Postseason Springboard Part 1

Ryan McKee looks at surprise playoff RB performances over the last decade to determine whether a pattern exists and can be applied to this year's breakout playoff RBs.

| 3 years ago

Ryan McKee looks at surprise playoff RB performances over the last decade to determine whether a pattern exists and can be applied to this year's breakout playoff RBs.

Postseason Springboard Part 1


Knile DavisIt’s been a little over three weeks since the Super Bowl, but in this day of churn-and-burn media, it feels like months ago. Since then, we’ve learned that Roger Goodell’s salary is nearly equal to the Oakland Raiders’ 2013 spending, Ray Rice won’t win husband of the year anytime soon, and Michael Sam will be a pioneer for the sport for years to come. The combine has passed and free agency is around the corner; before we know it, the draft will be upon us and teams will begin OTAs.

But before we look too far ahead, let’s wrap up the thrill ride that was the NFL playoffs and see if there are any insights to glean from individual performances. I’m not referring to the usual stars like Peyton Manning and Marshawn Lynch. I’m focusing on those players that hardly made a dent in the regular season fantasy picture but emerged as prime postseason performers. By looking closer at the stats and comparing them to past performances, we might be able to determine which players are fool’s gold and which are on the verge of a big 2014.

Now you might discount this article due to the small sample size of the playoffs; one or even two good games cannot possibly be relied on to predict future performance. And generally speaking, you would be correct. But the playoffs are a unique animal. With so much at stake, coaches wouldn’t entrust their season to a talentless scrub at the end of their bench. They must have some belief that the player will perform in these conditions. Furthermore, playoff teams are among the best in football, so there’s little chance of inflating fantasy production in garbage time. Finally, the playoffs are the last memory coaches have of the season, so an impactful performance may dictate how they approach free agency, the draft and training camp. Put simply, yes it’s a small sample size, but it’s an important one and one that could have serious implications for the future.

So let’s start by looking at playoff running backs from the last decade. (I’ll cover the other positions in future articles.) In order to define a true breakout player, I’m only choosing players that averaged over 10 fantasy points per game (FFPG) during their playoff run and more than doubled their output from that regular season to the offseason.

Here we go.

2004
Years in NFL
 Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Tatum Bell
1
4.7
N/A
14.1 (1/1)
10
Moe Williams
5
4.5
N/A
13.2 (1/1)
1.2

Unfortunately, we don’t have the fantasy points per opportunity (PPO) stats this far back, but Williams actually peaked the two years prior and then was out of the league by the end of the 2005. A closer look at his playoff performance shows that he had just two receptions and a score in his one playoff game. Nothing to see here.

Bell was a rookie in 2004, but saw his workload increase in the second half of the season, with 61 carries over the final five games. He had earned at least a time split with the incumbent Reuben Droughns and outperformed him in some of those games. He became an above-average back for Denver in 2005 and 2006 with over 1,000 total yards in both seasons. He only lasted two more years after that, playing bit roles with Detroit and Denver again.

2007
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Najeh Davenport
5
7.4
N/A
16.8 (1/1)
1.4

No players fit the bill in 2005 and 2006, so that leaves us Davenport in 2007. Najeh was never slated to be a primary workhorse and he only played one more season after this. His playoff performance was definitely of the fluke variety, as he rushed for only 25 yards on 16 carries, but was buoyed by two goal line TDs.

2008
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Darren Sproles
5
6.5
.67 (9)
21.8 (2/3)
7.9

The 2008 regular season was Sproles’ coming-out party, as he had games of 125 yards/1 TD, 64/2, and 132/2 to close out the season. In the first round of the playoffs, he had 328 all-purpose yards (105 rushing, 45 receiving, 106 kickoff return yards, 72 yards on three punt returns), the third highest total in playoff history, and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime. He added 106 yards and a score in a loss to Pittsburgh the following week, but it was clear that he had a future as a multi-purpose threat for San Diego and later New Orleans.

