Toby Gerhart’s Jaguar Express has hit its fastest speed since departing on March 11th. That’s when he was brought to Jacksonville to be a three-down bellcow, reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch’s career-reviving second act.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Gerhart’s average draft position (ADP) on March 11th was early in the 14th round (14.02). One week later it had shot up to 8.07. Two months after he signed he had an ADP of 5.07, and that’s where it stayed until the end of May. Since then Gerhart’s ADP resumed ascending to its present perch at the beginning of the fourth round (4.02). It is still rising.
At what point does Gerhart go from a screaming bargain to fairly priced, or even too expensive? Most current sentiment is still squarely in the “bargain” camp, although with more casual fantasy players poised to end their off seasons we are rapidly approaching a junction in the track.
Taking Gerhart in the middle rounds was a no-brainer, with the only issue being how late he could be snuck onto rosters before opponents sniped him. His projected opportunity dictated the selection, and his relatively indeterminate talent level supported it even among those who weren’t fervent believers in his skill set.
Now that he’s being drafted in a more exclusive neighborhood, with (depending on scoring format) proven fantasy producers like Alfred Morris, Ryan Mathews, and Reggie Bush, we need to take a more critical look at what ponying up for Gerhart buys us.
First Class Ticket
Gerhart will receive an exponentially larger workload in Jacksonville, and luckily he’s well rested. He has not started a game since 2011, which was the only time he cracked 100 carries in a single NFL season (109). Despite his relative inactivity Gerhart has compiled a lengthy list of ailments, including Achilles’ tendon, shoulder, and multiple ankle, knee, and hamstring injuries – one of which cost him most of last season’s final month.
Predicting injuries is slightly more reliable than scratching out a living with lotto tickets, but it does give pause when a running back has trouble holding up to a light workload, and is then ticketed for 16 games of repeated slamming into walls of humanity. And make no mistake, that is his job description in Jacksonville. Plus, his impressive 4.7 yards-per-carry average was greatly aided by not doing that very thing too often.
From 2011 through last season, Gerhart enjoyed operating behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lives in football. PFF graded the Vikings first in 2011 (+58.3), third in 2012, (+50.3), and sixth in 2013 (+19.0). He also benefited from favorable game situations.
For his career Gerhart has scored 238.5 standard fantasy points, 55.6 of which came when the Vikings trailed by at least two touchdowns (23.3 percent). Last season, 37.3 percent of his fantasy production was accrued while down 14 or more points.
Gerhart also has a reputation as an efficient pass-protecting and receiving back, but the numbers don’t bear that out. In both 2011 (93 percent) and 2012 (92.1 percent) he ranked 49th in Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) among running backs who saw 25 percent of snaps. Last year his PBE rose to 95.6 percent (13th), but on only 40 total pass blocking snaps. Gerhart’s career drop rate is 9.4 percent, which would have ranked him 31st among qualified running backs last year – one spot behind former teammate Adrian Peterson.
Speaking of Peterson, he has a reputation as a back who struggles to hold onto the ball, yet his former backup has escaped the same stigma. Peterson has lost 31 fumbles in his career, or one out of every 72 touches (1.4 percent). As a frame of reference, the legendary stone hands of Stevan Ridley have lost the ball once out of every 64 touches (1.6 percent). Gerhart, in an admittedly smaller sample of 353 catches and carries, has lost one out of every 50 touches (2.0 percent). Ridley has 221 more career touches than Gerhart, and his own butterfingery reputation is arguably overblown, but we at least need to consider the former Viking as potentially fumble prone.
It was alluded to that Gerhart has run in favorable game flow situations. Last year he was up against light defensive fronts on 22.2 percent of his rushing attempts, whereas the Vikings offense as a whole faced those alignments on just 17 percent of their total plays. Gerhart averaged 10.9 yards per carry in those exploitable situations. During his career he’s faced fronts of fewer than seven defenders on 26 percent of his snaps. His yards per attempt mark in those situations is 5.7, versus 4.4 against Base or heavier personnel. An average of 4.4 is still solid, and the NFL mark last season was 4.2, but it helps put his 4.7 career yards per carry figure in better context.
So here we have a running back mischaracterized as strong in the passing game, who has had durability and fumbling issues, plus was aided greatly by both strong blocking and accommodating game flow. That sounds pretty ominous, and we haven’t even gotten into how things will be different with the Jaguars.
Not only was Jacksonville’s run blocking pathetic last season, it received the worst grade given out by PFF in the last six seasons (-108.0). The Jets ranked 31st, but way ahead of the Jaguars with a -79.3 mark. The expectation is that the offensive line will show improvement, and since it probably can’t get any worse that will likely be fulfilled. But just how much of a leap can it make, and will it be enough to foster consistent success on the ground?
