Will 2015 Be Chris Ivory's Breakout Season?

With the Jets set to make Chris Ivory their every-down back, does he deserve more love in fantasy football?

It's not everyday that you find a top-tier running back near the back end of your fantasy football draft. Hell, it doesn't even happen once per season.

When our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason did a five year study between 2009-2013 to look at running back hit and miss rates, he found that, out of the 90 running backs ranked 31st to 48th by ADP in each season, only four became bonafide RB1s.

That's it. Four.

So rare is this feat, in fact, that you probably have a better chance of guessing which San Francisco 49er will be the next to unexpectedly quit, retire, or get himself cut from the team.

But I digress.

It's this rarity of finding a high level running back in the later rounds of the draft that is exactly why I took notice when word surfaced that the Jets may be grooming running back Chris Ivory to be an every-down back. As the 34th-ranked running back in 12-team, standard-scoring leagues, as we'll soon discuss, Ivory may be that rare talent that could see himself catapult into elite running back territory this season if given the opportunity.

Built Like a Workhorse Back

Reports out of Jets camp suggest that head coach Todd Bowles is already impressed by what he's seen out of tailback Chris Ivory, saying that "he's as advertised," and that "he can easily [be an every-down back]." 

And this isn't the first time we've heard such high praise for Ivory. Often drawing comparisons to All-Pro tailback Marshawn Lynch, his measurables are eerily similar to that of the man they call "Beast Mode" in Seattle.

Year Name Hght Wght 40 yd Vert Broad 3Cone 20 ss
2007 Marshawn Lynch 5' 11" 215 4.46 35½" 125"   4.58
2010 Chris Ivory 5' 11½" 222 4.48 36" 119" 7.2 4.6

A few pounds heavier than Lynch and with nearly identical 40-yard dash times to the Seahawks tailback, Ivory is a freakish combination of size and speed. And while his agility scores were sub-par compared to the shiftier backs in the league, elusiveness isn't really his game.

While he certainly has the footwork and balance to maneuver his way through the right hole on running plays, Ivory would much rather run through you than around you. 

This bears out in the number of broken and missed tackles Ivory forced last season. Despite owning just the 18th most touches among all running backs last season, Ivory's 33 broken tackles according to Football Outsiders was the eighth-best figure at his position.

And if the Jets make good on their promise to make Ivory their workhorse back, similar to Marshawn Lynch, Ivory could use his bruising style to help wear down opponents late in games to break off some big runs.

However, there are limits to Ivory's upside. Despite a flashy offseason that saw the Jets acquire veteran receiver Brandon Marshall and the hiring of quarterback guru Chan Gailey to develop Geno Smith, the Jets have failed to upgrade their offensive line.

But running behind the 19th-ranked run blocking unit according to Pro Football Focus last season, the Jets' question marks on their offensive line actually makes Ivory the ideal back for this squad. His hard-nosed style will be just what this team needs to churn out steady yards in the ground game and on this note, this same style of play is what made Lynch the fourth-leading rusher in the league despite running behind a run blocking unit that ranked 17th in the league last year.  

Competition for Touches

In terms of competition for touches in this backfield, it certainly helps that Ivory is the team's most efficient back running the ball. Ivory's career mark of 0.02 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush attempt just edges out newly acquired tailback Stevan Ridley's 0.00 mark over his first four seasons in the league, and is far and away better than Zac Stacy's -0.07 number.

For those unfamiliar with NEP, it's our signature metric which measures a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. If you make a play that improves your team's chances of scoring you receiver a positive mark, and vice-versa. You can read more about NEP in our glossary

So, on average over his career, Ivory was helping put points on the board every time he carried the rock. This is especially impressive at the running back position, as rushing is less effective than passing and the average per-touch NEP hovers around

Currently, with the starting job Ivory's to lose, his two aforementioned backfield mates also pose little threat to his workload on this team.

Ridley will be hard-pressed to seriously compete with Ivory for playing time -- at least early on -- as he recovers from ACL and MCL tears this past October.

And as for Stacy, he may be little more than a camp body for the Jets until Ridley can get back up to speed. Already on the roster bubble , Ivory need not worry about a player who wasn't even good enough to have a role on the Rams roster. Let that sink in for a moment. He wasn't good enough for the Rams.

In the passing game, Ivory's hands certainly need improvement, but he's flashed some ability in this category in limited work with the Jets last year. Catching 18 of his 27 targets out of the backfield, Ivory managed to collect 123 yards and 1 touchdown through the air last year.

Speaking on Ivory's need to improve in this aspect of the game in order to become a true every-down back, Bowles has said "He has decent hands. He just needs to concentrate a little more."

There's a chance that Ivory shares the passing down workload with backup and third-down back Bilal Powell, though Powell's solid yet unspectacular play in this area of the game means his role in the Jets aerial attack is far from guaranteed. Indeed, Powell's 0.20 Reception NEP per target over the past two seasons is actually a bit below Ivory's 0.24 mark in 2014.

As perhaps the team's best back in both the ground and passing game, and with the support of the Jets coaching staff, the implications of all this for Ivory's workload in 2015 is tremendous. And should Ivory receive the high volume of touches many are expecting given recent statements by Bowles, given his playing style and toughness, Ivory could convert all these look into a highly productive breakout season.

A Value in the Middle Rounds

With an ADP of 80 in standard-scoring leagues, Ivory presents a rare opportunity for fantasy football managers to score a starting back for the price of the 34th back off the board this year. And given the positional scarcity for quality running backs, and with Ivory's relatively reasonable floor and tremendous upside, the Jets' lead tailback is an ideal target in the mid-to-late rounds of your drafts.

And even if Ivory doesn't have the breakout year the Jets are expecting from him and just maintains the same level of production that he had last season in a timeshare with Ridley, at worst he's a mid-level RB2 being drafted as a low-end RB3; in 2014 -- playing in a timeshare with Chris Johnson and in limited work in the passing game -- Ivory finished the season as the 19th-best running back in standard-scoring leagues thanks to his 944 total yards and 7 touchdowns.

Beyond this, given his run-friendly schedule to start this season, Ivory makes a great plug-in play for owners looking to cover Le'Veon Bell's two week suspension. And if Ivory bursts out of the gates to start the season, with the coaching staff behind him, he might just run away as the Jets workhorse tailback and never look back.