Backs & Fronts – End of Season 2014
Before the season, I introduced a pair of new statistics, front-adjusted yards over expectation (FAYE) and front-adjusted yards over expectation per carry (FAYE/C). The idea behind them is simple. Running backs perform better when there are fewer defenders in the box. That means that backs who play for teams who consistently see fewer than seven men in the box have a nice advantage. It also means that not every back with an above-average YPC mark is an above-average back.
With the regular season behind us, I wanted to take one last look at the running back leaders and trailers in FAYE for the season. The top and bottom lists have a 100-carry minimum:
|Front-Adjusted Yards Over Expectation (FAYE) Leaders, 2014|
In a lot of ways, Justin Forsett will be the most interesting player in fantasy this offseason. He entered 2014 as a 28-year-old journeyman with fewer than 400 career carries. He will enter 2015 as a free agent after the No. 5 rated (+12.4) running back season. He had the No. 1 season by FAYE, and it wasn’t particularly close.
However, it’s important to consider that FAYE, like most running back statistics, measures a back’s situation as well as his skill. In Forsett’s case, he ran behind PFF’s No. 3 (+44.2) run-blocking offensive line. The six best run-blocking lines—Philadelphia, Dallas, Baltimore, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Houston—blocked for five of the top 15 backs in FAYE. That isn’t necessarily a cause for concern; I expect offensive line play is more consistent year-to-year than running back play, or rather health. However, when someone like Forsett or DeMarco Murray could leave a favorable situation, it’s definitely something to consider.
On the more impressive side of things, Jamaal Charles and Lamar Miller finished fourth and fifth in FAYE despite teams with -25.1 and -37.5 run-blocking lines, respectively. I expect some bust articles on Charles now that he’s 28 years old and coming off a season skewed more toward touchdowns (14) than yards (1,324). However, I’d much prefer to take Charles who has shown no skill erosion rather than a player like LeSean McCoy, who finished with -109 FAYE despite the No. 1 rated (+83.6) run-blocking line.
Several backs with uncertain roles in 2015 were clearly better than their backfield mates in FAYE in 2014. Jerick McKinnon rushed for 0.5 FAYE per carry before he landed on IR in early December. Matt Asiata was more than a yard over expectation worse per carry at -0.8. Arian Foster will continue to scare drafters with his persistent soft tissue injuries, but his 0.2 FAYE per carry was a yard and a half better than rookie Alfred Blue at -1.3. Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock to 2011 with 0.3 FAYE per carry, more than a yard better than teammate DeAngelo Williams (-0.8). Finally, C.J. Anderson (0.1 FAYE per carry) looks like he could seize the lead back role for good if he continues his solid play into the postseason. Neither Ronnie Hillman (-0.5) nor Montee Ball (-1.4) came close this season, although rookie Juwan Thompson (0.7) bears watching.
Thompson was one of the top 10 backs in FAYE with fewer than 100 carries this season:
|Under 100 Carries FAYE Leaders, 2014|
He is one of the few players there that looks like a really interesting dynasty target. Joseph Randle was spectacular this season, but it’s unthinkable that the Cowboys would let Murray walk without adding a big name replacement like Adrian Peterson. Still, Randle has become one of the most attractive handcuffs in football, especially if they retain Murray after his 449-touch (and counting) season.
Khiry Robinson and Lorenzo Taliaferro are the other two players I might try to acquire. Robinson was excellent over the first five weeks of the season, but after an arm injury cost him six weeks on the sidelines, he returned to a backfield dominated by breakout player Mark Ingram. With Ingram a free agent, the Saints may choose to rely on Robinson in 2015, especially with the myriad holes they have elsewhere on their roster.
Taliaferro disappeared well before he landed on injured reserve in mid-December, and as a fourth-round rookie buried behind both breakout Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce, he will be well off of even dynasty radars. I’d take a shot on Taliaferro because the Ravens seem to be the team most likely to let their star back walk. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme has made stars out of late-round backs including Forsett (seventh round), Arian Foster (undrafted), and Steve Slaton (third round). If Forsett’s 2014 season lands him a nice contract with a new team, Taliaferro (0.4 FAYE per carry) could earn a chance at the job since he performed better than Pierce (-0.1 FAYE per carry) this season.
Darren Sproles, Antone Smith, and Jordan Todman are too small to be feature backs. Jonas Gray did nearly all of his damage against the Colts’ -11.5-rated run defense. Latavius Murray did most of his on four carries against the Chiefs. And as much as I love Ahmad Bradshaw, his mileage and mounting injuries rob him of any chance to be a reliable fantasy asset.
|Front-Adjusted Yards Over Expectation (FAYE) Trailers, 2014|
Many of the FAYE trailers follow the converse rule of the leaders. For instance, Branden Oliver ran behind the -46.3-rated Chargers run-blocking line, Andre Ellington ran behind the -37.6-rated Cardinals line, and both Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings ran behind the -34.8-rated Giants line. Still, it’s difficult to simply write those performances off as simply a product of their situations. Oliver averaged nearly a yard over expectation less per carry than teammate and free agent Ryan Mathews, and Ellington averaged 0.9 FAYE per carry in 2013 when the Cardinals’ run-blocking was rated about as poorly (-27.5).
LeSean McCoy and Joique Bell made the list as much because of their volume of carries as their ineffectiveness. The major positive with McCoy is that he was already at -135 FAYE after five weeks, so the rest of his season was a major improvement. Still, that means that McCoy has averaged -0.3 FAYE per carry in two of his last three seasons despite elite run-blocking lines in those seasons. For McCoy to bounce back to his previous elite fantasy status, he will probably need to recapture his volume-heavy role from 2013. With as effective as Darren Sproles was in 2014—he had 66 FAYE on just 57 carries—I’m not sure that can happen on the Eagles. If McCoy remains with the team, I will likely view him as a low-end RB1, which I expect will be lower than most analysts.
For Bell, the Lions’ poor run-blocking (-24.8) was likely the major culprit of his poor FAYE total. By rate, he actually performed slightly better (-0.5 FAYE per carry) than teammate Reggie Bush (-0.7). However, Bell saw a major dip in his targets and receptions similar to McCoy, and I would not expect those totals to rebound with Theo Riddick emerging as a productive pass-catcher (34 receptions on 50 targets).
As good a year as 2014 was for rookie wide receivers, it was about as bad for rookie running backs. Jeremy Hill (0.8 FAYE per carry) was a major bright spot, but none of the other six rookie backs who reached 150 carries—Tre Mason, Terrance West, Bishop Sankey, Branden Oliver, Alfred Blue, and Andre Williams—had a positive FAYE total. In particular, Sankey seems to have done the most damage to his long-term value. Sankey (-0.7) averaged nearly a yard over expectation per attempt less than everyone’s favorite punching bag Shonn Greene (0.1).
Mason projects to be a starter and RB2 in 2015, but worriers need look no further than Zac Stacy to find a cause for concern. Stacy matched his -0.3 FAYE per carry rate from 2013 in 2014 but still lost his job to Mason. By rate, Mason was not a dramatically better player with 0.0 FAYE per carry.
Some solid, late-season performances by Terrance West elevated his FAYE per carry to -0.3, just shy of Isaiah Crowell’s -0.2 rate. Cleveland would have an intriguing RB2 with either back on his own, but together, the two will likely vex fantasy owners again in 2015.
Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. 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