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Evaluating fantasy running backs in subpar offenses

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Once upon a time, an electric college running back took the NFL by storm in his rookie season. Despite playing for a subpar team, he earned countless accolades, including Offensive Rookie of the Year, while convincing the football cognoscenti that he was a generational talent set to rewrite the NFL record books.

Then 2016 happened.

Yes, I'm talking about Todd Gurley, an athlete whose first two seasons have left many scratching their heads. He was a revelation as a rookie but developed bad habits as a sophomore while consistently getting crushed behind the line of scrimmage in an offense that struggled to move the football, score points, or basically function as a professional unit. Fantasy-wise, Gurley trudged through the year, finishing as the RB20 in standard leagues and scoring 32.4 fewer fantasy points than his rookie season, despite playing essentially four more games.

Now, the point of this article isn't to pile dirt on Gurley's fantasy grave (the kid likely still has a bright NFL future ahead of him), but to use this as a case study to apply to the 2017 season. Matt Harmon, my colleague at NFL.com, penned an excellent piece last year on why Todd Gurley wasn't worth a top-five pick (you can read it here). He was the early leader in the clubhouse for Gurley being overvalued, and it turned out he was right. In the article, Harmon looked at several factors that can contribute to a running back's fantasy potential aside from their own talent. That list included the scoring potency of the offense the runner operates in, how many targets he receives, and the level of play from his quarterback. Almost every factor pointed negatively for Gurley (which should be no surprise at this point), likely contributing to his disappointing fantasy outing. Which brings us to the bigger question: how highly should we draft running backs on potentially bad offenses in 2017?

Looking across the internet at summer ADPs (average draft positions), there are several backs who stand out as potential landmines at the top of fantasy drafts: Jordan Howard, Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Lamar Miller, and Isaiah Crowell. The first four currently have an ADP in the first two rounds, while Crowell is going in the third or fourth, depending on the site. I'll dive into each individual situation in a moment, but first, let's get a quick overview of the uphill battle running backs in bad offenses face when it comes to fantasy production.

Each back mentioned above is ranked around the top 12 in terms of ADP, so we'll use that as our benchmark when examining the historical relevance of the factors Harmon first highlighted in his piece on Gurley. Over the last 10 years, here's how top-12 fantasy backs fared in terms of targets received, playing with a good quarterback, and working in a high-scoring offense.

Finished with 60 or more targets - 40 percent
Finished with 40 to 59 targets - 36.7 percent
Finished with fewer than 40 targets - 23.3 percent

Played with a quarterback ranked in the top-10 in adjusted yards/attempt - 37.5 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked 11th to 17th in adjusted yards/attempt - 20.8 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked 18th or worse in adjusted yards/attempt - 41.7 percent

Played in an offense ranked in the top 8 in points scored - 29 percent
Played in an offense ranked 9th to 16th in points scored - 29 percent
Played in an offense ranked 17th to 24th in points scored - 26 percent
Played in an offense ranked 25th to 32nd in points scored - 16 percent

As you can see, it's not a fantasy death sentence for a back to not hit the trifecta here, but it certainly puts them at a disadvantage to play in a middling offense -- especially one that doesn't figure to score many points. Touchdowns are the lifeblood of fantasy football scoring, especially in standard leagues. Drafting a back too highly who doesn't find pay dirt often can be a disastrous mistake.

Now that we've established this quick baseline, let's look at each of these backs more closely to see if they're currently being overvalued in fantasy, or can overcome their offensive situation.

(Note: All ADPs referenced are based on FantasyFootballCalculator.com)

Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

2017 ADP: RB8
2016 targets: 50
2016 team rank in points scored: 28th

2017 outlook: Coming off the bench in Week 3 for an injured Jeremy Langford, Howard ran away with the starting job. He crossed the century mark on the ground seven times and finished the year with 99-plus total yards in eight straight games. Unfortunately, his fantasy outlook for 2017 isn't solely dependent on his ability.

