Devonta Freeman Is Primed to Disappoint in Fantasy Football in 2016
Devonta Freeman went from mid-round fantasy pick in 2015 as the less heralded back in a running-back-by-committee situation to 2015 fantasy RB1 and 2016 second-rounder.
Our JJ Zachariason calculated that he was the best draft-day running back value in fantasy football in the past five years.
Usually, the RB1 from the previous season is a surefire first-round fantasy pick, but after the 2015 running back apocalypse, he carries a more modest average pick of 19.09 in MFL10s, 23.84 in My Fantasy League redraft leagues, and 17.1 in Fantasy Football Calculator 12-team PPR drafts. If he repeats as fantasy's top back, he's a value. Otherwise, he may fall short of being worth his draft-day price.
To evaluate the risk associated with Freeman, one doesn't need to investigate deep into Atlanta's offense to see if there is room for both Freeman and Julio Jones, what the signing of Mohamed Sanu or drafting of Austin Hooper means for Freeman, or how game script will impact his rushing or receiving opportunity. There is a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it's a major red flag.
The elephant in the room when talking about Freeman is his play from Weeks 3-7 last season, when he took the fantasy world by storm. With 825 total yards (578 rushing, 247 receiving) and 9 touchdowns in just five games, Freeman set himself up to cruise the rest of the way to being fantasy’s top running back. There is no denying he was excellent over those five games. But how repeatable was it?
One thing to note is Freeman’s stellar group of performances came against weaker rush defenses. Only the Texans graded out as above-average on a per-play basis according to our metrics, but Freeman took advantage of a positive game script and scored 3 times on just 14 attempts. But there is no need to discredit the performance because of the competition. It was downright historic.
Over the aforementioned span, Freeman’s Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play was 0.27. No player has ever sustained a figure that high over a full season since 2000, the first year for which we have NEP data. Marshall Faulk is the only player to even break 0.20, and for additional reference, Shaun Alexander was at 0.18 in 2005 and Ladainian Tomlinson 0.17 in 2006. Fantasy players often mention a player’s upside, and we saw Freeman’s ceiling was among that of some of the game’s legends.
However, we can’t just judge a player’s season by his best games. If we looked at all games outside of Weeks 3-7, the stats paint a much different picture. With a measly -0.14 Rushing NEP per play, Freeman’s efficiency went from the likes of Faulk, Alexander, and Tomlinson to the likes of Alfred Blue and Melvin Gordon.
|Freeman Splits||Rushes||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/P||Successes||Success%|
|Rest of Season||155||-21.52||-0.14||49||31.61%|
Freeman's play was so different over the two different periods that he was essentially a different player entirely. There is the aforementioned drop in efficiency as well as in volume on a per-game basis and Success Rate, the percentage of carries that actually led to positive expected point gains for the Falcons.
Freeman’s Success Rate on rushing plays went from a stellar 55.96%, among the best we have in our database, to 31.61%, which was lower than that of any rusher with at least 125 attempts in 2015. The first Freeman is a deserving RB1, while the second is a scrub.
There is a narrative that because of Freeman’s role in the passing game, he will have a higher fantasy floor. After all, he accrued a whopping 97 targets last season, third-most among receiving running backs.
To compare Freeman to other receiving backs, we'll examine the 21 running backs with at least 50 targets last season. Included in the group are the names you’d expect: Danny Woodhead, Theo Riddick, Giovani Bernard, Charles Sims, etc. In the table below, we have the five running backs with the most targets, along with the player pool average for reference. The "rank" columns are out of 21.
|Player||Targets||Rank||Rec NEP||Rank||Rec NEP/Tar||Rank|
|Player Pool Average||67.19||-||27.73||-||0.41||-|
The first thing to note is in the targets column. Woodhead, Riddick, and Freeman combined for 303 targets, while the player pool average was just 67.19. It’s fair to wonder if Freeman’s volume will repeat in 2016, as there have been only 44 running back seasons since 2000 with 90-plus targets. It’s possible that, with the shift towards passing, there will be more cases of running backs becoming target monsters out of the backfield, but just 13 of the 44 were 2010 or sooner, so it hasn’t manifested yet.
From Reception NEP, one can see that each of the top five was able to produce given opportunity. Woodhead and Riddick again top the list, with Freeman landing in the top five. Darren Sproles, whose Reception NEP was below the pool average, is also way below the pool average in Reception NEP per target. Is this the end for him? Woodhead and Riddick were the only two of the five highlighted players to place above the average in per-target efficiency, despite corralling so many targets.
However, under the microscope, Freeman’s receiving wasn’t looked like on the surface. If we separate Freeman's breakout with the rest of his season, we again see the story of two different players.
|Freeman Splits||Rec||Rec NEP||Tar||Tar NEP||Rec NEP/T||Successes||Success%|
|Rest of Season||46||16.43||65||-2.59||0.25||33||71.74%|
He had just more Reception NEP in five games than he did the rest of the season combined, suggesting the outrageous efficiency in the fifth column. That 0.64 Reception NEP per target would have been the third-best seasonal mark behind David Johnson and James White.
Meanwhile, the rest-of-season 0.25 figure would have been the third-worst, ahead of Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray. I also included Target NEP because of the fact he was costing his team points, something tough to do in today's NFL, where passing is highly efficient.
When a back is given a lion's share of work in a Kyle Shanahan offense, fantasy football players have to take note. Shanahan running backs have often been fantasy gold, including guys such as Steve Slaton, Ryan Torain, and Alfred Morris, who probably wouldn't have succeeded in other systems. Freeman did take over in Week 3 for an injured Tevin Coleman, and after Coleman returned, the rookie saw more than four touches only twice in 10 games.
However, Kyle Shanahan said in June that Freeman will be the undisputed starter, so Coleman shouldn't be much of a threat unless Freeman completely flops or sustains an injury.
If you believe that Freeman's monster five-game series represented his true talent level, by all means select him wherever you please. But after a historically bad rookie year and the 10 down-to-earth games in 2015 that were eerily similar to his rookie season, there's a good chance Freeman really was just playing out of his mind.
Selecting him in the early rounds meaning relying on a repeat of a historic small sample.