Stock Up/Down: Running Backs on New Teams (Fantasy Football)
I’ve previously covered tight ends who changed teams in the offseason, and now my attention turns to running backs. There are a handful of interesting names who changed teams this offseason. Some of the guys on the move were once elite talents, and others are looking for a greater opportunity than they’ve seen previously. Others fall into neither of those categories but will see their fantasy value change as a result of playing somewhere new in 2017.
Player movement and personnel changes are the norm in the NFL’s offseason, and it’s why many pundits (wisely) put little to no stock in strength of schedule — at least merely treating last year’s results as gospel for 2017 strength of schedule. Anyway, these changes have a huge impact on the fantasy value of various players, and this series will look at the risers and fallers in fantasy value as a result of changing teams in the offseason via free agency or trade.
Gillislee moves on from being LeSean McCoy’s understudy in Buffalo to the possible lead tailback in New England. The Bills declined to match an offer from the Patriots for their former backup running back, and the Patriots gladly sacrificed a fifth-round pick to sign last year’s leader in yards per carry (5.7 ypc) among qualified backs. Last year, the Florida product received his most extensive work carrying the ball 101 times for 577 yards and eight touchdowns. He more than doubled his previous high of 47 carries from the year before, yet he duplicated his elite 5.7 ypc mark from 2015.
The 26-year-old back has a nose for the end zone with 11 touchdown rushes in 23 games, with all 11 coming in his last 20 games played the last two years with the Bills. Early in June, FantasyPros colleague Bobby Sylvester noted Gillislee’s leading conversion rate on attempts within the five-yard line, and New England’s league lead in 2016 in carries inside the five-yard line and inside the 10-yard line. It’s a match made in heaven for fantasy purposes.
The former Bill isn’t just a goal-line vulture. Gillislee ranked fourth in DYAR (256) per Football Outsiders (FO) and first in DVOA (45.0%). He did much more than take what the offensive line gave him. Pro Football Focus (PFF) was a fan of his work ranking him 14th in overall grade among qualified running backs. Since debuting in the NFL in 2013, Gillislee has carried the ball only 154 times while reeling in 15 receptions. His lack of work is a double-edged sword. The good news is that he has plenty of tread left on the tires. The bad news is that he’s yet to prove he can carry the workload of a feature back.
Going back to his four-year collegiate career, he has only one season of a heavy workload on his resume. In 2012, he ran the ball 244 times for 1,152 yards (4.7 ypc) and 10 touchdowns. He carried the ball just 145 times in his previous three seasons. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to maintain a ypc north of five in his only season of heavy usage, but 4.7 ypc in the SEC is nothing to sneeze at. It’s also worth noting the Patriots are unlikely to run him into the ground. Last year was the first time since 2012 one of New England’s running backs surpassed the 200-carries threshold.
Gillislee reportedly has the “inside track” for the starting running back gig, and I’d select him inside the top 25 running backs for sure, possibly within the top 20. His current ADP and ECR fall a pinch later than the top 25, so I’d advocate reaching a bit to secure Gillislee’s services.
Gillislee isn’t the only intriguing addition to New England’s backfield mix. Rex Burkhead also joined the team via free agency. The Nebraska product has received even less work as a runner in the NFL than Gillislee, but he flashed his potential last year, namely in the season finale rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries against the Ravens while adding a pair of receptions for 25 yards. Burkhead didn’t carry the ball enough to check in among the qualified backs at FO, but his 163 DYAR were actually the 12th most, and his DVOA (41.9%) would have checked in second behind only Gillislee. Hmmm, it almost appears the Patriots recognize how much this duo did for themselves as opposed to relying on their line for production. Since neither has been leaned on as a true feature back, it wouldn’t shock me to see them share rushing duties with James White handling the passing-down work. The former Bengal is one of my favorite lotto tickets this year, and while I’m not a proponent for handcuffing running backs, I do advocate selecting this duo. The difference between picking these two teammates and a straight handcuff situation is simple. In this case, you’ll be taking two cracks at securing a feature back as opposed to selecting a clear No. 1 running back and his backup in a standard handcuff situation.
Marshawn Lynch (OAK): From Seahawks to Raiders
Lynch could have been dealt anywhere and he’d be a riser relative to taking a season off from football. As it turns out, he landed in a favorable situation. Oakland’s offensive line is considered by many football analysts to be one of the best in the NFL, and it is, but it’s important to note much of their greatness revolves around their pass protection skills. FO ranked them first in adjusted sack rate, but they checked in tied for 10th in Adjusted Line Yards rushing the football. Conversely, while Seattle’s offensive line is much maligned for their inability to pass protect, they actually ranked tied for third in Adjusted Line Yards rushing in Lynch’s last season with them (2015).
