Breathe a sigh of relief. Go out and enjoy some of the incoming spring weather for a second. The biggest wave of free agency has likely passed us. With most of the big time players like Ndamukong Suh, DeMarco Murray and Brandon Marshall now signed with new teams, it's time to let the dust clear and really look at how some of the players might be used and what their fantasy value could be in 2015. For this article, we will focus on the newest running back tandem in the league, Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray in Philadelphia.
How they got there
The Eagles first hinted they were looking for a new running back when they traded away LeSean McCoy last week to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The move shaved $11 million off the salary cap for Philly, but left some wondering what the Eagles were thinking. After all, McCoy won the rushing title just two seasons ago in 2013, plus there wasn't exactly a huge free agency market for running backs. The immediate thought was the Eagles planned to grab a running back through the draft which features a talented crop of RBs this season.
But of course, that wasn't the case. They signed DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $42 million with $12 million guaranteed just a week later. At the same time Murray entered the picture, the Eagles were also in the midst of signing former Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, who they eventually inked for three years and $11 million. Financially, it makes sense. McCoy was due more than $9 million in 2015 and would've saddled the Eagles with a $10 million cap hit roughly. Now, the Eagles have both Murray and Mathews for just a $7.5 million cap hit. Overall, it's two running backs, Alonso and cornerback Walter Thurmond for the price of what McCoy would've cost. Not a bad tradeoff. Another nice thing about the trade — both running backs are in the prime of their careers and have rushed for over 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. On paper, it's a worthwhile endeavor, but who knows if it'll translate to more wins on the field.
The Mathews deal looked more like Chip simply getting a potentially good running back at a bargain price, while the Murray deal cemented the former Cowboy as the newest franchise running back of the Philadelphia Eagles. But how will it all translate from a fantasy perspective.
The carry breakdown
The Eagles have become a more run-oriented team since Chip arrived in 2013. In the past two seasons, the Eagles ranked in the top 5 in total rushing attempts and have seen one of their guys win a rushing title (LeSean McCoy in 2013.) While McCoy was a true feature back, seeing the majority of carries compared to then-backups Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, it's looking like there could be more of a committee style attack in 2015 with Murray still assuming the majority of the carries.
Last season, there were 415 rushing attempts by running backs in the Philadelphia offense. Murray ran the ball a league-leading 392 times in 2013, a workload that dwarfed any other running back by 100 carries. Even though Murray ended up winning the rushing title with more than 1,800 yards, it's safe to say Philadelphia likely won't run him as hard as Dallas did. Murray slowed down as the season went along, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry in two of the Cowboys' last four games.
Assuming both Murray and Mathews are healthy, Murray is the obvious choice for the majority of the carries. While some may be wondering whether or not Mathews will still have fantasy appeal, the answer is a little cloudy but still important to know in case you plan on drafting him in redraft leagues. Mathews will have RB2/flex appeal in 2015. He might have hot and cold weeks, but some weeks he'll rush for 60 yards and a touchdown and that's still worth 12 fantasy points in most leagues. Other weeks, Murray will take over. But the track record for running backs coming off a season where they carried the ball as much as Murray did hasn't favored the running back. Going back to guys like Larry Johnson, who carried the ball over 400 times in one season, it's safe to say you're not going to get the same kind of fantasy production from Murray that you did last season.
One thing you have to remember with running backs is matchups also play a huge role. Take last year for example. Darren Sproles got off to a hot start in 2014. He rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 against a lowly Jacksonville team. LeSean McCoy, on the other hand, ran for 74 yards on 21 carries. McCoy had more carries, but Sproles ended up having a slightly better fantasy day. This gave him confidence to slay the Colts in Week 2 on Monday Night. In that game, Sproles caught seven passes for 152 yards, giving those who started him in fantasy plenty of production.
You will want to keep an eye on who the Eagles play in Week 1. If they play a run defense that looks like it could be below average, Mathews is an obvious flex start in the offense. Now, he could fall flat on his face in Week 1 and not produce at all, at least then you'll know what kind of player you're dealing with this season, and can remain hesitant to start him in the coming weeks.
But overall, Mathews is a player that has to be drafted in 12-to-14 team leagues this season. He's still a talented running back in a run oriented offense. Plus, Murray always comes with a 'handle with care' sticker and could find himself on the injured reserve list at some point during the season. But even if Murray stays healthy, Mathews will likely see touches on the field and if he has the hot hand, then he'll be the one getting you 10-12 fantasy points that particular week.