By: Jonathan Margulis (Twitter: @jon_margulis)
Running Backs: The AFC West
*Editor’s Note: This article is part of a continuing series, decoding the running backs in every division.
In this series of articles I will examine the running backs on each team, going division by division. This will allow you to explore the landscape of current running backs, the depth on their team, and who they should be watching over their shoulder for.
In this installment we look at the AFC West Division. If we are being honest this is a division that scares me the most. This is a powerhouse division with many top level players both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. However, at running back this is a division, which is riddled with muddled backfields, running-back-by-committees, rookies, and returning veterans.
Once considered an offense full of must-own players, the Bronco’s days as the best offense has come and gone with the retirement of Peyton Manning. Now, they are better known for their world class defense. But as we saw in 2016, defenses win you championships, but they can’t get you there. So we look to their offense now and see what we can gather.
To begin to examine their back field, we must start with the incumbent back, C.J. Anderson. He was graded by Pro Football Focus as a 72.0, listing him as an above average back in a season that was cut short by injury. Anderson, is a running back, who until last season, was sharing the backfield with Ronnie Hillman. Last season, in his lone role he began to emerge. In 2016, through seven games, Anderson rushed for 437 yards on 110 carries with 4 touchdowns. That is a 3.97 yards per carry average. He also caught the ball 16 times for 128 yards and a score. For a slow offense, mostly kept in games by their defense, those are not horrible numbers. Anderson was on pace for 998 yards, 252 attempts, and 9 touchdowns. Adding an additional 292 yards receiving, 37 receptions, and two receiving touchdowns.
Until his Week 7 season-ending injury, Anderson was stringing together a very nice season. PFF rates Anderson at 79.1 in a pass-block grade and as such, figures to be the favorite for passing-down looks. His grade on 32 pass-block snaps in 2016 was higher than Devontae Booker’s 73.8 grade on 59 pass-block snaps and Jamaal Charles’ 72.8 grade on 62 pass-block snaps (in 2014). In 2014, Anderson finished number 11 amongst fantasy backs, but has since had a string of injuries. While there is injury concern, his fantasy potential is still high. Over the past three seasons, among 28 running backs with at least 400 attempts, Anderson ranks top-six in yards per carry, touchdowns per carry, yards after contact per attempt, and forced missed tackles per attempt. For perspective, Le’Veon Bell ranks top-six in three such categories and is the only other running back to rank top-six in more than two. Anderson had a valuable fantasy role last season, ranking top-five among running backs in carries inside the 5-yard line per game and red-zone opportunities per game.
Looking ahead to 2017 many new faces may impede Anderson’s path to an RB1 finish. For one, the new head coach, Vance Joseph, has come out and openly said he will be using a running back by committee approach to the backfield. A lot of this stems from the new signing of Jamaal Charles, another injury ridden player, once highly touted in fantasy. In addition, Denver brought back offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy. However, the thing to note about McCoy is that the last time McCoy called the plays in Denver, the team finished in the top-10 of rush attempts his last two years there.
Jamaal “Broken Legs” Charles is a player that came into the league and had some amazing stats, but his injures have all but hidden him more than Area 51 in rankings. What we have to remember, is that those “good years” were not too long ago. In seasons where he saw 600 or more snaps he was graded overall 80 or better by PFF, and in seasons with 250 or more snaps, he was graded 70 or better. In his last fully healthy season in 2014, Charles ranked sixth among 42 qualifying backs with a 55.8 elusiveness rating. Elusiveness rating is a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers. In 2013 and 2014, his last two healthy seasons, Charles combined for 32 runs of 15 or more yards, which is the third most of any back in that time span. Among running backs with at least 175 rushing attempts in 2014, Charles finished with a breakaway percentage of 32.6%, which was eighth in the league. According to PFF, the way they look at breakaway percentage, it is a statistic that measures how much of a runner’s yardage comes on big plays (15 yards or more).
The fact of the matter is, Charles is 30 years old (read experienced) and definitely over the hill, however, every report coming out now is that he is getting on his knee again and he says he feels back to normal. If charles is close to his normal self, that’s a back I’d like to own. PFF projects Charles to end 2017 with 144 carries and 638 rushing yards to go along with 30 receptions and 230 receiving yards. That’s not a crazy thought when thinking that the only person that stands in his way is C.J. Anderson.
One thing that does need to get addressed is the offense. The Defense has kept them in games, while the offense has been stagnant at best. As a result this puts a cap on the fantasy values of players on Denver. While I think Paxton Lynch will improve and take over as the lead QB, it’s hard to imagine this offense resembling anything of the Manning era.
But I do not think this is the case. Charles is a big play back, with a lot of pass catching abilities. Anderson has never been known for that role. Even when he shared a backfield with Hillman, he did not catch the ball very often. With word coming from Joseph that there will be a RBBC, I think the timeshare will work in favor of both backs. Both keep their injured legs fresh and both have a role. Anderson as the rusher, and Charles as the big play pass catcher.