Lynch looked a lot like he was washed up the last time we saw him averaging only 3.8 ypc, but he was also banged up and played in just seven games. Furthermore, he did post a positive DYAR, though he ranked just 25th in that category. Perhaps a year off is just what he needed after 10 years of punishing running. He’ll add a new dimension to last year’s seventh highest scoring offense, and being tied to such a high-scoring unit bodes well for his touchdown scoring upside. Lynch has snuck up to the 10th drafted running back, and that’s too rich for my blood. He checks in with an ECR of 15 among backs, and that’s a bit easier to swallow, however, it still carries plenty of risk after considering Lynch’s work in his last year in the NFL. If Lynch slips to the 15-20 range at RB, that’s a fair spot to gamble on him since it leaves some wiggle room for a profit at his cost. As RB 10-15, he’ll have to hit the high end of his projections in order to just break even. I’ll add that it’s possible I become more bullish on Lynch’s stock after seeing him in preseason action and may at that point be willing to endorse him in the RB 10-15 range.
LeGarrette Blount (PHI): From Patriots to Eagles
Before I get into Blount’s analysis, I feel like it’s important I clarify that faller is not synonymous with undraftable or terrible. It means exactly what it suggests, that the players highlighted in this section have seen their value fall since last year due primarily — though, not necessarily entirely — to their change of scenery. I add the caveat in the previous sentence because even if Blount was back in New England, I wouldn’t be banking on him repeating his league-leading 18 touchdown scampers.
Last year was far and away a career year for Blount, as his 18 rushing touchdowns account for 36.7% of his rushing touchdowns in his career and he set new highs in carries (299) and rushing yards (1,161). His second most productive season came as a rookie in 2010, his only other season exceeding 200 carries (201) and 1,000 yards rushing (1,007).
As I stated, if Blount was back with the Patriots I wouldn’t invest in him with the expectation of a repeat of 2016, but an offseason address change to Philly further hurts his value. While New England was an offensive juggernaut and ranked third in points scored (441), Philadelphia ranked 16th (367). I noted above that New England led the league in carries within the five-yard line and 10-yard line, so Blount’s outlook for goal-line work in 2017 isn’t as favorable and has only one direction to go. Furthermore, part of the reason Blount was able to set a new career high in carries was that New England’s elite offense was complemented by a defense that allowed the fewest points (250). The Eagles allowed the 12th most points (331) in 2016. The Eagles have added weapons on offense and sophomore signal caller Carson Wentz should take a step forward this season, but Blount goes from a perfect storm for a big fantasy season to an average situation for success. He takes a slight step back in offensive line run blocking performance, per FO, too. As a non-factor in the passing attack, hits to his carry upside and touchdown potential are especially damaging. His ADP has him on the cusp of being an RB2 in 12-team leagues as the 26th RB off the board, on average. I wouldn’t select him at his current ADP. He becomes a consideration for me around RB36.
Eddie Lacy (SEA): From Packers to Seahawks
Lacy’s ADP puts him at RB20 and his ECR is RB22, and there’s no way I’m going to own him at those costs. The Seahawks wisely negotiated weight and conditioning clauses into his contract, and he recently hit a weight goal. Lacy being in shape is a must for him playing at a fantasy-relevant level, but even if he looks like an Adonis and is in great shape, there are knocks against him.
First of all, his work as a pass catcher in 2014 should probably be forgotten. It’s far and away his best work in the passing game, and Seattle’s backfield already has a valuable pass-catching back in sophomore C.J. Prosise. Limited contributions as a pass catcher serve as the first con in Lacy’s profile. The second is that he could have stiff competition for work as a runner and at the goal line. Thomas Rawls had a dreadful 2016 campaign and ranked 30th in DYAR (-2), according to FO. However, it would be a bit silly to feel great about Lacy bouncing back from an injury-shortened campaign after a down year and completely dismiss the possibility of Rawls rebounding. Rawls led runners in DYAR (216) in 2015 while Lacy ranked 35th (3) that season. Also, while Prosise’s greatest contributions will likely come as a receiver, he did rip off 172 yards rushing (5.7 ypc) on 30 carries, and his 19.4% DVOA would have ranked fourth highest if he had reached 100 rushes minimum (small sample caveat is obviously in order).
