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Fantasy Football Fallout: Free Agency, Part Two: Running Backs


While NFL teams had increasingly devalued the running back position in recent years, the lightening of the defensive side of the ball with the increase in nickel and dime formations (and therefore more defensive backs instead of linemen or linebackers) has caused the pendulum to swing back the other way. However, NFL teams are going to a more committee approach. While the running back position as a whole is garnering more interest and investment, bell cow backs are falling by the wayside unless you have a top tier talent. The BenJarvus Green-Ellis backs who get the full load for just showing up are growing scarcer and scarcer. Per Spotrac.com, there were 23 running backs of note this offseason, of these 23, only ten switched teams. Of those ten, only four received a multi-year deal (of the six that didn’t get a multi-year deal, none got more than $300,000 guaranteed).[Jeff]

 

Of the running backs that switched teams and received a multi-year deal, only Alfred Morris got less than $9 million guaranteed. A running back in the hand (that knows your system) is worth two in the bush… Mostly because teams are making sure any running back worth his salt stays in their organization. That is, unless they get too pricy. The four big money running backs that switched teams will definitely shake up 2016 fantasy football. Together we will explore the four big-money running backs and how their defections will send ripples throughout the NFL, and fantasy football, 2016 landscape.


 

The first one is a two-parter:
Chris Ivory leaves the Jets for the Jaguars (5/$32,000,000; $10,000,000 guaranteed)
AND
Matt Forte leaves the Bears for the Jets (3/$12,000,000; $4,000,000 guaranteed)
In a quick two-step, the Jets are at the center of a shakeup for three teams worth of lead backs, the Jets replace Ivory at the head of their backfield with Matt Forte. First, a look at the situation in Jacksonville, where Ivory headed. Chris Ivory joins T.J. Yeldon in what will become one of the NFL’s harder to sort out backfields. In his rookie campaign, Yeldon pulled his own with a respectable but unimpressive 4.1 yards per attempt and just over sixty yards per game. The major annoyance for Yeldon owners last season was his three touchdowns, giving him hardly any big weeks (two weeks over 15 fantasy points in standard scoring). To his credit, however, Yeldon had only one game under six fantasy points last season. He was very consistent, but offered little weekly upside. This was due to Yeldon getting the bulk of the carries outside the red zone, but once it got close to the end zone, the Jags went to Shoelace Robinson and Toby Gerhart to try to punch in the score.

Unfortunately for 2016 T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory is going to eat into both his carries and his minuscule goal-line opportunities. It’s entirely possible that Ivory, with his 4.6 career yards per carry, may just run away with the opportunities entirely. They’re both back-end RB2 for draft purposes, mostly due to the question marks surrounding their situation. If you need to take one, I would go with Ivory. He is likely to get the goal-line work, given the Jaguars’ reluctance to use him near the end zone. Granted, the Jaguars could learn from their mistake and increase Yeldon’s role. But if they wanted to do that, would they have given Ivory the third-most guaranteed money for a running back since 2011? I don’t think so.

I would snag Ivory after Yeldon goes off the board, since you want the cheaper half of a question mark platoon. Yeldon will slide back to the RB30 range and Ivory up to the RB 18-20 range.

The guy replacing Ivory in New York is likely to win the award for “Most Likely to be Underdrafted, then Overdrafted, then Underdrafted.” Matt Forte is currently FantasyPros’ RB16 by expert consensus rankings, making him a high-end RB2. The only problem is that Forte is going from a primo situation for his fantasy value to one that is much messier. Forte is getting a messy situation with incumbent Bilal Powell and fellow newcomer Khiry Robinson. He’s also hit the dreaded age 30 season, which usually spells the death knell for running backs. There a lot of things working against Forte, but there’s a lot working for him, too.

First off, he’s Matt Freaking Forte. He’s robotic and his production is prolific. He’s a monster carrying the ball, but his main value is his extremely great contributions in the passing game. The Jets tried to move towards passing to their running backs last season (exactly 100 targets to Powell and Ivory), and the signing of Forte signifies a doubling-down on that commitment to utilize the running back in the passing game. Forte is one of the league’s premier pass-catching backs, and those target numbers are likely to flip away from Powell. However, Powell will get touted as a sleeper from his production last year, and he is going to go up draft boards, depressing Forte’s value. However, the Jets signed Forte to be their pass-catching back, and he will represent great value in drafts, especially in PPR.

