How Great Can Ameer Abdullah Be This Season?
I like to think that a lot of my passion for sports was passed down to me from my grandpa.
Living in the Golden Age of boxing, my grandpa was an avid fan of the "sweet science" and caught as many fights as he could on television.
His favorite boxer? A smooth-talking, fleet-footed heavyweight named Muhammad Ali. But he wasn't my grandpa's favorite boxer for the reasons you may expect.
It wasn't his Golden Gloves titles, or Olympic gold medal, or even his world heavyweight championships that made my grandpa such a big Ali-admirer. No, instead he was a strong supporter of Ali because he predicted his rise to greatness long before he was a household name.
Before the Thrilla in Manila, before the Rumble in the Jungle, before he was even Muhammad Ali, my grandpa saw something special in a young kid from Kentucky named Cassius Clay.
I'm reminded of my grandpa and his love for Muhammad Ali whenever I try to explain to someone why I'm so high on Detroit's young tailback out of Nebraska, Ameer Abdullah. Despite what the front office, coaching staff, and official depth charts said, I just knew that he would be the lead back for this team sooner rather than later.
Abdullah made his rookie preseason debut last week, and in just one play I had a feeling -- that just like my grandpa -- this could be a case where someone I've believed in from his early beginnings might just turn into something special too.
"Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee"
While Joique Bell's slow recovery from offseason Achilles surgery has opened the door for Abdullah to see the field, it's his superior talent that should keep him there.
Abdullah just might be the team's best pass catching back already and this, in and of itself, will ensure he gets plenty of touches this season.
Last year Joique Bell (64.1%) and Theo Riddick (68.0%) ranked 134th and 94th, respectively in catch rate among running backs with at least 20 targets. Not exactly stiff competition to keep Abdullah from being Matthew Stafford's top target out of the backfield and claim the lion's share of the passing down workload going to the running backs.
To be fair however, these two backs were fairly productive when they did catch these passes, with Bell and Riddick putting up 0.42 and 0.40 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target to rank 21st and 23rd among these backs last season. However, among 22 backs with at least 50 targets, Bell ranked third and Riddick ranked sixth in the per-target metric.
Also, for those unfamiliar with our signature metric NEP, it's our in-house statistic to measure a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring relative to expectation. If a player makes a play that helps his team's chances of scoring above expectation, he receives a positive mark. If he does something that detracts from these chances -- like fail to convert on third and short or fumble the ball, for example -- he receives a negative score.
But these numbers may be more indicative of how tailbacks are used in this system than anything else. Over the past three seasons, the tailbacks on this team receiving at least 50 targets have put up an average of 0.40 Reception NEP per target as a whole, basically the same mark as Joique's (0.43) and Riddick's (0.41) from last season. Perhaps these successes were just part of the scheme.
The pass catching role on the Lions is already quite a profitable one.
Last year, the Lions ranked first by far in targets to the running back position, with 159 targets going to Bell (53), RIddick (50), and now San Francisco 49er Reggie Bush (56). With Bush's move to the NFC West, it wouldn't surprise me if Abdullah claimed half of these targets to himself this year.
In regards to Abdullah's own prowess in this area of the game, while he caught a total of only 72 passes in his final three seasons at Nebraska, he made the most of all his opportunities. In his senior season, Abdullah averaged an impressive 12.2 yards per reception and showcased his soft hands, easily making catches on balls thrown away from his body such as this one look routine.
His lack of receptions at the collegiate level was more indicative of Nebraska's run-heavy philosophy than it is an indictment of his abilities. In 2014, the team completed just 158 total passes on the season.
In this regard, Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi seems to be impressed already by Abdullah's abilities in the passing game. "He didn't get a chance, maybe, to show everything he can do as a receiver at Nebraska," Lombardi said. "But he's even better in that phase of the game than I thought when we drafted him.
"So it was kind of a bonus when you see how well he catches the ball and how well he runs routes."
Beyond this, reports also suggest that, despite his rookie status and smaller stature, Abdullah has held his own in pass blocking drills.
All this suggests that a huge chunk of the passing game workload going to the running back position in Detroit will flow through him.
But he's more than just a third-down back. In the ground game, he's absolutely electric once he gets the ball into his hands.
His skills carrying the ball helped Abdullah dance his way around defenders on his way to an average of 1,479 rushing yards per season over his last three years as a Cornhusker on a 5.6 yards-per-carry career average.
And as a pro, the Lions quickly learned just how hard it is to stop Abdullah. Remarking on the difficulty of defending the dynamic tailback out of Nebraska, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said, "We can't even tackle that guy [...] We can't even touch him. He's like grasping at air."
And with the start of the NFL preseason last week, it didn't take long for the league to figure this out either.
"It's Not Bragging If You Can Back It Up"
In his preseason debut, Abdullah put up a very nice 67 yards on just seven carries against the heralded Jets defense. But let's be honest, we're not here because of a nice yards-per-carry average in Week 1 of the preseason.
No, Abdullah is on everyone's radar in large part thanks to this incredible move that made linebacker Demario Davis look absolutely silly. And as the general public started to take notice of Abdullah this past Thursday, all I could do was just smile and nod my head in agreement.
These type of plays were Abdullah's bread and butter back in Nebraska, and for how great his preseason run was, this wasn't even the first time he's pulled this move before.
Opposing Jets head coach Todd Bowles took notice as well, comparing him to a Detroit living legend. "He’s about as quick as Barry Sanders. I’m not saying he’s Barry, but he’s a good running back."
Similar in stature -- Sanders was a similarly undersized back during his playing days, standing at 5' 8" and 200 pounds -- and incredible ankle-breaking agility, it's hard not to see the comparison.
