Entering 2016 there is a renewed sense of excitement inside the NFC East. Whether new coaches, new quarterbacks, or once in a generation talents, each team in the division has reason to believe they are on the verge of something special. Consistent team success brings us players who achieve consistent fantasy success. Before we buy stake in these programs, however, there are a few questions that may help us determine where to invest our draft and auction capital this preseason. Let’s start with the Division Champions…
Who will lead the team in rushing in 2016?
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With the expected growth of the team’s offense in Kirk Cousins’ second full season at the controls, Washington should be a prime spot for a running back to succeed. The likely candidate for the starting job is second year back, Matt Jones, a boom or bust runner, with legitimate homerun ability. The problem with Jones is when he’s not knocking it out of the park, he’s just a .180 hitter, tapping harmless grounders around the infield. At present, it appears most owners view Jones as an RB3 (ADP roughly 85th overall, 27th among running backs), and are not yet willing to make a larger commitment to acquire his services.
The biggest concerns with Jones are ball security and efficiency. He had five fumbles in 144 attempts, four of which were recovered by the opponent. If you have trouble holding onto the football, you’ll have trouble holding onto your job as well. The team is experimenting with a football, loaded with sensors which tell the player if he’s holding the ball incorrectly. I’m willing to bet the fumbling issue gets corrected. The bigger red flag for me is the lack of efficiency.
With no intention to re-sign Alfred Morris at the end of 2015, Washington gave Jones meaningful snaps all year. He managed just two noteworthy fantasy performances. The first, a 19/123/2 effort verses the Rams in week two. The other, against the Saints in week 12, with Jones logging 131 receiving yards on just three big pass plays. This is the power hitting Matt Jones.
Then, there is “Bad Matt Jones”. The one who averaged more than four yards per carry in just three of the 13 games he played in 2015. Even worse, he broke three yards per carry in a mere six contest!
Combined with a drop off in his production late in games, it becomes difficult to argue that greater volume will improve his efficiency.
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|QUARTER = 3||30||73||2.4||11||0||3||18||6.0||7||0||2||2|
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The biggest asset working in Jones favor is his physicality. None of the other Washington backs run as violently. His inefficiency can be attributed to many factors, not all of which rest on Jones shoulders. Improved line play, more effective play action, Cousins ability to adapt play calls at the line… all adjustments that could lead to improvement in this area. Yet, on draft day, we need all the information we can gather when trying to make the tough choices between ‘player A’ and ‘player B’.
The two remaining challengers on this episode of who wants to be a feature back are Chris Thompson, who’s frame and skill set I liken to Justin Forsett. And Keith Marshall, a rookie out of Georgia, who’s college career was overshadowed by injuries, Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley.
Of the three backs, Thompson’s odds of claiming the lion’s share of the workload are probably slimmest. Yet, in recent years we’ve seen the fantasy value an undersized back with the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield or off the line of scrimmage can have. The Sproles, Woodheads, Dion Lewis’ and Forsetts of the world beg us not to completely sleep on a player of Thompson’s ilk. Any claim he makes to the starting role will have to begin by proving his durability, as he’s yet to play a full 16 game season. His quickness and receiving ability make him worthy of your watch list.
At 5’11”, roughly 218lbs, Marshall possesses enough size to handle the NFL grind. In fact, he claims he has weighed as much as 230lbs. His time at Georgia was spent in tandem with Gurley during Marshall’s freshman year, and Chubb over his final season. The two years in between were marred by a knee injury suffered five games into his sophomore year, which he re-injured upon returning junior season. Having never seen him play pre-injury, leaves me with little more than his combine times, and two games worth of video from his final year at Georgia to judge his talent. The 4.31 second forty time and 25 bench reps are very intriguing, especially considering his size. Depending on his comfort level with the knee, now 2 years into his recovery, he could be ready to mount a serious push for playing time.
Ultimately the battle lies between Jones and Marshall. Last season the team alternated series with Alfred Morris edging out Jones in carries 202 to 144. Expect a similar split between Jones and Marshall, with the veteran taking the bulk of the work, at least in the beginning.
“What this offense will look like in 2016” is a topic that deserves it’s own article. How long will Sam Bradford stay healthy? How long will Bradford remain the starter? If Sam gets hurt, or plays poorly, who takes over – Chase Daniel or Carson Wentz? Will Zach Ertz finally emerge as a top five fantasy tight end? Will Jordan Matthews achieve WR1 status? Can Nelson Agholor achieve relevance?
The question I’d like to explore is a much more provocative one. At first glance, you will scoff at the idea, and justifiably so. I am laughing as I type these words. Still, it is a question that begs to be asked because if it comes to fruition we will regret missing the boat.
What if Ryan Mathews starts 16 games?
I’ll give you a moment to grab some paper towels and clean up the coffee you just spit all over your screen…
Crazy, right? But hear me out. For all the talk of how frail Ryan Mathews is, he’s only played fewer than 12 games once in six professional seasons. He was criminally underutilized last year, with just 102 attempts in 245 offensive snaps, despite ripping off 5.1 yards per carry, the second highest yards per attempt among all NFL running backs in 2015.
