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The instant impact rookie running back. Seemingly every year, one or two rookies are gifted with an opportunity to see a significant workload at a certain point in the season. Some are scheduled to be their team's starter form the get go (think Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in 2007) while others benefit from a stroke of luck due to an injury to the starting guy or the starting guy is struggling (Branden Oliver, Jeremy Hill in 2014).
As the NFL Draft nears, it's important to look at these situations so you can identify them and play them to your advantage. It's also important to look at past examples so you can hopefully spot a similar situation in the future.
What can the draft tell us about fantasy?
When it comes to identifying what round a player is more likely to have a higher probability of immediately producing at, it can vary by position. One obvious trend is that quarterbacks taken in Rounds 1-3 typically do better. Current top fantasy quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Reothlisberger and Aaron Rodgers were all drafted in the first two rounds in their respective drafts.
When you look at the wide receiver position, DeMaryius Thomas was a first-rounder as was Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. Jordy Nelson was a second-round pick in 2008. Top 2014 fantasy wideout Antonio Brown was one exception to the rule. Brown was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
Running backs are a different story
Even though there's been some late-round gems at the quarterback and wide receiver position, the running back position is place where you'll find perhaps the highest probability quality fantasy players. More frequently than you'd think, you'll find top fantasy running backs who were drafted in the later rounds or even went undrafted.
There's a lot of variables that play into running backs not getting drafted as high as they used to be, and we could list 1,000 more words telling you why that is, but for the sake of this argument lets just say the NFL is a copy cat league and selecting a running back later on is just the trend right now. Even the 2015 running back class, which is being hyped as the best in years, will still likely only draw two first rounders (Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon). So with a running back class as good as this one, which has many draftniks claiming it could be as good as 14 quality starters deep, it's important to look at how late-round running backs have come to the forefront in the past and made an impact on fantasy teams. Let's take a look at last year's impact fantasy running backs who were rookies.
Case study #1 — Branden Oliver, San Diego Chargers (undrafted)
Oliver was ranked in the Top 40 among fantasy backs in fantasy points in 2014, which wasn't bad for a 5'8 undrafted rookie out of SUNY Buffalo. Oliver got his chance when starter Ryan Mathews went down with an MCL sprain. Of course, nobody saw Oliver's start coming after Mathews was scheduled to sit out the following week. Everybody had Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown pegged as the backups most likely to benefit, myself included. It goes to show you — always look all the way down on the depth chart before picking somebody up off the waiver wire. You never know what can happen.
Well, a stroke of luck happened and Oliver took off against the New York Jets. After Brown went out with a concussion early on and with Mathews already sidelined, Oliver feasted on the weak Jets passing defense and caught four balls for 68 yards and 1 touchdown. He also rushed for over 100 yards and finished with 29 fantasy points.
Watching that game, Oliver's ability in the passing game no doubt helped keep the defense and honest and led to him being more effective on the ground. Oliver also benefitted from Brown leaving the first half of that game with a concussion, which opened up the doors for him within the offense.
He didn't slow down afterward that game either. The Chargers leaned heavily on him the following week and Oliver made a nice second impression with a 101-yard effort against the Oakland Raiders and one touchdown. While those numbers were impressive, it's worth noting Oliver averaged just 3.9 yards a clip on 26 carries against one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, so it was no surprise that Oliver's production eventually dropped off.
While he turned out to be a nice addition off the waiver wire for a brief stretch, Oliver's fantasy value hit a snag after he ran into some tough defenses that started with a 36-yard performance against Denver on Thursday night. He tossed in six more equally ineffective games before finishing with 582 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns for the year, with half of his fantasy points coming in those two games against Oakland and New York.
Oliver proved (at least in his rookie season) to be more of a scat, receiving type back. He's not a guy that can beat you with 20 carries per game. He's more of a Darren Sproles type player who will beat you out of the backfield. But in the right matchup against a weak passing defense, he proved he could produce for at least a few weeks.
One of the takeaways you can use from Oliver is to considers drafting backup running backs where the starter has an injury history. Now, this doesn't always work out. DeMarco Murray was injured almost every season but managed to finish 2014 without any major injuries to speak of. He did suffer a hand injury at one point, but it didn't slow him up much to create a ton of value for the backup running back on Dallas.
