Running Back Rejuvenation July 11, 2013  |  Scott Watson


Congratulations to Scott Watson who won the third round of our writer’s contest and second overall. Check out his winning entry.

This year’s prevailing opinion is that true RB1s are in short supply and should be gobbled up on sight in the early rounds of your fantasy football draft.  In his annual manifesto, Matthew Berry showed that owners who drafted #1 had, on average, four more wins than those who drafted last.  With the scarcity of workhorse running backs, how is an owner picking last supposed to succeed?

Well, you are in luck, dear reader!  Two players who haven’t been getting a lot of love from fantasy owners over the last few years are poised for a resurgence in 2013 and ripe for the picking for those of you slotted towards the end of your draft.

According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, Steven Jackson and Matt Forte are the 13th and 15th players being drafted in 12-team leagues.  This pair will not likely elicit the ooohs and aaaahs from your fellow owners when you call their names on draft day, but by the end of the season, fantasy owners who ended up with the last pick in their draft may be surprised to find out that they were better positioned for victory than the owners who got “stuck” with Adrian Peterson.

 

Matt Forte

One year ago, not many people were familiar with the name Marc Trestman.  But since then, you no doubt have heard all about his offensive tendencies and the implications associated with him becoming the head coach of the Chicago Bears. Trestman is known as an offensive innovator who likes to involve his running backs in the passing game, a specialty of Forte’s who has never posted fewer than 44 receptions in a season.   In March, the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Trestman as saying the following about Forte:

“I just got done looking at all his catches from 2010. He was on the line of scrimmage, he was running out of the backfield [and] he is great in space. He has a skill set that goes full spectrum of what you want out of a running back. … You can make all the different kinds of throws to him.”

Sounds pretty exciting, right?  Especially considering 2010 was a great year for Forte when he posted 1,500 total yards and 9 touchdowns.  Well, let’s take a look at some stats to see how this could work out for Forte.  Below are some comparisons between Trestman’s last two years as OC in Oakland (only two years because FootballGuys only had target/red zone data starting in 2002) vs. Forte’s five years in Chicago.

Trestman’s two years in Oakland (2002-03)
— 87.5 red zone opportunities for RBs – 43% of all red zone opportunities
— Running backs saw 143.5 targets

Forte’s five years in Chicago (2008-12)
— 65.8 red zone opportunities for RBs – 35% of all red zone opportunities
— Running backs saw 96.6 targets

What does this mean and what should we expect?  As far as the red zone opportunities go, Trestman relies more on the RB position than Forte’s previous teams.  Based on those differences, Forte could see a 30% bump in red zone opportunities.   In terms of targets, Trestman’s teams have targeted RBs an average of 50 more times per season – a bump of nearly 50% to what Forte has seen to this point in his career.

In standard Yahoo! scoring, Forte finished 2012 as the 12th best RB.  This year, he is being drafted as the 12th RB off the board.  Based on the anticipated changes of Trestman’s arrival, Forte will be a value pick at his current ADP.  He could set career marks for receptions in a season and maybe even threaten Darren Sproles for the league lead in receptions by an RB.  Don’t let his upcoming season catch you by surprise!

 

Steven Jackson

In 2013, no player moved to a better situation both in real life as well as in fantasy as Steven Jackson.  Not Percy Harvin, not Wes Welker, not Carson Palmer, not even Reggie Bush.  The move to Atlanta is not only a coup for the Falcons, it’s also a coup for owners willing to take a chance on the RB with more touches than any other RB playing today.

In May, Falcons’ coach Mike Smith highlighted the edge Jackson brings to the Falcons:

“[Jackson] creates issues for defenses.  He’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back; he’s a receiving back as well.”

This is particularly relevant to the Falcons, because they haven’t had a true dual threat RB for several years.  Despite being in the league for the same number of years as Jackson, the Falcons’ 2012 RB, Michael Turner, had only 1 more season of double-digit receptions (3) than Jackson had games with double-digit receptions (2).  Turner’s three best seasons netted a total of 48 catches, while Jackson has averaged 42 catches per season.  And the difference in reception totals is not because the Falcons don’t throw to their running backs: over the last three years the Falcons have targeted their running backs an average of 20 more times per season than the Rams.  Though unlikely to top his single season record for receptions (90), it is not far-fetched to think Jackson could approach 60 catches in 2013.

One of the biggest knocks on Jackson is his lack of rushing touchdowns.  Part of that can be attributed to his team’s lack of red zone opportunities.  Over the last three years, St. Louis ranked #30 in the league for RB red zone opportunities, while Atlanta ranked #2 in that same span.  Atlanta provided their running backs nearly twice as many red zone opportunities (308 vs. 156) as the Rams.  All of which is to say, we may soon forget that Jackson ever had issues getting into the end zone.

The low number of red zone opportunities is not entirely surprising considering that Jackson played on some bad Rams teams.   In fact, of the 131 games under his belt, Jackson lost a whopping 87 of those contests. That works out to two losses for every win.

SJAX CHART

Despite losing twice as much as winning, Jackson scored more rushing touchdowns in those 43 wins (he tied once) than in all of those 87 losses – 30 TDs vs. 25 TDs.  Now imagine what his stats would look like if instead of two losses for every win, he had two wins for every loss.  That would be a record of 11-5, which coincidentally is the exact record the Falcons have averaged over the last three seasons.  Below is a quick chart showing what an 11-5 record would look like based on Jackson’s stats in wins and losses over his career.