I would also argue that Abdullah actually fits the same mold as another exciting Lions running back, Jahvid Best. While Best's career was cut short due to his concussion history, when he was on the field he was an absolute beast of a player. In his second-to-last game as a pro against the Chicago Bears, Best gave us glimpses of his big-play talent by putting up 163 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries.
And when we compare Abdullah to Best head-to-head it's hard not to imagine that Abdullah could be everything Best was supposed to be and more.
Nearly identical in build, while Abdullah's top-end speed as measured by his forty time is a bit behind Best's top-performer numbers, Abdullah's agility scores slightly edge out Best's figures.
But being compared to these two backs isn't all positive either. Just like Sanders and Best, Abdullah still must to contend with the issues of being an undersized tailback in the league.
In this regard, Abdullah had a collegiate career average of one fumble every 35.4 touches. To put that into perspective Melvin Gordon's rate was once out of every 54.4 touches. And Todd Gurley? Once every 191.7 touches.
That's going to happen when you have 8 ⅝-inch hands.
However, one encouraging thing note is his continued improvement in this aspect of his game every year at Nebraska. His fumble rate went from an abysmal 7.2 in his freshman season, to 31.3, 61.4, and 71.5 over the next three years.
Being undersized often means you rely on the big play in space rather than consistent production running between the tackles. To illustrate this point with Best, his career average of -0.12 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush attempt and 33.8% career Success Rate, the percentage of carries that added to Detroit's NEP, on the ground are well below the historical averages recorded for the position over the past 15 years.
And these numbers for Best demonstrating his inefficiency in running the ball and reliance on the big play (with just a little over one-third of his carries improving his team's chances of scoring) may be a cause for concern for Abdullah's prospects as a consistent tailback in the pros.
However, one encouraging thing to note when comparing the two backs is that in terms of explosiveness, Abdullah's bench, vertical, and broad jump numbers are head and shoulders above that of Best's. This gives him an ability to break tackles that isn't commonly seen in backs of his size and may just allow him to churn out the difficult yards between the tackles that Best could not.
In this analysis of film provided by Draft Breakdown, Bolts from the Blue writer Kyle Posey found that Abdullah had a broken tackle every 4.3 touches, which was a higher rate than that observed for draftmates Melvin Gordon and Cleveland's Duke Johnson.
This combination of speed, strength, and balance has translated to not only his being a shifty back, but as Teryl Austin said earlier, one who is incredibly difficult to take down.
In terms of his real life and fantasy value, all of this has sent Abdullah's stock skyrocketing the past few days.
And with the tremendous expectations, the world has seemingly now placed on him, what exactly can we expect from him in his rookie year?
"I'ma Show You How Great I Am"
I don't care how highly touted you are coming out of college, or how high a draft pick your team spent to get you, rarely is anything ever just handed to rookies.
But as I've stated before, for Abdullah the question won't be how the Lions are going to find ways to get him onto the field. It's how they're going to find reasons to keep him off it that will be the issue.
As perhaps the team's best game changer in the backfield given his big play ability that he's demonstrated over his career, it's reasonable to think that Abdullah will command plenty of touches in this offense.
While the Lions have typically been a pass-heavy team, ranking in the top half of the league in pass-to-run ratio in each of the last three seasons, they make up for this by involving their backs heavily in the passing game. And we can see that this has held true even with the regime change to Jim Caldwell and his coaching staff in 2014.
Over the past three years, the primary back on this team has averaged 220.3 rush attempts and 60.7 targets per season. And on a per-game average, this broke down to 15.4 attempts and 4.3 targets per game in each contest. The backup tailback has also averaged a healthy 108 rush attempts on the year (7.5 attempts per game) to go along with 64.3 total targets (4.6 per game).
When this team has had two capable backs, the Lions also haven't been scared to split the workload fairly evenly among the two of them.
In 2013, Bush had 223 rush attempts and 54 receptions on 80 targets in 14 starts, while Bell had 166 attempts to go with 53 receptions on 69 targets in 16 games as a backup.
So where does Abdullah fit into all of this?
Built similarly to the backs Detroit has historically leaned on both in the run and passing game, it wouldn't surprise me to see Abdullah command a per-game workload somewhere in between that seen by a healthy Reggie Bush in 2013 -- 15.9 rush attempts and 3.9 receptions on 5.7 targets for 108 total yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game -- and Jahvid Best back in 2011 -- 14 rush attempts and 4.5 receptions on 6.7 targets for 112.8 total yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game.
At worst, should the coaching staff keep Bell as their primary ball carrier, even as the number two back behind him, Abdullah should offer a floor right around that seen by Bell during his 2013 season as a backup to Bush.
But if he can maintain his momentum and grab a hold of the starting job thanks to his stellar play, Abdullah could flourish in the same role that made Reggie Bush an RB1 in PPR leagues back in his first year with Detroit.
In this role, Abdullah would expect to receive about 230 attempts on the ground alongside 60 receptions on 75 targets.
Assuming Abdullah manages a modest 4.5 yards-per-carry rate on each run, and the same 8.7 yards per reception the Lions tailbacks have averaged over the past three years, this workload and these projections would easily place Abdullah in the top 10 among all running backs in PPR-scoring leagues this season.
Those worried about Abdullah's ability to handle a heavy workload given his smaller stature should also consider the fact that between his sophomore and junior seasons, Abdullah touched the ball more than any other back, amassing an astounding 7,186 all-purpose yards as not only the team's workhorse back but also their full-time kick and punt returner as well.
From all this it's clear that Abdullah stands poised to impress in his rookie season. In terms of fantasy football, even at his current fourth-round ADP, I would argue that he's still well worth the price if he can grab hold of the lead back job in Detroit.
And if he does, well then, rumble, young man, rumble