Why Latavius Murray Can Maintain His Early-Season Success
For Latavius Murray, the question was never talent.
The former Central Florida star runs a sub 4.4-second 40-yard dash at 6'3" 225 and has an other-worldly 6.81 three-cone-drill, designed to test a player's ability to change directions. That score is Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Le'Veon Bell good, for comparison.
In limited action in 2014 we had seen flashes of his big play ability, including a 4-carry, 112-yard, and 2-touchdown effort on a national stage against the Kansas City Chiefs.
No, the question wasn't his ability. It was his team.
In 2014, the Oakland Raiders were dead last in the NFL in rushing yards (1,240) and touchdowns (only 4). In terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), our signature metric that indicates how a team or player performs compared to expectation level, they also ranked 32nd with a putrid -0.11 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush.
With a young quarterback and average defense at best, it was safe to wonder whether the unproven Murray, who barely played in 2014 despite being on the roster all season in a terrible backfield, could actually have a productive year.
Three games in to the following season, Murray is fourth in the league in rushing yards per game (82.7) and is outpacing backup running back Taiwan Jones in touches 63 to 9. His Rushing NEP per rush of 0.06 ranks 10th in the league for backs with 20 or more carries. He certainly looks poised to produce as a top 12 running back this season, but is it just the product of an easy schedule and favorable game scripts?
Three of the primary concerns regarding Murray's outlook heading into the season were game script, workload and ability. While we can safely eliminate "ability" from the list of concerns, it is still fair to evaluate the others before buying into Murray as one of the top backs in the NFL in 2015.
With game script comes the question that, regardless of talent, when the Raiders are being blown out and have to abandon the running game in the comeback attempt, does Murray become irrelevant? It's the dilemma that makes a talented player into a mediocre fantasy asset. So what have we seen this season?
With an unfavorable game script in a Week 1 beat down at the hands of the Bengals, Murray had 18 touches, including 7 receptions. While it was by far his worst performance of the season, the Raiders commitment to Murray as a three-down player certainly put to rest any concern that perhaps pass game specialist Roy Helu would be featured in a prominent receiving role.
Instead, Helu has just one reception and no carries this season and appears to be an afterthought to this coaching staff. And while Murray hasn't been spectacular as a receiver based on our efficiency metrics, he has caught all 11 of his targets and been great in pass protection.
More importantly, the Raiders aren't taking him off the field, giving him a Matt Forte-like role on a team that has been much more competitive than many assumed they would be. So regardless of game script, the workload has been there for Murray, who had 18 touches in Week 2 and 27 touches in Week 3, both victories for the Raiders.
And speaking of being competitive, the much maligned Raiders are 2-1 this season and are 10th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. Young quarterback Derek Carr looks much improved this season, which can only help open things up for Murray and that running game. So can Murray be trusted moving forward?
While close wins against the 0-3 Ravens and the Josh McCown-led Cleveland Browns don't necessarily inspire confidence, especially on the heels of a blowout Week 1 loss to a good Bengals team, Murray is a rare three-down workhorse back in the NFL with seemingly no backfield competition for carries. While the team around him may not be stellar, his workload appears to be just that: stellar. If this team can simply remain average or push for above average, Murray could easily surpass 300 touches as the Raiders seek to use the running game to alleviate pressure from their sophomore quarterback.
And every back to exceed 300 touches since 2011 has finished as a top 12 back with the exception of Chris Johnson in 2011, who finished 16th and only totaled 4 touchdowns. Murray already has 2 touchdowns in 2015, so a CJ?K type of finish seems improbable. Our algorithms peg him as the ninth-ranked fantasy rusher for the rest of the year.
While this offense may not score enough to elevate him to a top five finish (the pie just isn't big enough, as they say), Murray will remain an integral part of this improving offense moving forward. That workload combined with his ability means the Raiders back is a must-start moving forward. Even when things aren't pretty, say in Week 5 against the Broncos, 15 to 20 touches is well his range of outcomes.
For those who gambled on Murray in the middle rounds of drafts, the future looks bright. And it should! It's not like the Raiders have a history of letting people down...