5 Running Backs Who The Draft Could Hurt
With the 2014 NFL Draft less than a week away, it’s time to consider how the draft might affect the fantasy football value of players currently on an NFL roster. An individual player’s fantasy football value is determined by a hard to pin down combination of talent, supporting cast, and role within the offense. With talent a constant and supporting cast on track only to improve or stay the same, we will focus on role.
In this piece, we will look at five running backs that stand to lose the most value following the draft. Next week, part two will focus on the wide receivers who could be most adversely affected by the draft.
All average draft position (ADP) data is taken from 1,974 mock drafts from April 16-30th and compiled by fantasyfootballcalcuator.com
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
The Andre Ellington hype train is in full force with his current ADP rising to 30.5 overall. I won’t sit here and deny his talent, which was evident whenever he got the ball in open space in 2013. PFF signature statistics back up what we saw on the field, as Ellington finished with the fifth-best elusive rating (62.2) in the league. He forced 31 total missed tackles on just 157 rushing attempts and receptions combined. He also totaled 12 runs of 15-plus yards on just 118 rushing attempts. For comparison’s sake, Demarco Murray and C.J. Spiller totaled just 11 runs of 15-plus yards on almost 100 more attempts each.
The concern with Ellington is his role and opportunity going forward. Pass protection could be an issue. Last season, Ellington was used as a pass blocker on just 21 total plays out of the 414 snaps he was on the field for. Despite an injury to Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington was only the field for 50 percent or more of the snaps in one game all season. General manager Steve Keim claims that he won’t be “featured”, and while Bruce Arians originally stated that he wanted to build their offense around him, he recently back-tracked and stated that he would remove Ellington in all short yardage situations and be careful not to “create too much stuff” for him.
Of course, this is all just offseason coach speak. We know from past experience that Arians prefers a bigger back who has experience and success as a pass protector for his vertically-based offensive scheme the requires protection to function at its best. He shocked fantasy owners alike and turned Vick Ballard into a feature back just two seasons ago when he was coaching with the Colts. If a big and explosive running back prospect Carlos Hyde is on the board when the Cardinals pick at No. 52 overall, I expect them to strongly consider grabbing him. If they do, Ellington’s owners may want to go run and hyde (sorry I had to try). With a later pick, they could target Tre Mason or Terrance West. The team met with Mason at the NFL Combine and held a private workout for West.
Every fantasy football enthusiast will be champing at the bit to find out what direction the Titans go in at running back following the release of Chris Johnson. Most assume that they will draft a running back, even after they signed Dexter McCluster in free agency. With the Ken Whisenhunt offense rolling into town, it’s fair to assume that McCluster will be used in a role similar to Danny Woodhead’s in 2013. I was surprised to discover that Woodhead actually played the most snaps on his team 24 more than Ryan Mathews did in 2013. It might be unwise to expect McCluster to match Woodhead’s 108 carries, considering he weighs in at just 170 pounds.
This leaves Shonn Greene atop the depth chart as the early down back, short yardage specialist, and goal-line specialist. The only problem is that Greene is not particularly good. Last season, he finished with just 295 yards on 77 rushing attempts, averaging just 3.8 ypc. PFF signature statistics tell an even bleaker story. Greene finished with one of the worst elusive ratings in the league (12.8), breaking just five total tackles on 83 combined carries and receptions. He also managed just three rushes of 15-plus yards, and he wasn’t even an asset as a pass blocker—allowing two quarterback pressures on just 11 pass block snaps. By the way, all of these numbers were compiled while running behind the league’s fifth-best run blocking unit.
Greene’s sinking value seems more like a case of when and not if. General manager Ruston Webster said earlier this April that the team is looking to add an “all around back” in the draft. If they pinpoint a prospect they like with their No. 42 overall pick, Greene’s value could become nonexistent as soon as the preseason. They could also target Towson running back Terrance West with their third or fourth round pick—they hosted West for an official visit earlier in April.
A collection of offseason coach-speak and past coaching tendencies have Giovani Bernard owners riding high. His ADP has risen all the way to 15.3 overall, and he is being selected ahead of running backs like Doug Martin, DeMarco Murray, and Zac Stacy. Beat and team writers expect Bernard to border on 300 touches—up from the 226 he had in 2013. Head coach Marvin Lewis took it a step further when he claimed that he envisions a second-year leap from Bernard similar to Ray Rice’s.
