The sophomore slump is almost too cliché.
When it comes to fantasy running backs, there is some historical proof to back up claims that there will be players who don't live up to the hype in their second season following successful rookie campaigns, in whatever way that success may have been defined. Many fantasy owners fell victim to this last year when second-year backs like Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde did not return on their draft value.
Don't get too worried though. We at @NFLFantasy are here to do the dirty work for you, so that on draft day you can be as informed as possible on which players are poised to break out and who might be candidates to suffer from that cliché second-season slump.
That's why this two-part series studying running backs entering Year 2 in the NFL exists. From statistical output as rookies, to evidence of their good or bad attributes on film, to situational circumstances, consider this a drill-down on what you can expect from Melvin Gordon, Karlos Williams, Ameer Abdullah, T.J. Yeldon, Tevin Coleman, Javorius Allen, David Cobb and Cameron Artis-Payne from a fantasy perspective as they prepare for their sophomore campaigns.
Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
2015 stats: 184 rush attempts | 641 rush yards | zero rush touchdowns | 33 receptions | 192 receiving yards | 75.30 fantasy points
With Todd Gurley still recovering from a knee injury at the start of the 2015 season, Melvin Gordon was a favorite rookie among fantasy pundits to produce at a high level right out of the gate. But behind an abysmal offensive line that ranked 31st in the NFL in run blocking according to Football Outsiders, Gordon fell well short of expectations following his ridiculous final collegiate season in which he collected over 2,500 rush yards and 32 total touchdowns.
As a rookie, Gordon failed to score a touchdown on 217 total touches and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. By Week 5 he was basically a bench warmer but fantasy owners kept rolling him out in hopes that he'd eventually score his first NFL touchdown. The volume was there; Gordon received double-digit carries in all but two games the entire season, but gained greater than 60 rush yards just once. He averaged 45.7 rush yards per game while also averaging 13.1 carries per game.
Heading into Year 2, Gordon has said that he's more confident in understanding the Chargers' offense and has shown progress and promise in mini camp workouts. But, as if we needed another red flag, Gordon underwent microfracture surgery on his knee back in January. He was said to be running and cutting well in mid-June which is a great sign in terms of his rehab progress, but we won't really know what his status is until we see him get reps in training camp. For what it's worth, a number of players have gone on to have success following microfracture surgery including Maurice Jones-Drew (who led the league in rushing the season following his procedure, 2011).
Because of all the aforementioned factors, Gordon's ADP has plummeted all the way into Round 8 which feels like too much overcorrection for such a highly touted prospect coming out of college. In general, rookies tend to struggle in terms of grasping the speed and nuance of the NFL game, and last season was just a perfect storm of poor situational circumstances that resulted in Gordon's bust campaign as a fantasy player. He has nowhere to go but up in his second year and should be drafted as a mid-range RB2.
Karlos Williams, Buffalo Bills
2015 stats: 93 rush attempts | 517 rush yards | seven rush touchdowns | 11 receptions | 96 receiving yards | two receiving touchdowns | 113.30 fantasy points
Karlos Williams wasn't on the fantasy radar when the 2015 season commenced, but he quickly made a name for himself by scoring in each of Buffalo's first four games on limited opportunities. He received the fifth-fewest rush attempts among rookie backs last year, yet managed to score the third-most rushing touchdowns and added two end zone trips a receiver. Williams averaged a mere 9.4 touches per game and still scored 10.5 fantasy points per game, making him one of the more efficient fantasy scoring backs in the league. You read that correctly, Williams averaged more FPPG than he did touches per game.
In games where both Williams and teammate LeSean McCoy were healthy and saw action last year, Williams' numbers were extremely similar when compared to games when he was the primary back with McCoy sidelined. In other words, Williams' production didn't decrease when McCoy was getting touches.
According to FantasyData.com's snap count metric, Williams ranked second in the entire NFL among running backs in fantasy points per 100 snaps (42.3), second only to Joseph Randle (44.1). For what it's worth, McCoy scored just 24.6 fantasy points per 100 snaps, but he was on the field for 598 snaps versus Williams' 264 so it's only natural that he'd have a lower ratio.
For a big back, Williams did a great job of getting skinny when hitting gaps at the line and following his blockers into space. He was able to stay on his feet through initial contact and never seemed afraid or hesitant to run directly into defenders and truck them rather than trying to elude them.
Playing behind a less-than durable veteran in McCoy, Williams is in a great situation in Buffalo to play a major role in fantasy once again this season. His Round 9 ADP provides amazing value for a guy in a two-pronged, lightning-and-thunder committee situation (think Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard) who will likely be used in goal-line situations. Williams also possesses elite long speed for a back of his size and can effortlessly shed tackles, find room to run, and take it to the house on any given play. That's the kind of talent you want on your fantasy squad.
