LeSean McCoy Lost in Space

Scott Spratt explains why Buffalo is a poor match for McCoy's elite skill.

| 2 years ago

LeSean McCoy Lost in Space

lesean-mccoyThere are plenty of reasons to read LeSean McCoy’s trade to the Bills as a bad move for his fantasy value. The notoriously up-tempo Chip Kelly ran 75 offensive snaps per game compared to the just 70 Rex Ryan ran on his old team, the Jets, and the 68 that Doug Marrone ran in Buffalo last season.

McCoy trades the No. 1 rated offensive line (+85.7) from 2014 for the No. 32 offensive line (-50.8). And while McCoy frustrated his fantasy owners with just five touchdowns last season, he should have been expected to score 7.7 touchdowns based on Mike Clay’s OTD metric, which at best suggests that McCoy experienced poor luck that should turn around no matter the team he’s on and at worst that McCoy was responsible for his low touchdown total because of a Matt Forte-like inability to score close to the goal.

There is a hidden potential detriment to McCoy’s value that outweighs all of those concerns in my mind. Perhaps McCoy’s decline in efficiency last season was the result of a decline in his physical ability, but I suspect it was the result of an introduced specialization that forced McCoy to operate in uncharacteristically difficult situations.

To illustrate my point, here is a table that shows McCoy’s percentage of runs against favorable fronts—that is, runs where he faced fewer than seven men in the box—over the last several years. I’ve split his 2014 season into the first five weeks and the final 11 weeks, which mirrors his period of non-production and solid production from last season.

Percent of Runs vs. Fewer than 7 Men in the Box
Player Time Period Favorable% YPC
LeSean McCoy 2011 Weeks 1-17 61.4% 4.8
LeSean McCoy 2012 Weeks 1-17 59.8% 4.2
LeSean McCoy 2013 Weeks 1-17 78.0% 5.1
LeSean McCoy 2014 Weeks 1-5 25.5% 2.9
LeSean McCoy 2014 Weeks 6-17 70.5% 4.8


The first praise that any analyst will give of McCoy is how dangerous he is in space. Well, for the first five weeks of 2015, McCoy only touched the ball on plays where the defense expected Philadelphia to run and therefore had seven or more defenders in the box, effectively eliminating McCoy’s greatest strength.

What was bad for McCoy didn’t hurt the team, however. Darren Sproles was more than capable of breaking big plays in obvious passing situations—Sproles saw fewer than seven men in the box on 64.9 percent of his runs last season. And, in the end, I think that may be why Kelly was willing to trade McCoy. If you do not intend to use McCoy on obvious passing downs, then he is no better than the inexpensive backs who specialize in the role that McCoy was forced to inhabit last season.

Prior to the trade, I could not decide on my expectations of McCoy’s usage in 2015. You can argue that a correction had already happened, which is why McCoy reverted to a more typical 70.5 percent favorable rate over his final 10 games. I was afraid that the early-season trend would return. The time frame for McCoy’s usage change stokes the fires of my imagination of the battle for personnel control in Philadelphia, a battle that Kelly clearly won.

With McCoy now in Buffalo, the question of his hypothetical usage in Philadelphia this season is no longer important. What is important is what we can expect from Rex Ryan and his offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and that has fewer reasons for optimism. First, let’s look at Ryan’s historic usage of his primary backs in New York.

Percent of Runs vs. Fewer than 7 Men in the Box
Player Season Favorable% YPC
Shonn Greene 2011 17.1% 4.2
Shonn Greene 2012 7.7% 3.8
Chris Ivory 2013 34.3% 4.6
Chris Ivory 2014 44.9% 4.1


The Ivory era* was not as dire as the Greene era, but none of those seasons approached the 60-plus percent favorable front rate McCoy has enjoyed in all of his productive seasons.

*Chris Johnson did not have it much easier, seeing fewer than seven men in the box on 46.9 percent of his runs in 2014.

Meanwhile, Greg Roman’s patterns in San Francisco paint an even worse picture for McCoy.

Percent of Runs vs. Fewer than 7 Men in the Box
Player Season Favorable% YPC
Frank Gore 2011 12.1% 4.3
Frank Gore 2012 10.9% 4.7
Frank Gore 2013 3.6% 4.1
Frank Gore 2014 17.3% 4.3


I have to meet my once-per-article quota mention of how insane it is that Frank Gore consistently met or exceeded the league yards-per-carry mark even though nearly all of his carries were against stacked boxes. But, if last year is any indication, LeSean McCoy is not Frank Gore. McCoy may not even be Chris Ivory. History tells us that McCoy succeeds when he has space and fails when he doesn’t, and he enters a situation in Buffalo where it’s really hard to expect him to have space. Beyond even the previous tendencies of Ryan’s and Roman’s teams, a Matt Cassel-led passing attack seems unlikely to entice defenses to enter the nickel with McCoy on the field.

In the end, the field may be stacked against McCoy in 2015, but there is only so much damage that can do to his fantasy value. McCoy will likely run the ball 300 times and catch the ball another 40 or more times, and he does not need to be particularly effective on those individual touches to be successful in fantasy in the aggregate. Still, I doubt if McCoy ends up on any of my teams this season. Chip Kelly was no benefactor of McCoy’s fantasy value, but Buffalo could be an even worse match for his skill set.

Scott Spratt is a Sloan Analytics Conference Research Paper Competition and Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt

  • PaulyG4

    What about passing the ball to the RB? Chip Kelly failed to use McCoy effectively in this aspect. How do Ryan and Roman do in that regard?