Ranking The Rookie RB Situations For Redraft: Tier 2
Success on the fantasy football gridiron often comes down to the players and coaches that surround the player you draft. Even if you watched every single snap Todd Gurley played in college, and you are certain he is a once in a lifetime talent, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily draft him. There are several other factors in play that shape a running back’s success during his rookie season.
In this piece, we will take a look at these key factors and rank the rookie backs by their situations alone. I will take a look at the ten best situations heading into 2015, and rank them accordingly. I used the 10 rookie backs I deemed with the best opportunity to make an impact in redraft leagues, and I broke them down into three tiers. In this piece, we will look at the second tier. You can find my rankings and analysis for the third tier here ****(Author’s note: Jeff, I will add the link here when the third tier piece publishes.)
This is one piece of the puzzle, and your takeaway of each rookie’s talent also plays a key role in your overall evaluation. If you find me on Twitter, I can provide you my evaluation on each player’s talent level. Or you can do what I did, and you can head over to draftbreakdown.com to watch some of their game tape.
For an overall scope of how we like the rookies in dynasty and keeper formats, Jeff Ratcliffe has you covered here. If you want to hear a little bit more about individual rookies from the PFF Fantasy guys, the PFF Fantasy Slant has got you covered. Jeff and Mike have gone in-depth to discuss some of the rookies backs already, and there are some especially great nuggets to take in on Tevin Coleman, T.J. Yeldon and Matt Jones.
5. Melvin Gordon
The Chargers finished with the worst run blocking unit in the NFL (-51.2) in 2014. Replacing the 74th-best run blocking guard Chad Rinehart (-15.8) with the 13th-best in Orlando Franklin (+7.6) should be a major boost to the line.
Although 2014 rookie Chris Watt struggled at guard, he graded out just below average as a center and he will start there in 2015. The Chargers have confirmed they will keep D.J. Fluker at right tackle, and that leaves a glaring hole at right guard.
Johnnie Troutman started there in 2014, but he finished as the second-worst right guard in the NFL. The Chargers could look for free agent acquisition Joe Barksdale to step in, but he has only played one total game at guard in the NFL. This won’t be the worst run blocking unit in the NFL again, but it likely won’t finish in the top 16 either.
Path to playing time
With Ryan Mathews out of the picture, Gordon’s biggest hurdle might be head coach Mike McCoy. In 2013, McCoy used Mathews as a two-down back, and Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown combined for 661 snaps compared to Mathews’ 480. Woodhead is healthy again, and he has looked good during OTAs.
Gordon wasn’t asked to pass protect much at Wisconsin, and he may be fighting for a role only on first and second downs in 2015. The Chargers return both Branden Oliver and Donald Brown. Oliver forced 36 missed tackles on just 195 total touches on his way to finishing as PFF’s 10th-highest rated back. The Chargers drafted Gordon to take over as the lead back, but McCoy might have a different opinion of what that term means.
When McCoy’s scheme is at its best, the Chargers are running an up-tempo attack that mixes in high percentage plays with deep shots. Gordon is coming from a slower paced offense at Wisconsin.
The Chargers finished as the 17th-highest scoring offense in 2014. The Chargers didn’t make many upgrades on offense outside of the line, but if Gordon performs like he did at Wisconsin, they will score more in 2015.
Gordon has a lot of a talent, but he will running behind a questionable offensive line for a head coach who may mix in both Oliver and Woodhead.
6. Jay Ajayi
In the first season in Bill Lazor’s offensive scheme, the Dolphins finished with the 27th-best run blocking unit. It wasn’t Lazor’s fault. Three of the Dolphins’ five starting linemen dealt with injuries for at least some period of the 2014 season. The Dolphins retooled their interior offensive line this offseason.
They will replace guards Daryn Colledge (-22.8) and Dallas Thomas (-32.7) with Billy Turner and rookie third-rounder Jamil Douglas. Lazor’s zone-scheme is an excellent fit for Douglas, who is a great mover at 304 pounds. According to CFF, Douglas was a much better run than pass blocker at Arizona State.
The return of a healthy Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey adds a lot of upside to this line. If second year tackle Ja’Wuan James (-28.4) can also take a step forward, this line could take a solid step forward in 2015.