The Bears offense lost Jay Cutler (retirement) and Alshon Jeffery (free agency) this offseason, but don't worry, they signed Mike Glennon, Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton to replace them. Cameron Meredith surprised us in 2016, but can he perform as a No. 1 option all year? Then there's the question of Kevin White and his health, as the third-year pro has played in four games in his two-year career to date. Glennon (with a career 6.4 adjusted yards per attempt average) will have a lot on his plate trying to lift this passing game to new heights (especially with rookie Mitchell Trubisky waiting in the wings). Given the uncertainty in the passing game, volume shouldn't be an issue for Howard, both on the ground and through the air. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has a brief resume to draw from (two years as an OC), but the top back in his offense averages 51 targets per year.

The concern for Howard will be scoring opportunities and efficiency. Per Pro Football Reference the Bears only ran the ball inside the 5-yard line 13 times in 2016, with Howard getting eight chances and Jeremy Langford getting five. Howard scored six rushing touchdowns in 2016, but three came in one game (the snow-drenched nightmare against the 49ers in Week 13). He was a model of efficiency, though, posting sterling numbers with 5.2 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per reception. However, Howard was far better running against soft defensive fronts. He averaged six yards per carry when facing seven or fewer defenders in the box, but just 3.1 yards per carry against eight-plus -- a situation he could encounter frequently in 2017. If his already paltry scoring chances dry up even a bit in 2016, and/or he isn't as efficient as he was as a rookie (given he'll likely be the focus of more defensive attention than Glennon's passing attack), his season could look a whole lot like Gurley's in 2016. Overall touch volume is secure for Howard, but drafters will need to ask themselves if the risk is worth the heavy draft price (first or second round).

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

2017 ADP: RB10
2016 targets: n/a
2016 team rank in points scored: 25th

2017 outlook: The Jaguars didn't select Fournette with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to have him ride the pine. The former LSU bruiser will see the field early and often in a new run-heavy approach in Jacksonville, and current expectations have him seeing 15-20 touches per game at least. That's because the team is still paying Chris Ivory a boatload of money, and as of June, T.J. Yeldon remains in the mix.

The concern for Fournette's outlook stems from scoring opportunities, as he's joining an offense run by Blake Bortles, who leads the NFL with 63 turnovers since 2014. Those are drive-killing plays which have a detrimental impact on the scoring chances of running backs. Over the last five years, teams in the bottom-10 in turnover percentage (number of drives ending in a turnover) score on average four fewer rushing touchdowns per year than teams in the top 10. The Jaguars have been in the bottom 10 in turnover percentage in each of the last two seasons but finished 21st in 2014 ... likely because Bortles only played in 14 games (he committed 22 turnovers in those games, though). This hasn't helped Bortles post great adjusted yards per attempt numbers either, as he's finished 28th, 18th, and 34th in that metric from 2016-2014, respectively. However, Fournette's involvement in the passing game could ultimately determine whether he ends up providing enough value to justify his lofty draft cost.

Fournette can catch but posted a career-high of just 19 receptions during his run at LSU. Meanwhile, Yeldon averages 57 targets per year thus far in his career and could remain on the team as a pass-catching complement to Fournette/Ivory. Compounding this worry is that the team wants Bortles to pass less often in 2017 in an attempt to minimize his turnovers. Reduced passing volume overall with a (potentially) established pass-catching back could lower Fournette's outlook as a rookie. This could all change as the season draws nearer and we see this offense in the preseason, but it's worth weighing these possibilities considering Fournette's second or third-round price tag.

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

2017 ADP: RB11
2016 targets: 58
2016 team rank in points scored: 32nd

2017 outlook: We've already touched on Gurley's situation, so I'll try to keep this brief. The arrow could be pointing up for Gurley in the long-term with offensive whiz kid Sean McVay now the team's head coach, but other than that there have only been minor improvements (if at all) to Gurley's situation.

Jared Goff will be the full-time starter from Week 1, and while reports from offseason workouts are encouraging, he must improve from his rookie season. Last year, Goff ranked 31st among qualified passers in adjusted yards per attempt, with just five touchdowns and seven interceptions. The offensive line still isn't perfect, but the team shipped draft bust Greg Robinson to Detroit and signed free agent Andrew Whitworth away from the Bengals. More importantly, the passing game still lacks dynamic, down-field options, and the scoring potential for this unit is, well, not great. The Rams have finished 25th or worse in scoring offense in eight of the last 10 years and were the worst scoring offense in the league in 2016. McVay could usher in an improvement, but it will likely take more than one offseason for a real turnaround.