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
2015 stats: 143 rush attempts | 597 rush yards | two rush touchdowns | 25 receptions | 183 receiving yards | one receiving touchdown | 92.00 fantasy points
Ameer Abdullah led the Lions in rushing attempts and rushing yards last year. He excited the fantasy community in Week 1 when he scored a touchdown on the first NFL carry of his career and put up double-digit points in two of his first three contents. But for all intents and purposes, he was considered a major bust in fantasy circles as his production fell off the proverbial cliff as the season wore on. His ADP, which soared into Round 4 during draft season, didn't help his case. He was an early-round investment who returned just 92 fantasy points for the entire season in standard scoring, averaging a mere 5.75 FPPG.
Sharing snaps with both Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, Abdullah had a tough time producing at a high level in Detroit's struggling offense during the first half of the year. After the team made some changes in the second half, he saw a bit of an uptick in consistency and efficiency, but he still wasn't worth starting as a fantasy back. So, where can you draft him in 2016 and what kind of returns can you expect from Abdullah in Year 2?
First, a note regarding Abdullah's health: The Nebraska product underwent surgery in January to repair a shoulder injury that he suffered in Week 15. The Lions' coaching staff expects their second-round draft selection to be ready to go by the time training camp starts, but his health will need to be monitored. For a younger back like Abdullah, every preseason rep counts, especially as the Lions rediscover their identity in the first full campaign with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter at the helm. The team also needs to find its new identity without the services of retired GOAT, Calvin Johnson.
Abdullah's ADP this season is lingering in Round 8 which may be an overcorrection based on his performance last year. He's a talented and versatile back who can catch the ball out of the backfield which presents more opportunities for him to remain on the field, especially in games when Detroit is playing catch-up. He's on the smaller end of the spectrum in terms of size (5-foot-9, 200 pounds) so it's questionable whether or not he can hold up if asked to endure the rigors of a three-down workload. But with talks of Theo Riddick being more involved as a rusher this season Abdullah's role could be more limited than some think. Fantasy owners have to view Abdullah as a committee member who should be a weekly flex play in standard leagues. In a best case scenario, he'll probably deliver RB2 value in 2016.
T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 stats: 182 rush attempts | 740 rush yards | two rush touchdown | 36 receptions | 279 receiving yards | 119.90 fantasy points
Yeldon is be one of few second year running backs who may take a step backwards as a sophomore in terms of his fantasy value, despite reasonable success as a rookie.
Among rookie runners in 2015, T.J. Yeldon ranked third in rush attempts, second in rushing yards, fourth in total fantasy points and averaged 78.3 total yards per game with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
His yards per carry average was exactly average (4.1) among the 15 running backs in this study. He received a considerable amount of work as a receiver too, reeling in 36 of the 46 passing targets that came his way. Volume was definitely not an issue for Yeldon -- he averaged 16.7 touches per game, but what really held him back from a fantasy standpoint was his lack of scoring. Yeldon's three total touchdowns on the season kept his fantasy ceiling capped, and his performance in the red zone was just plain bad, as Alex Gelhar recently pointed out.
Some of that has to do with the fact that the Jags passed a lot more than they ran when inside the 20-yard line, but even when Yeldon did get red zone touches, he was unable to do much with them.
Another issue with Yeldon is his durability. His rookie year ended prematurely due to a knee injury. He also dealt with groin and foot issues throughout his rookie campaign. Behind Yeldon, the Jaguars talent at running back was shallow at best with Denard Robinson, Toby Gerhart and Bernard Pierce rotating in. Consider the offseason acquisition of Chris Ivory an attempt by the Jaguars to fix this issue.
With Ivory projected to be the primary early down and goal-line back, Yeldon's role is likely to be that of a change-of-pace back behind his veteran teammate. It could also be beneficial for Yeldon to work behind Ivory and gain some wisdom from a guy coming off a career year with the Jets.
Yeldon's Round 9 ADP seems a bit too rich for a guy projected to be splitting carries. That number should fall even further as the summer wears on. At best, Yeldon will have high-end flex upside as a third-down specialist. At worst, he'll serve as a fantasy bench warmer on call in the case of an Ivory injury.
Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
2015 stats: 87 rush attempts | 392 rush yards | one rush touchdown | two receptions | 14 receiving yards | zero receiving touchdown | 40.60 fantasy points
In Week 1, Coleman had 20 rush attempts but would only receive double-digit carries in two more games the entire season. In the three contests he did have double-digit carries, he collected 63 percent of his total rush attempts for the year, averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per carry in those games. Coleman was bit by the injury bug early on and missed a few games with cracked ribs, during which time Freeman broke through and became Atlanta's featured back. When Coleman returned, he saw four or fewer carries until Week 11 when Freeman missed time with a concussion.
Since Coleman has a slighter frame and top shelf speed (4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day), he's more well suited for outsize zone runs than he is cut out for a between-the-tackles banger role. He also needs to improve his patience at the line as he has a tendency to shift into his highest gear too early resulting in missed opportunities to let gaps develop in front of him. But the outlook is positive in Year 2 for the Indiana product.
