It's a head-to-head fantasy fight to the death! (Not really, but it sounds cooler that way). At stake: Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard's honor. Marcas Grant and James Koh debate Howard's current valuation as a top-15 pick, making the case for and against the Bears' budding star running back.
Marcas Grant - For any of you who listened to one of our recent NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast episodes, you were treated (?) to a robust conversation about the 2017 fantasy fortunes of Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard -- in between us filibustering about the weather or the general awesomeness of minor league baseball caps, of course.
The strangest thing about our Howard convo wasn't that the panel was split down the middle. It was that somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to me, I had an out-of-body experience. Much like Kevin Durant's cinematic classic, Thunderstruck, James Koh and I switched essences causing me to become hyper-optimistic about a running back while Koh turned into a raging skeptic.
James Koh - It was weird, but the consistent argument from the pro-Jordan Howard crowd seems to be, "Well he did it last year!" And that's just something I can't digest. Take a look at this screen grab of a couple of comments below:
THOSE ARE COMMENTS FROM LAST YEAR REGARDING TODD GURLEY.
Y'all are making the exact same damn arguments this year for Howard!
Seriously. Just stop.
It's a variation of the "all [insert position] from [insert school] suck," except worse. The only real connective tissue between Todd Gurley and Jordan Howard is that they're both NFL running backs who had good rookie seasons. That's where the similarities end. Alas, I seem convinced that some of you are not yet convinced (including you, James). Time to start factating and philosophizing.
Koh - Let's do this.
"Offensive" offensive line
Grant - We begin with the respective offensive lines. We all know that the Rams offensive line was bad. But thanks to the good folks at Football Outsiders, we have a quantifiable idea of how bad it was in the running game. In 2015, Rams running backs were tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 23 percent of their runs, which ranked 28th in the league. A season later, that percentage dropped ever-so-slightly to 22 percent -- though the overall ranking remained the same. Contrast that to the Bears whose runners were stuffed 18 percent of the time, 11th-best in the league last year.
Unless you're Kurt Wagner, it's tough to avoid defenders behind a bad offensive line. Such was Gurley's lot in 2016 when he could barely get his hands on the ball before a defender was in his grill. It's an issue that Howard didn't really have as you can see from this midseason report below.
I hear those keys pounding away on your keyboards and phones ... "but Gurley had the box stacked against him all the time!" This is where I turn to my friend and erstwhile Fantasy Hipster Matt Harmon, who dove headlong into this very issue with the help of Next Gen Stats. The tl;dr is that Jordan Howard was ungood against stacked fronts. But Todd Gurley was more ungood with essentially the same ratio of carries against loaded boxes. And some of that falls on the shoulders of the offensive line.
Koh - I love the combination of Kyle Long and Josh Sitton as much as anyone else, they're two of the best interior linemen in the business. But Long is rehabbing from offseason ankle surgery and opted to skip offseason shoulder surgery on a torn labrum, while Josh Sitton is 31 years old and showed some signs of wear and tear last year missing three games himself.
Man to man
Grant - The offensive line bears some responsibility for the fate of a running back. But how about a little personal responsibility, eh? Through two seasons, Todd Gurley has been a big home-run threat. Yet a lot of home-run threats also end up striking out a bit. That describes Gurley pretty well. The problem is that after going boom a few times in 2015, he was mostly bust in 2016.
Howard wasn't quite the big-play threat that Gurley was -- he had plenty of 20-plus yard runs but his longest jaunts couldn't match up -- but he was more consistent on a per-carry basis. That consistency is more valuable on a week-to-week instance than the hope for the occasional long run. It's part of the reason someone like Michael Crabtree has had more fantasy value than a guy like DeSean Jackson in recent seasons.
Koh - Going back to our boy Harmon, last preseason he wrote a hyper-technical, against-the-grain piece on why Gurley would not be a top-five fantasy back. Part of his argument was that elite running backs also tend to be good in the pass game.
To this end, Howard put up okay receiving numbers last year, amassing 29 receptions for nearly 300 yards. However, I have serious reservations he will be utilized as heavily in the passing game as he was last year.
Of all the backs last year who saw at least 50 targets, Howard had by far the worst catch rate and led all running backs in drops. In fact, his seven drops were tied for third-most in the entire league including wide receivers!
Remember, one of the big question marks about his game coming out of college was whether or not he could be a reliable target out of the backfield as he had 24 TOTAL receptions over his three-year collegiate career.
Having watched a ton of Howard tape, it's clear he's a guy that'll make the grab if open but hasn't shown the ability to adjust his body or route angle to make tougher catches. In short, his catch radius is pretty small.
If he sees 50 targets in the passing game again this year, I'll throw my phone into the ocean; it's not going to happen.
But if there is one thing that's abundantly clear in this league, it's that if your offense is one dimensional (and make no mistake, the Bears' is) defenses will frequently shut you down.
Without Alshon there for coordinators to at least scheme against, expect loaded boxes to be a regularity for Howard. And as we saw with Gurley last year, expect Howard to be locked up tighter than Alex Gelhar's head in an extra-small hat.
Grant - I won't sit here and pretend that the Bears are going to keep a lot of defensive coordinators up at night but I'm also old enough to remember when people thought Todd Gurley was bulletproof because he succeeded within the confines of a bad offense. In actuality, the Rams were a slightly better passing team in Gurley's second season. 2016 featured Kenny Britt posting his first career 1,000-yard season along with Tavon Austin setting a career high in receiving yards.
The previous season when Gurley was everyone's fantasy hero? Britt led the team with 681 receiving yards. Let me spell that out so you get it. Six hundred and eighty-one. All while playing catch with the tremendous trio of Nick Foles, Case Keenum and Sean Mannion. You can't tell me that the combo of Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Kendall Wright, et al running routes for Mike Glennon is somehow significantly worse.
If anything, there's a glimmer of hope in the fact that Dowell Loggains is back for another season as the offensive coordinator. Loggains might not be a household name but he's well-versed in squeezing the most out of moribund quarterbacks, helping guys like Brian Hoyer and Jake Locker to some of the better numbers of their careers.
I see you rolling your eyes to the back of your skull, but hey, we're not asking Glennon to be an all-pro ... just serviceable. After all, that's all the Bears got from their quarterbacks last season when Howard streaked into our collective fantasy consciousness.
Besides, just about anything is better than relying on a Jeff Fisher offense. Or have we forgotten about Gurley complaining about being in a "middle school offense"?
Koh - While we're talking about Bears' coaches, this would probably be a good time to remind folks that John Fox has a coaching record of just 90-102 without Peyton Manning. In fact, of those 12 seasons, Fox has stunningly only had THREE winning seasons. So while we're sitting here burying Jeff Fisher remember Fox has a significantly worse coaching resume when he didn't have one of the two best quarterbacks of our generation slinging the rock.
If the Bears stink up Soldier Field again, putting in their fourth consecutive sub-.500 season, don't be surprised to see the veteran players slump down the stretch, only further exacerbating the team's expected offensive woes.
Koh - At Howard's current price in the late first/early second round, I just can't do it. I still have him in my top 30 only because of the anticipated workload and because I built in a margin of error in case I'm completely off my rocker and Howard kills. But if I were just going off of gut feeling, I'd push him even lower in my rankings, opting to have him in the 40s.
Grant - Maybe you're scared of Howard at his current second-round ADP. I understand fear. It's the reason I haven't considered vacationing in Maine (read too many Stephen King books as a kid). But ask yourself how valuable is a starting three-down running back with no real competition on the depth chart and the very real possibility of 300 touches staring him in the face? Then go confidently pull the trigger on Howard.
I'm still not going to Maine, though.