We know that the Jaguars are going to run as much as they can. Mike Clay’s recent research into situational play-calling revealed that Gus Bradley’s bunch remains disproportionally committed to the run even when faced with deficits. Their defense is a strong bet to continue improving, so they should hang in games longer as well. From a volume perspective that’s obviously excellent news for Gerhart’s value. The question is how efficient can he be.
Last season, Maurice Jones-Drew posted 9.4 standard fantasy points per game (12.3 PPR) during the 15 contests he played. A full-season pace would have put him in the RB18 neighborhood in both scoring formats. That’s roughly where Gerhart is being taken now. Of course Jones-Drew is not Gerhart, and the offensive line will presumably make positive strides.
For that to happen, however, second-year left tackle Luke Joeckel will need to lead the way by raising his game. The second overall pick in 2013 received the 58th-best run blocking grade among tackles with a minimum of 200 snaps. He will line up next to free agent import Zane Beadles, who arrived via Denver. That sounds great but Beadles is overrated, and he ranked as the 43rd run blocking guard last year. Mike Brewster, a former guard himself, is set to play center. He was the 64th “best” graded guard (minimum of 200 snaps) last season.
Rookie Brandon Linder is slated to play right guard and is a big, nasty mauler. Yet questionable balance and foot quickness caused him to drop to the third round, and how he fits the zone-blocking scheme that the Jaguars will run is concerning. Austin Pasztor will get a shot at right tackle, but needs to significantly improve his 70th-ranked run-blocking marks among fellow tackles.
That bunch is probably less reminiscent of Joe Gibbs’ Hogs than it is the Hogettes.
The parallel to Marshawn Lynch’s revival is an apt one, especially given the Seahawk-flavored philosophies being implemented by former Seattle defensive coordinator Bradley and general manager David Caldwell. But we shouldn’t forget that when Lynch arrived in Seattle for 12 games in 2010, he averaged 3.5 yards per carry behind an offensive line that was graded 27th in run blocking by PFF.
There’s also the matter of how the Ghost Of MJD was able to plod his way to the 18th-best fantasy running back spot last year, 3.4 yards at a time. Surely Gerhart is an improvement on Jones-Drew. Right? At the very least, he makes for a good litmus test.
In 2013, while Gerhart was cruising through a wall of Vikings typically engaged with light defensive fronts, he didn’t meet with resistance until 4.12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, on average. Yes, his 3.78 yards after contact per attempt and 7.9 yards per carry figures are juicy, but considering that he had more than a four-yard head of steam and was running through plenty of defensive backs, they lose some of their luster.
Jones-Drew, on the other hand, was hit just 1.14 yards past the line of scrimmage, on average. PFF’s Shawn Siegele has done innovative work with Vision Yards for years, and one of the quickest paths to looking stupid is to challenge something he says. However, in this particular case, the gap between Gerhart’s and MJD’s Vision Yards average says more about their supporting cast (and sample size, in Gerhart’s case), than it does the backs themselves.
Jones-Drew’s 2012 and 2007 were marked by partial playing time, and were the two leanest years in the sample in terms of carries. Yet even if they’re included, his 2013 Vision Yards average sticks out like a sore thumb (especially because I highlighted it). The narrative is a 28-year old MJD fell off a cliff in terms of quickness and lateral explosiveness. In reality there were sufficient demonstrations of an ability to avoid tacklers (often in the backfield) with power and agility, and the necessary speed to beat defenders around both edges.
The fact that the Jaguars also were graded last by PFF in the passing game (-50.9) certainly didn’t help their league-worst offensive line keep defenders out of MJD’s grill. Yet when the Jaguars were able to throw him the ball in space, Jones-Drew showed enough wiggle to force missed tackles at his highest rate since he was 22 years old.
Jacksonville run blocking grades ranked 22nd in 2012, when Jones-Drew missed all but six games. But in 2011 the Jaguars ranked ninth, and in 2010 they were fifth. MJD was PFF’s fourth best running back (+12.4) and fantasy’s third highest-scorer at his position in 2011. In 2010 he was on a top-five per game fantasy points pace through 14 games, and was PFF’s eighth-graded running back (+8.4).
So what’s more likely? That Jones-Drew stepped off a cliff at 28-years old and was the chief cause of his own (sort of) demise? Or was it the implosion of an offensive line that had supported easy top-10 running back performance just two years earlier?
The Bad News and The Good News
The bad news is Toby Gerhart’s current ADP trajectory has already surged past bargain status. The chances of it halting in a range that is appropriately priced, roughly where it currently resides, are getting worse by the day. If you haven’t already rostered him at a great discount, unfortunately it appears as if the window has closed. The most realistic happy ending is he returns current ADP equity through sheer volume, something that seemed infinitely more likely in mid-May.
The good news is MJD might be the first person in history to believe he died and went to heaven after moving to Oakland. And based on his current ADP as the RB32 in the middle of the seventh round, his “not-as-bad-as-Jacksonville” offensive line situation, and the premature reports of his NFL demise, he’s also a bargain in fantasy.
*-ADP data courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman