Fantasy: Finding The Next Darren Sproles

| January 29, 2012

With the emergence of Darren Sproles in 2011, it is easy to see the value of a PPR monster for a fantasy team. The running back position is in constant flux with injuries, depth chart shuffling, and the preferences of coaches like Mike Shanahan. In addition to week-to-week decisions for the fantasy owner, the fluidity of the position also creates a larger pool of players that could become impact players on a yearly basis. The purpose of this article is to find the next Darren Sproles of 2012.

Darren Sproles was an undervalued RB in San Diego, both in fantasy football and in the NFL.  He was efficient with his limited opportunities, scoring over 125 PPR fantasy points in the 2008-2010 seasons with just 61, 93, and 51 rushing attempts each year. The Saints put Sproles to good use in 2011. His targets rose from a previously career-high of 75 to 111.  His 6.9 YPC average on the ground and nine total TDs were also a career-high.

As I began my research, I first looked at RBs that were targeted on at least 10% of their snaps in 2010 or 2011. They also needed to have at least 100 snaps in that season. These established players (2011 rookies that did not meet the TGT/SN baseline were not included in this exercise) have already shown ability in the passing game.

Here is the initial list:

RB 2011 TGT/SN 2010 TGT/SN
Ray Rice 11.7% 9.0%
Chris Johnson 10.3% 6.7%
Arian Foster 9.5% 9.1%
Jonathan Stewart 9.6% 3.6%
Roy Helu 10.1% N/A
Ryan Mathews 10.9% 8.6%
Darren Sproles 21.3% 16.7%
Mike Tolbert 14.1% 7.3%
C.J. Spiller 11.1% 11.2%
Dexter McCluster 12.6% 9.5%
LaDainian Tomlinson 13.4% 10.5%
Pierre Thomas 13.8% 13.1%
Kregg Lumpkin 12.5% 50.0%
Felix Jones 11.2% 8.9%
Jahvid Best 11.8% 12.9%
Justin Forsett 10.2% 9.3%
Danny Ware 11.7% 20.0%
Javon Ringer 11.9% 5.4%
Brian Leonard 12.1% 10.8%
LeSean McCoy 6.8% 10.0%
Frank Gore 4.0% 10.0%
Jason Snelling 9.5% 10.1%
Mike Goodson 75.0% 11.8%
Danny Woodhead 7.9% 10.6%
Reggie Bush 8.5% 16.7%
Ladell Betts N/A 11.6%
Maurice Morris 10.0% 10.2%
LaRod Stephens-Howling 11.1% 19.1%
Julius Jones N/A 12.3%

Those qualifications generate an initial list of 29 RBs. The first elimination will be the obvious stud players that will go very early in every fantasy draft and come at a high cost in a dynasty trade. That will eliminate players like Ray Rice, Arian Foster, and LeSean McCoy to name a few.

RB 2011 TGT/SN 2010 TGT/SN
Jonathan Stewart 9.6% 3.6%
Roy Helu 10.1% N/A
Ryan Mathews 10.9% 8.6%
Mike Tolbert 14.1% 7.3%
C.J. Spiller 11.1% 11.2%
Dexter McCluster 12.6% 9.5%
LaDainian Tomlinson 13.4% 10.5%
Pierre Thomas 13.8% 13.1%
Kregg Lumpkin 12.5% 50.0%
Felix Jones 11.2% 8.9%
Jahvid Best 11.8% 12.9%
Justin Forsett 10.2% 9.3%
Danny Ware 11.7% 20.0%
Javon Ringer 11.9% 5.4%
Brian Leonard 12.1% 10.8%
Frank Gore 4.0% 10.0%
Jason Snelling 9.5% 10.1%
Mike Goodson 75.0% 11.8%
Danny Woodhead 7.9% 10.6%
Reggie Bush 8.5% 16.7%
Ladell Betts N/A 11.6%
Maurice Morris 10.0% 10.2%
LaRod Stephens-Howling 11.1% 19.1%
Julius Jones N/A 12.3%

Now, we are down to 24 RBs at our disposal. The next elimination point will be over-the-hill RBs like Julius Jones, Ladell Betts, and Frank Gore. The first two are obvious choices. Gore may be a little more controversial. His use in the passing game took a dramatic turn downward in 2011 under Jim Harbaugh. That combined with his age and still elevated cost are a tough set of circumstances to mine value from in 2012. Others that do not make the cut past this point are Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert, and Reggie Bush. Mathews has a high price tag in relation to his upside. Tolbert already has 2 seasons of 10+ TDs and caught 54 passes in 2011 – which means he is not sneaking up on anyone. Reggie Bush was healthy for an entire season in 2011, his first in the NFL. His stock is elevated quite a bit as the lead back in Miami, so the risk is greater than the upside.

