Matt Forte fantasy roundtable
With free agent running back Matt Forte and the New England Patriots a seemingly natural fit, the recent buzz surrounding their potential union has been palpable. Or at least as palpable as football-related buzz gets a week after the Super Bowl. As a fantasy geek, envisioning Forte in the enigmatic “Vereen Role” is intriguing. As a Patriots fan, I was stricken with visions of Corey Dillon dancing in my head. In a good way.
But is Forte in Foxborough a realistic projection? More importantly, is the likelihood of him landing with the Patriots, plus his potential production, enough to juice his flagging dynasty value or to move him up MFL10 draft boards?
The immediate reaction to how the Patriots’ season ended, without a prayer of a running game, involves the position getting a major overhaul. That’s what witnessing the ghost of Steven Jackson wheeled out and dumped behind a broken offensive line will do. But working in favor of a Forte signing – or any single back who can handle various roles and workloads – is there’s not a ton of space in the running back room.
Dion Lewis received a relatively modest two-year contract extension on October 8th and a tore his ACL on November 8th. But he is still young (26 in September) and should be up to speed early next season. We probably want to look at his 12.8 touches per (healthy) game from 2015 as a ceiling — especially since he averaged 16 when LeGarrette Blount barely played during the first two weeks – but his role is secure.
We got a pretty good idea of what James White can do down the stretch and in the playoffs. If nothing else, he is adept enough in the passing game (+9.6 pass grade; third of 68 qualifying running backs) to hold the fort down until Lewis is back. Brandon Bolden will also return and is fine in an emergency, but there’s a reason the Patriots prefer to have him excel as a core special teamer.
Joey Iosefa and Tyler Gaffney are big backs hanging onto the periphery of the roster as a practice squader and I.R. stash, respectively. Gaffney is an interesting deep dynasty dart, since New England has gone through some length to stash him and help rehab injuries for two straight seasons. There are plenty of bodies here, along with an unquestionable need for a talent infusion. Is Forte that talent?
There have been 16 running backs who matched Forte’s career touch total through his age-30 season (he turned 30 in December). Nine are in the Hall of Fame and at least two more – LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson – will be there one day. While being listed among the game’s all-time elite is impressive, a quick look at these greats’ age-31 season paints a conflicted picture.
|Running Back||Games||Atts||Yards||YPC||Targets||Rec||Rec Yd|
While equating Forte with Payton or Martin is a tough sell, Ricky Watters’ age-31 season is both a reminder of how underrated he is and a downright drool-worthy stat line (he added nine touchdowns too). The other end of the spectrum is a cautionary tale of how even the best running backs can deteriorate when they reach the wrong side of 30. Projecting injury is essentially voodoo, so let’s check for other signs of decline.
Initial concerns about a potential fit in New England have revolved around whether or not Forte can run between the tackles. Yet, over the last two seasons, he’s essentially averaged as many yards on inside runs (3.98) as he has outside the tackles (4.03). In fact, this past season he did better inside (4.28) than outside (3.96). More concerning is where his overall effectiveness is heading.
Forte’s first two seasons were mostly productive, although he was an inefficient rusher. He averaged 3.78 yards per carry with -14.6 (62nd of 63 qualifiers) and -18.8 (63rd of 63) rushing grades. His middle four seasons were his best as a runner. He averaged 4.6 yards on 977 carries, while earning a cumulative +6.6 rushing grade. However, his metrics have been in decline during the last two seasons.
While he surprisingly earned the second best rushing grade of his career in 2015 (+7.2), Forte’s Elusive Rating and Breakaway Percentage point to the mid-career peak mentioned above and consecutive seasons of decline. His Elusive Rating (24.9) ranked 43rd of 52 qualifying running backs last season, after finishing 27th of 42 in 2014 (31.0). His Breakaway Percentage ranked 47th of 52 qualifiers in 2015 (13.7), and 35th of 42 the prior season (14.6).
Forte’s seemingly anomalous 2015 rushing grade – which came behind PFF’s fourth-best run blocking unit (+24.8) — was built almost entirely after he returned from missing three weeks (knee) and while averaging 13.7 carries per game (+9.3), versus the 21.0-attempt workload he lugged prior to Week 8 (-0.9). He averaged 4.79 yards per attempt when he took fewer than 15 handoffs and 3.97 in all other games.
New England is unlikely to re-sign Blount, who despite profiling as a bruiser, is one of the league’s worst short yardage backs. Forte is essentially as bad in this area. Looking at them alongside fellow free agent running backs Stevan Ridley, Chris Ivory, and Alfred Morris – all cheaper than Forte will be – the differences are notable. Here are their career first down and touchdown conversion rates from two yards or closer.
|FA Running Back||1st Down Conversion Rate||Touchdown Conversion Rate|
Yet Forte’s forte has always been versatility, as no running back has more than his 487 receptions since 2008 – and only Darren Sproles comes close (460). But in what’s become a theme, his Yards Per Route Run crested in 2010 (2.03; third of 59 qualifying running backs) and 2011 (1.89; seventh of 40). Last season, he averaged 1.32 yards per route run (31st of 57). Not terrible, but the Patriots had two backs (Lewis and White) in the top 10.
