Why You Should Keep an Eye on Andre Williams and Devonta Freeman in Week 17

Andre Williams and Devonta Freeman both had solid games in Week 16. Will their Week 17's foreshadow fantasy football value in 2015?

I'm a huge Seinfeld fan. December 23rd was the parody holiday "Festivus," which was created on an episode of the hit show. The timing of the holiday this year is very apropos for fantasy football owners, as one of the biggest parts of Festivus is "the airing of grievances." Those grievances are fresh for some after dropping their fantasy football championships, some probably in horrific fashion.

So what do fantasy owners do now with a Week 17 slate of games? For everyone who is now trying to figure out what to do with this Week 17 of football coming up, note that while your fantasy season in most leagues is over, you can get a head start on winning in 2015. How you ask? Well, by carefully paying attention to see who makes the most of their opportunities filling in for either injured or ineffective players in Week 17, you can get a leg up on your league in 2015.

Week 17 is a perfect example of the premise that when you don't have to focus on your fantasy players, you can focus on one or two players who you think could break out in 2015. For instance, if you were tracking a young Arian Foster at the end of 2009, who was getting his first career start against the Patriots, his 20 carries for 119 yard and two touchdown performance was a precursor to a huge 2010 season that won many owners their fantasy leagues.

Two prime examples of players in similar situations to Foster's this week are rookie running backs Andre Williams and Devonta Freeman. Both figure to see increased run in Week 17 because of injuries to the aging starters they are backing up, Rashad Jennings and Steven Jackson, respectively. Both also could also be starters for their teams in 2015 (more on that later).

But how good have they been to this point? And what can you really expect from them in Week 17 and beyond?

Williams and Freeman: Not Exactly Jeremy Hill

At numberFire, we quantify a player's ability above or below expectation in our in-house metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). Since running the football is generally inefficient, Rushing NEP is usually lower on a relative scale when compared to a receiver or tight end. Nothing about what Williams and Freeman has done thus far this season screams "must-own" at the present (with comparison to their team's starters for future purposes as well) among the 151 running backs who've recorded a carry this season.

PlayerRushesRush NEPRush NEP/Carry
Jennings1572.27 (27th)0.01 (47th)
Williams201-17.09 (146th)-0.09 (92nd)

Player# RushesRush NEPRush NEP/Carry
S. Jackson190-4.25 (101st)-0.02 (56th)
Freeman59-16.77 (145th)-0.28(129th)

The tables above show at present, why the rookie running backs have been backups this season behind their veteran counterparts from a rushing perspective. However, in Week 16, both Williams and Freeman capitalized on their playing time. Williams used his 5'11", 230-pound frame to run roughshod over a solid Rams defense to the tune of 26 carries for 110 yards, including a 45-yard plow through the defense.

While filling in for Jackson who left the game with an injured quad, Freeman displayed his versatility with 5 carries for 36 yards, including great vision, cut-back ability, and elusiveness on this 31-yard touchdown run. Freeman also contributed in the passing game by adding 3 receptions for 48 yards.

What's Held These Guys Back?

Even though Williams has two 100-yard games in his last three while filling in for Jennings, two things are holding him back: pass catching and pass protection. To an old-school coach like Tom Coughlin, these two things are a must, and quite frankly, Williams has been mediocre in that regard. He never was much of a pass-catching back at Boston College, having hauled in 10 passes over four years there -- including zero his senior year. It doesn't help that he has poor hands -- basically picture him as trying to catch the ball with oven mitts.

When you look closer at our Reception NEP totals for the year, however, Williams' 5.80 Reception NEP on 34 targets is actually better than Jennings' 3.12 Reception NEP on 36 targets. This is primarily because, way back in Week 2, Jennings fumbled after a reception near the Arizona 15-yard-line. The Giants were down eight points with roughly nine minutes left in the game, making this a huge blow to his Reception NEP, and his injuries kept him from the volume necessary to overcome it.

Still, Jennings was a disappointment overall, and of the 65 backs with at least 20 targets, Williams and Jennings ranked 51st and 58th, respectively. This is surprising given how much everyone hyped Jennings as a three-down back in the preseason, so that may be something to build on for next season for Williams.

Pass protection is a bigger challenge for Williams -- especially with the emergence of the dynamic Odell Beckham Jr. as one of the biggest play-making receivers in the league. As such, it is vital for Eli Manning to have the requisite time to read his progressions and find his receivers. In this regard, Williams probably cost himself a touchdown by blowing a blitz pickup. Unfortunately for Williams, pass protection is one area where Jennings excels and a big reason the Giants signed him in the offseason.

For Freeman, pass protection is an area veteran coach Mike Smith has cited as problematic as well. Also, in limited opportunity, Freeman hasn't really been productive in the run game (as noted above), but has been in the passing game with 28 receptions on the year. His Reception NEP, a cumulative statistic, is 13.38, which ranks him 28th among running backs who have caught a pass. Smith is noted to have loyalty to veteran players, but with Jackson's nursing a quad injury (leg injuries have been the norm for Jackson's tenure in Atlanta), Freeman has a huge opportunity in a winner-take-all NFC South showdown with the Carolina Panthers.

Week 17 Projections

Our Week 17 Projections actually have Jennings higher than Williams versus the Eagles (check back if you are playing some type of fantasy game in Week 17 on Jennings injury status for updated projections), in what would seem to be an almost even timeshare. As for Freeman, he is projected 43rd on the week in an expected timeshare with Jacquizz Rodgers, who comes in at 34th.

Why 2015 May Be Way Better for Williams and Freeman

While both the Giants and Falcons have coaches in Coughlin and Smith who like playing veterans and while both may have been on the hot seat at some point this season, both figure to be back in 2015. For Coughlin, winning four straight to end the season would put the Giants at 7-9, and Coughlin has been one of the best coaches in the game for awhile and has two Super Bowl victories. The rise of Beckham would figure only to give the ownership and fan base optimism heading into 2015.

With a win, the Falcons will make the playoffs at 7-9. While Smith's seat was definitely warm, he figures to remain in Atlanta as well based on the team's playing better down the stretch.

However, what Williams and Freeman have done on the field in stretches should give the team confidence in the assets they have going forward, particularly going into 2015. What gives me optimism about Williams and Freeman is the fact that both Jennings and Jackson have contracts that are easy to get rid of in the offseason.

Looking at the dynamics of contracts can give you a significant edge in dynasty leagues and help you scout players in redraft leagues as well as other fantasy games. This is something I encourage you to study up on in the offseason. According to, Jennings' 4-year, $10 million contract signed last offseason only had his 2014 salary and a $2.25 million signing bonus guaranteed. That means that if the Giants decided to cut bait on their injury prone, soon-to-be 30 year old running back and anoint Williams as the starter, they would only have approximately $1.7 million (the unpaid portion of Jennings signing bonus which gets prorated over Jennings contract evenly) as "dead money" that would count against the Giants cap.

Similarly, Jackson's contract, which the Falcons are already two of three years into, has approximately $1.2 million guaranteed (the remaining amount of the proration of Jackson's signing bonus) as "dead money" that would count against the Falcons cap if they released Jackson, who will turn 32 around the time training camp starts. Every other Falcons' running back is a free agent in 2015, leaving Freeman (or a 2015 draft pick) as the heir apparent to Jackson.

Either way, whether Jennings, Jackson, or both are released in the offseason or not, Williams and Freeman's share of their teams backfield will almost undoubtedly will increase in 2015. For those reasons and without the distractions of having to track every game this week for fantasy purposes, I'm excited to focus some time on them this Sunday to see what their potential looks like. I encourage you to do the same because fantasy championships are won in 2015 starting now.