Why I'm Not All That Optimistic About Andre Ellington in Fantasy Football

Andre Ellington followed up his efficient rookie season with an awful 2014 campaign. What's in store for 2015?

Like an eight-year-old talking to his parents after fighting with his brother, yards per carry averages don't always tell the entire story.

Take Felix Jones' 2008 campaign for example. That year, Jones, a rookie, rushed for 266 yards on 30 attempts. His 8.87 rushing yards per attempt was good for the most ever by a running back with at least 30 touches, and while he was fine as a runner, two-thirds of those rushes went for fewer than his rushing average. Because -- and yes, I know I'm not talking to people here who don't understand basic math -- a couple of big runs were able to skew his average.

To a lesser extent, you could say the same about Andre Ellington in 2013. His efficiency numbers were sensational, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 118 carries. And that's really what a lot of fantasy owners are intrigued about, as his 2014 injured-filled campaign saw that average drop to just 3.3 yards per touch.

But a deeper dive into his numbers shows that his rookie season may not be as sensational as it appears. And that's not good news for his 2015 outlook.

An Overrated Rookie Campaign?

Don't twist my words -- Ellington was good as a rookie in the NFL. It's just that his efficiency may be a little overblown in terms of what he may be able to do moving forward for the Cardinals and for fantasy football owners.

According to our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Ellington ranked tied for eighth among 100-plus running backs in per-rush effectiveness in 2013, with a 0.06 Rushing NEP per rush rate. Only 115 running backs with 100 or more rushes since the turn of the century have seen that type of efficiency.

This is why Ellington's first season as a pro was good. In fact, it was even better when you compare his numbers to his fellow backfield mates.

Year Name Rushing NEP Per Rush
2013 Alfonso Smith -5.66 -0.31
2013 Stepfan Taylor -2.32 -0.06
2013 Rashard Mendenhall -24.87 -0.11
2013 Andre Ellington 7.01 0.06

This gives us a glimpse to the face that Ellington was clearly the best back on that 2013 Cardinals roster, as he was running behind the same offensive line that helped bring horrific numbers to three other backs. It really wasn't close.

So what was so bad about his rookie season? Well, nothing, really. It's not about what he did wrong as much as it's about analyzing other aspects to this game aside from rate statistics. And a great way to dig deeper lies within our Success Rate metric. 

In a nutshell, Success Rate measures the percentage of positive plays -- in terms of NEP -- a player makes. If a running back runs the ball for a gain that brings an expected points total that's greater than zero, then it's deemed a success. If it's less than zero, it's a failure.

Naturally, big-play weapons are going to see lower Success Rates. It's just that when they do indeed succeed, they're generating a lot of points for their team. When you get the combination of high Net Expected Points totals with a high Success Rate, you get a football unicorn.

As you'd expect, Ellington's Success Rate wasn't tremendously high during his rookie year thanks to his boom or bust tendencies. But it was even worse than you might expect given his overall effectiveness.

Going back to the 115 unique seasons since 2000 where a running back rushed 100 or more times with Ellington's Rushing NEP per rush rate, there's something not very good hidden inside. Among these 115 running backs, Andre Ellington's Success Rate ranks 111th -- fifth from the bottom.

Sure, these are somewhat arbitrary measures to get the point across, but that point is pretty clear: Andre Ellington was incredibly boom or bust with each attempt during his rookie year, but his boom was strong enough to overshadow the fact that things weren't all butterflies and rainbows.

His 2015 Outlook

What's the real reason Ellington saw his efficiency drop so much in 2014? Was it his foot injury, or was it the fact that the 5'9'', 180-pound back just can't handle a hefty workload?

Maybe it's a bit of both. 

I haven't mentioned this yet, but Ellington's 2014 season was arguably the worst of any starting running back in the NFL. Among the 17 running backs who ran the ball 200 or more times, Ellington ranked last in Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per rush. His Success Rate dropped from an already-not-so-great 40.17% to 33.83%, too. Since 2000, 345 running backs have run the ball at least 200 times in a single season. Within this group, Ellington's -0.14 Rushing NEP per rush from 2014 is 18th worst.

So, sure, maybe his foot played a role in his horrific numbers from last year. But to blame such a poor performance only on a foot would be foolish. It seems only reasonable to think that a guy who never carried a heavy workload throughout his college and NFL career maybe just isn't a back capable of carrying a heavy workload.

And look -- that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. If Ellington moves back into a role where he sees closer to 130 or 140 attempts rather than 210 or 220, that still makes him a viable fantasy football option.

The problem is his cost. As it stands, he's a mid-fourth round selection in PPR leagues after being completely volume-dependent in 2014. And if he takes on a similar position as he did in 2013, he'll have to bring his efficiency back up in order to finish close to his current draft cost. After all, that year, Ellington ended with the 25th most PPR points at the running back position after slowly gaining carries as the season grew old.

There's also this David Johnson guy who the Cardinals selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. As I mentioned in an article yesterday, Johnson could be considered just a larger version of Ellington, and the Cardinals' willingness to spend reasonable equity (in today's NFL) on the position could show you where their head is at.

Overall, it's not as though Ellington can't live up to his draft cost. In fact, if he's used heavily through the air, he could be fine in PPR leagues. It's just that, if you're spending a top-four round pick on him, you may want a little more reasonable upside than what you're getting. 

As it stands, he's the 25th best running back in fantasy football according to our algorithm.