Bottom line:Both Anderson and Charles are interesting plays in fantasy. Both have an option to be relevant. I would look for Anderson in around the sixth round as a late RB2 or a nice flex. Look for Charles in the late rounds as a sneaky flex option that may surprise people this season. Look to get him late and cheap because, if healthy, he has nowhere to go but up.
Kansas City Chiefs
If we are being honest with ourselves, this is a backfield many of us have relied upon in the past. Housing the yards per carry monster for several years in Jamaal Charles, and then the steam rolling, pass catching, Spencer Ware. However, now, I would be lying to you if it didn’t scare the pants off of me.
Spencer Ware is the man to beat currently. He sits atop the depth chart in Kansas City, and he is coming off decent season. In 2016, Ware had 921 yards rushing over 214 attempts and three touchdowns. That’s an average of 4.3 yards per carry. He also backed that up with some 447 receiving yards, 33 catches on 42 targets and two touchdowns. He had 394 yards after the catch which exemplified him as a fantastic mix of rushing ability and pass catching ability. I believe that a lot of his underproduction, stemmed from the emergence of Tyreek Hill. Hill burst on to the scene and began to see a lot more screen passes or dump offs that may have previously gone to Ware. Most of Ware’s production comes in weeks 1 to 7. Most of Hill’s production comes after Week 7. However, I think the statistic that jumps out at me most is that 51.5% of Ware’s receptions went for 1st downs. Every other time Ware caught the ball he converted it for a first down. Amongst players with at least 15 catches, only David Johnson had a higher first down percentage. (Wide Eye emoji) In addition, in terms of yards after the catch, Ware had the third highest yards after the catch amongst players with 15 catches or more. The only two players higher than him were Ezekiel Elliot and Tevin Coleman.
Just 25 years old to start the season, Ware has just 313 career carries under his belt, he plays for Andy Reid’s run-happy offense, and is one of the most elusive running backs in all of football. Over the last two seasons, Ware has broken 65 tackles on 351 touches. That’s a broken tackle once every 5.4 touches, which is a better mark than that of Le’Veon Bell, who has broken a tackle every 5.6 touches over the last two years. Not only that but he has also averaged a colossal 3.09 yards after contact. In comparison, Charcandrick West, the other back In Kansas in 2016, just averaged 2.16 yards after contact. There were just six running backs other than Ware who were able to reach that number in 2016.
Without a doubt, Ware is an efficient running back, and given opportunity and an extra season to get ready as the bell cow, he could prove to be a force in the league. However, the chiefs made a lot of moves in the draft. Moving up to get a quarterback was one. They also moved up to take Kareem Hunt in the third round. Hunt is a rookie out of Toledo University. He is not as fast nor as agile as Ware but he has a natural vision and ability to create yards. ESPN’s Adam Teicher believes that Hunt will be the Chiefs primary running back in 2017. Hunt was the highest graded running back in this draft class, with a PFF grade of 94.9. Particularly impressive was his ability to make defenders miss, with only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook forcing more missed tackles on carries in 2016. Hunt generated 986 rushing yards after contact and not recording a single drop in the passing game.
Looking at the tape shows that that Hunt has a lot of talent. He comes from a small school and is unrefined. Andy Reid has an opportunity to mold Hunt into the running back he wants. Hunt is not a clean runner but is great check down receiver and like Ware, produces a lot of yards after the catch. He is elusive in every sense of the word and finds a way to make defenders miss. Playerprofiler.com compares him to Isaiah Crowell, however the best comparison I think is, Spencer Ware himself.
Looking ahead to 2017, we will have to keep a very close eye on this tandem. Hunt has the skills and potential to overtake Ware as the lead back. However, Ware won’t just go without a fight, and he is a proven back who knows the system. He has a great rapport with Alex Smith. Smith is well documented in not throwing the ball down the field. Both of these backs are a perfect fit for Smith. In addition, it seems that the Chiefs are looking to move on to a younger team, with Patrick Mahomes and Kareem Hunt. It is possible that Reid is grooming Hunt to take over and be the trusted back for the new incoming QB down the future.
Bottom line:Ware is currently being drafted in the third round. Too rich for my blood. With all the uncertainty surrounding this backfield, taking him over players like Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Demaryius Thomas is outrageous. I think he is a good pick up in the fifth or sixth but is being over valued at his current ADP. Hunt’s ADP is in the eighth round. Also being overvalued, because people believe he will take over. I am only looking for Hunt in rookie drafts in Dynasty leagues at the end of the first or beginning of the second. For now, Kansas City is a backfield I am staying away from.