RB 2011 TGT/SN 2010 TGT/SN
Jonathan Stewart 9.6% 3.6%
Roy Helu 10.1% N/A
C.J. Spiller 11.1% 11.2%
Dexter McCluster 12.6% 9.5%
Pierre Thomas 13.8% 13.1%
Kregg Lumpkin 12.5% 50.0%
Felix Jones 11.2% 8.9%
Jahvid Best 11.8% 12.9%
Justin Forsett 10.2% 9.3%
Danny Ware 11.7% 20.0%
Javon Ringer 11.9% 5.4%
Jason Snelling 9.5% 10.1%
Mike Goodson 75.0% 11.8%
Danny Woodhead 7.9% 10.6%
LaRod Stephens-Howling 11.1% 19.1%

Now we are getting somewhere. Only 14 RBs remain at this point. The next step will be to eliminate those lacking explosive abilities. In order to crack the starting lineup for a fantasy squad, an RB will need to have opportunity, but also big-play ability.

RB 2011 TGT/SN 2010 TGT/SN
Jonathan Stewart 9.6% 3.6%
Roy Helu 10.1% N/A
C.J. Spiller 11.1% 11.2%
Dexter McCluster 12.6% 9.5%
Pierre Thomas 13.8% 13.1%
Felix Jones 11.2% 8.9%
Jahvid Best 11.8% 12.9%
Javon Ringer 11.9% 5.4%
Mike Goodson 75.0% 11.8%
LaRod Stephens-Howling 11.1% 19.1%

At this point, the list contains a manageable amount. Now 10 RBs remain – all with skill and enough previous involvement in the passing game to see an upside in production. The next cutoff will include Mike Goodson (behind two bell-cow RBs in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams) and Pierre Thomas (committee with Ingram, Ivory, and Sproles). Both have limited upside or chance to get a majority of the fantasy production.

RB 2011 TGT/SN 2010 TGT/SN
Jonathan Stewart 9.6% 3.6%
Roy Helu 10.1% N/A
C.J. Spiller 11.1% 11.2%
Dexter McCluster 12.6% 9.5%
Felix Jones 11.2% 8.9%
Jahvid Best 11.8% 12.9%
Javon Ringer 11.9% 5.4%
LaRod Stephens-Howling 11.1% 19.1%

Now is crunch time. Eight players remain and now it is time to take a stand on the best targets based on their upside and potential cost this off-season and heading into 2012.

Prime Cut

Jonathan Stewart outplayed DeAngelo Williams in 2011. Stewart was the preferred receiving target out of the backfield with a better catch rate (82% to 67%) on more targets (57 to 24). Most notably, Jonathan Stewart forced 20 missed tackles on his 47 catches (0.43 per REC) compared to Williams’ three missed tackles on 16 catches (0.19 per REC). Stewart also has TD upside with Cam Newton’s record-breaking rushing performance of 14 TDs likely to regress. The rushing offense will be dynamic with numerous cutback lanes due to Newton’s bootleg threat on the backside, so I expect a repeat of 5.0+ YPC on the ground from Stewart in 2012. In two recent PPR dynasty start-up drafts, Stewart was drafted in the fifth and sixth round respectively, so there is plenty of room for upside.

