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.
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.
Jordan Howard – ADP RB8 – O/U 5.5 Wins
Howard plays for the first team on this list most people would truly categorize as “bad,” but that was also true a year ago when he rushed for 1,246 yards and finished as the RB7 in per-game scoring over his final 13 games. The Bears trailed on 55 percent of their plays over that span, so producing for a team on the wrong side of the game script will not be anything new for Howard if that is how it works out this year. Unfortunately, that is probably how it will work out.
Despite underrated talent along the front seven, an improved secondary, and one of the best interior offensive lines in the league, Chicago’s schedule puts them in a tough spot. The Bears play the Falcons, Bucs, Steelers, Packers, Vikings, and Ravens in the first six weeks, all teams with realistic playoff aspirations. It gets a little easier from there, but home games against the 49ers and Browns are likely the only ones which they will be favored.
That tough schedule and the record which should accompany it also means the Bears will likely be looking at a midseason quarterback change, regardless of what GM Ryan Pace has to say about it now, raising more uncertainty about the offense.
All of that expected losing is undoubtedly a concern for Howard, especially since he struggled in the passing game last year and saw Chicago add both Benny Cunningham and fourth-round rookie Tarik Cohen.
As mentioned above, however, Chicago does quietly have some talented pieces, and they did still give the ball to Howard when losing last season, running on 36 percent of their trailing snaps while Howard was the lead back. He also does not have much competition for early-down work even if Cunningham or Cohen steal some targets, and the Bears are set up to be a team which tries to hide the quarterback as much as possible. It may not be pretty on a bad team with a lackluster offense, but Howard’s workload and the offensive line should ultimately see him through.
Todd Gurley – ADP RB10 – O/U 5.5 Wins
Gurley may be the poster boy for this column after falling on his face last season, but his struggles did not have as much to do with the Rams losing 12 games as it did with him just being bad. Despite the Rams trailing on 56 percent of their snaps, Gurley was fed 321 touches including 278 carries. He only managed 3.2 yards per carry, however, failed to gain more than three yards on 179 of those attempts (64.4 percent), and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ third worst qualifying running back.
The offensive line and scheme do have to shoulder some of the blame for Gurley’s struggles, and it is likely both will be better this season. The Rams brought in Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan to help solidify a line which should get better simply by shedding Greg Robinson while new coach Sean McVay is a quality offensive mind who should be able to get the best out of his talent.
Looking at the depth chart, that likely means riding Gurley as much as possible, something the coach hinted at when asked about his lead back’s involvement in the passing game early in camp.
Still, getting the most out of an offense quarterbacked by Jared Goff still might not be that much, and the defense has question marks even with GOAT Wade Phillips running the show. Gurley has also simply been bad since the month-long explosion which opened his career, averaging 3.4 yards per carry over his last 24 games while topping 90 yards just once despite averaging 17 attempts per contest. The talent upside is theoretically there, but he is someone to avoid at his current ADP.
Leonard Fournette – ADP RB11 – O/U 6.5 Wins
On the surface, things do not look great for Fournette. The Jaguars have failed to surpass five wins in each of their last six seasons, they have not finished better than 24th in rushing attempts over the last five, they finished fourth in plays run while trailing last season, and they ran just 32% of the time in those situations. Still, change is in the air in Jacksonville, and Fournette looks like the player most likely to benefit.
The Jaguars have not been subtle about their offensive intentions this season. Bringing in Tom Coughlin to run the organization and drafting Fournette with the No. 4 overall pick would have been enough to signal a change in philosophy, but coach Doug Marrone drove home the point by deadpanning, “I’d like to run the ball every play.”
With a turnover machine at quarterback, it is not difficult to understand why the coach wants to lean heavily on the run, and the Jaguars may have the defense to do it considering how good they already were last season and the additions they were able to make during the offseason, namely A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell, and Barry Church.
If the defense is able to keep them in games and if the coaching staff is able to enact their plan, Jacksonville should both be able to win a few more games and give Fournette all the work he can handle. Running behind a shaky offensive line in an underwhelming offense, the rookie likely will not be able to match what Ezekiel Elliott did last season, but he could be in line for a similar workload, making him an oddly safe bet in the early rounds.
Isaiah Crowell – ADP RB14 – O/U 4.5 Wins
Cleveland’s win total is unsurprisingly the lowest on this list, and the organization would have gone under this number three of the last four seasons and five of the last nine. In fact, the Browns have posted more than five wins just three times in the last 14 seasons. That history suggests betting on the over is a foolish decision, but that might not be the case this year.
The first thing working in Cleveland’s favor is the schedule, which starts off scary with the Steelers and Ravens but includes the AFC South, the Jets, and the Bears. It is not the easiest schedule in the world, but it is one in which an even semi-talented team should be able to pick up a few wins.
Shockingly, the Browns actually fit that description this season after adding Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter to an already solid offensive line, two first-rounders to the defense, and a potential long-term starter at quarterback in DeShone Kizer, who has a chance to win the Week 1 job and at the very least should see some starts.
All of those additions are good news for Crowell, who dominated the work on running downs last season but was out-snapped on passing plays by Duke Johnson. Coach Hue Jackson has already committed to running the ball more this year, and improved game scripts would allow him to make good on that promise. If he can, Crowell should be able to have success behind quietly one of the best offensive lines in the game.
That is a lot of ifs, however, and Crowell was not as good last season as his per-touch numbers would indicate – removing just two plays from his rushing total drops his YPC all the way from 4.8 to 4.1. He certainly could be better in a hopefully better offense this year, but that is a big risk to take in the third round with names like Doug Baldwin and DeAndre Hopkins still on the board. Crowell’s ADP among running backs is just about correct, but he is still going a bit too early for comfort in drafts.
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