8/20 - RB Battles

by Noah Pires August 20, 2019

8/20 - RB Battles

Seattle Seahawks

Chris Carson - RB22, 41st overall

Rashaad Penny - RB32, 73rd overall

With Mike Davis now in the windy city, there will be more than enough volume for Seattle to produce two valuable runningbacks, but which one is the better pick in fantasy football?

Well, looking at the numbers, we can see both guys are likely to touch the ball well over 200 times this season. During his time in the NFL, Brian Shottenheimer offenses have averaged 471 rushing attempts per year, or in layman's terms, a shitload. He outdid himself last year, to the tune of 534 carries, with Mike Davis accounting for 112 of them. Now that Russell Wilson has a baby (that isn't his) at home, he hasn't been taking up too much volume on the ground, falling beow 75 carries in two of the past three years. This, paired with the bald beast getting paid by the Bears, opens a window for CC and RP to dominate ground work. Last year, outside of the top three in Seattle's backfield, no other runningback topped three carries, and with the team failing to add any talent (other than Travis Homer...but I said talent, not a warm body), we could legitimately see top 20 volume for both men. Who do I think comes out on top in the touch split? It has to be Carson. Other than the fact that Pete Carroll's pants get tight when he watches CC run, thus far in both players' careers, it's clear the Seahawks not only have more trust in Carson, but they also displayed an affinity to get him the ball in important downs and distances. Last year, he outcarried Penny inside the 10 yard line 28:2, had more third down opportunities (27:1; 26 carries and 1 target for CC, 1 carry and 0 targets for Penny), and accounted for 69 first downs, while Penny finished with 21. All this isn't to say Carson will be in a 70/30 split since I do think Rashaad is a talented runner in his own right, it's just to point out there's no reason or indication that would suggest there will be a changing of the guard this year.

As for the passing work, we recently heard that the team wants CC to c (c what I did there) 50 targets this year, and although this isn't a lofty number, it will add value to his profile. Sure, you could point out his woeful college target share (22nd percentile) and compare it to Penny's (75th percentile) and say this is #fakenews, but let's put things into context. Firstly, Carson wasn't necessarily the best prospect in college, as he shared a backfield with Justice Hill, and had tons of NFL caliber weapons alongside him, including James Washington and Marcel Ateman. On top of this, the team (Oklahoma State) threw the ball 37.8 times per game during Carson's time with the squad, so for him to match Penny's 10% CTS, he would need to average nearly four targets per game. That's no easy task, especially when you consider the arbitrary mark of 20 receptions for a college RB is used as a threshold of whether or not a prospect is a solid receiver. As for Penny, he played at San Diego State, a squad that is notorious for NEVER throwing the ball. In fact, during Rashaad's time, they never ended a season averaging over 20 passes per game. Yes, I get it, 10% is 10%, but seeing two targets per game on a squad that literally ONLY uses the RB position is a lot different than seeing four targets per game when sharing the backfield with an NFL talent. Because of this, there likely won't be one clear passcatchers of the two, as we saw last year in the one game Mike Davis did not play. In that contest, Carson ended with three catches and Penny brought in four, further showing both will get usage and neither will box the other out like Rodman in his prime.

With all this being said, give me Carson. There is a real shot at him ending the year well inside the top-20, ahead of where he's being selected currently, especially with the recent news of him being more involved through the air. This isn't to say I'm avoiding Penny, though. If Carson goes down, which isn't out of the equation (has missed 14 of a possible 32 games), RP has back-end RB1 upside and a high-end RB2 floor due to the volume he would command in a run heavy offense. Also, as I stated earlier, he will likely see upwards of 200 touches this year anyway, a mark only 21 runningbacks eclipsed last year, with the lowest fantasy finish of the bunch coming in at RB31, by a man named Dion Lewis. Basically, you're taking Penny at his floor IF Carson plays a full season, and if CC does catch the injury bug, you're acquiring a fringe top-12 runningback in the 7th round.

    Denver Broncos 

    Phillip Lindsay - RB24, 46th overall

    Royce Freeman - RB38, 89th overall

    As we head into the Mile High City, we see another backfield that's a little big confusing. Will Royce be the workhorse we hoped he would be as a rookie? Is Lindsay the real deal? Will Theo Riddick ever be good at football? Probably not, but let's take a look at how things could possibly shake out.

