These are a series of notes on why Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has had such a breakout season midway through 2015. One of the reasons why we love football is for its parity, and Freeman is a classic example of a breakout RB nobody saw coming. Here I look at the Redskins/Falcons game where Freeman posted high quality stats and see where he was successful and try to point out why.
At age 23, Freeman is in his second season and has an NFL-leading 9 touchdowns at the running back position. With three games of over 100 yards through seven weeks to go along with two 3-touchdown efforts, Freeman has been by far the biggest breakout fantasy running back of the season so far.
Notes from game vs. Washington Redskins
Freeman's stats in that one: 27 carries for 153 yards, 1 touchdown, 7 receptions for 44 yards
Some of the things I've noticed when watching Freeman run in this game was his ability to place his hand on the ground to re-establish his balance after contact with a defender. By doing this, he managed to turn a negative gain into a positive one in the first quarter. It happened on zone stretch play off the right side. The Redskins defensive tackle got off his block quickly and penetrated the backfield. The DT got his arm on Freeman as he ran through the hole.
While most running backs would've got tripped out for a loss, Freeman stumbled but used his off-hand and kept his knee from hitting the ground all while keeping his feet moving for a positive gain. It may not seem like much, but running backs who can create positive yardage even when their blocking isn't ideal can instill a lot of confidence in both the player, coaching staff and overall team. This kind of gain comes from a competitive drive within the runner to finish the play and get the most yardage possible. It can become contagious and lead to bigger gains as the game progresses due to the defense tiring out and also from the confidence within the entire team which I mentioned earlier.
Another thing I've noticed is Freeman's speed doesn't change throughout his run. His initial burst is very quick and he maintains that speed to the outside. He's patient when setting up his blocks where he has to cut off a blocker. This makes it difficult for defenders to react quick enough even if they get off their blocks since Freeman has typically already moved past them by that time.
Freeman is also a smart runner in terms of vision. When I say 'smart,' I mean he knows how to use the blockers in front of him and choose the correct lane to run in. When there's not a clear lane, Freeman can make one by framing blocks. When I say 'frame,' I mean he'll run right behind a lineman's butt and then cut off him so as to keep the defender from guessing which way he's going to cut and making it more difficult for the lineman to maintain his block. This also causes other defenders to get sucked into the lineman's block as well since Freeman is so close to his blocker, which sometimes results in both defenders knocking into each other and effectively cancel each other. I saw a lot of that when I looked at C.J. Anderson's tape from last season. Another running back who's very good at being patient at this is Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Anderson was very good at reading the blocks that were in front of him and he clearly had the utmost trust those blocks would be there. and Freeman has proven no different, and sometimes success at the running back position is as simple as not trying to do too much and just hitting the hole with decisiveness. It's an instinctual reaction to what's in front of you, and how quickly you make up your mind and decide which hole to run through and whether or not it's the correct decision makes all the difference.
The zone stretch play to the left side was absolute money for Atlanta in this game. In fact, all of Freeman's biggest gains on a late fourth quarter drive came on left side runs. The Falcons offensive line did an exceptional job blocking and Freeman was decisive on all of those runs.
On Tuesday's edition of the podcast, we offer an apology for posting Draftkings fantasy football tournaments on our facebook page that we actually think you shouldn't enter (unless you thrive when taking big risks) and we also talk about Sam Bradford's increasing fantasy value and offer some daily fantasy advice at the running back position. Hint: We'll tell you why we like C.J. Anderson in Week 1.
It's funny how players come out of the woodwork. One day an NFL running back is playing behind two running backs and chances are slim he'll see a lick of playing time. Most people only know him as a blip on the depth chart, a player who might come on in the event of a catastrophic turn of events for the starters and even if you do get his shot, he'll likely only end up posting mediocre numbers before the starters return from whatever caused them to come off the field.
