Fantasy owners sure are a fickle bunch. In the weeks leading up to the NFL draft, after it was reported that the New York Jets were interested in trading for Chris Ivory, my Twitter time line was flooded with #FreeIvory hash tags. It seemed that there was finally something the entire fantasy community could agree on – give Chris Ivory starter’s carries, and fantasy goodness would surely follow.
When the Jets finally acquired the former Saints fourth stringer for a mid round pick, I braced myself for a crushing wave of Chris Ivory puff pieces that would send his fantasy price tag soaring. While there are definitely a few glowing write-ups in circulation, I’m surprised by the amount of hedging I’ve seen from analysts and folks in social media, many of whom were banging the table for Ivory’s liberation only a few short days ago. The prevailing scuttlebutt from recent articles I’ve read on Ivory looks something like this:
“He’s a two down back. 1,100 rushing yards is his ceiling.”
“His effectiveness was a result of defenses scheming to stop an elite passing attack.”
“He’ll never play in all 16 games.”
Not all of those statements are without merit, but I feel compelled to take up Ivory’s defense (mostly because I’m a thick witted Jets fan/masochist). I’m going to address each of those slanders against Ivory, and find out just how cautious we really need to be when picking him for our fake teams this year, but first check out the fantasy football porn…
If you want to tap that play button a few more times instead of read the rest of my article, I promise not to be offended. Most analysts compare Ivory’s running style with that of Marshawn Lynch, and those comparisons look pretty spot on. Both guys have exceptional power, quick feet, and the resulting big play ability. I’m not a guy who spends a ton of time watching tape, but that explosiveness, ability to get through the first wave of defenders, and all around violence with which Ivory hits the hole, reminds yours truly a little bit of Adrian Peterson. Paint a purple #28 onto his back, clip his dreads, and you’d have me fooled.
So if Ivory’s game tape makes him look like he belongs in the conversation with the best players at his position, and he finally looks to be an NFL starter, why the sudden fence riding from fantasy analysts? Let’s examine how concerned we really need to be about the potential pitfalls of investing an early round pick in Ivory this year.
I’ll be the first to admit, I got a little over excited when the Jets signed Mike Goodson back in March. My argument for Goodson as a fantasy sleeper was mostly predicated on his skill set being a good fit for new Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense. Mornhinweg has utilized quick, athletic backs in Goodson’s mold to great effect throughout his career (see Garrison Hearst, Charlie Garner, Brian Westrook, LeSean McCoy). He likes to use a lot of zone blocking, the same scheme Goodson has run behind every year as a pro. And most importantly, the former Eagles OC places a particular emphasis on screens which play to Goodson’s strength as a receiver out of the backfield (Goodson caught all 16 of his targets last year, good for 12.2 yards per reception).
Ivory on the other hand has 3 career receptions (although the preseason swing pass he took 76 yards to the house at the 30 second mark of that Youtube clip makes you wonder if he’s been severely underutilized in the passing game). Based on their prior usage, it’s definitely tough to argue that Goodson won’t be called on in obvious passing situations during the coming season. But why should that mean Ivory can’t eclipse 1,100 yards on the ground?
In Mornhinweg’s 13 years as an NFL offensive coordinator, his lead back has averaged 15.96 rushing attempts per game. Most recently, Eagles lead running backs have eclipsed the 16 A/G mark in 5 of Mornhinweg’s 7 years with the team. In the two years they fell short, Brian Westbrook was hurt (only 8 GP in 2009) and Mike Vick poached a ridiculous 8 carries per game (2010). In the last two seasons, New York Jets lead back Shonne Greene averaged 15.8 A/G and 17.3 A/G respectively. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Jets traded a fourth round pick for Ivory to make him their lead runner, so let’s pencil him in for a minimum of 16 rushing attempts per game.
Given that workload, it is a virtual certainty that Ivory will do fantasy damage. For his career, he has averaged 5.1 YPA. Given 16 carries per game, that equates to 1,305 rushing yards for the season. Only Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster ran for over 1,305 yards in the AFC last season. Even if playing in a wide open offense had something to with Ivory’s sparkling YPA avg., 1,100 rushing yards is more his floor than his ceiling. Slash his YPA all the way down to 4.4, and you’re still looking at 1,126 yards over 16 games.
Goodson will get mixed in on passing downs and siphon a handful of carries per game (which will hopefully help keep Ivory hale), but Ivory possesses the talent to make the doubters look like dummies for this projection.
Worry Level: Low
I’m not dismissing the fact that it’s easier to make yards on the ground when defenses have to account for Drew Brees slinging the ball all over the field, but this one is easy to debunk thanks to my new PFF Signature Stats subscription.