Everyone wants to point to the success that Darren McFadden had in 2011 under Hue Jackson, who was to promoted to offensive coordinator on the Bengals, and project that onto Bernard. It’s important to keep in mind that McFadden is a much bigger back, weighing almost 15 pounds more than Bernard. Jackson dialed up play after play around McFadden during his breakout season, and even his bigger frame couldn’t take it—he played in only 13 games that season and finished with 270 total touches.
With that said, Jackson has made it clear that he wants to run the ball more in 2014. Last season, he was quoted saying that he believed Bernard has the skill-set to be an every down workhorse back. I won’t sit here and argue that point when in fact I agree with it, as I mentioned last May. But can Bernard’s body can take the beating of an every down role, and more importantly can he hold his own in pass protection?
The early results to that question are promising. Looking back at his rookie season, he finished as the ninth-most efficient pass blocker of all running backs with a pass blocking efficiency of 96.1. He allowed just five total pressures on 95 pass block snaps. Of course, this is a small samples size, and as a feature back he would be required to block more often.
Still, after letting BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency, the Bengals are likely to pair a between-the-tackles running back with Bernard. They could look to target LSU’s bruiser Jeremy Hill, who goes 6-foot-1, 233 pounds. Hill visited with the Bengals just over a week ago.
During last August’s draft season, Steven Jackson was one of the more highly controversial running backs. Glass half full people believed that a marriage with the high-powered Falcons offense promised at least double-digit touchdowns to go along with similar yardage numbers from his time with the Rams. Glass half empty people, sometimes better known as realists, pointed to Jackson’s age, recent nagging injury history, and most importantly to preseason struggled along the Falcons’ offensive line.
Both concerns shared by the latter came to fruition. Jackson left Week 2 after just three carries with a hamstring injury and ended up missing another four full games. The Falcons offensive line was a mess grading out as the 11th-worst in run blocking and third-worst in pass blocking, with a combined grade of (-82.1) overall. Jackson’s trademark explosion through the tackle was missing, as he mentioned to evade just 29 total tackles on 190 combined carries and receptions for an elusive rating (31.0) that ranked him right with the likes of Bilal Powell and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Head coach Mike Smith seems to think that we didn’t really get a chance to see what Jackson was capable of in 2013 because of the injury. While that might be true, Jackson is going on 31 and he is coming off back-to-back seasons where he missed extensive time due to injury. Banking on his explosion returning is enough of a stretch for me given his age let alone his injury history. If the Falcons draft a running back, it might not take long for him to steal some early down snaps from Jackson.
The Falcons have 10 picks in the draft, and they have been very active with their pre-draft visits and workouts at the running back position. They have met with or worked out Devonta Freeman, Storm Johnson, and Terrance West. Freeman could be a great value for them with their third-round pick, and his slashing style and lateral agility remind me and many others of Ahmad Bradshaw in his prime.
In his last game of the season, Stevan Ridley was held to just 17 yards on five carries, while playing just 10 total snaps. Because the Patriots let LaGarette Blount walk in free agency, many have assumed that Ridley will get another shot as the Patriots’ lead back. This assumption, however, dismisses the many red flags that Ridley carries. Ridley’s ball security issues are well known by those in the fantasy community, and there hasn’t been a large enough sample size to prove that he is over these issues. Bill Belicheck simply won’t lean on him until those issues are cleared. What people might not remember, no pun intended, is that Ridley also suffered a severe concussion at the end of the 2012 season—one more of those and he could be out for an extended period of time.
Ridley’s ceiling will always be lower than most running backs in fantasy football, because he offers nothing extra in the passing game. In 2013, he ran just 83 pass routes and was targeted a mere 12 times. His YPPR (yards-per-route-run) was among the league’s very worst at 0.75. While Belicheck has been known to use his running backs in specific roles based on the matchup, it’s not as if he isn’t looking for a complete back who can be dynamic as a runner and receiver—it’s just that he hasn’t found one.
The Patriots have met with or worked out running backs Devonta Freeman, James White, and Dri Archer. Freeman and White have very similar skill-sets, and they are both slashing backs who are shifty and explosive between the tackles. They have the quickness to take over the early-down role fast.
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