Los Angeles Chargers
Ah yes, this will take some getting used to. Not saying San Diego all the time. While the team has moved, the players have not really changed a whole lot. The Chargers lost Danny Woodhead (PPR Master) to an injury last season and then he wound up in Baltimore. However their 2015 first round draft choice, Melvin Gordon, erupted in 2016.
2015 was a quiet year for Gordon. He struggled in his rookie season, only rushing for 641 yards on 184 attempts, and boasting a 3.48 yards per carry average. The stunner was that through 14 games, Gordon didn’t manage to put six points on the board even once. However he did force 34 missed tackles, but managed to fumble the ball six times. Yes his rookie campaign sucked. But looking at 2016, he made amends. He rushed for 997 yards on 254 attempts, scored 10 touchdowns and had a 3.93 yards per carry average.
Gordon is already projected to be a top pick in 2017 fantasy drafts, and his stock should sky rocket even higher now that Anthony Lynn is the new head coach in Los Angeles. Despite the Chargers finishing just 22nd in rush attempts in 2016 and Gordon missing the last three games of the season, Gordon ran for just shy of 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, adding just 400 more receiving yards. With those numbers he finished as a top-10 fantasy running back and ended was PFF’s fourth best rated running back. In comparison he finished 61st the year before. With Lynn at the helm, I expect the Chargers to run even more. This may seem odd as much of Philip Rivers’ target have come back. Keenan Allen is Health, Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates are still there, Tyrell Williams is still there. But it is the fact that the passing game will be huge, that we should expect Gordon to improve on 2016. Last season with the Buffalo Bills, Lynn as offensive coordinator, the offense tied for the league lead in rushing attempts per game with 30.8. In comparison, the Chargers had 24.9 rushing attempts per game. The Chargers could easily see as many as 100 additional rush attempts in 2017, with a large chunk of those carries going to Gordon.
Looking ahead to 2017, with the departure of Danny Woodhead, the health in the passing game, and Gordon’s only competitor being Branden Oliver, I fully expect for Gordon to keep improving and building off his 2016 season. While many claim that there will be a touchdown regression, another 10 touchdowns is not out of the realm of possibilities and if there is a regression, expect Gordons yards and yards per carry to only increase from 2016.
Bottom line:Gordon is a must own running back. He is going in the late first or early second and that is exactly where I would have him. If you have a late pick think about drafting him on the swing. In dynasty formats, his value is just as high. Look for him in the late first round and to go after the top three backs. I’m buying Gordon in all formats.
I happen to love the unretirement of Marshawn Lynch. I think it is great for football, great for fantasy, and great for the world. The world needs more Beast Mode. Let’s face it, he retired so he would not get fined. Now, Lynch is home in Oakland and he is back in the league. Let us just remember the glory that was Beast Mode. Throughout his career he was the epitome of stability and reliability. Not counting his injured 2015 season, you have to go back to 2010 for him not to have rushed over 1200 yards. In 2010 he was on the Buffalo Bills. Over the course of 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 Lynch only missed one game, rushed for 1200+ yards minimum, averaged 12 touchdowns per season, and averaged 4.53 yards per carry. Those are inconceivable numbers. Inconceivable!
Lynch is now 31 years old. His most recent season in 2015, he finished as the second highest graded RB by PFF with an overall grade of 86.2, despite playing just 359 snaps due to injury. Of the eight other NFL running backs age 31 or older, Matt Forte is the only other RB to finish with the higher overall grade in 2016 with a 73.0. In 2015 Lynch forced 37 missed tackles on just 124 touches (a missed tackle every 3.35 touches). In addition, Lynch finished as the most elusive running back in 2015 (of players with a min. of 100 rush attempts). Lynch is one of the best backs to ever play when it comes to gaining yards after contact. He routinely ranked at or near the top of PFF’s average yards after contact statistics prior to his first retirement, and in 2015, Lynch was rated as the most elusive running back in the entire league.
Many have said the Latavius Murray’s success in Oakland was largely due to the offensive line and not skill. Well now Oakland has put one of the most dangerous backs to play the game behind a fantastic offensive line.
In addition to Lynch, the raiders have retained Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. Although Richard saw fewer snaps than the other two backs last season, he was highly effective when given the opportunity. He ranked second in the league in both average yards after contact (3.6) and touches per missed tackle forced on rushes (4.1). Richard moving forward is a great backup for an older Lynch. DeAndre Washington is also a fantastic runner. He showed great burst and capitalized as much as he could in his rookie season.
Bottom line: Marshawn Lynch is back. After an injured 2015 he has come back from a year away from football. I expect this to have helped the healing and allowed him to regain his strength in his legs. Look to Lynch to dominate the backfield Take him where you can. He can be a great balance of older talent in dynasty formats.
Listen to my new podcast as the Co-host of Jon & Sam’s Fantasy Podcast. We talk everything from football, fantasy, and so much more.
Pro Football Focus