If Ivory was simply a product of the New Orleans offense, he wouldn’t have led the league in Elusive Rating among RB’s with at least 40 carries. According to PFF, Elusive Rating attempts to distill the impact of a runner with the ball, independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down. Another feather in Ivory’s cap is that his yards after contact per attempt sat at 4.73 in 2012, once again ranking tops in the league among RB’s with at least 40 attempts. He also made tacklers miss once every 3.23 carries, ranking him third among all running backs. Does this sound like a guy who owes his success entirely to the offensive talent that surrounds him? (Note: Because I badly procrastinated writing this article, there have been plenty of folks that beat me to using these stats, most notably Allen Bassett from PFF – tip of the cap).
If you have any lingering doubts about Ivory’s ability as a runner, I implore you to click the play button on that video again. The man looks the part of a fantasy monster, and the advanced stats seem to bear it out. Yes, he’ll be playing in an infinitely worse offense, but how much worse can the Jets be than they were last year when fantasy whipping boy Shonne Greene was able to manage a useful 1,063 rushing yards and 8 TD’s?
I’m probably in the minority, but I’m expecting significant improvements from the Jets on the offensive side of the ball next season. For one, they hired a real offensive coordinator in Mornhinweg. You stink Tony Sparano. Second, they’re getting Santonio Holmes back. No great shakes, but he’s infinitely better than any Jet that masqueraded as a WR last season. Stephen Hill has the physical tools to be a stud receiver if he can “understand the whole football concept”. Ivory and Goodson represent upgrades in the backfield over Greene and Bilal Powell. And even if Mark Sanchez remains under center for the Jets, he can’t possibly play any worse than he did in 2012. I’m serious. It is actually not possible for a human being to do any worse than ‘get intercepted every time you throw the ball down the field.’
It should also be pointed out that in spite of the Jets atrocious play last year, their offensive line was one of the best run blocking units in the game. PFF ranked only the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers offensive lines ahead of the Jets in their run blocking ranks. D’Brickashaw Ferguson is a top 10 tackle in the league, Nick Mangold is arguably the NFL’s best run blocking center, and Austin Howard held his own at RT last year. GM John Idzik brought in former Steeler Willie Colon on the cheap to take over at Left Guard. If healthy, Colon is a Pro Bowl caliber talent (PFF ranked him as the 15th best run blocking guard last season). The Jets also spent a third round pick on highly regarded Brian Winters out of Kent State, who takes over at Right Guard for Brandon Moore. It looks safe to once again pencil the Jets in as one of the best run blocking lines in the game.
To sum it up, fantasy owners have nothing to worry about when it comes to Ivory’s ability to perform outside of New Orleans, and there might be less to worry about regarding his set-up with the Jets than most folks think.
Worry Level: Non Existent
I saved the worst for last. Ivory’s injury history is impossible to dismiss when projecting his fantasy value. Since coming into the league in 2010, Ivory has injured his knee, head, shoulder, hamstring, foot, and hamstring again. More worrisome is that injuries were a problem dating back to his college days. During his three year career at Washington State University, Ivory’s production was derailed by ankle, shoulder, and hamstring injuries. After being dismissed from WSU for violating team rules, he transferred to tiny Kiffin for his final year, where he played only 5 games before suffering a season ending knee injury. Yikes.
I’m going to concede the debate on this one. If there’s one thing blocking Ivory’s path to fantasy dominance, it will be his ability to take a pounding. That laundry list of injuries occurred despite the fact that Ivory has averaged only 10.6 carries per game over his NFL career, and exceeded 6 games played in a season only once (12 GP as a rookie in 2010). If you’re asking him to be your #2 fantasy back (the venerable Fake Football rankers recently listed him as their composite RB24), he’ll need to eclipse 14 games played for the first time ever, and nearly double his workload on a per game basis. I’m pretty sure Chris Ivory himself would tell you that’s a stretch.
Since I’ve managed to bring my defense of Ivory to a screeching halt, I’ll do my best to wrap things up on a positive note:
Ivory is shaping up to be one of the more interesting high risk-high reward picks of draft season, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ask anyone who had Adrian Peterson as their RB2 last year if it pays to gamble on elite physical talent in spite of injury concerns – and it’s not like Ivory is coming off a major injury. As it stands today, he’s in good health. Drafting him as if he already has an injury is stupid, especially if his upside might be ‘leads the AFC in rushing.’
Worry Level: High, but fantasy football is supposed to be fun. Ivory is fun. Close your eyes, swing for the fences, and hope you knock it out of the park with Ivory as your RB2.