Why Rashad Jennings Is the Best Early-Down Option for the New York Giants in 2015

Even with Shane Vereen joining the Giants and with second-year running back Andre Williams on the roster, Rashad Jennings has the best case for playing time in 2015.

When the New York Giants pried Shane Vereen away from the New England Patriots with a three-year, $12 million contract, the natural reaction was to wonder what this move meant for Rashad Jennings' future with the team.

With a less than stellar injury history and as a member of a now crowded backfield, many questioned whether Jennings could still have a significant role on this roster.

Is that really the best option for the Giants?

Bye, Bye, Bye Jennings?

As the better all-around back between Jennings and second-year running mate Andre Williams, a well-accepted belief is that Jennings' value to this offense hinges heavily on his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. But with the acquisition of pass-catching dynamo Shane Vereen, that value added by Jennings looks to be more and more dispensable.

This has led some to speculate that with his redundant role on early downs with the younger Williams in tow, the Giants might just cut Jennings outright after June 1st to save themselves $2.25 million in cap space for next season.

A tight race for early-down duties?
Thanks in part to an injury that cost Jennings about one-third of the season, Jennings and Williams had a near even share of the workload in the backfield in 2014, resulting in near even output on the ground.

R. Jennings1676393.8184
A. Williams2177213.3507

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Aside from Jennings garnering more yards per carry (3.8) than Williams (3.3), on face value alone it looks as though Jennings and Williams were just about dead-even in the rushing department. Indeed, the natural conclusion that comes from this analysis is that if Williams is capable of handling early-down work, and Vereen can handle third-down duties, what is left for Jennings to do in this offense?

It's Gonna Be Jennings

From the picture painted above, it seems as though Jennings' roster spot on the Giants is in real jeopardy.

But we all know that things aren't always as they appear on the surface. When we dig a little deeper and use our advanced metrics -- specifically Net Expected Points (NEP) and Success Rate -- to look at the context of Jennings' and Williams' production and their net contributions to the Giants' success on the field, it becomes clear that Jennings is hands down the best early down option on this team.

Jennings beats Williams in Rushing NEP
One of our signature metrics here at numberFire is our Net Expected Points, or NEP, statistic. In any given down-and-distance situation, there is an expectation of how many points a team is likely to score at that particular moment. Net Expected Points measures just how much a player's action (pass, rush, reception, or turnover) contributes or subtracts from those expectations.

To give you an example, if Rashad Jennings runs for five yards on a given play, that run holds much more value if it is on 3rd and 3 than if it is 3rd and 20. One results in a first down and keeps the drive alive. The other results in a punt. NEP takes this difference in value into account.

When we use this metric to see how Jennings and Williams stack up to the rest of the league, it's clear that Rashad easily outpaced Andre in this stat last season.

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Out of 43 running backs who received 100 or more rushes last season, Jennings' Rushing NEP of -0.51 last season ranked 13th. Contrast this with Williams, whose Rushing NEP in his rookie year was -17.73 and ranked him 38th on this same list (and for those wondering, Shane Vereen's Rushing NEP of -3.08 on 96 carries would have placed him in 18th place had he qualified).

To put into perspective just how bad these numbers are for Williams, consider that he is just four spots away from Darren McFadden, whose Rushing NEP of -22.48 places him second-to-last on this list. Yes, this is the same Darren McFadden that since 2012 has had the worst Rushing NEP amongst all qualifying backs.

From this analysis its clear that, while Jennings was providing production on the ground right at expectation with a Rushing NEP per play of 0.00, Williams (-0.08) was putting his team in the red on nearly every run.

Jennings beats Williams in Rushing Success Rate
At numberFire we label a successful play as one that nets a positive NEP and, hence, increases a team's chances of scoring. Success Rate is therefore the percentage of plays for any given player that produces a positive NEP.

When we look at Jennings' and Williams' Success Rates on the ground from last season against the rest of the league, we see that Jennings' 45.51% clusters him right at the top of the league, whereas Williams' 36.57% places him in the bottom quartile.

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Rashad managed to increase his team's chances of scoring almost one out of every two times he carried the ball. Andre was setting his team back on nearly two-thirds of all his runs.

Jennings' contributions in the run game were the difference between putting the Giants in a third-and-short situation versus a third-and-long, and ultimately took some pressure off quarterback Eli Manning from having to move the chains on his own. Indeed, in games where the Giants produced a positive Rushing NEP, Manning averaged a 3.20 Passing NEP, versus a -0.90 Passing NEP in games during which the run game produced a negative Rushing NEP.

In short, Jennings was far more likely to put his team in favorable down-and-distance situations, convert on key downs, and put his team into scoring position at the end of each of his runs than Williams was.

A Little More Time on Jennings

From this exercise it's evident that Jennings and Williams are not merely interchangeable parts in the backfield. When we look beyond the box score and look at their true contributions to the team, the difference between the two is night and day with Rashad providing far greater value than Andre.

While Williams is still a young back with promising potential to develop into the Giants early down back of the future, it's clear that, at least in the short-term, Jennings gives the Giants the best chance to succeed in the running game.