15 Things to Know About the Post-NFL Draft Fantasy Football Running Back Landscape
When it comes to the NFL Draft, I hate the phrase "best player available."
I get what it means -- rather than going strictly for a need, teams select top players based on their evaluations leading up to the draft.
I'd argue that it's tough to draft without thinking about need, though, but boring you all with psychology isn't really the purpose of this rant of an introduction.
What I do know -- for a fact -- is that "best" is subjective. On top of that, player evaluation isn't perfect. And when you combine the two, teams begin making foolish decisions based on "best player available" logic.
Take the Rams, for example. Was Todd Gurley the best player on their draft board at pick 10? Apparently so. And they ended up drafting him despite the fact that they've selected multiple running backs through the draft in recent history -- they did this despite the fact that they had a depth chart with a few young NFL runners. Let's not pretend the Rams had zero needs, too, as if they were able to just pick whichever prospect they wanted.
Could Todd Gurley be a game-changing, Adrian Peterson-type running back? Sure. But plenty of people said the same thing about Trent Richardson. And the Rams thought they stole a game-changing player when they selected Tavon Austin a couple of years back. How's that working out for them?
Gurley should be a great NFL player, but there's a difference between "should be" and "will be." The former tells us that you're playing probability. Since that's the case, you should probably factor in team need just a bit. Because if the player isn't an elite talent, which is more likely than not, you're stuck with an average to above average player playing a position that is filled with the same type of talent.
If you're approaching things with a "will be" attitude, then you're just being unrealistic.
I'll stop before I anger anymore Rams fans. Because the truth is, that franchise isn't the only one that made -- or didn't make, in the case of the Cowboys -- head-scratching moves at running back in this year's draft.
With all the shifting at the position, let's take a look at how the running back landscape in fantasy football changed over the last week.
Tre Mason May Actually Become a Value Pick
An important thing to understand in fantasy football is consensus perception. It would only seem logical that pretend pigskin players are going to be down on Tre Mason after the team selected Gurley 10th overall, but there are already reports talking about Gurley missing the first six weeks of the season due to his torn ACL. And even when Gurley comes back, there's no guarantee he'll be 100 percent and ready to go.
As a result, Tre Mason may actually become a value pick in fantasy drafts this year. According to our Net Expected Points metric (or NEP, which you can read more about in our glossary), Mason finished his rookie campaign with a -0.08 Rushing NEP per rush rate, which ranked 25th of the 32 running backs with 150 or more carries. That's not great, but among relevant Rams' backs -- players under the same circumstances as Mason -- it was best.
Mason finished last year with five top-24 PPR weeks (RB1 or RB2 in 12-team leagues) in nine games started. If he gets six or seven starts this year, you're looking at about four usable weeks, which is close to RB3 territory. I'd like him more in a best ball format, but it all depends where his stock drops.
Ameer Abdullah Could Lead the Lions in Touches
You can learn a lot by paying attention to where players get drafted after the hype of Round 1 is over. If a team with a seemingly decent running back situation, for instance, decides to invest in a second-round back, something's probably up. We saw that just last year with the Cincinnati Bengals and Jeremy Hill.
I'll give Joique Bell the benefit of the doubt here and assume people think that he's a decent starter, and the Lions didn't necessarily have to go out and draft a back -- in this case, Ameer Abdullah -- in the second round. But they did, mostly because he's not a very good starter.
Over the last two years, Bell's Rushing NEP per rush has hovered around the average line at -0.03. (Rushing is less effective than passing, so the average is below zero.) But in terms of Success Rate -- which measures the percentage of runs that contribute positively towards a player's NEP -- Bell has consistently ranked towards the bottom third percentile in the league.
Though he hasn't been around long, he's also going to be 29 years old next season. In running back years, he could essentially be Abdullah's dad. Or at least a young uncle.
All of this adds up to a decent opportunity in an above average passing offense for Abdullah who, according to our READ algorithm -- which looks at combine metrics and team situation to project a player's NFL future with comparables -- compares favorably to Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley, among other successful NFLers.
Tevin Coleman Should Be the Day 1 Starter in Atlanta
There were 73 running backs with 50 or more carries last year. Devonta Freeman's per rush efficiency ranked last according to our metrics.
That alone should show you the opportunity Tevin Coleman has in Atlanta. Add in the fact that Steven Jackson and his 190 touches are somewhere on a couch tweeting about saving the running back position, and you've got yourself an even better situation.