Moving beyond the crowded backfield and competition for touches, Lacy gets a downgrade in run blocking moving from Green Bay to Seattle. The Packers ranked tied for 19th in Adjusted Line Yards (3.79) in 2016 while the Seahawks checked in 26th (3.50). He’s also saddled with an offense downgrade. The Packers ranked fourth in points (432) and the Seahawks ranked tied for 18th (354). He does join an offense that ran the ball more than his previous employer. Seattle ranked 20th in rush attempts (403) while the Packers ranked 29th (374), so it’s not all bad. It’s not as if Lacy is devoid of upside, but I view him as an RB3 with RB2 upside, and there’s ample downside that doesn’t appear to be baked into his ADP and ECR. I’d rather roll the dice on a more volatile RB3 who’s going after Lacy or even grab a lower-ceiling pass-catching back at a cheaper cost than use a top-55 (ADP of 53 overall) pick on Lacy.
Latavius Murray (MIN): From Raiders to Vikings
Murray led the Raiders in carries, rushing yards, and touchdown carries the last two years, but his ypc dropped from 5.2 as the second fiddle behind Darren McFadden in 2014 to 4.0 each of the last two years as the lead runner. He fell short of 200 carries with 195 last year as part of a three-headed backfield, and, thus, was unable to repeat his 1,000-plus yard effort from 2015. He did help his fantasy bottom line with 12 rushing touchdowns and 33 receptions for 264 yards receiving, though.
He moves from one crowded backfield to another, and the early indication is that rookie Dalvin Cook will be the lead back with Murray second on the depth chart and assuming goal-line back duties. This isn’t a shocker since the Vikings traded up in the second round to draft Cook. There aren’t many true every-down backs, so even working as a change-of-pace and short-yardage specialist will make Murray useful. Also, Cook is a rookie and yet to prove himself, so it’s not entirely out of the question he struggles and cedes some playing time to Murray. Still, Murray enters 2017 with lower expectations than in 2016, and that’s before noting the elephant in the room. Murray ran behind an Oakland line that I discussed as being helpful for Lynch above to one of the worst lines in the NFL. The Raiders ranked tied for 10th in Adjusted Line Yards (4.09) while the Vikings ranked 30th (3.37). Perhaps more alarming for Murray since he projects to have a ton of his value tied to scoring touchdowns, the Vikings ranked 31st in Power Rank and 26th in Stuffed Rank. The Raiders weren’t particularly good in Power Rank ranking 23rd, but that’s better than Minnesota’s rank, and Oakland did rank eighth in Stuffed Rank. Murray’s ADP of RB38 and 99 overall, as well as his ECR of RB42, is a touch rich for my blood, but it’s fair and I’d rather select him at his cost than pony up for Blount at his.
Adrian Peterson (NO): From Vikings to Saints
Peterson has the most prolific career of any of the backs featured on this list as a former NFL MVP and the owner of the second highest single-season rushing yardage total with 2,097 in 2012. He was also the least productive in 2016 with 72 yards rushing on 37 carries in three games. It was his second injury-shortened season in his last three after he played in only one game in 2014. He sandwiched those two clunkers around a 2015 season in which he rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns on 327 carries.
After missing most of last year due to a torn lateral meniscus that required surgery, he’ll have to prove he still has something left in the tank. The 32-year-old back is a 10-year veteran who’s carried the ball 2,418 times, and he’s gone under the knife a few times. Predictably, his new teammates are praising him, but all off-season hype should be taken with a grain of salt. I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely, but taking off-season chatter as gospel is ill advised. More importantly, though, Peterson might not even be the best back on New Orleans’ roster.
Last year, Mark Ingram rushed for 1,043 yards (5.1 ypc) and six touchdowns, and he also contributed in the passing game with 46 receptions for 319 yards receiving and four scores. Peterson hasn’t eclipsed 225 yards receiving since 2010, and he’s reached or exceeded 40 receptions just two times. Even in Peterson’s productive 2015, he barely edged out Ingram in PFF overall grade. Peterson also barely edged him out in DYAR (143 to 108) and trailed Ingram in DVOA (2.2% versus 6.6%) in 2015. If I was drafting now, I’d take Ingram ahead of Peterson even with the buzz the latter is creating. Being tied to a high-octane offense — and a horrific defense that prevents them from taking their foot off of the gas — creates plenty of touchdown potential for the running backs, but I wouldn’t draft Peterson as a top 30 RB. My fellow pundits are in agreement ranking Peterson as RB31, but the star-struck drafting community is drafting him as RB21, one back ahead of Ingram, which is ludicrous.