    Obviously, last year was an incredible season for Phillip Lindsay. Not only did he earn a starting gig after going undrafted, he also topped 1,000 rushing yards, a mark only eight backs eclipsed in 2018. Though he was unstoppable for the large majority of the season, I don't think the role he commanded will repeat itself in 2019. Firstly, his size brings some concern. Only 47 runningbacks topped 100 carries last year...four of them were < 200 pounds...and only one played a full season (Dion Lewis). All the others (Breida, Lindsay, Ekeler) missed some time, and although I'm not sure a wrist injury is an indication of a player being injury prone, the sample we have of smaller backs not being able to hold up for a full 16 gives me pause that he can match last year's attempt total. Because of this, someone will have to step up, and the most apparent answer is Royce Freeman.

    Sure, he was disappointing last year, but it must be noted that he faced 8-man fronts at the second highest rate (36.15% of the time), trailing only Lagarette Blount (38.95%). Not only did this hinder his own rushing ability, it make Lindsay's look incredible by contrast, since he only faced stacked boxes 14.6% of the time. These different fronts was likely the reason for the large disparity between the two backs' yards before contact, as Royce's finished at a woeful 0.8, while Lindsay stood to benefit a 3.0 mark, which contributed to him earning the highest percent of his yards before contact in the league. Now, do I expect a huge swing in the other direction for both men, closing the gap between the two in this department? Not really, though I don't think it will be as large next year. A big reason for Lindsay facing lighter fronts was because of his breakaway speed and pass catching ability. Defenses aren't going to load the box against a player who, with one broken tackle, can take it to the house, or gives the defense pause when trying to dissect if it is either a run or pass play. With Freeman, though, he faced much of the same problems a player like Jordan Howard would. When he's on the field, the defense knows that the Broncos are more than likely running the ball, so they line up in a way that reflects that, hurting Royce's upside. It's not like he's terrible in the receiving game, though, as we saw in the final week of the season, he came down with eight receptions, but it should be kept in mind that Lindsay, Emanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and a few other pieces (the gawd Jeff Heuerman) weren't active, so it was more out of necessity than anything else. On top of that, Week 17 accounted for 50% of his total targets, 57% of his receptionsm and 59.7% of his receiving yards.

    Though Royce did struggle, I do think he leads this team in rushes this year because of Lindsay's durability concerns, but I don't think the touch total will skew one way because of Lindsay's receiving capabilities. Their new OC, Rich Scangarello, has used RBs HEAVILY in the passing game over the past two seasons, targeting the position 27.7% and 21% of the time, and even the new man under center, has looked the runningback's was 24% and 27% over his last two healthy seasons. This leads me to believe that although Royce may dominate early down work, Lindsay all but has the 3rd down job locked up while also having the ability to work himself into some early down situations because of his ability both on the ground and through the air.

    Because of his incredible efficiency, it doesn't even matter to me if Lindsay sees just 12 touches a game; he will return value. Last year, in games where he saw between 10 and 15 touches, he averaged 12.5 touches and 88.25 YFS, or 6.42 yards per touch (would have ranked 6th). If we keep this efficiency constant, and project him for 200 touches (an average of 12.5 per week), it would translate to 1,284 YFS (only 13 RBs hit 1,200 YFS in 2018), which would certainly include receiving work, and maybe even some goal line opportunities (he and Royce both had five rushes inside the 5-yardline last year).

    With all this being said, give me Lindsay, even if he's going a few rounds earlier than Royce. Sure, he may not lead the team in carries, but the touches he will get will bring value, unlike Freeman, who is unlikely to see any significant receiving work and may even split goal line touches. In my opinion, barring and injury to PL, he's a poor man's 2018 Jordan Howard, which is a player I'd never feel comfortable playing on a weekly basis. Lindsay, though, could be Kamara lite, putting up incredible efficiency on limited touches, which will help to return value as the 24th runningback off the board.

    Los Angeles Chargers

    Austin Ekeler - RB34, 76th overall

    Justin Jackson - RB49, 124th overall

    Can we please stop saying Justin Jackson will be the lead back for the Chargers? Please? I'm asking nicely. When has there ever been an indication that he is taking over Ekeler's role? Oh, never? That's what I thought.

    Not only did Ekeler outsnap Jackson in the preseason opener 6:2 on the first drive, he also got the first goal line touch, which he did fumble, and was used heavily in the passing game. Though he did cough the ball up in a vital part of the field, he also got the first snap on the second drive and dominated once again, but they did give Jackson the goal line work to cap it off, ending with a touchdown. Does this worry me about Ekeler losing GL duties. Nope. Not only did he lead the team in carries inside the five last year, he also saw five red zone targets, showing the team had confidence in him all of 2018, meaning one measly fumble on the team's first drive of the preseason holds very little weight. This isn't to say I think Ekeler completely dominates these looks and boxes Jackson out, though. In my opinion, from what I've seen, Jackson looks to be a better between-the-tackles runner of the two, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's a dead even split inside the five; all I'm saying is, don't write off Ekeler because of one EARLY mishap.

