Running Back Rejuvenation
July 11, 2013 | Scott Watson
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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.