Assuming Lance Dunbar doesn't steal too much work as a receiving back, Gurley should be able to maintain his value as a mid-tier RB2 thanks to work in the passing game. He's a capable receiver and caught 43 of his 58 targets last year for 327 yards. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur recently said he wants to "marry" the rushing and passing attacks for the Rams this year, which seems to indicate Gurley could be treated as a three-down back. Pure volume won't be an issue for Gurley, but drafters must weigh the risks of his quarterback play and scoring potential when considering him as a top-12 running back pick in drafts.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

2017 ADP: RB13
2016 targets: 39
2016 team rank in points scored: 28th

2017 outlook: Many thought Miller was under-utilized while in Miami and he would take the fantasy world by storm as a true featured back in Houston. Yeah ... about that. Miller saw plenty of volume, setting new career-highs with 268 attempts and 299 total touches, but his efficiency stats plummeted. He posted the lowest yards per carry and yards per reception figures of his career (4.0 and 6.1, respectively). The Texans offensive line was injured and Miller endured suboptimal quarterback play all year, both of which should be improved in 2017. Center Nick Martin will be back, and the Texans will either have Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson under center.

Savage seemed to provide a spark in his brief stint as a starter last year, while Watson was one of college football's most electric and accomplished passers of the last two years. The Texans have playmakers on the outside (DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller once he's back from a broken collarbone, Braxton Miller, C.J. Fiedorowicz), so a bump in QB play could lift this team from the scoring cellar. Last year's primary starter, Brock Osweiler, finished 30th in adjusted yards per attempt with a paltry 5.0 average.

The larger concern/question for Miller is how the drafting of D'Onta Foreman will impact his workload/scoring chances. Foreman is a bruising back and a great size-speed athlete (6-foot-1, 233 pounds, 4.5 40-time), leading some to believe he could see work near the goal line. Miller converted five of his eight rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line last season into scores, but fending off Foreman could prove difficult. There's a chance a reduced workload could bring back the Lamar Miller fantasy fans were salivating over during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but right now the deck looks stacked against Miller from climbing any higher than a middling finish among fantasy running backs.

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns

2017 ADP: RB14
2016 targets: 53
2016 team rank in points scored: 31st

2017 outlook: Crowell is the lowest of these backs based on current ADP, but is far and away receiving the most hype in the fantasy community. He was the best back on the Browns last year (sorry Duke Johnson), and head coach Hue Jackson has said he wants to run the ball even more in 2017 behind his revamped offensive line after acquiring JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency.

Per the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking technology, Crowell averaged nearly as many yards per carry against defenses with seven men or fewer in the box (4.83) as he did against stacked fronts with 8-plus defenders in the box (4.81). Granted, he did have an 85-yard touchdown run against a stacked front that inflates that total, but the home-run play is in Crowell's arsenal so we shouldn't discount it. Cody Kessler, the presumed starter for the Browns, posted a surprising 7.1 adjusted yards per attempt average as a rookie, which was the 20th best mark among quarterbacks with at least 195 attempts. DeShone Kizer, the team's second-round pick this year, averaged 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt while in college but could be hard-pressed to keep that number elevated if he's forced into the starting role as a rookie.

Either way, Crowell should be attached to at least average quarterback play in 2017, which along with the influx of offensive talent (David Njoku, Kenny Britt), could lift this team to new scoring heights. Furthermore, Crowell received just shy of 70 percent of the team's carries inside the 5-yard line last season, indicating he's the favorite in scoring situations. As for the passing game, Crowell saw 53 targets a year ago, and won't be ignored in that respect even if the team slightly prefers Johnson as a pass-catching back (74 targets in 2016). Given his current draft price and solid overall situation, Crowell feels like the safest back of this bunch to return on the investment fantasy managers will sink into him.


There you have it. Remember on draft day that running backs on potentially bad offenses aren't created equal, and there are numerous factors that can contribute to their success outside of their own talent and opportunity. Continue to read the tea leaves this offseason and be sure to make the most informed choice possible on draft day. Your hopes of a fantasy championship could count on it.

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-- Alex Gelhar is a fantasy football writer/editor for the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar or "Like" his page on Facebook.

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