Tuesday, 27 January 2015 00:00

Lessons learned: Predicting the bargain rookie running back

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Lessons learned: Predicting the bargain rookie running back Kyle Engman/Flickr

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Alfred Morris in 2012. Eddie Lacy in 2013. Jeremy Hill in 2014.

What do all three of those running backs have in common? They were all rookies when they rushed for over 1,000 yards and surprised everybody. By doing so, they cemented themselves as some of the best fantasy bargains in their respective rookie seasons. They did this through their talent obviously, but they also had a high volume of carries and good talent around them which likely played an even bigger role in their early success.

Let's start with the volume argument. In 2013, Lacy's 284 carries his rookie season ranked fifth overall. Morris had 335 carries in 2012 which was good for third best that season and Hill's 222 carries ranked 13th this past season. It's through this idea of volume carries that we will use to see if we can figure out who will be the guy to post 1,000-plus rushing yards in 2015.

Among those three rookie seasons, Morris found the most success in the yardage category and also (coincidentally) had the most volume. The sixth-round draft pick by the Redskins thrived under Kyle Shanhan's zone run blocking scheme and finished second in the league in rushing yards with 1,613. He trailed only Adrian Peterson that season, who had a monstrous 2,097 yards and come 14 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's long held record of 2,105 set in 1984. Morris also had a pre-injury Robert Griffin III under center. RG3 and the Redskins also ran a read option offense that few defensive coordinators had figured out yet.

Lacy had a similar story to Morris. He might've been slightly more hyped coming out of college, but his draft stock took a bit of a nose dive when an injury forced him to miss several workouts during the combine which led to Giovani Bernard getting selected as the first running back overall in the 2013 draft. Le'Veon Bell and Montee Ball were also taken before Lacy, as Eddie was eventually taken later in the second round by the Green Bay Packers. While Lacy never possessed crazy explosiveness and was even considered 'too fat' to play running back by many, he showed great determination and purpose to go along with his immense strength and eventually finished with 1,178 yards and more importantly, 11 touchdowns. Lacy had Aaron Rodgers under center.

Just this past season, LSU product Jeremy Hill found himself embedded in a run heavy offense in Cincinnati under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and found his place quickly after former starter Giovani Bernard went down with an injury early in the season. Hill rushed for 1,124 yards and 9 touchdowns. While there was some luck involved since he had to wait for an opportunity before he could see a spike in numbers, Hill's volume of carries increased even after Bernard recovered. If you extrapolate Hill's rushing attempts had he been the full-time starter at the beginning of the season, you would've been looking at numbers similar to Lacy and Morris.

While Hill didn't have a premier quarterback under center like RG3 (2012 RG3, not today's RG3) and Rodgers, he did have an offensive line that hovered around the Top 10 in run blocking. Another running back who probably had the most potential for volume last season was Bishop Sankey of the Tennessee Titans. Sankey found himself on an offense without a true No. 1 running back, but Tennessee's offensive line ranked in the bottom 15 and Sankey also didn't prove to be very explosive in his own right. So this theory isn't full proof, but it's a good start.

Why it's important for fantasy football

Identifying bargains and hitting on them is always key in fantasy football. For example, if you ended up with a pair of running backs like Le'Veon Bell and Jeremy Hill, you would've been set at running back for the majority of the 2014 season.

Bell was the 12th running back taken off on the board on average in standard rules fantasy drafts this year according to FantasyPros. Hill was the 40th RB selected on average. Bell finished as the No. 2 running back in fantasy this past season with 272 fantasy points, trailing only DeMarco Murray. Hill finished as the 10th best running back in fantasy with 171 fantasy points and compiled those numbers in roughly 10 starts, closing out the year with three straight 100-yard efforts.

Chances are, you were probably bummed out if you drafted those guys initially, as they were guys you took simply because they were the last running back left in their tier or whatever. but as the season went along, you were happier and happier.

Who's the potential best bargain in this year's crop of rookie running backs?

Obviously, it's too early to tell. But before you get angry and click the 'x' button, there's a way to reasonably predict which future rookie running back has the best chance to put up good numbers in their first season. That way comes from (you guessed it), identifying which team would have the potential to give the rookie running back the highest volume of carries.

The biggest and most obvious factor when predicting a bargain fantasy rookie running back is playing time. If the team doesn't need that running back because they already have a firm starter in his place, then he won't be in the backfield accruing stats for your fantasy team. A good example of this is Christine Michael in Seattle, a guy who drew some hype before the 2014 began only to be kept on the bench due to Marshawn Lynch's continued success. Carlos Hyde and Frank Gore are two other examples. So let's take a look at some of the team's that actually need a running back and assess whether or not that team has enough talent to help a rookie become a bargain fantasy running back in 2015.

