Is Donald Brown a Must Start in Fantasy Football?

With the Chargers' backfield all to himself, is Donald Brown a fantasy RB1?

Heading into this season, the San Diego Chargers made it a clear priority to stack the running back position, adding Donald Brown to the existing incumbent duo of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.

At the time, many thought it was too crowded, and for fantasy football purposes, it would be nothing but a weekly headache for owners attempting to make sense of it all.

While injuries are mostly random, when then do happen, they seem to pile up. Woodhead has been lost for the season due to a broken leg, and the historically fragile Mathews is on the shelf for another 3-4 weeks with a sprained MCL.

This leaves Donald Brown as the Chargers’ best option to assume starter snaps at the position.

With the backfield basically to himself for the next month or so, can we expect Brown to become an every-week RB1 for fantasy purposes? Or should we temper our expectations for a guy who has never eclipsed 140 carries in a single season in his five-year career?

Last Year's Efficiency

As numberFire’s own Matt Goodwin pointed out this past offseason, Donald Brown was extremely efficient last season as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.

According to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric on a per rush basis, Brown finished second in the league among running backs with at least 75 carries. As Matt points out, Brown has been relatively efficient over the past three seasons as well, albeit never in a full-time starting role.

Now thrust into a more prominent role due to injury, can Brown avoid massive regression in terms of efficiency given the sharp uptick in volume he is bound to receive?

Brown In 2014

Before last week’s game against Buffalo in which Brown had 31 carries for 62 yards, he only amassed 8 carries combined.

So far this season, Brown ranks 30th in Rushing NEP among 31 running backs with at least 30 carries. And while this is obviously too small a sample size to make a definitive judgment on way or the other, it’s a striking departure from Brown’s previous levels of efficiency.

Brown has been equally poor in the receiving game as well; he ranks 30th in Reception NEP among the same group of 31 running backs.

A closer look at the defensive units that have opposed the Chargers so far may shed light on why Brown has been so inefficient on the ground.

The three defenses that Brown has faced so far this season - Arizona, Seattle, and Buffalo – rank 4th, 5th, and 7th respectively in terms of Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, a measure of how stingy a team is against the run, adjusted for strength of schedule. Using this data, you can see why Brown has had difficulty succeeding in the run game.

The Chargers’ next three opponents - Jacksonville, the N.Y. Jets, and Oakland - rank 23rd, 8th, and 18th in the same metric, providing a little bit of hope that Brown will take advantage of more favorable matchups in the near future.

Brown's Fantasy Value

Anytime you can roster a starting running back on any NFL team, it’s a good thing. It’s even better when said running back plays on a team that has shown a strong commitment to the running game no matter what the game script dictates.

Brown fits into both categories.

San Diego is the fourth most run-heavy team in the league, calling run plays on 49.5% of their offensive snaps. Even with the recent rash of injuries, it’s hard to imagine head coach Mike McCoy drastically altering his philosophy for the remainder of the season.

Assuming Ryan Mathews returns close to 100% healthy at some point this season, Brown will almost certainly cede some carries as the Chargers look to fulfill their original plan of a multi-pronged rushing attack. But with Woodhead placed on injured reserve, there is almost no scenario, barring injury to Brown himself, where he would find himself totally phased out of the running game.

To address the loss of Woodhead in the passing game, the Chargers signed Shaun Draughn, who has 30 career receptions, to add to rookie Branden Oliver, who recorded 75 career receptions in his four seasons at Buffalo University. While Brown may not inherent all the targets up for grabs, he is in line to receive a large majority of the carries.

Until Mathews returns, start Brown with confidence as a low-end RB1/high-end RB2 based on volume alone. If he turns a corner and shows positive regression towards his career-long mean in terms of efficiency, he could easily enter the “every-week starter” category while Mathews continues to recover from injury.

For those of you who picked up Brown off your leagues’ waiver wire, pat yourself on the back and ride the wave of volume headed your way.