Fake Football, Real Questions (July 16th Edition)
July 16, 2014 | Phil Alexander
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Toby Gerhart (4.01), Bishop Sankey (4.03), or Ryan Mathews (4.05)?
Despite recent proclamations by Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich that Ryan Mathews will remain the team’s “pounder”, I find the prospect of drafting Mathews this year scarier than Pennywise the Clown.
It’s not like picking Mathews – a man who presumably still has 12 metal screws attaching his shoulders to his body – has ever been for the faint of heart. But if his productive 2013 season has you feeling confident (Mathews’ 1255 rushing yards ranked 7th in the league), I’d beg you to reconsider his 2014 set-up with the Chargers.
Thanks to the data recently compiled by The Fake Football overlord, Chet G, we now know that San Diego projects to have the third worst strength of schedule for running backs. I don’t usually put a ton of stock in preseason strength of schedule rankings since year to year variance among NFL defenses tends to be extreme. However, the Chargers ran the ball on half their snaps over the final eight games of 2013 – a rate that would be difficult to sustain under any circumstances. With a potentially tough schedule to contend with, it’s extremely unlikely San Diego matches last season’s sixth best 486 rushing attempts.
Less rushing volume for the Chargers is a pretty obvious problem for Mathews, and it’s made worse by the presence of free agent acquisition Donald Brown. Fresh off a career year in Indianapolis, Brown’s workload in San Diego is anyone’s guess, but it would be a shock if he didn’t see significantly more than the 3.3 total touches per game Ronnie Brown leaves behind.
Danny Woodhead is still around to steal the passing game work in the SD backfield (as well as a mystifying number of red zone snaps), leaving Mathews mired in a potentially maddening three-way timeshare. Even if he manages to keep up the surprising efficiency he displayed last season (according to PFF, Mathews led all RBs with .40 standard fantasy points per snap in 2013), chances are he’ll finish short of his 2013 counting stats.
While that doesn’t necessarily mean Mathews won’t live up to his ADP (he finished last season as the RB12 and he’s currently being taken as the RB20), it does mean he’s the last player from this group I’d pick for my fantasy teams.
The Toby Gerhart bandwagon has officially reached standing room only status. Take a look at his ADP trend over the past two months:
Our own Nathan Miller was an early adapter on Gerhart, laying out a convincing case for the former Minnesota Viking second stringer back in March. If you’re not familiar with the argument in favor of Gerhart, peep the Cliff’s Notes:
* He had an exceptional college career at Stanford, where he finished second to Mark Ingram in the 2009 Heisman voting. That year, he led every running back in the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns while setting several Pac-10 and school records.
* He’s not just a big, plodding, goofy white guy. The list of running backs who weigh at least 230 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds or less is a short one. From an athletic standpoint, Gerhart isn’t too far removed from Jonathan Stewart.
* When he’s been called upon in the NFL, he’s performed admirably. In the seven games Gerhart has been given at least 15 carries, his per game averages include 76.3 rushing yards, 4.27 YPA, .43 rushing TDs, and 2.7 receptions.
* His main competition for snaps in Jacksonville comes from a converted quarterback who calls himself Shoelace.
I suppose those are all great reasons to endorse Gerhart as a solid pick for 2014 fantasy teams, especially considering the barren running back landscape, but I liked him a whole lot better when he was sporting a late fifth round price tag. People seem to be ignoring the red flags that make drafting Gerhart in Pierre Garcon territory a risky proposition – namely Chad Henne and the abominable Jaguars o-line.
The Jags are 5-14 in Henne’s 19 starts with the club. In his six year career, he has never finished a season with more TDs than INTs. The defense may have taken a step forward last season under head coach Gus Johnson, and they’ll probably be even better this year, but they’re playing with a handicap. Henne’s presence behind center virtually guarantees the Jags D will have to fight constant battles against poor field position.
The only way for the Jags to minimize Henne’s mistakes (and prevent Gerhart from falling victim to lousy game flow scenarios) would be to establish the run early in games. I’m just not sure that will be possible behind an o-line Football Outsiders ranked second worst in the league last season.
Getting LT Luke Joeckel back should help, but the only other move the Jags made to address the o-line was swapping Uche Nwaneri for Zane Beadles – a player that has only graded as a “plus” guard once in his four year pro career according to Pro Football Focus.
The pick for me out of this bunch is rookie Bishop Sankey, who’s already taken home the award for best football Vine of 2014. I’ll admit that I’m easily distracted by shiny things, and I tend to invite more risk on my fantasy teams than most, but I also believe Sankey has the talent and opportunity to be a stud producer this season.
Sankey’s Agility Score of 10.75 seconds (combined short shuttle and three-cone drill) was the best of any running back at the 2014 combine, suggesting he possesses the short area quickness to make tacklers miss at the next level. In fact, 10.75 was the eighth-best running back agility score at the combine in the last 14 years.
Sankey’s college numbers back up his strong combine performance. He ran the ball over 25 times per game for the Washington Huskies last season, and even though the UW passing game was awful, defenses still couldn’t stop him. Sankey finished fourth in Division I with 1,870 total rushing yards. His 5.7 YPA placed him second out of the six backs who handled at least 300 carries, and he found the end zone on the ground 20 times – sixth best in the country.
Chris Johnson’s 20 total touches per game are up for grabs in Tennessee, and Sankey’s only competition for carries comes in the form of Shonne Greene – a living, breathing fantasy football punch line who had his second knee surgery in nine months back in May. With recent reports that Greene’s roster spot may not even be safe, there’s little reason to doubt Sankey will inherit a significant workload in his rookie season.
Another feather in Sankey’s cap is his potential involvement in the passing game. Like most backs with outstanding agility, Sankey shined when given the ball in space at Washington. Over the last two seasons, he racked up 61 receptions and 553 receiving yards with the Huskies.
Danny Woodhead’s 76 receptions in 2013 serve as a reminder that new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt knows how to utilize running backs in the passing game. While it’s possible free agent acquisition Dexter McCluster siphons a chunk of those looks, at least we know Shonne Greene and Jackie Battle absolutely will not. I trust the Titans wouldn’t have spent a second round pick on Sankey if they didn’t plan on maximizing his strengths. A 40 reception season is within reach.
Throw in an offensive line that propelled the Titans to the sixth best rushing efficiency adjusted for strength of schedule last season (according to numberFire), and a mobile QB in Jake Locker who should help open up running lanes for his backs, and Sankey has the looks of a rock solid RB2.