Building Roster Depth: The Unsexy Backs
Throughout the plethora of mock drafts that have taken place since the end of the 2012 NFL season, a single common thread has emerged. To the surprise of few, top running backs have come at a premium. Yet the dominant draft trend that will be dissected in the coming months is that the next few tiers have dried up faster than Titus Young’s endorsement opportunities.
Considering the impressive level of depth at most other positions, fantasy owners will be faced with the unexciting prospect of dipping into a shallow pool of flawed running backs even earlier than in years past. Both redraft and dynasty leagues alike will be decided based on these seemingly benign choices, and runners that were intriguing last August have become relative afterthoughts just one season later.
Let’s take a look at a couple of unfairly devalued running backs who may not quicken your pulse this spring, but will help to fortify your roster for the fall. While it goes without saying that these two backs would vault into the RB1 conversation if their backfield mates go down with an injury, they represent strong values independent of their attractiveness as mere handcuffs.
Ben Tate – Texans
Last season Ben Tate was the first non-starting running back drafted in a significant amount of leagues, and in many instances actually came off the board well before a handful of nominal starting backs. While in hindsight he proved to be a poor investment, it was a sound thought process that led many to pluck him early enough to propel his average draft position up to 34th at his position. Tate’s ADP is currently a more modest 42nd among running backs, behind several low-upside choices and members of prospective backfield timeshares.
Last season looked to be a year in which Tate would take on a larger share of the backfield workload to help alleviate some wear on the overused Arian Foster. That plan went awry due to Tate missing five games in their entirety, and being severely limited in many others due to nagging injuries. Toe and hamstring woes conspired to make last year a lost season for Tate, and that has shrouded his incredibly successful 2011 behind a fog of negative recency bias.
Tate was arguably more dynamic in 2011 than Foster himself, albeit in a significantly smaller sample. Foster’s Elusive Rating was barely half (55.1 versus 28.0) of Tate’s, who actually forced five more missed tackles in 103 fewer rushing attempts. His 30 forced missed tackles ranked him 11th in the league and eight of the backs in front of him had more rushing attempts – most significantly so. Tate’s 3.34 Yards After Contact per Attempt (Yco/Att) was third best out of all running backs. Foster ranked 36th, with a 2.50 Yco/Att.
Foster and Tate had the same Breakaway Percentage (32.9 – tied for 18th among runners) during the 2011 season. Tate’s 5.4 yards per carry, nearly a full yard more than Foster’s 4.5 mark, was good for seventh in the league – and each of the six backs above him on the list took fewer total handoffs. He even received a +5.0 cumulative run grade from us, which was the 15th best mark for ball carriers – and every back ahead of him played more snaps.
Tate finished the 2011 season tied for first in fantasy Points Per Snap (PPSnap) with a 0.40 mark, the same figure as Foster. His 0.45 came in just shy of his teammate’s 0.46 fantasy Points Per Opportunity (PPO) mark, but Tate still wound up tied for seventh at his position. Clearly, given improved health and an expanded share of the Texans’ backfield touches, Tate is capable of exciting fantasy production. Will he have that opportunity in 2013?
Head coach Gary Kubiak is already on record as stating that he expects a lot more out of Tate this season. Arian Foster has declined steadily (see chart below) and could use some help after three consecutive seasons of being heavily worked.
|Year||Touches||Yards Per Att.||Elusive Rating||Yco/Att||Breakaway %|
Most forecasts, including ours, are not optimistic about Foster’s chances of turning this trend around. If Houston is to regain their physically dominating reputation they will need more from the relatively forgotten Tate. He is well equipped to give them, and his fantasy owners, exactly what they need.
Michael Bush – Bears
Michael Bush was the 28th-highest-scoring fantasy running back through 12 weeks in 2012, before he was injured. Matt Forte tallied the 20th-most running back points during that same time frame. The two backs had combined for 264 carries heading into the Week 13 contest against the Seahawks, the game in which Bush hurt his ribs. At that point, Bush had accounted for a surprising 40 percent of those attempts, as well as scoring five of their eight total touchdowns.