We always have that notion when we watch the NFL, but time and time again a backup will come onto the scene and show us skills that we never thought a backup would have. We ask ourselves questions like 'how did this guy slip through the cracks?' 'Does he do this in practice?' 'Why does that one guy in our league always get to the waiver wire before me? He must have no life.'
The guy we asked those questions about last year was Broncos' C.J. Anderson, as we enjoyed the roller coaster ride that took us down another surprising turn into the 'who we consider an elite fantasy running back' category. Anderson dazzled those who only heard of the other famous C.J. (2K) before him. Anderson showed quick feet in getting up to the line, a decisive explosion when cutting upfield (perhaps his best trait) and added a eye-opening desire to break tackles through his elite balance and lack of fear when engaging defenders in the open field. It was because of these traits (and several more that we'll mention later in this piece) that led Anderson to become the hottest running back down the stretch of 2014. Considering he only started seven games, it was quite an impression.
Disclaimer: When identifying a very good fantasy running back, you can simplify everything down to two basic traits before you get into specifics. These are the two basic idea of what a fantasy running back should have.
2. Potential for high volume of carries
Of course, there are many more details to extrapolate from those scenarios, but those are the two overarching traits you must understand while drafting a quality fantasy running back.
On paper, Anderson doesn't exactly rattle nerves of defenders. He stands at a fun-sized 5'8, 224lbs. His 4.60 speed won't blow the lid of defenses. His one calling card was the 20-yard shuttle, which he posted a combine-high 4.12 seconds for that particular year.
He doesn't have a breathtaking open field running style like the LeSean McCoy's or Adrian Peterson's of the world. He doesn't even have a nickname yet, as CJ2K has already been taken. Maybe CJ1.5K plus 500 yards receiving would be a reasonable expectation at this point.
But he offers so much in so many other areas that the idea of him not being a burner almost seems like an afterthought when you watch him play.
Anderson possesses several highly valuable traits at the NFL level, one of which is elite balance while running through the hole. As Anderson takes a handoff, he shows the kind of burst needed to get to the line of scrimmage quickly enough before the defenders diagnose what hole he's running to. It's not an elite burst, but it's still very good.
Once at the line of scrimmage, he changes his footwork from long strides into short, choppy steps in order to change direction quickly. This is just before he shows us why he's an elite running back at the NFL level.
Right before he hits the hole, he shows a very impressive cut upfield which allows him to accelerate through the hole. He lacks a third gear which prevents him from maybe splitting the two deeper defenders, but he still gets a very positive gain on the play.
Notice how he ramps up his acceleration after putting his foot in the ground and cutting upfield. His balance allows that shift to be a smooth, seamless transition, which is a valuable quality when it comes to gaining a speed advantage on the defense.
In this second clip, you'll see how his balance and running style allows him to slip past defenders.
Notice how his pad level stays low which forces defenders to tackle him at the waist or risk being too high which would give the smaller Anderson a momentum advantage. Anderson stays on an even plane for the entire length of the run aside from when he breaks out of a tackle. His feet are always moving, which allows him to break through arm tackles. His toughness is also on display as he avoids running out of bounds and instead cuts it back and looks to take on more defenders. That's the sign of a true workhorse back.
In this third clip, you'll see his running style directly translate to points on the field. Watch for the same characteristics I noted above.
Another trait Anderson possesses is a high level of mental toughness. He processes a play very quickly which allows him to be one step ahead of the defense mentally at times. Here we see an example of it after the catch.
One of the backs who I've noticed execute a similar type of elusiveness is Eagles' RB Darren Sproles. Though Sproles is more of a burner and and an explosive back, his low pad level and small frame creates a similar effect on the defender as you'll see below.
Vision is another key quality to look for. Pay attention to the clip at the bottom of the article and notice how the offensive line is moving to the right, and watch how Anderson has to quickly make the decision to squeeze through a moving hole. Think of it like trying to jump through a hula hoop that's moving to the right and is about 2 inches off the ground. You have to time it just right and keep your feet high enough so you don't trip. Anderson executes it as well as you possibly could. Once Anderson breaks through the first level, his elite acceleration that we mentioned earlier allows him to change gears quickly and get to the outside.
