In the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore attempted to warn us all about the impact of climate change before it was in vogue. In this article, I too will attempt to do something that is likely to be met with groans initially. That is to convince you that two-down running backs, and more specifically Jordan Howard, still have value. It’s a tough job but someone must do it.
Jordan Howard is a polarizing player. Despite finishing as a top 12 running back in .5 PPR formats both seasons of his career, I’ve heard him called a “plodder” and a glorified “Jeremy Langford”. I’ve also heard him called the much feared “volume-dependent”. I believe the real reason people don’t like Jordan Howard is simple: he doesn’t catch passes. The pass-catching back is the hot and trendy thing in the NFL right now, and particularly in fantasy. Let me make the case for Howard being more than a “plodder”.
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If you know anything about me by now, you know that I love history. You can blame my grandma who I’m pretty sure placed a book about American history in my crib as soon as I was born. This has led to a fascination with how players performances compare with other players since way back when the cavemen first decided to throw the local pig around.
So how do Howard’s first two years of his career stack up? Since 1958 (the first time a player had 2,000 or more rushing yards in the first two seasons of their career), there have been 51 players to have at least 2,000 rushing yards in the first two seasons of their career. Of those, Howard has the 20th-most rush yards through two seasons of his career ever. If you want to get more recent, in the past 17 years there have been a total of 19 players with 2,000 or more rush yards in their first two seasons. Below is a table of those players:
*Table created using Pro Football Reference.
Admittedly, there are quite a few backs on this list that didn’t have long and great careers. However, finding yourself on the same list as LaDainian Tomlinson, Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Ezekiel Elliott, and Adrian Peterson is never a bad thing. I also believe it’s important to note that Howard has the eighth-most rushing yards on this list while being 15th in rushing attempts. That speaks to the fact that he has the seventh-best yards per attempt and eats into that “volume” dependent argument.
What I find the most interesting here is Howard gets knocked for not being able to catch the ball and that’s fair. However, he has similar receiving yards to Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch at this point in their careers. I’m not saying that Howard is suddenly going to turn into either Peterson or Lynch, but I must believe if they were starting their careers today they too would be getting knocked down in the dynasty community for not being “pass-catching backs”. Just think of all the elite fantasy production you would have missed out on.
That’s how Howard compares to other running backs historically, but what about in the past two seasons?
Table created using Pro Football Reference.
Howard has the third-most rush yards over the last two seasons while having the fifth-most rushing attempts. He has more rushing yards over the last two seasons than Todd Gurley does with fewer attempts. At this point, you might find yourself saying “well yeah, but Gurley had to play with Jeff Fisher and had a down season last year”. I won’t fight that, but if you want to give that context to Gurley, you need to acknowledge that the Bears offense has been atrocious for the two seasons that Howard has been their lead rusher.
Can anyone tell me who the Bears leading receiver was last season? Price is Wright rules. OK, so I just gave away the answer. It’s Kendall Wright. Do you really think a rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky and Kendall Wright, who totaled just over 600 yards, were scaring defenders off playing the run? According to Howard himself, opposing defenders were calling out what plays the Bears were going to run before they even ran it.
To demonstrate further just how bad the Bears offense was, let’s look at where the offense has ranked in the two seasons they’ve had Howard. In 2016, they were 28th in points for, though they did rank 15th in total yards. In 2017, they ranked 29th in points for and dropped to 30th in total yards. Oh, and to address those volume dependent concerns once again? The Bears were 18th in rushing attempts last season. There’s certainly room for improvement.
There’s good news for the Bears ahead! As you can read in the article about Howard detailing opposing teams calling out plays before the Bears ran them, the Bears have a new head coach. It’s former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy of the Andy Reid coaching tree. The same Andy Reid who has a long history of success with his running backs.
We only have one season of Matt Nagy as an offensive coordinator to work with, but the Chiefs ranked ninth in rush yards under his guidance while being 23rd in rushing attempts. Of course, they did have fantasy Olympian Kareem Hunt on the team, but it still bodes well for Howard. The team also scored the sixth-most points on offense in the league.
It’s incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario where the Bears don’t improve. They’ve changed their coaching and their quarterback is in his second season. Additionally, I imagine they’ll either try to sign one of the top free agent wide receivers or take one in the draft. Believe it or not, an offense improving is good for a running back. Just ask Gurley how it feels.
Another argument I’ve heard from Howard detractors is that he is an incredibly “touchdown-dependent”. If you refer to the chart of running backs who had 2,000 rushing yards in the last two seasons, you’ll notice Howard ranks seventh out of eight in total touchdowns. It’ll be much easier for Howard to score with increased frequency when his offense is getting him to the red zone.
Admittedly, Howard did have somewhat of an inconsistent season. However, I believe much of that can be attributed to playing for one of the worst offenses in the NFL last season. If anything, we should be impressed that he still managed to find a way to 1,000 rushing yards instead of negging him. Yet here is what his ADP looks like after last season:
I hope you bought a share back in October. You would have been getting insane value. His February ADP has him going 39th overall, which is probably about appropriate for him. I know you didn’t expect me to say his current value was about appropriate, however, not everyone agrees with that ADP. ADP can be skewed largely by just one drafter liking a player in a mock and taking him earlier than others would. I bet there are at least a few Howard owners who were scared off by his inconsistencies last season.
I believe some of the argument against Howard stems from the fact that he was a fifth-round pick. When someone who wasn’t a top pick finds a way to be successful, we as a community often find ways to discredit them. Additionally, he’s not only a player who wasn’t drafted high, but he can’t catch the ball! How dare he.
Here’s the thing: even if you’re in PPR leagues, Jordan Howard has finished as the RB10 and RB14 in his career. That averages out to a low-end RB1 even in his worst format. To suggest that he’s a “just a guy” is a complete disservice to him.
You can hate on Howard because he doesn’t catch passes, and that’s fine. I understand the argument there. However, just be aware you will be missing out on valuable players because of that bias. By the time you change your mind, your fantasy team could be sinking into the ocean.
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