Theo Riddick Has Cheap Fantasy Football Upside This Year

Can Theo Riddick's receiving value return in 2016, or does he have capped upside?

If you’re expecting to be surprised, can something surprise you at all?

M. Night Shyamalan’s “twist” endings in his movies are his creative signature. We know that if his name is tacked onto the front of a film, there will be a “surprise” left turn at the end. The Sixth Sense? He’s dead the whole time. Signs? The aliens are real. As I watched a trailer for The Village in a movie theater in 2004, the friend I was seeing it with muttered about how good it looked and speculated about what the surprise would be. I whispered, “I bet they’re not really in old times. They’re probably being lied to and it’s present day.”

It’s not hard to make a good guess on something when all the signs are right there in front of you. This is the feeling I get when I look at the fantasy prospects and usage of Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick. The Lions have left signals as clear as day out for us fantasy players on how they plan to use him.

Grab your popcorn, friends; Theo Riddick isn’t a leading man who will wow your fantasy league mates when you draft him, but he could end up hoisting a trophy with you when all is said and done.

Will You Dance With Me?

Not too long ago, I broke down the Lions’ backfield as part of a study about how NFL teams use running back-by-committee (RBBC) and the various forms they take. The Lions, specifically, have had the 10th-lowest Opportunity Market Share (percentage of running back attempts plus targets) for their lead running back since 2013.

The table below shows the top three running backs over the past three years for the Lions and their total opportunity count.

Year RB1 Opp RB2 Opp RB3 Opp
2013 Reggie Bush 304 Joique Bell 236 Theo Riddick 17
2014 Joique Bell 277 Reggie Bush 132 Theo Riddick 70
2015 Ameer Abdullah 181 Theo Riddick 142 Joique Bell 117

Despite this inconsistency in the split of roles from year to year, we can see an average even share of opportunities split between the RB1 and RB2 roles in most years. The Market Share split between the two favors the RB1 role for rushing (56.29 percent of all rushing attempts to 27.24 percent) and the RB2 role for receiving (44.98 percent of all targets to 34.34 percent).

What makes the Lions’ situation different in 2016 than in recent years is the fact that their presumptive lead rusher, Ameer Abdullah, is not a particularly prolific receiving back. In college at Nebraska, he averaged just 1.8 receptions per game from his sophomore through senior year. Last year, when the new offense under after the Week 9 bye, Abdullah caught 12 balls in eight games: 1.50 receptions per game (1.88 targets per game). Every indication about Abdullah adds up to a player whose lacking hands skills will prevent him from being a big-time receiver, and it seems the coaching staff recognizes that.

All of this is good news for Riddick in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues, as it indicates that he will likely retain a heavy target load whether or not Abdullah receives most of the carries for Detroit.

Heed the Warning Bell

We know that Theo Riddick has a capped ceiling in standard scoring fantasy leagues, as he has a total of 72 rushing attempts in his career (2.90 yards per carry). Running backs who receive fewer than 30 rushing attempts per season just don’t become elite fantasy options.

However, due to the volume of his receiving usage, he can be useful in PPR formats. With so little margin for error, though, we need to know if he’s been efficient with his receiving opportunities. We can use both box score statistics and numberFire’s signature analytic -- Net Expected Points (NEP) -- to check that.

NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If a running back rushes for five-yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Riddick’s usage and production as a receiver over the last three years, in terms of yards per target, touchdown rate, Reception NEP, and Reception Success Rate (percent of receptions converted to positive NEP). Can he deliver starring fantasy performances?

Year Targets Catch% Yards/T TD Rec. NEP/T Success Rate
2013 8 50.00% 3.25 0.00% 0.26 75.00%
2014 50 68.00% 6.32 8.00% 0.41 67.65%
2015 99 80.81% 7.04 3.03% 0.50 77.50%

Every year, whether in opportunities or efficiency, Riddick has improved as a receiver in the Lions’ offense.

Even if we remove his 2013 rookie season for being too small of a sample size, Riddick took a slight step forward from 2014 to 2015 in each of his rate statistics. Sure enough, per Pro Football Focus, he had the highest yards per route run among the 44 running backs with at least 30 targets in 2015, and was targeted on 31.02 percent of his routes; the most among these players.

His catch rate last year was above the 2015 running back average (74.50 percent), as was his Reception NEP per target (0.39), but a slight regression to this average rate wouldn’t diminish his fantasy value too much if he continues to receive targets in as high of volume as he did. In fact, since 2000, the average catch rate for running backs with 99 or more targets was 74.46 percent. This seems to be a symbiotic effect: these players earned a ton of targets by being reliable receivers, and were stable players in the receiving game because of their volume of targets. Riddick may easily have solidified his immense receiving usage by how reliable he’s been.

Those We Don’t Speak Of

numberFire’s all-new 2016 projections have dropped, and our algorithms put Riddick as the 38th running back available this year in PPR leagues. We project him for about 48 carries for 177 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on the ground, and around 62 receptions for 551 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns in the air.

I believe this is a conservative estimate.

With Joique Bell gone, there are already 90 carries and 27 targets unaccounted for in this offense, and the Lions have said they plan to allow Riddick to tote the rock more this year. Perhaps Riddick won’t gain many rushing attempts, but our projections also seem to assume that the Lions will have around 20 fewer running back receptions in 2016 than 2015, and that Abdullah will catch 14 more passes. The receiving corps is still in flux, so I don’t see the former happening, and with Abdullah’s ball security issues, the latter also doesn’t seem very likely.

If Riddick maintains a target load of at least 100 and a catch rate of 75 percent, a very doable receiving line of about 75 catches for around 670 yards receiving would put him as the RB28 in PPR in our projections, making him a value as the RB37 in ESPN’s average draft position (ADP). That ranking could be even higher with a substantial amount of rushing attempts if they keep their promise, or if the around 20 extra targets we project Abdullah to receive go to Riddick.

It may seem like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat, banging the table for a receiving-only running back, but that’s a way to get easy value if your leaguemates miss the signs in his usage. Everyone wants to draft a three-down fantasy running back, but in this day and age, all it takes is a good hunch to acquire cheap upside at that position in the middle rounds of your PPR drafts. Riddick presents that opportunity to us.