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The most compelling thing about football is that there's often more than meets the eye. I expect fans and much of fantasy media to base their takes on the superficial. However, I'm surprised when even former players and coaches view a game and don't account for the contexts of the game scripts and play design when delivering analysis.
This was absolutely the case on Sunday night when the analysis was slanted so heavily to box scores. D'Onta Foreman and Jeremy McNichols had the best box scores of the three Titans running backs but as you'll learn, the back with the best performance when examining the context of game script, play designs where they were handed the ball, and the way defenses performed against them, Adrian Peterson is the back to target.
This doesn't mean you should ignore Foreman and McNichols, but if you're seeking the player with the most value if all three stay healthy, Peterson is the man — even if you're hearing the contrary from other sources.
Jeremy McNichols' Performance
McNichols earned 24 yards on 7 rushes and caught all 3 targets for 11 yards. He led the Titans' backs in the passing game and total yards from scrimmage. While McNichols was the most productive back on the team Peterson out-touched McNichols 11-10 in his first performance all year off five days of practice.
There's little context to the box score. For instance, McNichols had the longest run of all the Titans' backs — a 14-yard gain that accounted for 58 percent of his rushing yardage. That may look good on the gridlines of a table on a website, but in a moment, we'll look at this run through a lens of criteria to help us determine the relative value of the play:
- What is the down-and-distance?
- What is the score?
- How much time is left in the game?
- What is the field position?
- How is the defense playing the offense and how does it tie to all of the game-script points above?
- Did the runner have a clean path from the exchange point to the line of scrimmage?
- Did the runner have an immediate open crease or did he have to manipulate defenders to set up blocks that would open a crease?
- Did the runner have to break tackles or make opponents miss?
- When was the first point of contact and what kind of tackle attempt did the opponent make?
- What position is the opponent making the tackle attempt?
- Did the back display good judgment relative to the game script and play design?
- Does the back earn yards after meaningful contact?
These 12 factors are a basic set of criteria that seems to be lacking with even the most rudimentary analysis of running backs. If you use this short checklist when analyzing running back play, you'll eventually get better than 80 percent of the analysis that's out there. It will take learning about things like the various blocking schemes, how runners are supposed to set up and attack these schemes, and efficient movement versus inefficient movement. It's worth it if you truly wish to understand the running game.
Even so, you'll discover instances where the more impressive runner overall may not be the player that his team favors. Draft capital or a specific dominant physical characteristic that fits well with the scheme the team uses the most are examples of why that can happen.
Here's McNichols' 14-yard gain. Listen to the factors I note about the play, many from the criteria above.
“Jeremy McNichols looked better than Peterson” is indicative of a severe lack of contextual understanding of what’s happening on the field and translating it to the outcome of of a play. pic.twitter.com/14YAnztPYI— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
This play occurs at the end of half deep in the Titans' own side of the field against a pass-heavy defense designed to keep the offensive players in front of him. Strategically, the Rams preferred the Titans to run. The coverage shows it, the numbers in the tackle box show it, and the game script shows it. This is an untouched run for most of the 14 yards with little if any manipulation required by the runner to access the open rushing lane.
Relative to most running plays, this situation and defense are as close to free yardage as a runner will earn. If this play factors into your analysis of why McNichols looked better, you're doing it wrong. It requires little judgment and physical skill beyond the basic acceleration and pad level most NFL runners at any spot on a depth chart possess. A high percentage of free agents would earn 14 yards on this play.
Here's another straight path to the sideline for McNichols against a pass-oriented defense (base nickel) on a known passing down-and-distance of 2nd and 10. This is a six-yard gain of low difficulty. The pad level and finish is competent but there's no need to manipulate the defense or set up blocks. There are no early-play obstacles.
These two plays account for 20 of McNichols' 24 rushing yards. McNichols also earned a green-zone run (inside the opponent's five), gaining a yard and a half and displaying the very issue that NBC commentator and former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth critiqued (often without great nuance) about Adrian Peterson's debut — sub-par pad level at the end of the run.
So why did McNichols earn red zone and green zone touches if he's just supposed to be a scatback compliment? Is he earning a real shot to be something more? Did he get the chance because of how the other backs looked? While I'm not completely ruling out these factors as possibilities, the likelihood is remote.
Peterson and Foreman are new to the team and/or aspects of this offense and the two areas that offenses practice more than any are two-minute and red zone. These situations have their own set of plays and require a lot of precision — especially in the compressed area of the red zone. It's likely that the Titans expected Peterson and Foreman to truly get a handle on no more than 3-4 play types in this area of the field during their first week with the team. This is most likely why McNichols, who has had, by far, the most red-zone reps of any healthy back on the team since May, was used in these situations.
You just saw three of McNichols seven carries that gained him all but 2-3 of his rushing yards. The other plays did not show any refined skill to generate yards beyond the realistic expectation for the play design and the defense's handling of the play.
When evaluating McNichols with this criteria, he's actually the least impressive of the three backs. That said, his attempts required the least effort to gain yardage among the three backs and that's not his fault. He may show more in future weeks, although from what I've seen of McNichols since his college career, he has shown the least skills of the trio.