Path to playing time
Ajayi has to beat out incumbent starter Lamar Miller and change of pace option Damien Williams. Miller was an extremely effective runner in 2014. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and broke off 11 runs of 15+ yards. Although the long-term concerns with Ajayi’s health may be legitimate, we can look past them for 2015.
Ajayi is the only player in NCAA history with 1,800 yards rushing and 500 receiving in a single season. Dolphins beat reporter James Walker believes that the team will limit Miller’s touches again. Ajayi has an opportunity to at least earn some early snaps, but a lead back role seems unlikely.
Ajayi is exceptional in the passing game—his 1.55 yards per route run ranked fifth in the 2015 draft class. Matt Claassen believes that he can also evolve into one of the best pass protectors from the 2015 class.
Bill Lazor hails from the Chip Kelly zone-blocking scheme, so you can expect to see a lot of outside zone runs again in 2015. The Dolphins targeted their running backs on just 95 passes in 2014. Miller led the way with 48 targets, but he only compiled 0.90 yards per route run. Lazor could tailor his game plans to feature the running back in the passing game more often if Ajayi shows well as a receiver.
The Dolphins finished as the 11th-highest scoring offense in 2014, and they stand a chance to move up even higher on that list in 2015. Aside from the healthy return of key linemen, the Dolphins also revamped their receiving corps. Mike Wallace is gone and the team replaced him with Kenny Stills, first-round rookie Devante Parker and dynamic tight end Jordan Cameron.
Ajayi’s path likely won’t lead to a featured role in 2015, but if he can become the team’s passing down back and mix in on some early downs, Ajayi can provide redraft value in what is likely to be one of the league’s highest scoring offenses in 2015.
7. Tevin Coleman
The Falcons’ offensive line was an injury-marred disaster in 2014. They finished as the 28th-best run blocking unit. With Mike Shanahan in at OC, the Falcons added former Redskin offensive linemen Chris Chester and Tyler Polumbus in free agency. They are currently penciled in to start.
Both players have experience in Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, but their recent production in the run game has been questionable. Chester (-4.9) and Polumbus (-6.4) struggled with run blocking in 2014. Joe Hawley (knee surgery) expects to be ready for training camp, and he will replace James Stone (-13.5) at center.
Jake Matthews (-36.8) had a brutal rookie season, but he fits exponentially better in a zone-blocking scheme. Matthews, Hawley and Jon Asamoah are all athletic and suited for the system. I see the Shanahan zone-blocking magic helping this line climb the run blocking ranks.
Path to playing time
Coleman will do battle with second year back Devonta Freeman and veteran Anton Smith. Throughout OTA and mini-camp practices, it was Freeman who saw the majority of first team offensive reps. Smith is still working his way back from a broken leg, and he could see his reps get a bump in training camp.
Coleman dominated at the collegiate level—he finished 2014 with CFF’s seventh-best elusive rating and he was the only back in the NCAA to average over four yards after contact per attempt. Coleman also topped the NCAA in breakaway percentage—he racked up 29 individual 15+yard runs and 57 percent (1,156) of his total rushing yards came on runs of 15+ yards.
His main competition, Freeman, struggled in pass protection as a rookie—he allowed two sacks and two quarterback hits in just 31 pass block snaps. If Coleman can prove solid in pass protection, he should make a run at the lead back role. Talent has a way of rising to the top in fantasy football.
Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking scheme has had a ridiculous amount of success in the past, sometimes with a group of offensive linemen as unheralded as this Falcons bunch. Coleman, whose running style reminds many of Darren McFadden, is seen to be a poor fit for this blocking scheme. However, this system has coaxed excellent seasons out of the likes of Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns and even Tatum Bell.
The Falcons have consistently scored with Matt Ryan at quarterback. They finished as the 12th-highest scoring offense in 2014. Although the offense may be more run-focused under Shanahan, if he does work his magic on the offensive line, it will also be more efficient.
Coleman joins a high-scoring offense and a depth chart that he can climb, but we need to take a leap of faith when projecting the offensive line’s improvement and his fit in the zone-blocking scheme.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy and he also covers the NFC East for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.