Heading into last season, Bush had an average draft position in MyFantasyLeague drafts of 39th among his fellow running backs – an indication that he was rightfully seen as more than a just a handcuff. In early 2013 drafts, his ADP of 68 will see him go entirely undrafted in some leagues. What has so radically changed since 2012, other than the Bears finally bringing in some legitimate blocking help? Why is Bush now being considered as little more than a handcuff pick for Forte owners?
New Bears head coach Marc Trestman has shown a proclivity for getting multiple runners involved in his offenses, and not just because he has favored the use of a goal line back in the past. During his last two NFL coaching stops, in Oakland as offensive coordinator (’02-’03) and the following season in Miami as an assistant head coach, this has been clear. Raiders Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie Garner, who had a combined 579 attempts in two years, saw 54 and 46 percent of those carries, respectively – with a mostly equal distribution each season. The next year, the Dolphins split their carries up between Sammy Morris (132) and Travis Minor (109) relatively evenly as well.
It is true that none of those backs were as well-regarded then as Forte is now, although Garner certainly qualifies as underrated, and was a prolific pass-catching back. He actually caught 92 balls in 2002 under Trestman, and sported a career 4.6 yards-per-carry average – which compares favorably to Forte’s 4.2 mark when taking handoffs. C.D. Carter posted an excellent piece yesterday, via Sportsjerks.net, that details Trestman’s version of the West Coast offense and how it will color the fantasy prospects of Chicago’s weapons. Carter paints a mostly rosy picture of Chicago’s potential for overall fantasy goodness, mainly due to a high-volume passing attack – and it is well worth checking out.
It is generally assumed that Forte does not figure to see many short-yardage touchdowns, as has been the case for a majority of his career. Last season he scored only one of his six touchdowns from inside the 4-yard line. In 2011 he had none, and the two seasons before that he had just a pair each year that fit those criteria. Over the course of his career, Forte has gotten the ball 56 times in goal-to-go situations with the Bears on their opponents’ 5-yard line or closer. He has converted nine of those into touchdowns, while averaging a measly 0.75 yards per carry, and fumbling the ball away twice. On the other hand, Bush’s five scores last season averaged 1.4 yards, and his seven rushing touchdowns in 2011 averaged 1.7 yards each. In case there was a question, and there probably wasn’t, Bush is again going to get the goal line carries in 2013.
What might not be as well known is that Bush also has run well in non-goal line situations. Last season he actually scored higher (31.8) than did Forte (19.0) in our Elusive Rating. He excelled on a per-snap and per-opportunity basis too. In 2012 he was the ninth-ranked fantasy running back in Points Per Opportunity, and the 13th-ranked back in Points Per Snap. After removing the final five weeks of the season, in which he missed three entire games and most of two others (15 total snaps), he was the fourth-ranked back in PPO, and the eighth in PPSnap. Last year Forte ranked 25th in PPSnap and 26th in PPO.
In the above-mentioned piece by C.D. Carter, he points to Forte’s potential to be a huge factor in the passing game as one of the reasons he is such an attractive fantasy target – especially in PPR leagues. This is quite true, although expect him to share some of those targets with his backfield mate. Bush actually has had a higher Percentage Caught (% Ct) than Forte for four consecutive years. He caught 86 percent of his 43 targets two seasons ago, good for 10th in the NFL among runners – a season in which Forte ranked 52nd (73.3% Ct). There is no denying that Forte is the more accomplished pass-catching option of the two, but Bush is capable of contributing in this area as well. To some he may conjure up visions of Chester Taylor or Marion Barber because he is Forte’s backup – but he offers considerably more in both fantasy and reality.
Forte is certainly still the more generally valuable of the two backs and deserves to be chosen well ahead of Bush. But do not ignore the fact that Bush will eat into some of Forte’s point output, and possesses stand-alone value of his own. He has demonstrated that increased opportunity will equate to more production and is a good bet to enjoy an uptick in both next season. Bush, as with the aforementioned Tate, might not be the sexiest name in fantasy – but at current price levels the overall value should not be ignored in any type of league.