    On top of the volume Ekeler saw a week ago, he also out touched Jackson 52:21 in games Melvin Gordon didn't play, and even in the week MGIII went down early against the Cardinals, Ekeler out touched JJax 15:7. All we've ever seen out of this backfield when Gordon sits is consistent, heavy, work for AE while Jackson plays second fiddle.

    The main argument against Ekeler holding onto the job is that he wasn't efficient last year when he was given lead-back duties, and it's hard to disagree, but it makes sense when looking a bit deeper into the situation. Firstly, the teams he played when he was the next man up were the Titans, Steelers, and the Bengals. Both the Steelers and Titans were top-10 in least points allowed the the runningback position and top-5 in least receptions and receiving yards as well. Admittedly, he struggled in those two outings, failing to score in either and posting just 111 YFS across both. When playing the Bengals, though, who allowed the second most fantasy points to RBs in 2018, Ekeler fell just six yards shy of the century mark and found the endzone, leading to a top-12 finish on the week. Along with the defenses he faced, just watching him play, you could see he wasn't utilized to his full potential.

    With Gordon going down unexpectedly, the Chargers threw Ekeler into the fire, hoping he could directly replace their bellcow back. It didn't work well, as Ekeler is much better in space, eluding tacklers, rather than grinding for yards up the middle. Well, things look like they're changing heading into 2019, as seen in the first week of the preseason. Not only were they using him out of the backfield in space as a receiver, he was also almost exclusively being run to the outside on pitch plays and counters. He just looked so much more comfortable in that role than he did when he as being forced up the middle in 2018, and if he maintains his 12-15 touches we expect with Gordon out, and he will continue his efficiency, but on a heavier workload. Sign me up please.

    As for the final nail in the coffin for why I'm all in on Ekeler: his ADP. Currently the RB34, I don't see any possible way, barring injury, he ends the year below that mark. In 2018, with Gordon on the field for the majority of the season, AE ended as the RB26 on a PPG basis (among runningbacks who played at least half the season), meaning, even if Gordon puts pen to paper before week one, you're getting Ek at his floor, simply because he is one of the most efficient backs in the league and gets the necessary touches to return value. Now, if Gordon sits for a good portion of the year, you're getting a starting back on one of the league's best offenses for the price of a 7th round pick. Pretty good, huh?

    As for Jackson, no, I'm not avoiding him. Most of the time, double-digit round picks are nothing more than shots in the dark, hoping for upside. Atleast with him you know you're getting a runninback who will see double digit touches on a great offense for as long as Gordon is out. When Gordon returns, though, he's be very unlikely to see much more than five touches per game, rendering him completely useless, whereas Ekeler has a role whether or not MGIII suits up, which is why if I'm only grabbing one of the two, I'm taking the bald-headed back.

    Tennessee Titans

    Dion Lewis - RB55,150th overall

    Derrick Henry - RB21, 38th overall

    If you're reading the blog post instead of watching the video, you already know who these two players are (because the team is listed above), but I'm going to go about looking at these blind resumes as if both are unknown.

    ****NOTE: numbers listed in parentheses are per-game averages****

    What you notice from this comparison is that although Player A greatly outsnapped Player B, he was outproduced and showed much less efficiency in all displayed categories. As I always say, we chase volume, and you'd expect a greater snap share indicates more touches, but this wasn't necessarily the case. Also, with Player B outproducing A on less touches, shouldn't we expect a changing of the guard? Well, let's take a deeper look.

    In the first 13 weeks of the season, or 75% of the team's games, Player A not only dominated snaps, he also saw more touches, was more efficient, and was outproduced in only the TD category (of the displayed stats). Even though y'all already know who A and B are just by these splits, I'll just clarify: A is Dion Lewis and B is Derrick Henry. DH has about seven inches and 50 pounds on Lewis, yet didn't manage to out touch him inside the five for the first three quarters of the season. That isn't an very promising sign. As we saw with the season-long numbers, though, we'd have to figure Henry went crazy over the last four games of 2018 to bring these numbers up, and as we all remember, that was the case.

