Why Danny Woodhead Is Here to Stay
When we are given new toys as kids, we play with them all the time and try to keep them as clean as possible.
Over time though, we get tired of the toy because it either gets old, or ugly and dirty.
This offseason, the Chargers supposedly found their new weapon when they drafted Melvin Gordon. Before ever playing a down in the NFL, Gordon was anointed as the next Jamaal Charles. When viewing their athletic profiles, Gordon and Charles are not that similar.
Because they drafted Gordon and Danny Woodhead was injured last year, Woodhead became the forgotten man in San Diego. Woodhead is proving that forgetting about him was a big mistake as he looks like the best back in San Diego.
Premier Passing-Down Back
Woodhead entered the league as a pure pass-catching back in New York, and then more notably in New England. He has continued in this role while healthy in San Diego now too.
While Chip Kelly is talked about for running a fast-paced high octane offense, through Week 9, the Chargers have run 684 offensive plays. This is second to only New Orleans, and they have 418 passing plays, which is the most in the league. They have the second highest run to pass ratio at 2:1 meaning they pass 66% of the time while on offense.
This type of offense is the perfect place to make you feel comfortable using someone known as a passing back specialist. Before Keenan Allen went on IR after Week 8, Woodhead was seeing 6.25 targets per game, giving him 50 for the year and placing him only behind Theo Riddick and Devonta Freeman as the third most targeted running back.
In that time, he produced 40 receptions for 444 yards and 2 touchdowns. He posted a 33.35 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) score that was highest among all running backs. NEP quantifies a player's performance compared to expectation-level.
In the first game without Allen, Woodhead predictably saw an increase in his opportunity as he saw 10 targets that he turned into 6 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. He now has a 41.77 Reception NEP that is far ahead of the rest of the running backs. To further illustrate how impressive this is, if he were a wide receiver, this value would rank 31st.
While an uptick in opportunity should normally make for a decrease in efficiency, Woodhead now has a Reception NEP per target of 0.70 as he maintains the third best ranking among running backs in this metric. Woodhead has good hands that should ensure his efficiency remains throughout the rest of the year as he has a 77% catch rate that is on par with Freeman and pass-catching backs Shane Vereen, and Giovani Bernard. His 78.2% Reception Success Rate is 5th best among backs with at least 15 targets and places him right alongside Darren Sproles.
In an offense running the most pass plays with the fourth highest Adjusted Passing NEP, Woodhead represents a great value as a passing back with an increasing opportunity.
More Than Just a Passing Back
While Woodhead is labelled as just a passing back, this label actually appears to limit what he can do for a team too much. Woodhead is bulkier than Gordon and bigger than most realize even though he is short at only 5'8."
Although Woodhead has only had 57 carries, half as many as Gordon, he has turned them into 229 yards and 2 touchdowns producing, according to our metrics, a 1.21 Rushing NEP that is 17th highest among running backs with at least 40 carries.
His 0.021 Rushing NEP per play is also 17th among backs with at least 40 carries. Woodhead's rushing efficiency shows even more with his 49.12% Rushing Success Rate that is 8th among backs with at least 40 carries.
Of the backs who have received a significant share of the San Diego workload, Woodhead is the only one to produce a positive Rushing NEP value. Before Branden Oliver went down due to injury, he produced a -0.94 Rushing NEP, and Gordon so far has produced a -18.27 Rushing NEP, worst among all running backs!
While their lack of success is mutually exclusive from Woodhead's success, it shows that Woodhead deserves his fair share in the run game.
Looking back at Woodhead's athletic profile and paying attention to his bulkiness, we can see why Woodhead is gaining opportunity where nobody expects it from him: the goal line. Of the eight Chargers rushing opportunities coming from a goal to go situation, Woodhead has six of the carries while Gordon only has two. Woodhead has turned his six carries into two touchdowns while Gordon has not converted either of his opportunities into touchdowns.
While the luster has worn off the Chargers' new offensive weapon, Gordon, Woodhead has proven that he is the most complete back on the roster. All the signs point down on Gordon as he looks like the last back to come from Wisconsin, Montee Ball.
Woodhead, on the other hand, now that he is healthy again looks to be a complete back in a high octane offense. Going forward, our projections have Woodhead ranked 26th and Gordon ranked 27th at running back.
While Woodhead deserves a bigger role, Gordon should lose some of his opportunity because of his inefficiency. If this is to happen then Woodhead should exceed our expectations for him.
While the Chargers face tough run defenses going forward, Woodhead has a safe floor, established through his passing back credentials. The rushing opportunity for him serves solely as a bonus, and he is fully capable in this area.