Whether or not Anderson will get the correct situation is still a mystery. Montee Ball will likely get another shot at some point due the Broncos being so invested in the Wisconsin product. So if Anderson slips up at all, expect there to be a cosmic change in the Broncos' lineup. But as of now, he's the guy. And his talent is second to few in the NFL. He's worth a first-round pick in 2015 due to talent alone.
On Monday's edition of Treatment, the Helpers discuss the zero running back theory and why it's a big risk in fantasy leagues. They also talk about the importance of quality running backs in fantasy football. Plus Pennywise 'Bro Hym Tribute' and some other things.
The Helpers kick off the discussion talking about the value of picking in the middle of the fantasy draft. According to NFL.com, more than 12 percent of fantasy owners who drafted at the sixth spot in 2014 won their league. Also, a stunning 70 percent of fantasy owners who drafted a running back in the first round also won their league.
The Helpers try to under why running backs are so important. For one, starters typically see anywhere between 10-20 carries per game, sometimes even more depending on the offensive philosophy of the coach. A chief example being DeMarco Murray's mere 400 attempts last year. For those who want to draft WR-WR if you're picking late in the draft, it's important to consider that a wide receiver rarely sees 10-20 attempts at catching the ball in any particular game. So if you decide to draft two stud wide receivers, you'll still be dealing with some inconsistency at times due in large part to the fact that there's only so much ball to go around.
Another take is that fantasy owners typically view feature backs as so rare that if you don't end up getting one in the first round, they consider the rest of the running back class to be of similar value and wind up drafting a handful of RBs in the later portion of the draft. While this strategy can work, we don't advise it because it usually involves some luck to end up having a late-round fantasy running back do well. While it's great if you already have a stud running back and you also get lucky and draft the next Jeremy Hill, avoiding running backs all together in the early rounds is a recipe for disaster.
The Helpers also discuss OTA's and what to think about regarding player speak and how it often deceives fantasy owners into thinking somebody is primed for a breakout season. Case in point being Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a running back who slimmed down last season and reportedly looked even more explosive than before (if that was possible). Still, McCoy ended up having one of the worst seasons of his career from a scoring standpoint, as he only found the end zone five times and his receiving numbers took a dive due to the emergence of Darren Sproles.
It's not to say a running back losing weight can't be beneficial for him from a fantasy point of view, but other factors such as vision, instincts, decisiveness and mental processing play a big, if not bigger, factor than physical attributes. Just something to take into account before you get too hyped up on one particular player because he looks like he can bench press more or run a slightly faster 40 time.
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Catching the ball has become one of the biggest assets a running back can have both in the NFL and fantasy football. It's no surprise you see RBs like Jamaal Charles, Le'Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray and other receiving competent backs rise above the rest in fantasy points by the end of the 2014 season. But, what if the running back isn't the best receiver on the planet? What if he's just a tough, physical runner who values running over defenders for those extra yards rather than joysticking past defenders? Oh, and what if he doesn't have Adrian Peterson like breakaway speed? Is it still worth drafting the downhill running back?
The answer to that is a resounding yes, however, certain criteria should be met. First, you need to know which round to take him in. Second, you need to know what scheme he plays in and if his running style is a good fit. Third, you need to look at the talent along the offensive line. Lastly, you need to evaluate his health and current physical state of his career.
Where Morris thrives
Redskins' running back Alfred Morris is a textbook example of a downhill runner. If you watched Morris as a rookie in 2012, you saw how effective he was at moving the pile and you almost cringed at the thought of some smaller defensive back having to tackle him. Here's a clip of Morris from 2012 where his drive to will his way past the first down marker is on full display.