In the case of Oliver, starting RB Ryan Mathews also had a long injury history. So keep an eye out for running backs (especially the rookies in this draft) who get drafted to a team with a No. 1 back who is prone to sitting out games.
Next, always be keen on matchups. Oliver benefited from two easy defenses (New York Jets weak passing defense and Oakland's weak rushing defense) when he put up his best numbers.
Lastly, always make sure to scope out the entire depth chart of a team. Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown were the top backups but Oliver was also on the depth chart as well.
Entering the 2014 fantasy draft, Montee Ball was being scooped up early by fantasy owners who thought they had found the next big thing. Those that expected RB1 numbers from Ball were sadly mistaken, as a season of injuries and the emergence of CJ Anderson caused him to finish as the 90th RB overall in standard scoring behind teammates CJ Anderson (11th overall) and Ronnie Hillman (41 overall). To put how disappointing Ball's season was into perspective, Ball finished with only 27.4 fantasy points on the season in 5 games played. These beyond disappointing numbers in 2014 killed many owners fantasy seasons, but now the hopefuls are looking to the future... and the future's name is CJ Anderson. Entering 2015, Anderson is going in current mocks between the late first to second round, eerily similar to Ball's ADP entering 2014. Could this spell disaster for Anderson next season? This analyst thinks that the clear answer is a resounding 'no.' Let's take a look at both backs in order to find proof that Anderson is not doomed to repeat the failures of Montee Ball.
Evidence vs. Speculation
In 2013, Knowshon Moreno finished as the #5 fantasy running back with Ball (next big thing) showing flashes of greatness. When Moreno left the Broncos after the 2013 season, the fantasy world was abuzz that Ball would be the workhorse back and repeat Moreno's numbers in 2014. This was pure speculation. In his entire rookie season, Ball never had more than 15 carries per game and averaged only 7.5. In other words, Ball was never the bell cow in the Broncos' 2013 offense so to expect him to just take that role in 2014 was nothing but a hopeful prediction. Additionally, Ball only had a single 100+ yard game (13 carries for 117 yards) and in that game had a single rush for 45 yards. Remove that rush and Ball had 12 carries for 72 yards, which while still impressive is not RB1 material. Finally, even though Ball showed some flashes of being a viable fantasy starter in 2015, there was one glaring statistic that should have made people realize he couldn't be the workhorse back in 2014. In his rookie season, on rushing attempts 11-20 Ball averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. In other words, when Ball was given more than 10 carries per game, his stats dropped significantly.
After taking a look at the numbers, it seems that there's a bit more evidence supporting Anderson's case. In the first nine weeks of 2014 Anderson tallied only 17 carries. In week 10, he began to take the reins and rushed for 90 yards on 13 carries (6.9 yards per carry). Fully taking over the backfield in week 12, he averaged 23 carries per game (140 carries in 6 weeks) and 4.6 yards per carry (648 yards on 140 carries) for the remainder of the season. This is the definition of a workhorse back, a role that Montee Ball never actually achieved in 2013. And remember that glaring statistic of Montee Ball only averaging 3.4 yards per carry after 10 rushes? It doesn't seem like Anderson has that problem. On carries 11-20, Anderson averages 4.3 yards per carry, and on carries 21-30, he averages 4.9 yards per carry. These are the type of numbers required from a workhorse back and should continue in 2015.
Wear and Tear
Montee Ball and CJ Anderson are both only 24 years old, and should have good long careers ahead of them right? While they could both have long careers ahead of them, the level of wear and tear of Ball is MUCH higher than that of Anderson. Now, I understand that CJ Anderson has 186 career carries in the NFL while Ball has only 175, but this goes beyond the NFL. In his 4 year college career, Ball rushed 924 times for an impressive 5140 yards (5.6 avg) while in Anderson's short career rushed only 198 times for 1135 yards (5.7 avg). A lot of people forget that rookies entering the NFL don't have equal levels of wear and tear. While you can't say that Ball's injury in 2014 was directly caused by his heavy workload in college, it certainly didn't help. Likewise Anderson, even with his heavy workload in 2014, remained injury free and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. This could be a testament to his build and the toughness he has. Measuring in at 5'8" and 224 lbs, Anderson is simply a more durable back compared to the 5'10" 216 lbs Montee Ball. And even as a shorter and heavier back, Anderson has a bit more top speed than Ball. In fact, in addition to speed Anderson slights Ball in a few categories. Let's take a look at their combine results...