Jahvid Best’s concussions have dynasty owners downright panicked about his future. The latest report is that Best is no longer having concussion-like symptoms. He obviously comes with risk – just like Austin Collie after his bouts with concussions in 2010. That being said, Best’s upside in PPR is tremendous. In his six games in 2011, Best averaged 18.8 PPG in PPR scoring. He was on pace for over 70 receptions at 10.6 YPC. He will likely never be asked to be the lead back again, but that does not matter. He can be an RB1 without 200 carries or 5+ TDs. The RB12 in PPR scoring formats has averaged 228 fantasy points in the past 3 seasons (14.3 PPG). With 70/700 receiving, Best would need just a handful TDs and say 600 rushing yards (less than 40 per game) to hit that number. The Lions offense is built around the passing game and Best is an explosive weapon that can excel with Calvin Johnson and Titus Young stretching the field on the outsides. Best was drafted in the seventh and ninth rounds of January dynasty drafts and offers excellent risk/reward in that range.

Choice Cut

C.J. Spiller took over as the starting RB in Week 12, collecting 15+ touches in each remaining game in 2011. Fred Jackson was an elite RB, both in the NFL and in fantasy, prior to his season-ending injury in 2011. Spiller has an opportunity to have the lead role in Buffalo in 2012, as his competition for the starting job will be a 31-year-old RB returning from a broken leg. Spiller averaged over 19 PPG in his six starts in 2011. There are concerns as the 2011 camp battle between Spiller and Jackson turned into Spiller rarely seeing the field until Fred Jackson’s injury ended his season. The upside is there for an RB1 season in 2012 for Spiller. He is a solid risk/reward choice in the fifth to seventh round range of early start-up dynasty drafts.

Felix Jones is not cut out to be a lead back in an NFL backfield. However, Jones is dynamic, especially in the open field. He has been used heavily in the pass game since his arrival in Dallas and will be in a contract season in 2012 – which is a huge incentive for RBs to put their best effort forward. DeMarco Murray would be the logical fit as the between-the-tackles bell cow back for the Cowboys; but his laundry list of career injuries could make that more of a hope than a promise. Felix Jones is capable of getting 10+ carries on occasion and being the main pass option in 2012. Jones is currently being drafted outside the first 10 rounds in dynasty drafts.

Select Grade

Roy Helu showed much promise in the pass game as a rookie. He was the fourth highest graded blocking RB (+3.7) and caught 88% of his targets in 2011. The big concern is the revolving door at the running back position in Washington. Evan Royster showed signs, Ryan Torain received numerous chances, Tim Hightower was the starting RB until injury, and it would not be surprising if the Redskins drafted another RB this season. Helu has been mentioned as a third down back and change-of-pace variety by the Redskins brass multiple times. His string as a starter in 2011 was temporary. Helu could have 50 catches in 2012, but with an eventual improvement at QB and WR, expect his long-term upside to be greatly tempered. Helu’s ADP in early dynasty drafts is in the range of rounds 6-9.

Dexter McCluster was nearly invisible as a rookie in 2010, but had more opportunities to shine in 2011 with Jamaal Charles’ injury. McCluster is never going to be confused as a lead RB in a rushing attack despite his 113 carries in 2011 in spot duty. However, he has the chance to be a versatile, do-everything player for a Kansas City offense that should be ready to rebound from a horrid 2011. Charles is on track for a healthy return in 2012, but outside of that, the chances are wide open for a RB/WR like McCluster to have a prominent role.

Commercial Grade

LaRod Stephens-Howling is worth a flyer in deep roster leagues.  He is a Sproles-lite type of RB that can excel in the right system.  Stephens-Howling was the seventh highest receiving RB according to our grades (+4.5) and more than an adequate blocker (36th highest of 141 rated RBs). He is a restricted free agent and a player to watch if he leaves Arizona. Much like Sproles, he was not used to his full ability in Arizona and could use a change in scenery. Stephens-Howling will be 25 years-old next season and available at the end of every single dynasty draft I have seen this January.

Javon Ringer made all the previous cuts of this PPR search, but I have to put the odds of a breakout as a long shot at best. For all the criticism of Chris Johnson’s performance in 2011, Ringer posted 3.1 YPC (just 1.7 YAC/attempt) on the season. I did not see the potential upside in Ringer’s game in my film study during 2011 and he is easily replaceable at the NFL level. Chris Johnson will get the majority of activity in the running and passing game. Jamie Harper may be in line for more work than Ringer may if Johnson is injured in 2012. Outside of a flyer handcuff-type in deeper leagues by the Johnson owner, there is not much upside for Ringer moving forward.


Ask Chad Parsons for dynasty league advice on Twitter: @PFF_ChadParsons

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