White (95.3) and Lewis (93.5) also crushed Forte’s Pass Block Efficiency. His 84.5 mark ranked 58th out of 62 qualifying running backs and continues a downturn in a skill Forte once counted as an attribute, and would play a key role in keeping Tom Brady in one piece.
If New England already has one of the league’s most dynamic space backs in Lewis, and a capable pass-catching understudy in White, how much weight does Forte’s potentially declining skill in this area actually carry? And while Forte has quietly been as viable between the tackles as he’s been outside them, does anyone think the Patriots will overlook the decline in his overall rushing efficiency?
How likely is New England to meet the price of a formerly elite running back on what will likely be his last significant contract? Their cap space is limited and they have several defensive pillars to extend – along with holes at receiver and offensive line. Their backfield has featured affordable running backs with specialized roles for a decade. That hasn’t happened by accident, even if outsiders think they could use a three-down bellcow.
Bill Belichick watched his backfield crumble under the weight of the injury avalanche that struck New England’s offense in 2015. While trying to get inside his head is a great way to wind up looking like a fool, it is more likely that he opts for a younger, cheaper running back in the Blount mold – an Alfred Morris type – than an older runner showing signs of age and heavy-usage-related decline.
I wouldn’t recommend moving Forte up on this news, although I wouldn’t move him down either. Even if he does not sign in New England, there are other fine landing spots (hello, Dallas). If someone in your dynasty league is eating this buzz up, by all means move him at an inflated price. Even if he does land with the Patriots, he will split time with Lewis. It also can’t hurt to kick the tires on Morris and see just how far his cost has sunk.
Lead Writer Mike Tagliere also weighed in on the Forte topic:
Looking at the Patriots as a potential suitor, the numbers don’t add up for Forte. They ran the ball just 335 times in 2015, while dropping back to pass 670 times (fourth-most in NFL). In those drop backs, Tom Brady targeted running backs 20.4 percent of his attempts.
With Dion Lewis and James White already on the roster, the Patriots need a running back who runs downhill on first and second down, not someone to rely on in the passing game. Their main 1st and 2nd down running back was LeGarrette Blount, who is now a free agent, and it has been speculated that the Patriots are moving on from him. They need someone to put in on the goal line – a place where Forte does not excel.
The two other free agents who could be on the Patriots radar are Chris Ivory and Alfred Morris. Morris makes a lot of sense due to the fact that the Patriots don’t typically break the bank for free agent running backs.
Indianapolis is landing spot for Forte that nobody seems to be talking about. The Colts are a team in a championship window, and one where Forte could play a significant role.
Colts GM Ryan Grigson signed two veterans last offseason in Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, and although Johnson did not work out as planned, the soon-to-be 33-year-old Gore played a massive 707 snaps. That was the third-most among running backs in 2015.
Gore has two years left on his contract, but the Colts would have to eat just $2 million in dead money if they were to release him. If he makes the 2016 roster, he would be due a $3 million dollar roster bonus.
Over the last few years, Indianapolis has cycled through running backs with Trent Richardson, Donald Brown, Dan Herron, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Frank Gore all seeing significant snaps. This cobbled together Frankenstein’s monster of a backfield lacked a complete three-down back like Forte.
The Colts threw the ball 660 times in 2014, with 109 of them directed at running backs (16.5 percent). The combination of Richardson, Bradshaw and Herron turned those 109 targets into 92 receptions (84.4 percent catch rate) for 770 yards and seven touchdowns. The Colts targeted Gore 52 times in 2015, but he turned them into just 34 receptions (65.3 percent catch rate) for 267 yards and one touchdown. Gore’s yards per carry also dipped below 4.0 for the first time in his career, finishing at just 3.7 yards per tote.
Forte averaged around 80 targets per year with the Bears, but if you remove the two years with Marc Trestman, it was closer to 70 targets per year. Forte saw the 58 targets in 2015, and turned them into 44 receptions for 389 yards and three touchdowns.
Not only has Gore appeared to reach his expiration date, but the Colts also have nobody behind him on the depth chart. Trey Williams and Tyler Varga are the only names behind Gore at this point. So even if the Colts were to draft a running back, don’t rule out them signing Forte to a two or three year deal.
There are multiple landing spots that would make sense if Forte decided to take a smaller role, but the Colts are arguably the team that has the potential to give him the most fantasy value.