Andre Ellington Is Worth the Hype
Last season, I watched calmly from afar as the Andre Ellington hype train left the station.
And let me tell you, that train was packed.
But I refused to get overly excited about a rookie sixth-rounder getting limited touches in an Arizona Cardinals offense that was pretty mediocre last season. They were just 21st in the league in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP), so naturally I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to add the Cardinals’ second running back in Ellington.
Now? You might as well call me the conductor of the 2014 Ellington Hype Train.
An Underrated Rookie Year
So why exactly have I had such a huge change of heart on Ellington’s value? My opinion on him began to change as I dug into numberFire’s signature NEP metric. For those who don’t know, NEP is a measure of how many expected points a player is adding to his team’s total through his on-field performance (find more on NEP in our glossary).
Looking at Ellington’s 2013 season through Net Expected Points, and it paints a very good picture about his production. Below is a table showing how Ellington performed in various NEP categories and how he ranked among the 47 backs with 100-plus carries in 2013.
|Rushing NEP||Rank||Rushing NEP per Rush||Rank||Reception NEP||Rank||Per Target||Rank|
As you can probably tell, Ellington’s rank in each metric category is extremely strong. What’s even more impressive? Giovani Bernard was the only rookie back to finish higher than him in any category, barely edging out Ellington in Reception NEP.
It’s also important to consider that Ellington only had 117 rushing attempts last season, far fewer than most of the leading backs in the sample size. The fact that Ellington placed so well in these categories despite his relative lack of chances to build his cumulative NEP (rushing receiving) numbers is impressive, especially in terms of receiving. While having fewer touches obviously can help a player in terms of efficiency metrics, it’s hard to knock Ellington down too much for that fact.
When narrowing down the sample size to the 13 backs who had between 100 and 150 carries last year, it becomes even more obvious just how baller Ellington was in 2013.
|Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Reception NEP||Reception NEP per Target|
Donald Brown was the only back to top him in the rushing metrics, while Danny Woodhead had him beat in the receiving metrics. Still, while he wasn’t tops in any of the categories, Ellington was clearly a top-level performer in 2013 by the NEP metrics.
Where he performed to a slightly lower caliber was in terms of Success.
His Success Rate, or the percentage of plays that contributed positively towards his Rushing NEP, was 40.17%. That rate was ninth of the 13 backs in the sample, and key evidence showing that he was quite a big-play runner last year. He'll need to be consistent from down to down this year, but because he was so strong in every metric, he should still be able to sustain a high level of production despite being somewhat of a boom or bust runner.
The big question is just how many touches Ellington will receive this upcoming season. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had the fantasy world in a frenzy with his statement that he expects Ellington to see 25 to 30 touches per game this year. That would put him on a 400-plus touch pace, and, for reference, no back last season saw that many touches.
Our very own Leo Howell wrote about this, expressing his complete doubt that Ellington will have 400 or more touches in 2014.
I wholeheartedly agree with Leo's analysis that Ellington won’t average 25 touches per game in 2014, and frankly I don’t think he’ll be all that close.
Another thing I believe? It really doesn’t matter.
In a standard, non-PPR, fractional scoring league, Ellington tallied 126.3 points last season, good for a 24th-ranked running back finish. He accomplished this on just 157 touches - 118 carries plus 39 receptions - giving him an average of 10.47 touches per game (he played 15 games). So, on the season, he had an average of 0.81 points per touch.
It’s more worthwhile, however, to look at his production over the last eight games of the season when he was seeing an increased workload. Over his last eight contests, Ellington had 109 touches (13.6 per game) and scored 77.4 points in those games. That amounts to an average of 0.71 points per touch in games where he had meaningful volume.
The following table shows how the top five running backs in non-PPR leagues from 2013 performed in terms points per touch.
|Points Per Touch||0.94||0.76||0.73||0.71||0.79|
So while Ellington obviously wasn’t getting the same volume as these five backs, his points per touch over his final eight games puts him right in the ballpark of these studs. Basically, Ellington was super efficient whether you’re looking at NEP or fantasy points per touch, and that’s a good recipe for success.
Just how valuable can Ellington be in 2014? One thing that’s important to note is he has essentially no risk of losing his job out of camp, as Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor are far from the talent that Ellington is. Realistically, he should be getting all the meaningful touches out of the backfield for Arizona, with only physical factors limiting him.
That last part is what worries people about Ellington: he’s small. That is one of the main reasons Howell highlighted as to why he won’t be a 400-plus touch player in 2014. Earlier, however, I stated that this really doesn’t matter, and I’ll explain what I meant by that now.
Let’s just assume Ellington doesn’t get close to the 25 to 30 touch per game mark that Arians stated he’ll receive. Let’s say, hypothetically, that he averages 15 touches per game, a slight increase over the 13.6 he was receiving per game over the last half of the 2013 season. If he averages the same 0.71 points per touch while receiving 15 touches a game, he’ll average 10.65 points a week. Over the season, that translates to 170.4 points, or a running back finish of 15th if we’re going by last year's running back points.
I like to think of that as somewhat of a middle ground for an Ellington projection, as it assumes two important things. First, it assumes he doesn’t improve upon his efficiency in his second year. Second, it projects a very modest increase in touches, a far cry from the volume Arians is claiming he will receive. While I don’t think he’ll score much better on a per touch basis than he did as a rookie, I do believe he’ll end up closer to 18 to 20 touches per game. The jump in points that comes with him seeing 18 touches a game is drastic, as using the same 0.71 points per touch, we’re now looking at Ellington as a 204.48-point player. That would make him a top-10 running back.
This isn’t a perfect way to evaluate Ellington’s 2014 value, as there are a range of outcomes that could occur with both his touches and points per touch, but it does help show that he doesn’t need gaudy touch figures to be a great fantasy asset. While his size will likely prevent him from being a true workhorse, he can still finish as an RB1 without the massive workload.
Our algorithms are hopping aboard the Ellington Express this year (side note: that’s an awesome team name).
For a standard scoring, non-PPR, 12-team league, he’s ranked as the 25th overall player, and the 16th-ranked running back according to our metrics. The 12th-ranked runner in our rankings is within 10 points of Ellington, so our numbers put him very close to RB1 status.
While I’ve spent most of this article trying to explain why Ellington isn’t as risky as many people think he is, I’m sure there are still some who are unsure whether they want to drop a third-round selection on him. To further try and dispel this notion, I’d like to guide you to Ellington’s Confidence Interval, which is essentially a floor-to-ceiling range of projections our numbers give for each player.
His Confidence Interval is 150.12 to 211.82. It’s certainly on the larger side of the gaps you’ll see among running backs, but it’s far from crazy. His upside is particularly tantalizing, as only 12 backs have a higher projected “upside” per the Confidence Interval results. Further, his floor isn’t all that low, as his downside is still the 17th-highest among backs.
In a hypothetical scenario where every back meets their upside, but Ellington only manages to achieve his floor, he would still be the 29th-ranked runner. What that means is, in an unlikely, worst-case scenario where every back has tremendous success while Ellington only barely taps into his potential, he’s still an extremely relevant fantasy back.
Draft him with confidence this year.