Fantasy Football: Has Gus Edwards' Rising ADP Gone Too Far?
The Baltimore Ravens' offense is one that is always going to a feel a bit uncomfortable to evaluate from a fantasy football perspective.
In a game transitioning toward more passing and higher pace, the Ravens have stuck to their run-heavy philosophy. Baltimore ran 34 more times than the Tennessee Titans to lead the NFL in rush attempts last year, and they threw 44 fewer times than the New England Patriots to finish with the fewest passing attempts in the league.
Normally, that would potentially be a fantasy bonanza for the Ravens' running back, but the most single-game adjusted opportunities (carries plus 2x targets) for any back on the team last year was just 19, which belonged to J.K. Dobbins against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first matchup.
Dobbins is now expected to miss the entire season due to an ACL injury, and as a result, Gus Edwards has leapt up the board in fantasy drafts -- going as pick 53 (RB22) in NFC drafts over the last two days. Is Edwards' ADP spike justified, or will the absence of Dobbins lead to a muddied backfield and inefficient rushing attack?
Can Edwards Ever Become a "Bellcow"?
While Edwards' efficiency on the ground -- 0.19 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry in 2020 -- is an important component for Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense, Edwards probably won't be a true workhorse running back. The source on that? The Ravens themselves.
It does not take much digging to realize that Edwards is not trusted as a pass catcher. Edwards saw only 13 targets last year across 16 games, hauling in 9 for 129 yards. In the two years prior (his only other years in the league), Edwards had nine combined grabs.
The concerning prognosis for him as a three-down back extends beyond the start of his NFL career. In his senior year at Rutgers, Edwards saw 164 carries but caught just 13 passes, with his most catches in one game being 3. For context, Rutgers was only 107th in FBS in pass attempts, but the evidence of Edwards' pass-game limitations still showed through.
The real truth serum for me is Baltimore's Week 12 game last year in Pittsburgh, which played on a Wednesday due to COVID-19 protocols. Edwards and Justice Hill were the only two active running backs for the Ravens, and Edwards still saw just a 51% snap share. That may be sneak peek at Edwards' role this year, as Hill and Ty'Son Williams figure to be involved.
Are Hill and Williams Legit Competition to Edwards?
While perhaps unknown at the NFL level to this point, Hill and Williams have incredibly interesting archetypes to potentially unseat Edwards on a majority of third downs.
The Ravens invested a fourth-round pick in Hill in 2019, so they likely expected a significant amount of work out of him. Hill's 2017 college season with Oklahoma State was likely the reason, as he averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 268 carries and caught 31 passes as their true top back. The year prior -- in 2016 -- Hill out-carried Chris Carson 206 to 82.
With 4.40 speed at the combine plus the existence of a rock-solid role in college, Hill definitely can handle substantial work. However, at just around 200 pounds, there are some durability concerns, and there has been some training-camp chatter that Williams was possibly ahead of Hill on the depth chart.
Williams missed his all but four games of his senior year with the BYU due to an ACL injury, but he averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a solid runner for BYU, South Carolina, and North Carolina in his collegiate career. The issue is that Baltimore does not need an efficient first- and second-down back with Edwards in the fold. What they need is a pass-catching, and Williams caught a mere 29 passes over four years of college. With his large frame, Williams does not profile as someone who will grow more comfortable in that role, and his draft profile agrees.
Therefore, the most likely set up might be that Williams spells Edwards on early downs, and Hill handles much of the passing-down work. However, all three have an argument for some sort of role in the offense, and Baltimore is reportedly at least kicking the tires on external options, including Todd Gurley and David Johnson -- even though nothing has materialized yet.
A Bolstered Offensive Lines Helps The Cause
This offense is nearly exclusively about Jackson -- passing and rushing -- and his backs, and the offensive line is a key cog in that. Some may be bearish on the Ravens' offensive line for 2021 compared to last year's due to the blockbuster trade that sent Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs. However, the 16th-best unit in the league last year -- according to PFF -- is ranked 12th heading into 2021, and there are several reasons why.
First, Ronnie Stanley is returning to the team after his knee injury. In 2019, Jackson was sacked just 23 times in the 14 games Stanley played. The Ravens also replaced Marshal Yanda with Kevin Zeitler, who -- even coming off a down year -- has posted at least a 73.0 PFF rating every season of his career. Last year, Baltimore had nine games in which their right guard recorded a PFF rating below 60.0.
Also, snatching Alejandro Villanueva from the rival Steelers will help fill the expected void of Brown at right tackle. Adding one of college football's best road graders into the fold -- Georgia's Ben Cleveland in the 2021 NFL Draft -- won't hurt, either, as Cleveland is the projected favorite to win a starting job.
With all this factored in, Baltimore's run-blocking unit should be very solid, and that only further enhances the pain of a potential backfield committee, but it also heightens the reward if Edwards can separate from his competitors.
Gus Edwards' 2021 Fantasy Football Projection
As I started in on researching for this piece, I expected to come to the conclusion that Edwards' limitations in the passing game would make him difficult to stomach at our half-PPR ranking of RB22.
While I do expect Edwards to be mostly limited to early-down touches, the market is pretty spot on. Remember: Edwards is the RB22 in NFC drafts over the last two days.
Being in the same range as Josh Jacobs in both ADP and our rankings seems appropriate given that the two have similar concerns entering 2021, although the Ravens figure to see (a lot) more positive game scripts. With that said, James Robinson and Mike Davis -- both of whom have more obvious paths to massive snap shares -- are also in this tier of running backs and are more appealing picks in my eyes.
In all, we project Edwards for 270 carries, 1,265 rushing yards and 12.2 rushing touchdowns -- with 11 catches, 15 yards and 0.68 scores as a receiver.
Edwards likely does not have a path to an elite snap share, which caps his upside. He just isn't involved enough as a pass-game weapon, and Baltimore has given no indication that they plan on letting him have more opportunities as a pass-catcher. However, Edwards still makes for a solid selection at his new ADP as he could see enough goal-line and early-down work in an extremely run-heavy attack to turn in a quality RB2 campaign.