* = Top Performer 40 Yard Dash Bench Press Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3 Cone Drill 20 Yard Shuttle CJ Anderson
17 reps 32" 119" 7.15 sec 4.12 sec* Montee Ball 4.66 sec 15 reps 32" 118" 6.88 sec 4.40 sec
Now I know these numbers are extremely close (too close to call really) but with how similar they are it makes you wonder why Ball was drafted in the second round while Anderson went undrafted.
Where to Target CJ Anderson in 2015
After crunching the numbers, it is clear that CJ Anderson has solidified himself as a workhorse-capable back. He is entering the 2015 season as the Broncos #1 back and with an expected reduced workload from Peyton Manning, Anderson looks like one of the best backs (situationally) for 2015. Additionally, with Gary Kubiak returning to the Broncos (this time as their head coach) I expect even more emphasis on the running game. In my opinion, if Kubiak (as offensive coordinator) was able to turn the journeyman, Justin Forsett into a viable fantasy starter, I can only imagine what he can do with a gem like CJ Anderson. Because Ball's ADP in 2014 was based on speculation and assumed potential, he failed to live up to the hype. In Anderson's case the hype is real! I expect Anderson to finish in the top 10 for RBs easily and could push the top 5. Look to scoop up Anderson in the back end of the first round or the very early second round.
Everybody has a different strategy when it comes to fantasy football drafts in redraft leagues. The oldest adage was to take a running back with your first pick. Some would stack up on running backs and bite the bullet at wide receiver in hopes of landing a late sleeper or snagging a bloomer off the waiver wire. Some people swear by drafting a quarterback in the later rounds while others look to land a rock of a quarterback in round 1 and start him every week aside from that players' bye.
The effectiveness of your strategy comes down to two things. One, How are the other people in your league drafting? Are they taking running backs by the truckload early on? Are they opting for No. 1 wide receivers in the later portion of Round 1 after the level of running back talent dips a bit? Their actions will determine the best course of action for yourself. This is why it's so important to never be too married to one specific strategy as it can really change based on how your league drafts. Being able to adapt effectively is how the human species survived, and you must do the same if you expect to be competitive in fantasy football. I know — that was deep, right?
The second thing that comes into play is the rules of your league and how your positions are set up. Most leagues follow the QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, Flex, TE, DEF, format and if that's the case in your league, then running back is definitely where you want to be looking first.
Why drafting a running back first is still the preferred method
When it comes to drafting a winning team, you have to stock up on the position that carries the highest reward and is in the shortest supply. The top three fantasy running backs in 2014 scored 282, 272, and 253 fantasy points respectively. The top 3 receivers scored 251, 223 and 221 fantasy points. Of the top wide receivers, 41 of them scored at least 100 fantasy points. Of the top running backs, only 28 of them scored over 100 fantasy points. That alone should be enough to tell you that drafting a good running back is more important than any position on your team. They score more and there's less quality in point totals among that position.
The numbers were also similar in 2013. That year, 33 running backs scored at least 100 fantasy points. For receivers that season, 38 of them achieved that feat.
Also, the majority of teams continue to prefer a running-back-by-committee style and true feature backs are so few and far between that you almost have to adapt an RBBC style yourself if you expect to do well in your league.
Some may argue that because the NFL has become such a pass-oriented league that it makes sense to start drafting receivers higher. They also might've gotten caught up in last year's rookie phenomenon where three first-year receivers registered over 1,000 yards receiving. It might even be sexier to see your fantasy wide receiver score a lot than your running back. It's important to not get sucked up into this if you want to be consistently good within your league though.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying drafting wide receivers late in the first round is a bad idea. I'm saying drafting two wide receivers straight is often considered highly risky because you're gambling on the idea of drafting a quality running back in the later rounds. I've seen the WR-WR strategy work in redraft leagues before, but in every instance I saw there were special circumstances involved that allowed that fantasy owner's lesser quality running backs shine.
For example, one player who won a league I was in last year drafted Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant with his first two picks. Both players turned in career seasons. He even lucked out at the WR3 spot drafting Golden Tate, who was another WR that posted a career year thanks in part to Calvin Johnson struggling with injuries for a majority of the season in Detroit.