Clearly, playing for a winning team could have a profound impact on Jackson’s fantasy value.  Even if we shrunk the sample to include only the last three seasons, based on the above logic we would still expect Jackson to post 1500+ total yards and 7 touchdowns.

Between additional targets, more red zone opportunities and playing for a winning team, there is potential for Jackson’s fantasy value to receive a tremendous boost and surprise less savvy fantasy owners.

 

The Verdict…

Matt Forte and Steven Jackson are not the sexy picks everyone loves to make on draft day.  But they could become the smart picks everyone wishes they made on draft day.  Don’t be disappointed if you end up with a pick at the end of your draft this year, it could get you two of 2013’s biggest surprises.

9 Responses

  1. Scott Watson says:

    Hi Nate – thanks for your comments. First of all, if you can control names taken randomly out of a hat – we should talk!

    But as per your question, when I draft, I like keeping my options open. So rather than commit to the RB-RB-RB strategy I would recommend being open to other positions as the draft progresses, so that if value falls to you, you can take advantage of it. But if you are dead set on the RB-RB-RB strategy I’d agree and say the middle position gives you the strongest 3-RB combo, followed by the late position.

    Good luck

  2. nate says:

    personally i would lean towards the mid position slots with hopes of grabbing a charles/forte combo but im not sure this is possible as i believe charles stands out from lynch/spiller/mccoy and will go first as forte stands out from jackson/ridley/cj2k and will go before them. (at pick 6 charles may be there, but at pick 19 forte will probably not)

  3. nate says:

    example (using adp from fantasyfootballcalculator)

    early position (picks 1-4)
    rd 1 = peterson/foster/martin/rice
    rd 2/3 (picks will be close together)= bush/gore/murray/wilson/mcfadden

    mid positon (picks 5-9)
    rd 1 = charles/lynch/spiller/mccoy
    rd 2 = jackson/forte/ridley/cj2k
    rd 3 = wilson/mcfadden/miller

    late position (picks 10-12)
    rd 1/2 (picks will be close together) = richardson/morris/jackson/forte/ridley
    rd 3 = sproles/ball

    depending on how my draft goes i will obviously consider selecting a wr if i think i am getting a stud with value but which draft position do you think sets up best for the optimal 3 rb first 3 rounds?

  4. nate says:

    i play in a 12 team league where the decision to choose draft position is chosen randomly (out of a hat). also a league with one keeper in which the draft round in which the player was selected in the previous year is sacrificed this year (waivers = 10th round). for example i picked up russell wilson off waivers last year and will choose as my keeper so i will not pick in the tenth round this year. with this set, i plan on taking rbs and wrs with my first 9 picks. i also think i like the rb heavy and early possibly even rounds 1-3 with the depth at wr. my question to you is which draft positon do you recommend to target in order to provide the best combo of 3 rbs. i have mocked several times already and it is still unclear. obviously how my opponents draft and who they keep is going to affect me but do you have a draft position in mind that could help?

  5. Jeff Q says:

    Thanks Scott, I’ll take a look.

  6. Scott Watson says:

    Thanks Josh! Let’s hope SJax and Forte’s ADP remain where they are so you have a shot at drafting them later this summer!

    Jeff – good question. You are right, I would say in most leagues (regardless of point systems) QBs are the biggest point scorers week in and week out. I think the main reason RBs are valued more than QBs is because you need two RBs, which reduces their supply. Additionally, there is a good drop off in reliable RBs, making the top RBs all the more valuable. That whole thinking is called Value Based Drafting (VBD) and Chet wrote a nice piece about it:

    http://thefakefootball.com/the-fake-football-value-based-drafting/

    In the end, though, it really is your team and you call the shots! Hope that helps!

  7. Jeff Q says:

    I’ve being thinking about this RB trend. QB’s are dropping in mock drafts. How do you reconcile that with the fact that the QB is generally the highest point scorer on the team? Looking at my Yahoo default scoring non-PPR league last year, other than AP, the QB was the highest scorer on every team and usually the only one with over 300 points at the end of the year. Is the point to try and pick a second RB sooner to make up the difference of drafting a QB lower? Basically, what sense does it make to pass Rodgers or Brees when they end up being in the top 5 in scoring at the end of the year? (All of this is based on your point system, but I think you get my point.)

    • Ben says:

      Most starting rosters have 1 QB and at least 2 RBs (those with a Flex often have 3 RB positions). So the point isn’t comparing a #1 QB vs. #1 RB……rather it is a matter of supply and demand. In 12 team leagues that translates to drafting 12 starting QBs vs. 36 starting RBs……….the dropoff between a 1st and 2nd/3rd tier RB is much steeper than the drop off between a QB taken early in the draft compared to one taken during the mid rounds (e.g. Brees vs. Stafford).

  8. Josh S says:

    Outstanding piece Scott, congrats on winning the contest! Hey, my favorite league is drawing draft slots this weekend, and I’ve told my buddies I have no problem getting the 12th pick this year…I’m all over Forte/S-Jax as well. Almost to the point where I’d be mildly disappointed if I didn’t get a late pick…ha!

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