Raymond Summerlin

By the Numbers

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Good Backs on 'Bad' Teams

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


A couple summers ago I looked at the correlation between wins and running back fantasy points. As expected, there was a clear relationship between wins and team rushing statistics, and that correlation was even more pronounced for elite fantasy rushers.

Teams with running backs who finished in the top-12 at the position have averaged a little fewer than nine wins per season over the last five years. Of those 60 performances, only 13 played on teams with fewer than seven wins, and only seven came from teams with five wins or fewer. Moreover, some great work by Sean Fakete shows elite fantasy games are far more likely to come from a running back on a winning team.

All of this information suggests projected team wins are an important factor to consider when selecting a running back in the early rounds, but that does not mean all backs on “bad” teams should be ignored. Last year Melvin Gordon was a top-five back in per-game scoring on a five-win team while Jordan Howard scored the 10th-most points per game on a three-win squad.

There are several early-round backs who could follow in Gordon’s and Howard’s footsteps as a quality fantasy option on a bad real-life team, and each one has a slightly different story to tell.

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LeSean McCoy – ADP RB4 – O/U 6.5 Wins
McCoy has one of the better cases to be an elite fantasy back on a “bad” team after he finished as the RB4 in per-game scoring on a seven-win team last season. Of course, a large chunk of that production came via touchdowns, with McCoy scoring 14 total on a Bills squad which rushed for a league-leading 29. The touchdown total was nine more than McCoy managed in 2015 and just the second time in the last five seasons he has scored more than five. Those numbers suggest there could be some regression coming.

Buffalo arguably overachieved on offense based on their available talent in the passing game, and that talent may have gotten worse with Robert Woods being replaced by 36-year-old Anquan Boldin and second-round rookie Zay Jones. With Mike Gillislee also jumping ship to the division-rival Patriots and a new coaching staff which needs to figure out how to best use their talent, it is reasonable to expect a step back on the 46 offensive touchdowns the Bills managed last year.

That said, Gillislee leaving also removes a major touchdown threat from the equation, and McCoy was as good as ever last season running behind an above-average offensive line.

As long as the new coaching staff continues to run even while trailing – the Bills easily led the league with a 44-percent run rate while losing last year – and target him in the passing game, which beat writer Joe Buscaglia expects, McCoy should continue to stack touches as the Bills’ best weapon. The projected win total is a concern, but McCoy is good enough to return value on even his lofty ADP.  

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Melvin Gordon – ADP RB5 – O/U 7.5 Wins
Like McCoy, Gordon managed to put up elite fantasy numbers – he finished fifth in per-game scoring – despite playing on a below-.500 team, and also like McCoy, Gordon bolstered his fantasy value with touchdowns, finding the end zone 12 times in 13 games after failing to score on 217 touches as a rookie. Unlike McCoy, however, Gordon’s team has a real shot to improve on their win total from a season ago.

The Chargers were ravaged by injuries last season because that is what the Chargers do. On top of that, however, they underperformed against their expected win total based on their underlying numbers, notching just five wins despite a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.7.

Early returns on the health front have not been promising – pour some out for Mike Williams and Forrest Lamp – but with hopefully better injury luck, playmakers at the skill positions, and a defense with talent throughout, the Chargers have a real chance to top their projected win total even in a tough division.

If they do, that should be good news for Gordon, who still does not have much of anything behind him on the depth chart. Even if they do not, however, Gordon was used enough as a receiver last year – 57 targets in 13 games -- to stay involved even in negative game scripts, and there is enough talent on offense to ensure the Chargers routinely spend time inside the 10-yard line, where Gordon scored all but one of his touchdowns last year. He probably will not have as good scoring luck again, but the likely touches and talent around him make Gordon worth a pick in the first round.

Jay Ajayi – ADP RB7 – O/U 7.5 Wins
It is odd to include a Dolphins back on this list considering they won 10 games and made the playoffs a year ago, but their win total is this low for a reason: they clearly over-performed against their underlying numbers and are now likely to be without their starting quarterback for the entire season. Despite a relatively easy schedule, Miami was actually outscored by their opponents last year and went an unsustainable 8-2 in one-score games. They were better once Ajayi kicked into gear in Week 6, but overall they had the look of an average team.

There is also reason to worry about Ajayi, who masked up and down per-game and per-carry performances with explosive plays. Despite averaging 4.9 yards per carry, Ajayi ran for four yards or fewer on 164 of his 260 attempts (63 percent) and recorded almost 20 percent of his yardage on five carries. His three 200-yard games were truly spectacular, but he topped 80 yards just one other time all season including the playoffs.

That is not to say the up-and-down performances were Ajayi’s fault. Miami’s offensive line was among the worst in the league, and Ajayi still was able to create explosive plays – the Dolphins finished 22nd in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric but fourth in open field yards, suggesting any success the running game managed was due to Ajayi. The problem is the offensive line does not project to be any better this season, especially if Mike Pouncey cannot get back to full health, and the offense as a whole could suffer with Jay Cutler running the show instead of Ryan Tannehill


On the bright side, coach Adam Gase seemed committed to hiding the quarterback at all costs even when it was Tannehill – the Dolphins ran 38 percent of the time while trailing last season, fifth-highest percentage in the league – and the talk all offseason has been about getting Ajayi more involved in the passing game, somewhere he thrived his final season at Boise State. Health concerns and offense concerns make Ajayi overvalued at his current ADP, but he is still a top-12 back.


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Raymond Summerlin is a football writer for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter at @RMSummerlin.
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