Even so, think about where McNichols will earn the most use:
- The two-minute offense where the opposing defense will prefer to see the Titans run against their pass defenses and drain the clock or as an outlet under the coverage.
- As a runner between the tackles on pass-heavy down and distances and the defense is expecting the offense to throw.
- If the Titans fall significantly behind and have to throw on most downs to get back into the game.
Essentially, McNichols' best shot at significant production is the Detroit Lions' game script for heavy usage from D'Andre Swift. The problem for fantasy GMs expecting this scenario is the Titans are much better than the Lions and you shouldn't count on these game scripts occurring. What McNichols delivered on Sunday night, 11 touches, 3 receptions, and 35 yards on 26 snaps are well within the range of 15-26 snaps that he's earned in all but 2 games this year. One was a 40-snap game where the Jets took the Titans to the wire and a 1-snap affair against Buffalo.
In this sense, McNichols is probably the most reliable fantasy option if you look at consistent production within the range of 30-35 total yards, which accounts for 5 of his 9 weeks. Only once has McNichols exceeded this total. He's also scored one touchdown all year. Reliable floor? Absolutely. Starter production in leagues that start 3-4 backs? No way.
DOnta Foreman's performance
The former heir-apparent to Lamar Miller in Houston who suffered an Achilles tear and has bounced around the league in recent years, Foreman has the size and strength to approximate Derrick Henry's power running. Foreman was the most "box-score efficient" of the trio, earning 29 yards on 5 carries with a long run of 11 yards. He did not earn a target in the passing game.
Here are three of Foreman's five runs. The first is easily the best-blocked run between the tackles that the Titans had all night. Foreman gains 10 yards, mostly untouched (if indeed a backside defender reaching for Foreman's back even makes contact with his hand -- contact with little impact or difficulty) and falls down when attempting a cut back in the secondary that could have earned him at least another 5-7 yards, if not a great deal more.
Foreman had to press the crease only a minimal amount. The cut into the crease was not difficult because the required change of direction was minimal. The crease itself was larger than any that the Titans' makeshift offensive line opened during the game. Foreman's dip of the shoulder away from the defender's reach is nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. The fact that he slipped trying to execute a change of direction of low difficulty in the open field isn't promising, either.
In Foreman's defense, runners and receivers lose balance when they are overthinking and new backs are prone to overthinking in their first game or two. While Foreman getting work between the tackles is a positive relative to McNichols who earned most of his touches at the edge of the tackle box, Foreman left yards on the field — yards he should have gained with little difficulty.
This four-yard gain moving up left guard is a more difficult rep for a running back and Foreman handles it competently. His feet are quick, he presses within 2-3 steps of his blocker closest to his approach and cuts back to the soft spot of the line. Foreman bends that cutback to the edge of the tackle box before cutting downhill with enough violence and pad level to generate three yards after contact, extending through a wrap by a defensive lineman (one of the more difficult tackle attempts a back encounters) to finish.
Foreman has always displayed knowledge and skill to run between the tackles and his short-area change of direction and quickness were enough for him to gain yardage on runs where the creases weren't big and he had to do some manipulation to access an open lane. He also had to show power and contact balance to create yardage that wasn't there. McNichols didn't show the power or technique to get much after contact in this game as well as other games.
The rest of Foreman's carries were runs off tackle or outside the tackle and with a lead blocker. While a top runner will manipulate opponents and create space with these play designs, the play design is generally catered around giving the back one option to maximize: Time the blocks, hit the crease hard, and use your strength, quickness, balance, and movement to get what you can from the hole.
Foreman has shown enough acceleration to reach the edge on a well-blocked run, the power to generate yards after contact, and the minimum skill to set up zone runs between the tackles. I want to see Foreman show that he has the agility and timing to press a crease deeper to the line — within one step of his blockers or defenders rather than 2-3. I also want to see how creative he can be to mitigate losses.
Loss Mitigation is a significant part of being a reliable NFL starter at the position.
A skill of underrated importance for RBs is Loss Mitigation.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 27, 2021
This is the ability to identify stunts, penetration, unblocked defenders, and other things that go wrong for the OL and create ways to limit what should be a loss, on paper.
This keeps the playbook from contracting.
Frank Gore is a great example of an RB who, much to the consternation of analysts who wanted to see a young, but still immature (in this area) Kenyan Drake shine bright with his athletic ability, mastered loss mitigation.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 27, 2021
While Foreman and McNichols didn't have any clear Loss Mitigation opportunities and prove that they can manage them, it's telling that they didn't when considering the number of situations that Adrian Peterson faced. Foreman and McNichols faced more run-neutral/pass-heavy alignments whereas we'll see in a moment, the Rams committed more of its resources to stop Peterson when he was in the backfield.
Foreman showed enough that he's the best cuff to Peterson for a fantasy GM or a hedge to Peterson in case Peterson gets hurt or his performance declines over the course of the season. While possible, he forces a three-way split with this backfield as we saw tonight, I doubt it. Remember, Foreman was in the Falcons' training camp this summer and had more football action than Peterson this spring and summer. I think Foreman's usage was designed to ease Peterson into football action.