     

    Along with boasting otherworldy production, Henry finally outsnapped Lewis (did so once over the first 12 games, coming in week three) and dominated goal line looks. Even on a terrible offense, this kind of volume all but guarantees RB2 production at worst, but is this something we can come to expect next year?

    Sure, Henry was awesome down the stretch, but if you look at just Lewis' numbers throughout the whole season, he proved something Henry never did: consistency. Dion's yards per touch remained in the 4.3 range while Henry's jumped from 3.94 to 6.73. The only thing that really fell off was his avoided tackles per touch, going from 23.3% over the first 12 weeks to 14.7% over the final four games (a difference of 8.6%), but Henry's disparity was even more significant, going from 17.9% to 26.7% (8.8% change). On top of the number being bigger, Henry's sample for when his avoided tackles per touch spiked was just four games, while Lewis' peak lasted for 12 weeks, further proving he was a more consistent option.

    Now, the main question: what do I expect out of this backfield heading into 2019? Well, I don't think we will see a repeat of his final four game stretch for a couple of reasons. One, Henry likely won't match his production from that span at any point in 2019. That isn't a hot take, it's just common sense. If he were to do this, he'd be the best back in the NFL, and I just don't think that's in the cards for Derrick. Along with this, Henry is on the final year of his rookie deal, and although he'll be just 26 heading into 2020, I'm not sure the Titans will be willing to shell out enough money to retain a RB, especially one who can't catch passes. Marcus Mariota is on his final year, as well, and if he shows any sign of promise, he will also be looking for a pay day, and I'm almost 100% positive a QB will command more money than a two-down back. If this isn't reason enough, the Titans also have $4.95 million per year invested in Dion Lewis every year until 2021, so it's highly unlikely they reserve ~$15 million (assuming DH wants to settle for 10 million) for two non-quarterbacks. We have seen many different teams' attitudes towards paying the position (Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon), which leads me to believe they won't give Henry exactly what he thinks he deserves. Because of this, Tennessee isn't going to phase out their RB of the (near) future (Dion Lewis) to please a back they have ties with for just one last season.

    With this being the case, I'm not sure we see anything more than a 50/50 split this year, likely favoring Lewis if it were to become unbalanced (due to his 3-down skillset). Yes, Henry has the talent to produce, but given the lack of volume the Titans have displayed over their recent years, a 50/50 committee won't allow enough touches for him to return value at his current ADP. He's a full fade for me unless he slips into the 4th round because outside of scoring TDs, something the Titans rarely do, there isn't many other ways DH can provide fantasy points, especially when splitting touches.

    Chicago Bears

    Tarik Cohen - RB29, 60th overall

    David Montgomery - RB21, 37th overall

    Last year, it was evident that Matt Nagy wanted to have a true 3-down back. In the offseason, all he did was hype up how good of a passcatcher Jordan Howard was, and proved it in the first three weeks of the season, feeding him the ball 21 times per game, including almost four targets per contest. Unsurprisingly, Howard's brick hands were displayed, forcing the new head coach to swallow his pride by letting Cohen take over third down and passing duties.

     

    From that point forward, Tarik averaged 6.4 targets and 4.9 receptions per game, while Howard saw more than one target just three times over the final 13 weeks. The touch split worked fairly well, as the team went on to go 12-4, but it was clear Nagy wanted someone in the backfield to play an every-down role, an issue he alleviated in the offseason.

    The Bears signed Mike Davis, someone who can not only run between the tackles, but also be used as a receiving weapon out of the backfield. Sure, he isn't an elite talent, but his overall skillset is much better than what Howard offered heading into 2018. If this wasn't enough evidence that Nagy wanted to acquire a multi-purpose back, they also went out and drafted David Montgomery with their first pick in the draft. Tarik Cohen's frame (5'6 179 pounds) isn't quite ideal for a runningback, although he hasn't suffered any major injuries since entering the league, which brings concern since they now have two men who can eat away at his receiving work, which is his main source of relevance.

    If you look at Cohen's weekly finished, you'll see that in his 12 top-36 finishes, he had five or more receptions in eight of them (75%). For all of you that hate math out there, five receptions per game paces out to 80 over a full 16 (nine more than last year), a mark he is extremely unlikely to hit with his new backfield mates and a healthy ARob and Miller. With his reception ceiling being capped, and his early down work being inconsistent at best, it's really hard to peg Cohen as anything more than a back-end RB3 that you can throw into your FLEX as a decent floor play. It's not like he's going to be completely phased out because playmakers of his caliber will always have a role, but in anything other than a full-PPR league, he isn't a trustworthy weekly RB2, and for where he's being picked, it's going to be hard to return value.