2009
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Felix Jones
2
7
.47 (19)
16.5 (2/1)
8.6
Shonn Greene
1
4.7
.39 (25)
14.3 (3/2)
7.9

After showing glimpses of stardom in his first two seasons, Jones really started to come on in the lead-up to the playoffs. He had double digit carries in the final four games of the regular season, then led the team in Round 1 of the playoffs with 16 carries for 148 yards and a TD (as well as a 30-yard reception). He was less successful the following week against Minnesota, but still recorded a respectable 91 yards from scrimmage. It was clear that Dallas wanted to carve out a larger for Jones in subsequent years, although they never saw him as a traditional lead back: He had only two games over 20 carries in the next three years for Dallas. He also proved to be inconsistent from game to game and was seemingly always battling injuries.

Shonn Greene backed up Thomas Jones in the regular season, but the bruising back led the Jets in carries in 2 of their 3 playoff games. He posted games of 21 carries for 135 and 1 TD; 23 for 128 and 1; and 10 for 41. Greene was in the smaller portion of a timeshare with LaDainian Tomlinson the following year, but assumed a lead-back role in 2011 and 2012. He produced consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons then, but his one-dimensional game ultimately put a ceiling on his production, and he’s now a backup in Tennessee.

2010
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Julius Jones
7
2.2
.18 (124)
24 (1/2)
0

This was the last game of Jones’ NFL career but he did go out with a bang, netting 120 yards and 2 TDs (both inside the 5) against a Seahawks team that had cut him midway through the year.

2011
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Isaac Redman
7
4.6
.32 (71)
14.2 (1/0)
5.5

Chalk this one up to a fluke. Redman filled in admirably when Rashard Mendenhall went down in Week 17 with a torn ACL. He had 110 total yards and a score in that game and followed that up with 142 total yards in a loss to Denver in the wild card round. He appeared to have an inside track on the starting role in 2012 while Mendenhall mended his ACL, but he did little with the carries he was given and was leapfrogged by Jonathan Dwyer. He had one good game in 2012 – 147 yards and a score in Week 9 – but otherwise never surpassed 13 carries or 43 yards in a game all season. He played 2 more games in 2013 and was released.

2012
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Regular Season FPPG – Following Year

Shane Vereen
2
5.8
.41 (21)
17.1 (2/3)
10.9
Ronnie Hillman
1
3.2
.27 (95)
10.3 (1/0)
4.4

Hillman produced 83 yards on 22 carries and added 20 yards on 3 receptions in his one-and-done playoff game against the Ravens. He led the team in carries in the game, which may have been a sign of things to come for the rookie. But the Broncos took Montee Ball with the 58th pick in the 2013 draft and it was clear that Hillman would be nothing more than a 3rd down back. After the strong season by Knowshon Moreno and some encouraging signs from Ball in the latter half of 2013, it’s safe to say that Hillman won’t see enough carries to be fantasy-relevant in 2014.

Vereen did most of his damage in the divisional playoff win over Houston, with 41 rushing yards, 83 receiving yards and 2 TDs. The following game, a loss to the Ravens, he could only produce 40 total yards. Bill Belichick must have liked the versatility that Vereen offered, as he gave him 14 carries and 10 targets in Week 1 of this year. Vereen produced almost 16 fantasy points in that game but sadly was injured and missed the next 10 weeks. By the time he returned, a pecking order at running back had emerged, as Vereen’s usage turned wildly inconsistent from game to game. His best performances came as a receiver so it’s likely that he’ll remain in a Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead type role in 2014. So long as he can stay healthy, he should be a factor in fantasy, though likely not as consistent as owners will wish.


Looking back at these performances and what we know of their careers afterward, a clear pattern emerges. The fluke performances – such as Williams, J. Jones, Davenport and Redman – took advantage of an injury, field position or a good matchup to produce their big games. They stand out quite plainly because they were all veterans by the time they had their breakout playoff game and they never parlayed it into anything bigger. Sproles is an exception here, as he was in his 5th year when he broke out. But part of his exception is due to limited opportunities beyond special teams during the heyday of one of the greatest RBs of all time.

The next batch of players – Bell, F. Jones, Greene and Vereen – performed much better in subsequent years and follow similar characteristics. They were all in their 1st or 2nd year and were picked within the first 3 rounds of their respective drafts, between picks 22 and 65. None of them became out-and-out superstars but they were productive for a few years before flaming out (obviously too early to say with Vereen, plus F. Jones and Greene have a small chance at a late-career surge). Notably, most of them remained in timeshares the following year and never received lead-back duties.

