4.1316
Trent Richardson188-27.14-0.1436.70%3.8915
Cadillac Williams225-29.74-0.1336.00%3.7730
Matt Forte259-31.42-0.1233.98%4.0818

I added a column for rushes because not all of the players were able to hit the 250-carry mark in their second season, and some experienced severe drops in volume. Whereas 4 of the 11 rookies were able to post positive Rushing NEPs, just 1 of 9 sophomores were able to do so (bear in mind that Stacy and Eddie Lacy don't yet have follow-up years).

Whereas all of the rushers were top-19 as rookies, four of them finished 35th or worse as sophomores. The other five continued to be top-19, and Chris Johnson was the top fantasy rusher as a sophomore.

Also, just two of the nine players with a second year were able to improve their Rushing NEP (Johnson and Marshawn Lynch). And, for what it's worth, offensive line play was less important in sophomore years than in rookie ones, so keying in on the Rams' upgrades on the line won't really evoke any sort of correlation.

Tough Sledding?

One of Stacy's biggest issues is the competition in his own division, making up six games of the season. I can't help but look deep into the NFC West and a tough 2013 schedule to help determine whether I can overlook the less-than-stellar metrics from Stacy's rookie year and rely on Stacy as a third-round investment.

After all, the Cardinals, 49ers, and Seahawks all finished inside the top 10 in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per rush last year, which is just what it sounds like. They didn't give up much on the ground. To make matters worse, Stacy also played the Panthers and the Buccaneers, two more top-12 teams in the metric. So 8 of his 16 games came against top-12 rushing defenses, and just 4 came against bottom-12 defenses. That's a tough slate for any rusher.

Predicting that defenses will translate from year to year isn't really a great idea, so we can't assume that the NFC West will be as stifling in 2014 as it was in 2013.

Also consider that Red Bryant and Chris Clemons have left Seattle's defensive front to join the Jaguars, Brandon Browner is a Patriot, and Walter Thurmond went to the Giants. Additionally, the Cardinals lost Karlos Dansby.

In San Francisco, things are looking a bit depleted as well. Donte Whitner is gone, Navorro Bowman will likely be out until Week 9, and Aldon Smith will meet with Roger Goodell on August 8th to determine how long of a suspension he'll receive for a litany of off-field incidents.

With Week 6 and Week 9 match-ups against the 49ers, Stacy could face them without Bowman and Smith in the first game and, perhaps, face both in Bowman's first game back. Two of those vaunted intra-divisional match-ups could be pretty manageable for Stacy and the team's revitalized offensive line.

Buy Him or Sell Him?

Like I mentioned before, we have Stacy ranked as the 14th running back for standard leagues this year, and we're projecting an uptick for him across the board (289.82 rushes, 1139.95 yards, and 8.95 touchdowns). His NEP and historical peers aren't entirely promising - it's about a 50/50 split in terms of repeat seasons as a startable fantasy back and a worse-than-flex season.

There's some chatter about Tre Mason, but head coach Jeff Fisher thinks of Mason as a change-of-pace type of player for now.

Provided that he stays healthy (unlike Doug Martin, Steve Slaton, and Cadillac Williams) or doesn't become Trent Richardson overnight, Stacy should be a lock to live up to his draft-day price and finish as a top-20 fantasy rusher. His metrics don't indicate he's going to become elite like Johnson back when he was CJ2K in 2009, but there is plenty of proof in the numbers that he'll end up a solid RB2 in fantasy this year.

Knowing how hard it is to find late-round rushers and how important running backs are in fantasy football, I think I just sold my risk-averse self on Stacy.