Top 5 RB Handcuffs
Each year a high volume of running backs suffer injury, and their backups emerge as front line fantasy football starters. Forecasting which players will get hurt is impossible, but knowing which backups possess starting talent can be tremendously valuable. That’s one of the reasons why Mike Clay has been providing the Tamme Index and one of the reasons the PFF Draft Guide is so deep with depth charts and actionable info on bench players.
Here are the five backup runners I would target even if I didn’t own the starter.
1. Donald Brown
Brown led the NFL with 3.28 yards after contact in 2013 and recorded a forced missed tackle rate of 0.22. That was better than Adrian Peterson. Only Marshawn Lynch (0.25) and Ben Tate (0.23) were better. In the 2014 PFF Draft Guide, I explored ways to exploit the different levels of explosiveness backs demonstrate after breaking a tackle. Brown’s situation is probably one where we should expect some clear regression, but his price tag will negate that worry. As a handcuff, it’s unlikely we’ll have to pay for his 2013 performance.
According Mike Clay’s excellent study on expected yards per carry adjusted for defensive personnel packages, Brown averaged 0.8 yards per carry better than the average, or good for the sixth best performance in the NFL. That stands in stark contrast to Trent Richardson who was the fourth worst.
It’s easy to see Brown’s 2013 season as a fluke. He carried only 102 times and remains notorious for his inability to master blitz pickup as a rookie for Peyton Manning. On the other hand, Brown has been trending in a positive direction. He posted 2.4 YCo/Att in 2012 despite running behind a very poor offensive line.
We tend to see Brown as one of the many reaches committed by Bill Polian down the stretch of his Indianapolis tenure. But that’s not the case. Brown put up borderline elite numbers at the Combine and entered the NFL with a very strong projection based on his collegiate performance. Should Ryan Matthews miss time, don’t be surprised if Brown enjoys a mid-career renaissance like the one authored by Thomas Jones.
2. Chris Ivory
It will be interesting to see how the carry split plays out in New York. This could be a pure running back by committee situation. In a worst case scenario, Ivory will probably be the goal line back in an offense that earns more goal-to-go opportunities. In a best case scenario, the oft-injured Ivory will carve out 250 carries in an early down role. If he does, we could be in for an entertaining treat.
Over the last four years, Ivory has been the second most explosive early down runner in the NFL. His yards after contact per carry of 3.2 trails only the legendary combination of tackle-breaking and explosion known as Adrian Peterson (3.3). PFF’s Elusive Rating measures the percentage of yards gained on long runs and points to players like Andre Ellington (48%) and C.J. Spiller (44%) as the largest beneficiaries of the big play. Ivory finished third on that list in 2013 at 43.5 percent. Even without many receptions, a full year of health would turn Ivory into a monster.
3. LeGarrette Blount
The Patriots don’t overpay for anyone, much less a somewhat one-dimensional running back, but it was unfortunate to see Blount depart after resurrecting his career in New England. Miscast as a short yardage plodder, Blount fits a somewhat unusual profile. He’s an early down back with deceptive short area quickness and excellent one-step burst. As a result, Blount has more in common with much smaller backs.
In 2010 he led the NFL with an absurd 3.68 yards after contact. (Ivory was second at 3.32.) He tied Darren McFadden for the lead in Breakaway Percentage at 43.7. His numbers were strong again in 2011 at 2.9 YCo/Att before quickly losing his job to Doug Martin in 2012. He then easily separated from Stevan Ridley after joining the Patriots. Blount averaged 2.73 yards after contact, Ridley only 2.18. Moreover, Blount faced base defenses on 77 percent of his runs. To put that in context, Shane Vereen saw base defense on only 3 percent of his. That’s not surprising given the profile of the two backs. What’s shocking, however, is that Blount still averaged more yards per carry by the margin of 5.2 to 4.9.
Blount lacks the passing game ability to be a threat to Le’Veon Bell’s starting job, but his big time talent could be unleashed on early downs. An injury to Bell would put him back in the high end RB2 mix.
4. James Starks
While Eddie Lacy broke tackles at an impressive rate of 0.20, he struggled to actually gain yardage both before and after contact. An early down bruiser should generate more than 2.3 YCo/Att, especially when he did most of his damage against Nickel and Dime defenses. Meanwhile, James Starks averaged 3.0 yards after contact on his way to a whopping 1.5 yards per carry advantage over the touted rookie.
Does this mean Starks is the better player or that these trends will repeat themselves in 2014? Probably not. Lacy will almost certainly be more efficient and Starks less so. But Starks is another player with an undervalued resume coming out of college. He’s a very solid player in his own right, a fact the Packers seemed to acknowledge by re-signing him despite the presence of 2013 pick Johnathan Franklin. An injury to Lacy would put Starks at the head of what promises to be an explosive committee.
5. Mikel Leshoure
With Joique Bell continuing to sit out of offseason work, I’ll finish with a deep league watch list candidate. Leshoure struggled to a moribund 3.7 yards per carry as the Lions bell cow in 2012 before finding a permanent seat on the bench in 2013.
Leshoure actually entered the NFL at a young age and with explosive metrics. After going off for 1893 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in his final year at Illinois, he excelled at the Combine with a 38-inch vertical and 6.82 three-cone time at 227 pounds. Coming off of an Achilles tendon injury, Leshoure didn’t look like that type of back in 2012. He may never be that back again, but two more years will have passed by the time training camp rolls around this July.
Marshawn Lynch is just one example of a highly drafted back who struggled with injuries and poor efficiency numbers early in his career. Lynch required a trade to emerge, but with a new braintrust in Detroit, Leshoure has a similar second chance.