The man replacing Forte in Chicago is second-year back Jeremy Langford. Langford had limited opportunities last year behind Forte, and when he did get his opportunity, he was inconsistent. He had nine games last season with double-digit carries. In those games, he averaged 14 carries for 54 yards, for a svelte 3.82 yards per carry. His real production was as a pass catcher, a la Matt Forte. He had games of 109 yards on nine targets and 70 yards on four targets. Langford is going to be overdrafted because of these two games, but don’t fall for the hype. He’ll end the season as an RB2 if he doesn’t get hurt, but with his current ADP (per FantasyPros) as the #34 pick, RB15, ahead of C.J. Anderson and Carlos Hyde, let someone else get him.

This is also ignoring that the Bears are likely to go after a running back in next week’s draft.

 

Lamar Miller leaves the Dolphins for the Texans (4/$26,000,000; $14,000,000 guaranteed)
The biggest free agent contract by guaranteed money in a half decade, Miller left the Dolphins and joined up with fellow free agent Brock Osweiler to revamp the Texans offense. Would you believe me if I told you his rushing productivity decreased in 2015 rather than built on his 2014 campaign? He saw just eighteen fewer carries (194 compared to 216) and his rushing yards dipped from nearly 1100 to just under 900. This was mostly mitigated by his increased talents through the air. Still, the great leap forward expected of Miller did not materialize in 2015.

Now that he has moved on to Houston, expectations have risen significantly for Miller. I am more cautious that he will produce more in Houston. They ran the ball more than Miami did, but at the same time, Miller is yet to show that he can handle an increased work load. The Dolphins always capped his carries, and he never averaged more than 13.5 in a single season (Langford was a part-time backup in Chicago and Miller had one more double-digit carry game in 2015). The Dolphins also routinely rotated him out on third downs—he received only fourteen carries on third down in Miami last year.

 

Alfred Morris leaves Washington for the Cowboys ($2/$3,500,000; $1,800,000 guaranteed)
Morris is a strong power back who doesn’t catch a lot of passes out of the backfield, but he spent the first three seasons of his career rushing for over 1000 yards. Last year, the Washington running back load splintered between Morris, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson. For the first time in his career, Morris saw less than 205 carries, and his production suffered. He’s a hammer back, who thrives on pounding the snot out of the defense and making hay when they’re weary. By rotating him with Thompson and Jones, he was made less effective.

Don’t get it twisted that Morris’ inefficiency (under 4.0 YPC for the first time in his career) was a sudden boon for the other backs on the ground. Matt Jones had fewer yards per carry than Morris and Chris Thompson had only 35 carries. The difference came in the Washington philosophy; Thompson & Jones combined for nearly 75 targets, and the non-pass catching Morris was left out in the cold.

Morris leaves behind a messy situation in Washington, with Chris Thompson being the lead back heading into the draft, but unlikely to be the lead back heading out of it. Look for Washington to add a back in the second or third round to place at the top of this mess of a backfield. That back will likely not get first crack at rushing the ball, but that is the back you will want in this outfit.

While Morris is leaving Washington for the league’s best offensive line, his production is unlikely to be consistent or usable in Dallas unless Darren McFadden goes down. That having been said, his final fantasy line will likely increase. Why? Touchdown regression. Morris had 28 touchdowns in his first three seasons, just over nine a season. Last season he had one.

McFadden is the lead back, but he is seemingly physically incapable of starting all sixteen games in a season. He’s played in all the games over the last two years, but started just 22 (of 32). Before that it was an average of five missed games a season. While it appears as though the Cowboys want to build a “Thunder and Lightning” backfield, they’ll be left with Morris and no MFadden more than they would be comfortable with. Morris is currently the 84th pick off the board, and RB39 per FantasyPros ADP data. He’s a great target for those employing the zero RB draft strategy.


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