Notice how his feet keep moving which allows him to maintain his balance through contact and scamper for more yards. He diagnosed where the hole is going to be quickly enough so that he can burst through it before the Cincinnati defender penetrates the line of scrimmage. He keeps his pad level low, which allows him to stay moving forward and gain positive yardage. His competitive toughness is also apparent on this play, as he looks to initiate contact with the defenders rather than avoid it. It's worth noting that Morris thrived in the read option alongside Robert Griffin III and there's no doubt the threat of a rushing quarterback helped Morris out immensely.
How he changed as a runner
Watching Morris in 2014, you saw a running back that seemed a little more indecisive at times. He often waited patiently to set up his blocks, but never fully committed to the hole even when it was there at times. You factor that in with his subtle decrease in burst, agility and all-around speed and it's no surprise his numbers last year were a career worst.
The Redskins instability at quarterback certainly didn't help Morris either. The team went through all three quarterbacks like kleenex last season and Morris had a different chemistry with each of them. With Robert Griffin III, he had more freedom as a runner because of the QB-run threat. With backup Kirk Cousins, he became more of a 3-4 yard per carry guy in addition to a play action guy which helped open up the passing game for the more pocket-oriented Cousins.
The current version of Morris runs to the edge and patiently waits for his blocks to set up, a trait many consider to be a positive one among running backs. The only difference — he never fully commits and cuts hard up the field like he did in his rookie year.
This isn't to say Morris was indecisive on every play in 2014. You still saw many glimpses of what he's capable of when he decides to commit to his blocks and burst through the hole. That was very evident in the game against Tampa, where Morris rushed for 96 yards on 20 carries. That performance against the Bucs was good for the second-most rushing yards Morris had in a game all season.
Also against Tampa, Morris displayed the kind of competitive toughness that has made him one of the most consistent fantasy backs over the last 3 seasons. Click the vine video below.
Where he still wins in the NFL and on your fantasy team
One of Morris' best traits is his durability. Through three seasons, Morris has started every game. He has shown to be the rare example of a running back who can withstand the harsh punishment of hit after hit that often lead to so many injuries at the position. In fantasy football, a guy who shows up and punches the clock is a valuable commodity in terms of consistency.
You could argue Morris has achieved that durability because of his more recent choices when running the ball. In 2014, there were times when Morris could've plowed over a defender but instead chose to use lateral jukes instead. Now, Morris' agility has never been his strongest suit, and his burst and explosiveness have decreased very slightly but also noticeably over the last three seasons. While you rarely see him make defenders miss like say, LeSean McCoy, his ability to juke rather than try and run defenders over has helped him avoid the violent hits that take their toll on a running back over the years has served as key preserver to the running backs productive career early on.
A typical Alfred Morris run in 2012: Line up in read option, burst through the hole after making one lateral cut, run downhill three of four yards, initiate contact with defender while still running forward behind pads and keeping legs churning, fall forward for another two or three yards.
A typical Alfred Morris run in 2014: Line up behind the quarterback in a half-pistol formation (typically what he ran with Kirk Cousins at quarterback), burst through the hole just a tad bit slower, shuffle feet more to make cutback instead of planting foot in the ground and cutting decisively, wait for blockers to set up before running 2-3 yards before laterally sliding around defender and falling forward for an extra yard.
While that analysis may indicate Morris has regressed a little bit, the bigger culprit isn't so much in his athleticism since he remains pretty well-off in that category. It's more so his lack of decisiveness in the hole that has hurt his production the most
That, combined with the injury woes to the Redskins at the quarterback position in addition to a young offensive line that had to play a backup tight end at times during the season plus a new coach in Jay Gruden and loss of running back guru Mike Shanahan and you got a few more ingredients to complement the slight dropoff recipe as well.
His benign role in the receiving game
Perhaps the biggest threat against Morris as a potential solid fantasy running back is his struggles in the receiving game. Morris had one of the worst drop rates in the league last season, as he failed to reel in 6 of his 26 targets. This led to the Redskins not trust him much as a receiver, and it hurt Morris' fantasy value on third down. Per Football Outsiders, Morris was only on the field for 58 percent of the snaps in 2014, which ranked him 18th among starting RBs. It hurt him the most on long passing downs, as Washington preferred the services of Roy Helu Jr.