Adrian Peterson's Performance
Peterson barely edged out McNichols as the most productive fantasy back of the trio on the basis of a one-yard touchdown plunge. He was the least efficient runner with the most volume if judging by the box score — 10 touches, 21 yards rushing, and 1 catch for 5 yards. Peterson's long gain on the night was also the lowest of the trio — 6 yards.
Can you hear fantasy analysts using this information to sell the merits of the other backs? I bet you hear it and read it daily. It lacks context. So does market share analysis.
Here's Peterson's first carry, a two-yard gain where he encounters Aaron Donald three yards in the backfield within a step of him taking the exchange from the quarterback. This is a five-yard +/- difference against the most explosive man for his size, and arguably the best one-on-one player in football.
This also takes place early in the game on a common run down against two points of penetration into the backfield. In other words, this is one of the most difficult scenarios for a running back to win and Peterson not only avoids the loss but finds and hole and drags a defensive tackle for most of his positive gain. Neither Foreman nor McNichols encountered a play with remotely the same difficulty.
Here's another common down and distance situation for the run — a 2nd and 5 — against another seven-man front. Two plays, and in contrast to McNichols, Peterson isn't earning nickel defenses. This run is a gap play and the Titans fail to generate a push with its offensive line. Two of the five linemen are behind the line of scrimmage and the down-blocks get no movement past the line.
Additionally, gap plays are designed to access one crease — the crease that the pulling lineman is working through. Rarely, does a running back cut back a gap play to an alternate crease and have success. Only the best decision-makers consistently generate successful cutbacks on these plays and Peterson shows his merit for a short gain below.
This is a late cutback after Peterson presses his lead blocks within a step of the line of scrimmage. The cutback is explosive, efficient, and he gets skinny to exploit the tight crease and generate a push against two defensive linemen for nearly three yards. While not a big gain, Peterson has to generate the positive yards away from the design of the play because the Rams defend the primary crease on a play blocked for only the primary crease.
Again, this is a more difficult play for a running back in terms of decision-making, manipulation, crease access, and finish than anything the other Titans' backs encountered on Sunday night.
Here's another gap play with Peterson the shotgun quarterback in a Wildcat look but with no zone read. This is a green zone play and it shouldn't be lost on viewers that Peterson is running a play without a quarterback to hand him the ball. There's no audible to a pass play or a different running play with this design, which supports what I've shared earlier about red zone reps.
Peterson's pulling blockers don't reach the edge fast enough to earn an advantage on the defense and it forces Peterson to display a mature balance of patience and aggression to get the most from block execution that is far from optimal.
Peterson getting what he can. Cris Collinsworth noted Peterson running high, but that’s symptomatic of an RB who has to negotiate pursuit too early in the play to drop pads and hit the crease early.#Titans pic.twitter.com/MfoNxBefRo— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
Peterson has to cut behind his pulling guard who can't reach the point of attack in time. Although his pad level is high as Collinsworth pointed out, consider that running back pad levels won't be as low when they aren't in a position to immediately hit a crease downhill. Collinsworth is effectively criticizing the taste of the cake because one of the birthday candles didn't light.
Most of Peterson's runs were between the tackles with at least seven defenders in the box and little push from the offensive line. Peterson had to display short-area quickness, power against first-level defenders, footwork to avoid penetration into the backfield, cutback ability, and creativity to set up creases that weren't part of the embedded play design.
More loss mitigation on 4th QTR touches pic.twitter.com/n2Z8IDA7FY— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
Peterson gained more than expected in more difficult situations and had to show more skill and athletic ability to do it. Although characterized throughout his career as a non-existent threat in the passing game, Peterson is a competent outlet receiver who will earn targets on screen passes, swing passes, and wide routes to the flats.
Let's also consider Peterson's usage in this game. He earned early touches and then fourth-quarter touches. Although Peterson is in good enough shape to contribute — in contrast to the younger LeVeon Bell, who needed time on the practice squad in Baltimore — the Titans were being cautious on Sunday night. They know Peterson is their best back but they didn't want to overwork him if they could avoid it, especially at age 36.
Expect closer to 15-20 touches within the next two weeks if Peterson responds well to another 10-15 touch game in Week 10. With the Titans generating pressure with three and four defensive linemen against high-powered offenses like the Rams, don't count on the Titans being out of too many games. This means Peterson should be a central part of the offensive game plan in most weeks.
Taylor Lewan was available for emergency only on Sunday, which means he is close to returning. Nate Davis should also be back soon. When they are fortified with their starting left tackle and right guard, Peterson will have less to do earlier in a run to get more yardage than what he faced on Sunday night.
While I think it's perfectly wise to add McNichols in deep PPR leagues if you need a player who can get you 5-8 points a week, Peterson's 7.5 points on Sunday will likely be one of his worst games as opposed to one of McNichols' best. Foreman is the hedge for the primary role if Peterson misses time. Even then, if Peterson misses extended time, look for the Titans to pursue another runner with the potential to earn touches — a runner who could threaten Foreman's long-term value.