What may go under the radar a bit is the fact that he's playing in an efficient passing offense, too. According to some numbers I threw together last year, there's a significantly higher chance for backs to score touchdowns in better passing offenses. Genius, I know.
According to MockDraftable.com, Coleman may not have the best comparables in the world, but the situation and fit (remember, Kyle Shanahan's the offensive coordinator there now, who's not afraid to give the rock to young, unproven backs) is close to perfect for him to succeed in fantasy football. It shouldn't surprise anyone if he's one of the -- if not the -- best rookie running backs in fantasy this year.
It's Tough to Be High on T.J. Yeldon's Situation
Take everything I just said about Coleman's fit, and think the opposite for Yeldon. So much with fantasy football is driven through opportunity, and Yeldon should certainly have some of that in Jacksonville. However, opportunity also includes team situation. And no team was worse offensively than the Jags a season ago.
Going back to the article I wrote last year on touchdown potential and passing efficiency, I made the following conclusion, based on the numbers:
In essence, if you have a bottom 8 to 10 passing offense, in order to post in the 65th percentile in rushing touchdowns in a season (56/160), you’ll need to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, or have a future Hall-of-Fame running back.
In order for Yeldon to be a touchdown maker, Blake Bortles will either have to improve dramatically (he finished with the league's worst Passing NEP last year), Yeldon will have to be a Hall-of-Fame talent (like Adrian Peterson), or the Jaguars will have to be one of the run-heaviest teams in the league. None of these things are incredibly probable.
And if you think touchdowns don't matter, note that just one top-10 back in standard leagues last year failed to score nine times on the ground. That number was the same two years ago, and eight of the top-10 backs three years ago hit the mark.
Will Yeldon be usable? Maybe, as long as he can be a little more patient behind what is still a porous line. But if his average draft position ends up creeping to the fourth round because the running back position is so scarce, I'd be very afraid to invest.
Mark Ingram's Stock Should Rise
Ask yourself: What have the Saints done this offseason to tell you that they're going to keep passing at the pace they have been over the last eight years?
They got rid of Jimmy Graham to strengthen their offensive line with Max Unger. They traded wide receiver Kenny Stills. They re-signed Mark Ingram. They brought in receiving back CJ Spiller through free agency. And then, in last week's draft, the Saints took a first-round tackle in Andrus Peat, selected a bunch of players to help their 2014 league-worst defense, and failed to bring in pass-catchers.
With an aging Drew Brees, there's plenty of reasons to think the Saints will be running the football a lot in 2015. And Mark Ingram, who finished last year in the top 10 among relevant backs in Rushing NEP, should see the bulk of that work, while Spiller plays more of a receiving role.
Melvin Gordon Lands in an Ideal Spot
Not only does Melvin Gordon enter a situation with a good quarterback in 2015, but there's 100 percent reason to believe he's going to see the majority of the carries in the San Diego backfield next season. With the departure of oft-injured Ryan Mathews, the Chargers were down to Branden Oliver, Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead. We all know Woodhead isn't a feature back, and last season, Brown finished dead last in Rushing NEP per rush among backs with 80 or more touches, while Oliver was fifth from the bottom.
Could it be an offensive line problem? Sure. But it also has to do with both of those players not being strong starting backs. Brown had a very efficient year before heading to San Diego last offseason, but has been a bust since entering the league. Both film and numbers agree there. Oliver went undrafted in 2014, and only got an opportunity last year because of injury.
The Chargers not only took Gordon in the first round, but they traded up to do so. Given Gurley's health situation and team placement, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Gordon (if it's not Coleman) as the best fantasy football rookie back in 2015.
The Cowboys' Starting Running Back May Still Not Be on Their Roster
One of the strangest things in this year's draft was the Dallas Cowboys' choice to not address the running back position. Given their backfield that includes Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams and Darren McFadden, right now, it looks as though the Cowboys are going to show us just how good that offensive line really is.
I've already shown that McFadden has been the worst NFL running back over the last three years. And Williams has struggled -- and I mean struggled -- with injuries throughout his career, while Randle and Dunbar have often been pegged as change-of-pace players.
I'm still not convinced that the Cowboys are done with their backfield. They could make a bonehead move and trade for Adrian Peterson, but I'd put more money on them signing a veteran back who gets cut as we approach the season.