Helu's tendency to stay on the field when the team was running their no huddle offense in hopes of trying to comeback from a deficit in the fourth quarter. It was a fate the Redskins found themselves in very often last season after winning just four games, and Morris' value suffered as he frequently came out during third downs and Roy Helu Jr. saw plenty of work in the passing game via the screen and on choice routes.
Overall, Morris compiled just 37 catches for 310 receiving yards and zero receiving touchdowns in three seasons as a starting running back. It's not the kind of numbers you want to see in a current NFL landscape that almost requires a running back be a good receiver out of the backfield. You have the feeling at any moment, a more talented receiving back like newly-acquired Matt Jones might overtake Morris at some point in 2015.
What 2015 has in store
There is optimism for Morris' fantasy owners in 2015, however. The Redskins are retooling their offensive line and spent a first-round pick on top right tackle Brandon Scherff. Scherff will likely be inserted into the starting lineup immediately and with pro bowler Trent Williams anchoring the other side, this could be a formidable unit as the season goes along. Williams is also in the final year of his rookie contract and will be looking for a pay day. Former third-round pick Spencer Long could also play a big role this season, as he's expected to play at right guard.
New offensive line coach Bill Callahan wants to make the Redskins more of a power run team like he did with the Cowboys a season ago. This plays to Morris' strengths as a downhill runner. However, he'll have to become better at reading his blocks and more decisive in cutting up field if he wants to post another 1,000-yard season.
Morris is still an RB2, but he's an upper-tier RB2 with an offense that will try to rebuild its line and play more to Morris' strengths as a runner.
After a Memorial Day break, the Helpers come back on Tuesday by discussing possible comeback players for 2015. A.J. Green highlights the discussion, with Jordan Cameron, Brandon Marshall and Drew Brees also seeing some work.
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On Thursday's Treatment podcast, the Helpers discuss fantasy football quarterbacks and dissect their ADP. They talk about QBs they feel are undervalued in Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Derek Carr. They also voice excitement for guys like Matt Ryan and Eli Manning.
Tonight we’re excited to announce Swing for the Fences! It’s only $3 to play, $300,000 is up for grabs (1st place will win $100,000), and the top 25,930 finishers will win a cash prize. Click anywhere in the paragraph to sign up.
On Wednesday's edition of Treatment, the Helpers pick up where they left off talking about wide receiver ADP (average draft position) and who's under and overvalued. They talk of Andre Johnson and why you might want to stay away from him considering his current ADP. They also talk about Travis Kelce, Martellus Bennett and a few other tight ends who would be good to take in the later rounds.
On Tuesday's edition of Treatment, the Helpers discuss current ADP rankings for wide receivers according to Fantasy Football Calculator. They talk about the sophomore studs in Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin. They also talk about this year's rookies including top guy Amari Cooper and whether or not they would draft Nelson Agholor over Breshad Perriman. That, plus deep sleepers they like in the later rounds at the WR position in terms of ADP.
If you want to, feel free to look at the ADP rankings yourself and if you have a compelling case for a deep sleeper wide receiver let us know.
Tomorrow night, May 20th at 7:05pm EST we’re excited to announce Swing for the Fences! It’s only $3 to play, $300,000 is up for grabs (1st place will win $100,000), and the top 25,930 finishers will win a cash prize. Click anywhere in the paragraph to sign up.
On Friday's edition of Treatment, Eric Moody of FFLockeroom.com stops by to talk about who's currently overvalued and undervalued in redraft leagues. Moody and I disagree on a few guys, mainly Eric Decker, Zach Ertz and Justin Forsett. We also go over some of the players embedded in the deeper echelon of the draft in terms of ADP and try to scrummage for value there.