At running back, he drafted a slew of players he hoped would blossom including Jeremy Hill, Le'Veon Bell and Mark Ingram. I know some people are shocked he managed to get Bell after drafting two wide receivers first but people fail to remember Bell's ADP (average draft position) was No. 23 overall and he was the 12th RB drafted on average. Looks crazy now considering he was the No. 2 running back in fantasy last year behind only DeMarco Murray.
So essentially, that fantasy owner took a gamble and it paid off. Giovani Bernard ended up going down with an injury and Jeremy Hill got his opportunity to start in a run-oriented offense and he also finished among the Top 10 in rushing yards last season. So the WR-WR strategy definitely can work, I just don't trust the idea of this year's 12th-best fantasy running back and a rookie backup both becoming fantasy stars again.
In my first installment of Buy/Sell I broke down the fantasy value between Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the Broncos Peyton Manning. For my second installment, I am going to dissect the fantasy potential of two of the league’s most prolific passers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and the Falcons Matt Ryan.
Buy: Matt Ryan
When Dirk Koetter signed on in 2012 to be the Falcons offensive coordinator one thing was for certain, Matt Ryan was going to throw the ball all over the yard. In the three seasons that Koetter was in charge of play-calling, the Falcons had one of the more pass-happy offenses in the NFL, finishing in the top-10 in passing attempts and passing yards every year.
Despite having one of the best offensive units in football the Falcons were held back by sub-par offensive line play, and arguably the worst defense in football. Due to these deficiencies the Falcons finished the 2014-15 season with a 6-10 record, leading to the dismissal of head coach Mike Smith and the rest of the Falcons coaching staff.
New Coaching Staff
Despite Kyle Shannahan taking over for Dirk Koetter as the Falcons offensive coordinator, I do not expect the Falcons offense to take a step back in the 2015-16 season.
During Shannahan's 7 seasons as an offensive coordinator in the NFL with the Texans, Redskins, and the Browns, Shannahan has been one of the most pass-happy coaches in the NFL, ranking in the top-10 in 5 out of 7 seasons in total passing attempts. The only two times that Shannahan did not rank in the top-10 in pass attempts was in 2013, one year after Robert Griffin III suffered a torn ACL, and in 2015 in Cleveland when he had to deal with the sub-par quarterback talent of veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny "Football" Manziel.
Aside from having one of the worst offensive lines in football, the Falcons offense is still littered with playmakers that have the potential to make even an average quarterback look like a Joe Montana.
Julio Jones has finally taken over as the focal point as the Falcons passing attack, with Roddy White shifting to more of a possession. Despite ranking third in the NFL in both targets (154) and receptions (103) Jones only found pay-dirt 6 times causing Jones to be an elite PPR asset, and a low WR1 in standard formats.
Although "Rowdy" Roddy White (as my buddy Paddy refers to him as) is getting closer to the twilight zone of his career he still proved to be a reliable receiver for fantasy owners. Despite missing two games in 2014, White still ranked in the top 20 in targets (122), receptions (80), and touchdown receptions (7), ranking White as the 24th overall wide receiver (Low WR2) in ESPN standard scoring leagues.
Sell: Drew Brees
Just like with Peyton Manning, I am not telling you that Drew Bress is a player you should completely avoid in fantasy football, but should definitely temper your expectations for the former MVP. After losing Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks and the team investing a large amount of money to stabilize the running game, the Saints could be looking at a shift in offensive philosophy in 2015.
Jimmy Graham Departure
Normally the loss of a tight end would not be something that scares me off from drafting a quarterback in fantasy football, but when that tight end is Jimmy Graham you have to take note.
As you can see by the table below Graham has been one of the most dangerous pass-catching tight ends over the last three seasons. Last year, in what could be considered a "down year" by the standards that fantasy owners hold Graham to, Graham was still able to post double-digit touchdowns and almost 900 receiving yards, ranking him the no. 3 overall tight end in fantasy football.