Freeman is due for a bit of regression after racking up 337 total touches last season and it'd make sense for the Falcons to rotate Coleman in more frequently. It's not out of the question to expect a 60-40 split in terms of snaps between the duo this year, and if that happens, Coleman will take a huge step forward.
Right now, his Round 11 ADP makes him a sleeper candidate, but he's a must-own as a handcuff to Freeman. It's tough to predict exactly how much Coleman will bring to the table if he's the No. 2 guy in Atlanta's one-two punch backfield, but with little risk in the early double-digit rounds, he's well worth picking up as you look to build bench depth in redraft formats.
Javorius Allen, Baltimore Ravens
2015 stats: 137 rush attempts | 514 rush yards | 45 receptions | 353 receiving yards | two receiving touchdowns | 100.70 fantasy points
Buck Allen played a minor role in the Ravens offense as a rookie until lead back Justin Forsett went out for the season with a broken arm. Allen became the team's primary back beginning in Week 11 and was able to put together a few solid outings thanks to his all-purpose yardage totals. He even racked up 170 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in Week 13 -- his best game of the year in terms of fantasy scoring. By that point in the season, Baltimore had lost Forsett, wideout Steve Smith and quarterback Joe Flacco with season-ending injuries, so Allen was one of few playmakers left on the offense. The Ravens threw him into the fire and he played decently given the sorry state of Baltimore's offense at that point.
On tape, Allen lacks some vision and seems to run very upright, limiting his ability to run through tacklers and get extra yards after contact. He displayed extremely quick feet and was able to make defenders miss in space, but didn't possess bell-cow type qualities.
His strength is as a pass-catcher, and with a healthy Forsett back in the mix Allen will probably be relegated to change-of-pace duties. The team also added rookie Kenneth Dixon in the draft, a Louisiana Tech product who also projects as a pass-catching specialist. That leads one to believe the team wasn't content with Allen in that role. With Forsett likely to begin the season as Baltimore's primary back and the Ravens running back depth chart overflowing with potential backups, Allen will have to compete in training camp to really iron out a niche for himself in the offense.
His current asking price in fantasy drafts is Round 13, so there is little risk involved. But it's simply too early to tell what kind of volume Allen will see in his second year with the Ravens and there's a good chance that this backfield becomes a three-headed committee -- never a good thing for fantasy purposes. Approach Allen with caution until Baltimore irons the situation out in camp.
David Cobb, Tennessee Titans
2015 stats: 52 rush attempts | 146 rush yards | one rush touchdown | one reception | -2 receiving yards | zero receiving touchdowns | 20.40 fantasy points
Hindered by a calf injury that kept him on injured reserve for the first half of the season, the fifth-round draft selection got little run in his first year. By the time he was healthy, the Titans backfield was a total mess with Antonio Andrews "leading" a woeful committee that also included Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey (pour one out ... actually, no don't waste any valuable liquids on him), Terrance West and Jalston Fowler. Cobb's best game came in Week 17 when the fantasy season was already in the books. For what it's worth, he received 19 carries for 73 yards and scored a touchdown against the Colts.
In short, Cobb is now buried on the depth chart and will be fighting for a roster spot during training camp. A running back in that kind of situation is one you'll want to avoid for fantasy purposes even in the deepest of leagues.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers
2015 stats: 45 rush attempts | 183 rush yards | one rush touchdown | five receptions | 58 receiving yards | zero receiving touchdowns | 30.10 fantasy points
Cameron Artis-Payne didn't get much action until Carolina put Jonathan Stewart on the shelf at the end of the year to rest up for what eventually became a Super Bowl run. For a few fantasy owners still playing for their league title, Artis-Payne may have been a waiver-wire target for the final weeks of the season, and he filled in nicely as Carolina's primary back for a few games.
The fifth-rounder out of Auburn racked up 152 yards on 33 rush attempts in the three weeks that Stewart was sidelined and he remains the No. 2 option on the Panthers' depth chart entering the 2016 season. He's not the most athletic guy, but his compact frame and downhill running style fits well in the Panthers' offense.
Stewart is apparently still resting the foot injury that he re-aggravated during the Super Bowl and did not participate in offseason OTAs and mini camp sessions as a precaution. It's a valuable reminder that Stewart has been injury prone his entire career and is coming off a season in which he received a career-high 242 rush attempts in 13 games. As has been the case for years with any Carolina running back, Cam Newton's participation as a rusher will cap his backfield's statistical ceiling, but anyone that does draft Stewart in his age 29 season will want to handcuff him with Artis-Payne. The second-year back is virtually free in drafts, and should probably be left on the waiver wire in most standard leagues. He'll slide into the bell-cow role if Stewart's foot injury lingers into the regular season.