If they are indeed done, Randle would be the best bet to lead the team in touches next year, given his build. He may suffer in PPR leagues though -- on 15 targets in two seasons, Randle's been far below average in terms of NEP, while Dunbar ranked third of 97 running backs with 10 or more targets in per-target NEP last year.
David Johnson Could Have Sneaky Value This Summer
Last season, no running back lost more points on the ground for his team than Ellington. With a Rushing NEP of -28.34, he was six expected points worse than the second least effective runner, Darren McFadden.
It's kind of an amazing feat, because in 2013, among backs with 100 or more carries (Ellington had 117), Ellington ranked seventh best within the metric.
A huge reason for that though was his big-play ability. Though Ellington added expected points, his Success Rate was below average despite being efficient per play. In other words, the big runs skewed his average a bit, while from a "success or failure" standpoint, he was still pretty bad.
What this tells me -- and I'll ignore his injury from last year, because it's too difficult to quantify the difference it made -- is that Ellington is still best suited in a lower-volume role where he can stay fresh and make those big plays. He's a versatile back and can work for the Cardinals, but to assume he'll see 200-plus touches in 2015, to me, would be foolish.
The problem is that most draftniks see Johnson as an Ellington clone. Meaning, he may not be suited for an every-down role, either. However, we've seen plenty of backs in this situation translate successfully at the NFL level, and given Johnson's draft cost will be far cheaper than Ellington's come August -- more than likely, at least -- there's reason to believe he's the more worthwhile pick simply due to ambiguity. And given the fact that Ellington was so ineffective last year, I'm not sure why you'd feel confident in 2015. There's significant risk.
So Could David Cobb
Investing in the Titans backfield is like throwing money into a bonfire, but let's talk about the Tennessee running backs anyway.
During his rookie year, Bishop Sankey finished with a -15.17 Rushing NEP, good for -0.10 Rushing NEP per rush. To give you some context, that was fifth worst among backs with 150 or more carries, and the worst on the Titans.
That's where David Cobb comes in. He's more of a Shonn Greene or Stevan Ridley type runner, ranking in the 86th percentile in running back weight according to MockDraftable.com. But with such average backs ahead of him in the depth chart, he could see opportunity as a rookie.
It's just that the Tennessee running back job isn't all that desirable with a rookie quarterback, unknowns at wide receiver, and an offensive line that got little push last year. This is similar to Arizona, just on a smaller scale: the rookie could be the value pick, but the situation isn't ideal.
Lamar Miller's Job Is Still Safe
A pre-draft favorite by many, Jay Ajayi dropped to the fifth round last week, falling into the Miami Dolphins' lap. But I wouldn't be concerned, at least in the short term, about Lamar Miller.
Miller finished with a Rushing NEP per rush average of 0.06, fifth best among the 17 backs who saw 200 or more attempts last year. This came just a season after rushing to a rate of -0.10.
What changed? Well, the entire offense did. Bill Lazor came to town after showing off his skills as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia the year prior. You know, that year where Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, something you only see out of a create-a-player in Madden. Lazor's offense really stresses athleticism, which is what Miller's 4.4 40-yard dash can bring.
Yes, the Dolphins gave Knowshon Moreno looks to start last year in a tandem role with Miller, but it seems like we could probably conclude that Miller was somewhat of a pleasant surprise for Lazor and company. He performed exceptionally well, and it would be silly for us to think a rookie incumbent will take a large amount of looks away.
The other point to all of this is the fact that Miller isn't the type of back who's going to get 300 touches. Snagging 200 on the ground is fine and expected, while he can also do some work in the passing game.
The one area where fantasy owners may need to be a little cautious is in the red zone. Miller scored seven times within his opponents' 20-yard line last season, with his lone touchdown outside of the red zone coming on a 97-yard scamper. He also saw the eighth-most red zone attempts -- if the Dolphins opt to use other backs close to the end zone, his fantasy value will suffer.
With all of that being said, Miller's draft value shouldn't change dramatically based on the Ajayi selection. If the Dolphins were serious about getting a new starter, they would've spent more equity on the position. Instead, they know the importance of the position in the offense, and Ajayi was too hard to pass up in Round 5.
LeGarrette Blount Still Tops the New England Depth Chart
If there's one thing we've learned about coaches and fantasy football over the last decade, it's that you can't trust a Bill Belichick running back. Right?