Graham TA Rec. % Ct Yds Yds / Rec. YAC YAC / Rec. LG TD 2012 131 85 64.9 982 11.6 310 3.6 46 9 2013 145 90 62.1 1267 14.1 433 4.8 56 16 2014 121 85 70.2 889 10.5 292 3.4 29 10 397 260 65.73 3138 12.07 1035 3.98 35
With Graham's departure to Seattle, it leaves a gaping hole in the Saints receiving corps. All-purpose receiver Brandin Cooks showed promise during his rookie season, but would be more effective as a slot receiver than a player that predominantly plays on the boundary. Marques Colston re-structred his contract to stay with the team but is in no way capable of being a no. 1 WR at this point in his career.
Little known second-year tight end Josh Hill will be given the opportunity to fill the void left by Graham in the Saints passing game. Saints head coach Sean Payton has raved about Hill this offseason stating in an interview with ESPN, "This Josh Hill is another player that I love. I love," Payton said "When you look at his runs, jumps, height, weight, speed, you look at his measurable ---- and he didn't go to the Combine, thank God.
While it is fair to assume that Hill will see an uptick in production in 2015, I highly doubt that the will come anywhere close to the production Graham posted aside from his 31/356/5 that Graham posted his rookie season.
With the draft quickly approaching, and the Saints in possession of two first-round picks the Saints could be in line to add wide receiver early in the draft for the second year-in-a-row.
Photo Courtesy of Football Schedule Flickr Page
In 2014 fantasy owners in every league invested heavily in Andre Ellington with the hopes that he would have a breakout sophomore year. Unfortunately, Ellington experienced what can only be considered a sophomore slump. His previous 5.5 yard per carry average plummeted in 2014 to 3.3, and he was only able to rack up 8 more rushing yards in 2014 (650) than in his freshman season (642), on 83 more carries. These numbers are disheartening for fantasy owners, but on the bright side he was struggling with injuries throughout the year that could be considered the primary cause for his decline. Whatever the reason, fantasy owners are looking ahead and trying to decide whether or not Ellington will be worth an investment in 2015. In this article, we will look at the factors affecting his value in 2015 and try to figure out just where to draft this boom or bust candidate.
Can Ellington be a lead back in today's NFL?
The NFL today is a completely different animal than it once was. The days of a a single RB racking up 300+ carries on any given team are over, typically being replaced by RBBC's. The fact is that the league has evolved into a faster, pass-heavy style of play where individual backs serve different purposes such as pass catching, pass blocking, rushing between the tackles, and edge rushing. While this fact doesn't only have an effect on Ellington, it hurts him as much and possibly more than other backs because of his size. Measuring in at 5'9" and only 195 lbs, many believe that Ellington doesn't have the size and durability to be a lead back in today's NFL. Think Giovani Bernard minus 10 lbs. Like Bernard, don't be surprised if Arizona looks to add a bruiser at running back to take 1st and 2nd down carries, while spelling Ellington to 3rd down duties. Now, this isn't to say that Ellington can't be a lead back, but unless he can bulk up in the off season like the Cardinals want, expect another RB to enter Arizona leaving fantasy owners everywhere with another headache.
Can Ellington stay healthy in 2015?
In 2014 Ellington was plagued with a series of injuries that made it seem like he was made of glass. A week before the season started, Ellington tore a tendon in his left foot and then dealt with a hip flexor issue. Finally, Ellington's season was ended by a sports related hernia which required surgery that sidelined him for the remainder of 2014. Because Ellington has proven to be so injury prone, the need for Arizona to add not only a bigger, but also a more durable back is only more dire. Because of his injuries, Ellington was limited in his carries this season and failed to record a single 100 yard game.
Where to target Ellington entering 2015
When looking at Ellington's current situation, we really find nothing but question marks. Can Ellington bulk up in the off season? Can he stay healthy in 2015? Will the Cardinals bring in another back to compliment Ellington? The questions go on and on. The only certainty entering 2015, is that the Cardinals will have improved run blocking in the form of elite run blocking guard, Mike Iupati. Unfortunately, even the addition of Iupati isn't enough to sell me on Ellington. Currently, Ellington is being drafted as an RB2 in most standard mocks due to the Cardinal's lack of depth at the RB position. However, the question marks surrounding Ellington are too much to ignore, and it's likely that the Cardinals will look to add a big back in either free agency (fingers crossed for Adrian Peterson) or the draft. Either way, any decent addition to the Cardinals backfield will only further hurt Ellington's value. I wouldn't reach for Ellington come draft day, but as a true boom or bust candidate I wouldn't mind taking him as my third or fourth RB. Nothing earlier.