Beyond the stats, Mathews play was dominant, running with purpose and explosion. Philly retooled both guard positions in free agency, their offensive line’s Achilles heel. With Darren Sproles, and rookie Wendell Smallwood representing his chief competitors for playing time, there is every reason to believe Mathews, in year two of a three year contract, will be fed the ball until his legs fall off. (There will also be Vegas casinos taking props on the likelihood of his legs literally falling off.)
Does 275 combined touches for 1400 all purpose yards, with 12 trips to the end zone sound like a complete leap of faith? Well, that’s exactly what it is going to take for you to cash this lottery ticket. The talent is there. If the touches reach the mid to high 200’s the points will follow. At present, Mathews is RB35 in our most recent dynasty ADP rankings, 108th overall. In redraft that number climbs closer to RB20. A savvy owner who’s confident they can bolster the back end of their roster with adequate reinforcements- in the event Mathews falters – stands to cash major dividends from a player who could be staring down a career year.
New York Giants
For the better part of the 2000’s the Giants employed an extremely productive running game. Whether talking about the five consecutive seasons in which Tiki Barber averaged over 1,500 yards rushing, 500 yards receiving, and nine touchdowns per year, to end his career. Or the thunder and lightening tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, who helped carry the team to two Super Bowl victories. Starting in 2013, this all changed, as Andre Brown, Peyton Hillis and David Wilson kicked off a string of disappointing and, or, injury prone backs from which the team is still trying to overcome today, leading us to ponder:
Is anyone on the Giants capable of rushing for one thousand yards in 2015?
Last season, the best they could manage was 863 yards by Rashad Jennings, the 31 year old veteran, for whom 2015 marked the first 16 game season of his seven year career. With 195 carries on the season, one has to wonder if his touches were suppressed in an effort to preserve his health, or the natural result of the team’s offensive strategy. In either event, he remains the likeliest player to satisfy your needs for an RB2/ Flex option until injury, age or competition unseat him. With little reason to save Jennings for the future, it would be great to see Big Blue feed Jennings 200+ carries. We’ve seen stretches of outstanding play from him in the past. With a ninth round ADP in redraft, and 14th round ADP in dynasty, gambling on another productive season is one of the better value bets on the market. It should be noted, the 863 yards from last season represents his career high.
If not for a log-jam at the position, Shane Vereen might be the G-Men’s most attractive option out of the backfield. His 59/495/4 statline as a receiver illustrates his abilty in the passing game. Yet, he only ran the ball 61 times on the season, despite averging 4.26 yards per carry. As the fourth or fifth back on your roster, Vereen makes a decent bye-week reserve, with some flex potential. He should be on your list of “RB Zero” candidates who could pay dividends should Jennings miss time.
The remaining cast of this Broadway ensemble isn’t worth debating until we see who makes the final roster, it is simply to crowded. The one player I would urge dynasty owners to explore is rookie, Paul Perkins. Reminiscent of his fellow UCLA alum, Maurice Jones-Drew, Perkins is a stocky, north south runner, with efficient side stepping ability, who sees holes, then gets through them. He doesn’t possess the same power MJD did, but he’s the type of no nonsense runner who coaches love to employ. You can expect these three backs to make the final 53, along with the winner of the battle between Andre Williams, Orleans Darkwa and Bobby Rainey.
Who is the best handcuff for Ezekiel Elliot?
Having Ezekiel Elliot and Darren McFadden work between the 20’s, with Alfred Morris handling the goal line and short yardage work seems like a logical distribution of assignments. This team is going to run the snot out of the football in an effort to keep Tony Romo upright. Expect a return to the 500+ rushing attempts the team gave Demarco Murray and company in 2014.
The difference this time around will be a more equitable distribution of the load. If we give Elliot a conservative 225 attempts, that leaves 275 to divvy among the veterans. The question with McFadden will always be his health. Last year he managed 239 carries for 1,089 yards, while Morris had 202 runs for 751 yards. Many may look at the numbers alone and think McFadden is the better option. It is certainly true that he has more value in PPR formats, as Morris has only caught 47 balls for 365 yards in his career, with zero receiving touchdowns. Despite this, you have to wonder how good Morris can look running behind this highly touted offensive line?
The prospect of this front giving Morris three yards to build a head of steam, allowing him to truly attack the second level of the defense is a very exciting proposition. On a one year “Prove It.” deal with the Cowboys, you can expect Morris is out to show just how valuable he can be. He has yet to miss a game in his four year career. And interestingly, 2015 was the only season in which he did not reach one thousand yards rushing.
When you factor in McFadden’s propensity for injury, and the possibility of Morris being used around the goal line, I think the choice becomes clearer. Dynasty owners looking to insure their investment in Zeke should not be quick to dismiss Alfred Morris in this crowded committee.