It's Time to Start Buying Ameer Abdullah in Fantasy Football
Remember how hype we all got after Ameer Abdullah busted out a 45-yard run in the first week of the preseason last year?
A little shake and bake, some burst, and the Detroit Lions' rookie running back was all the rage. The preseason has never led us astray, right?
Suddenly, getting him in the middle rounds wasn't enough. His average draft position (ADP) soared into the fourth, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, and the Abdullah craze was on.
It's safe to say that love didn't last.
Now, after a season in which he split carries with a plodding veteran, Joique Bell, you can get Abdullah in the middle of the sixth in re-draft leagues, and he's the 31st running back off the board in My Fantasy League's best-ball drafts. He's in the same tier as players locked in messy backfields and guys who only serve a hyper-specific niche within their offenses.
We clearly overreacted to one preseason run last year in jacking Abdullah's ADP up to the heights it reached. But it also seems like we're overreacting a bit in knocking him down this year, and that has turned Abdullah from a villain into a value.
This isn't all just because Bell is gone, giving Abdullah a bit of extra security on the depth chart. There are multiple things working in his favor, some of which started during the latter stages of last year. Let's run through Abdullah's situation and why it's time to start buying him while his ADP is low.
The main reason for optimism in Abdullah stems from what the Lions have done this offseason, but things started trending up for him before that thanks to improvements in the second half of his rookie season.
We can see these improvements using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.
Here's how it works. Let's say Abdullah gets a two-yard gain. The value of that two-yard gain would be a lot different on 3rd-and-1 -- when it picks up a first down -- than it would be on 3rd-and-3, when it would likely result in a punt. The two-yard rush on 3rd-and-1 would increase the expected points the Lions would score on that drive, giving Abdullah positive NEP for the play. The two-yard rush on 3rd-and-3 would do the opposite and give him negative NEP.
One week after their bye, the Lions made a tweak up front on the offensive line. They made Michael Ola the starter at right tackle over LaAdrian Waddle, and the Lions' backfield immediately benefited from the shuffle.
The table below shows Abdullah's splits from before Ola joined the starting unit in Week 11, the team's 10th game of the season, and after. Success rate is the percentage of rushes on which a player increases the team's expected points and gets positive NEP, and it can help show us which players are most consistently improving their team's situation. The league-average Rushing NEP per carry for high-volume backs last year was -0.03 with a 39.9% success rate.
|Split||Rushes||Rushing NEP per Carry||Success Rate|
|First 9 Games||68||-0.09||41.2%|
|Final 7 Games||75||0.02||44.0%|
We obviously can't tell whether or not Abdullah's up-tick was directly due to the changes on the offensive line, but there's a pretty definitive split here, and that back in the second half is a mighty fine one.
You'll notice that with Abdullah, his success rate was above average in both of the splits. Overall, he was 12th in the category among 44 running backs with at least 100 carries. That put him ahead of fantasy darlings Devonta Freeman and Adrian Peterson and well ahead of fellow rookie Todd Gurley. This includes his relatively mediocre first nine games, and it starts to make Abdullah look like an efficient runner, even in what most considered to be a disappointing season.
Obviously, efficiency isn't everything, especially with running backs. We care far more about opportunities. But when you have the efficiency that Abdullah had last year, as long as the coaches notice it, it's likely to lead to more of those ever-critical touches. And that's why Abdullah's performance down the stretch in 2015 should get us excited for him in 2016.
All of this is focusing on what Abdullah did last year. Outside of Bell's departure, there are other indications that Abdullah could be due for further improvements, specifically the Lions' focus on the offensive line in the draft.
After looking at Abdullah's splits with and without Ola at right tackle, it seems as if the Lions may have been dealing with some issues on their offensive line. If any of those issues persist, the Lions attempted to address them by going all-in during the draft.
They kicked things off by taking tackle Taylor Decker 16th overall. From 2001 to 2015, there were 80 teams that took an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft. Those 80 teams improved their Adjusted Rushing NEP per play by an average of 0.013 in the first season after making that selection, and 26 teams improved by 0.05 or more. That may not seem like a lot at first glance, but if the Lions' Adjusted Rushing NEP per play were 0.05 better last year, they would have been 6th in the league instead of 17th. Allow me to wipe the drool away from my mouth.
This isn't to say that Decker will automatically be a stud and push the Lions into the next dimension, but when drafting offensive linemen has such a strong track record with improving efficiency over the past 15 years, there's reason for optimism. That should only be amplified by what the Lions did the rest of the draft.
They didn't stop pounding up front after they got Decker. The Lions went offensive line in the third round and fifth round with Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl. What's even better about that for our boy Abdullah? They're both interior offensive linemen with Glasgow at center and Dahl at guard. This is a team that isn't messing around; they knew they had a need, and they went out and addressed it with authority.
All of this loops back into the same discussion from above about efficiency. Beefing up the offensive line has the potential to make Abdullah -- who was already efficient last year -- into an even better runner. If he can do that, then the opportunities will follow, especially with Bell no longer being an obstacle. Everything seems to be working in Abdullah's favor, and his ADP doesn't yet reflect that.
It's pretty obvious that we all overreacted to Abdullah's preseason exploits in his rookie year, and that cost a lot of people pretty dearly in re-draft. But what's also now clear is that we're overreacting to perceived struggles during the year that followed, giving us opportunity to capitalize on a discounted price.
Abdullah's rookie season was actually pretty dope. This was even truer once the Lions made some personnel changes up front, and it made him into a runner who was far better than his perception suggested.
Those improvements don't figure to be curtailed now that the Lions have attempted to bolster their offensive line. We've seen in the past that drafting offensive linemen in the first round can work witchcraft on an offense's efficiency, and with the Lions continuing to bulk up even after the first, we should expect a better rushing team in 2016.
This isn't all to say that Abdullah comes without concerns. The presence of Theo Riddick caps his abilities in point-per-reception leagues, and we should worry about the offense's efficiency with the retirement of Calvin Johnson. However, all of those concerns are already baked into Abdullah's current price, a price that doesn't reflect the reasons for optimism. That's why we need to take a closer look at him.
It's totally understandable to want to avoid a guy who burned you last year. Those scars of fantasy demolition don't heal quickly. But at the same time, we need to be able to recognize when these biases exist because they have the potential to create overcompensation. It appears as if that's what we're seeing with Abdullah, and it's time to start buying him as a result.