Sure, I can get behind that. But at the same time, if you don't have to spend a high fantasy draft pick on a guy in the Patriot backfield, selecting one isn't all that bad.
The Patriots failed to select a running back in this year's draft, meaning LaGarrette Blount is, indeed, their starter here in May. It's certainly still crowded, with Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney, Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, James White and Dion Lewis, but among this group, Blount is easily the most experienced as a lead back.
And he's been pretty good as a Patriot. He finished with an average -0.02 Rushing NEP per rush a season ago, and in 2013, his 0.06 Rushing NEP per tote tied him for seventh best in the NFL among 100-plus attempt runners.
No, it's not necessary to go into the 2015 season with Blount as your RB2. But his lack of fantasy football sexiness combined with Belichick's tendency to hate our pretend game could force a nice value in the later rounds.
The Trent Richardson Signing Helped Latavius Murray's Potential Tremendously
Many panicked when Trent Richardson signed with the Raiders earlier this offseason. It wasn't because the masses thought he was good at football, but because the Raiders have consistently made suboptimal choices with their roster. And although Latavius Murray is the better back, these poor choices could force T-Rich into a role where he'd see a significant number of carries. That's not good for Murray's fantasy potential.
But here's the deal: because Oakland signed Richardson and pass-catching specialist Roy Helu this offseason, they opted to not draft a running back in one of the most loaded classes we've seen. So instead of Murray potentially competing with a young, talented back, he's competing with a young, already washed up one.
Murray will have a lot of upside entering the 2015 season.
Zac Stacy Creates an Undesirable Situation in New York
I'm not touching the Jets backfield in fantasy football. At least I'm not right now. Chris Johnson and his 155 touches don't even be in the game anymore, but the Jets still have Chris Ivory, they signed Stevan Ridley and they just recently traded for Zac Stacy.
That gives us three veteran(ish) backs who have all carried the load for their team at least once in the NFL. The passing offense should be an improved one given the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall pre-draft, and field-stretcher Devin Smith during it, but even if the Jets move the ball down the field better than they did last year (which won't take much), there could be far too many question marks as to who's getting the bulk of the touches. As it stands, we have to wait and see how things shape up.
The Panthers Are Cool With Jonathan Stewart
While Jonathan Stewart is in a great spot fantasy football-wise for next year, his 2014 campaign is perhaps being a little overrated. It's exciting, I get it -- J-Stew finally was able to stay moderately healthy, and reached 170 carries for the first time since 2010. But his efficiency was lacking, rushing to a -0.06 Rushing NEP per tote, just a little better than his previous two seasons.
Fantasy football isn't just about efficiency though, and his yards per carry average was a strong 4.6 last year. The Panthers also only addressed the running back position in the fifth round, which is a big plus in Stewart's favor.
Unfortunately, Carolina did little in the draft to fix their biggest need -- offensive line -- which could hurt Stewart's potential in 2015.
But, again, what matters here is volume. And Stewart should be getting that next year -- as long as his fragile body can stay in one piece -- which means he's a viable starter in fake pigskin.
The Giants Appear to Be Fine With Their Mediocre Trio
In 2014, only Andre Ellington was worse among high-volume rushers than Andre Williams, according to our metrics. Rashad Jennings was better than Williams per touch, but his 0.00 Rushing NEP per attempt was barely above average. And Jennings is now 30 years old, which doesn't help in the optimism department.
New York did sign Shane Vereen over the offseason, but Vereen is nothing like a typical high-volume back. In fact, last year was his best season in terms of attempts, and he didn't even break 100 in what could be considered a pretty wide open backfield.
So what you have is an ineffective second-year runner in Williams who can't catch out of the backfield, a player in Vereen who can catch out of the backfield but may not be able to stay on the field to take a beating, and a 30-year-old Rashad Jennings, who's had his fair share of injury trouble throughout his career.
This, of course, is because the Giants didn't draft a running back this year, when they had a decent reason to go after one.
The G-Men offense should be a fun one this season with Ben McAdoo coordinating it again and Odell Beckham catching passes consistently for an entire season. The running back who emerges could actually have a good amount of fantasy value as a result. And because of historical numbers and ability, it seems like Rashad Jennings could be that dude. The only problem is his age and injury history. But as a middle-round pick, you could probably do a lot worse this year.