    As for David Montgomery, the hype is starting to heat up, and because of it, I will own zero (0) shares. Currently being grabbed as the RB21, I just don't see a scenario where, by the end of the summer, he is still outside the top-20. Yes, he's a great runner, and if he were to get the role all of us expect him to have, then he could return value, but there are still question marks. Will he get the goal line job? What about third downs? Short yardage situation? I know it was just the first week of preseason, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but isn't it a bit concerning that he was third in line to get touches and earned his first snaps on the special teams unit? If you think not, then you're probably drafting him as a top 20 back, and to that, I say good luck. 

    Let's not forget last year, when Royce Freeman absolutely tore up the preseason, just to go and lose his job to Phillip Lindsay, including third down and goal line duties. The only difference? There was NOTHING behinf Royce heading into the season, which is what made Freeman a popular pick. Yes, Lindsay ended up being awesome, but about 0.3% of the population knew who he was entering the year. The difference is, in Chicago, there are two other backs that we KNOW are good and can carve out a role in the NFL. Cohen is one of the better passcatchers and homerun threats out of the backfield and Mike Davis has hands and the requisite size to produce in and around the end zone, so why should we expect Montgomery to see 20+ touches a week right away? Until he falls outside the fourth round, I'm not pulling the trigger because I can grab a receiver like Stefon Diggs, who is being picked three spots later, who has a solidified role and top-10 positional upside. Now, if Montgomery goes out and absolutely dominates week three of the preseason, then I'd have second thoughts, but I'd legitimately need to see him get well over 60% of the snaps with the first team to have that confidence. 

    Quick Takes

    Dallas Cowboys (If Ezekiel Elliott holds out)

    Mike Weber, Tony Pollard, Darius Jackson, or Alfred Morris

    Tony Pollard. Just give me Tony Pollard. He tore up Week 2 of the preseason, and unlike the other guys in the backfield, he has a role if/when Zeke returns. Mike Weber is interested since he did produce at Ohio State both on the ground and through the air, despite sharing the backfield with JK Dobbins in 2018, but Dallas just seems to love Pollard's versatility. I mean, he caught over 100 balls at Memphis while playing behind Darrell Henderson and having an elite compiler in Anthony Miller during his first two seasons as a Tiger, and has already shown he can put in work on the ground. Pollard, in my eyes, is basically a cheaper version of Austin Ekeler; a player who will likely dominate backfield touches while the starter is sitting in Cabo, and when they return from vacation, will still have a role as a pass catching weapon out of the backfield who can see upwards of 7-10 touches per game. In the same parallel, Mike Weber is basically a worse (but also cheaper) version of Justin Jackson; someone who will have practically no role upon the starter's return.

    San Francisco 49ers

    Tevin Coleman - RB28, 59th overall

    Matt Breida - RB52, 128th overall

    Breida. BY. A. MILE. Why won't he have the same role as last year? He only saw about 12.9 touches per game, and with the lack of depth in SF (due to injuries), this is attainable even if Coleman earns the starting job, getting 15-18 touches. Breida has been nothing but efficient since entering the league, despite being put in terrible situations, whether it be playing with a combination of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, or playing second fiddle in his rookie season to Carlos Hyde, he has just been good. Last season, he was 7th in yards per touch (pretty good) while amassing the 27th most touches (180), and on similar volume this year, I'd be willing to bet he'd match that efficiency. I mean, looking at last year's volume, runningbacks accounted for 417 touches, meaning, if Breida gets just 35% of this work, it would translate to 146 touches, and on his 6.0 YPT, it would translate to 876 YFS, a mark just 30 backs hit last year, with the lowest fantasy finish of the group coming from Dion Lewis (RB31). Breida may well be the best value in fantasy football this season.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Ronald Jones - RB40, 96th overall

    Peyton Barber - RB45, 109th overall

    Are you kidding me? Not only has Peyton Barber been the starter thus far in preseason, he has also looked better, has produced better in the NFL, and has a more complete skillset than Jones. RoJo can't catch, can't elude tackles, amd may have lost his best (and only) asset, his speed, after gaining 20 pounds this offseason. Barber was top 10 in carries and evaded tackles last year, while Ronald Jones couldn't even earn a single snap for the first three weeks. At their ADPs, I'm not touching RoJo at all, and Peyton Barber is starting to look like a great value.



      Noah Pires
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