Side note: This assessment of team's picking is just for the first round of the 2015 draft only and based on team needs only. It doesn't take into account the teams who don't have a significant need for a new running back (for sake of the 'demand' argument earlier). This argument doesn't take talent into account as much either. It assumes all this year's top running backs are equally talented (we know that's not exactly the case, but for arguments sake lets say it is).

 

Jacksonville Jaguars (pick No. 3) — The Toby Gerhart experiment failed for the Jaguars in 2014, and now it's looking like they may need a true workhorse to complement scat back Denard Robinson. The point of this article isn't to try and predict if Jacksonville would take a running back, it's to see how well that running back could do if he got drafted there.

Jacksonville's offensive line struggled mightily last season. They ranked dead last in pass protection and 29th in run blocking according to Football Outsiders. Drafting a rookie running back to your fantasy team in a redraft league who plays on Jacksonville in 2015 would be risky if they don't make some big changes to their offensive line in the offseason.

Good volume probability: High        Talent on team: Low       Overall bargain probability: Low

Atlanta Falcons (pick No. 8) — A big factor that could help a rookie running backs cause on this team is Kyle Shanahan's zone run blocking scheme. We mentioned early how Morris had immense success in this offense as a rookie despite not being the most highly touted running back coming out of the draft.

The Atlanta Falcons ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to run blocking last season, and that was with some key injuries along the offensive line. Plus, they already have one of the best receivers in the league in Julio Jones, a guy who can stretch the field and take corners and safeties deep which will clear out space for the running back. We saw how DeSean Jackson's speed in Philadelphia helped LeSean McCoy win the rushing title in 2013.

The running back situation is currently cloudy but the potential for volume exists. Veteran Steven Jackson will likely be cut and Jacquizz Rodgers is a free agent. That leaves Devonta Freeman left. Freeman didn't play much as a rookie and struggled when he did.

The Falcons also play in the NFC South, a division currently known for some of the worst defenses in the league. The Falcons put up nearly 60 points on a Thursday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early this season. If the Falcons end up taking a good rookie running back sometime this draft, fantasy numbers could be very good.

Good volume probability: Medium    Talent on team: High     Overall bargain probability: High

St. Louis Rams (pick No 10) — The Rams were a team that slowly got better as the season went along, especially on the defensive side. They drafted a rookie running back last year in Tre Mason and Mason ended up having one monster game against Oakland to go along with several good ones.

Despite Mason's solid 765 yard, four touchdown rookie season, there's still some doubt as to whether or not he can be an every-down back for St. Louis. The Rams (like Atlanta) ranked in the middle of the road when it came to run blocking in 2014. But unlike Atlanta, they have quarterback and receiver issues which make them much more susceptible to team stacking the box.

Good volume probability: Medium     Talent on team: Medium    Overall bargain probability: Average

Baltimore Ravens (pick No. 26) — The Ravens struggled on the offensive line but added tackle Eugene Monroe from Jacksonville at a great price and also got great production out of their rookie linemen. That, combined with Gary Kubiak's wizardry in the run game led to former castaway Justin Forsett having a career season in 2014. Joe Flacco also played some of the best ball of his career and the Ravens made the playoffs after failing to the previous season.

Good volume probability: Medium      Talent on team: High          Overall bargain probability: High

New England Patriots (pick No. 32) — I'm sure you're cringing as you read this based on Bill Belichick's unpredictable offensive game planing that has screwed your fantasy team over countless times but the Patriots are in need of a running back if they don't resign Stevan Ridley. Their offensive line ranked in the Top 5 in run blocking this season and helped Jonas Gray have a monster game against Indianapolis on Sunday night. They also helped LaGarrette Blount reclaim fantasy relevance in the playoffs as well.

If they take a running back, of course you'll most definitely not want to take him high due to the risk. But there's also a high probability that the rookie running back has some good outings as long as he doesn't fumble and get in Belichick's doghouse.

Good volume probability: Low        Talent on team: High         Overall bargain probability: Low

Overall verdict

So if you're looking at right now, the Falcons, Ravens and Rams probably have the best chances for high volume carries for a rookie running back. The Falcons and Ravens have the most talent on the offensive side of the ball with their quarterbacks, while Baltimore has the best offensive line and Atlanta has a good receiving core. If any of the most highly-touted rookie running backs gets selected onto the Ravens or Falcons, he likely has the best potential to be a bargain fantasy running back in 2015.

View Kyle Engman's Flickr page here.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 January 2015 15:07
George Banko

George Banko started talking about fantasy football shortly after graduating college. He started as an intern at FFChamps.com before working as a staff writer for Fantasy Knuckleheads. He currently contributes to the Fantasy Hot Read podcast, which is available on itunes. He also educated himself on player evaluation and is a graduate of The Scouting Academy in 2015, which is an online course run by former NFL Scout Dan Hatman. He started Fantasy Football Helpers as a blog in 2011 and converted it to a full-scale website in 2014. Read more.

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