Hillman fit the years and draft position criteria but failed to build off his decent 2012 playoff game. The Broncos likely never saw him as more than a 3rd down back, as they drafted Montee Ball last year and gave Knowshon Moreno the lion’s share of carries in 2013.

Things get really interesting when you look at fantasy points per opportunity (PPO), as F. Jones, Greene, Vereen and Sproles all ranked in the top 25 in the league during their respective seasons (we don’t have such stats for Bell). Contrast that with the rankings for J. Jones, Redman and Hillman (Davenport’s stats are unavailable), who all finished no higher than 71st in their respective seasons.

Thus, the winning formula appears to be a player early in his career, drafted in the first few rounds, and with a fantasy PPO in the top 25 or so in the league. Young, good pedigree and good early indicators – seems like a good formula, no?

So who among this year’s playoff breakouts fit the bill? Here are the 3 players that met the condition of 10+ FPPG in the playoffs and at least a 2x improvement from their regular season FPPG:

2013
Years in NFL
Regular Season FPPG
Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (Rank)

Playoff FPPG (Games/TDs)

Knile Davis
1
4
.38 (51)
22 (1/2)
LeGarrette Blount
4
7.7
.54 (14)
20.6 (2/4)
Mark Ingram
3
4.7
.38 (50)
11.2 (2/1)

Davis filled in admirably for Jamaal Charles, who went down early in the Chiefs’ postseason loss to the Colts. Although his 3.7 yards per carry (ypc) in the game is nothing to write home about, Davis managed 100 total yards and a pair of TDs in the game. For the season, he only averaged 3.5 ypc (Bell, Sproles, F. Jones and Greene all averaged over 5 ypc in the year of their playoff breakout and Vereen averaged 4 ypc) and he was drafted a little late (95th overall). Add in the fact that Charles is entrenched in his lead role and Davis appears to be nothing more than a handcuff at this stage.

Fantasy owners are much more acquainted with Blount, who enjoyed a productive rookie season in Tampa Bay with 1,000+ yards and 6 TDs. He declined the following year and even more so in year 3, so the Bucs cut him. Fortunately for him, Belichick loves him some reclamation projects and he turned Blount into a modern day Jerome Bettis for a few games. But for every positive with Blount, there’s a counteracting negative. He has the second highest fantasy PPO in this study, yet went undrafted and had to audition for two teams in his first 4 years. He had that memorable 166 yards and 4 TDs against Indy in the playoffs and then was largely ignored (5 attempts, 6 yards) the following week against Denver. Oh and there’s Vereen and Stevan Ridley to compete for touches in this versatile offense. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach here: If Blount is getting reps in training camp, I think he’s fully capable of another 1,000 yard season and may even approach 8-10 TDs. He’s in the perfect (and potentially only) situation to catapult his career.

Fantasy owners are also well-acquainted with Mr. Ingram, who has disappointed owners every year since being drafted in the first round in 2011. Unlike Blount, Ingram played well in both of his playoff games: 18 carries for 97 yards and a TD (and 17 yards through the air) versus Philly and 10 carries for 49 yards against a tough Seahawks team. In addition, he tallied 17 carries for 108 yards in his final 3 regular season games. But Khiry Robinson (who just missed the criteria to make this study) also looked good in the playoffs with 102 yards on 21 carries and a score. Add in Sproles and Pierre Thomas and it’s anybody’s guess who will emerge from this backfield platoon. Pay attention in training camp, but don’t expect any miracles.

If I had to rank them, I’d go with Blount, Davis and Ingram. I’m very curious about Blount and if you’re in a way-too-early draft or deep keeper league, I’d consider rolling the dice with him. As I said, Belichick likes to find diamonds in the rough and the Pats are an environment that Blount can maximize his talents in. Davis would need an injury to Charles, but he also has a lot to learn to be consistently relied upon by a run-focused offense like KC. And Ingram has too much competition and too little production to believe in.

Finally, here’s one more for you to consider: Donald Brown. He missed out on the initial criteria due to his regular season FPPG (8.8) being less than 2x his playoff FPPG (14.4). He’s not young anymore (5 NFL seasons) but he was a first rounder and, interestingly, he’s a free agent. He outperformed the more heralded Trent Richardson all season and might just land himself into a plush RB situation away from Indy. Keep an eye on this one.

Next up: wide receivers.

 

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