Dispensing With the Preliminaries
If you're new to the Upside Down Draft Strategy and it's the first time you've read about this topic, you've stumbled into the middle of the story. Begin here for the basics or go here for a more exhaustive look.
If you're a regular of my column but missed last week's post, here's my Early-Round RB Anchors for 2016. Now that we're caught up, let's look at the mid-round PPR backs that I endorse for this year's Upside Down Strategy.
This list will not be a comprehensive look at every running back. If you want to know my thoughts on each player, read the comments in my rankings. If you're thinking, "I'm going to email or Tweet Matt and ask him, 'what about [insert name of back not listed below that you maybe-possibly-kinda like]?'" it will be nice to hear from you but I'll still tell you to read the comments in my rankings.
If I have any major updates to my preferred list of mid-round backs, I'll keep you posted weekly in subsequent Gut Checks.
The Gut check's Preferred Mid-Round (5th-10th) Runners
I'm listing 2-3 runners per round as well as an extra runner (in parenthesis) that is worth reaching for if both of the prescribed backs in those rounds are gone. In italics are 1-2 non-runners in each round I value. I called it my Non-RB Exception. I've found that using one round between the 5-10 block for a non-runner strengthens the balance of the team.
If you land at least 5 of these backs by the 10th round you should have a solid start to your Upside Down Draft.
- If They Fall to Round 5: Matt Forte, C.J. Anderson, Duke Johnson Jr, or Russell Wilson-Larry Fitzgerald.
- Round 5: Duke Johnson Jr, DeMarco Murray, Jeremy Hill, (Giovani Bernard), or Larry Fitzgerald-Eric Decker.
- Round 6: Giovani Bernard, Ameer Abdullah, Jonathan Stewart, (Melvin Gordon III), or Allen Hurns.
- Round 7: Melvin Gordon III, Frank Gore, (Charles Sims), or Tyler Lockett-Marvin Jones Jr.
- Round 8: DeAngelo Williams, Charles Sims, Derrick Henry, (Isaiah Crowell), or Laquon Treadwell-Josh Gordon.
- Round 9: Isaiah Crowell, Kenneth Dixon, (LeGarrette Blount), or Philip Rivers-Jameis Winston.
- Round 10: LeGarrette Blount, Devontae Booker, Bilal Powell, (DeAndre Washington) or Josh Gordon-Antonio Gates.
As you can see it's a mix of starters and cuffs (Forte-Powell, Anderson-Booker, Johnson-Crowell, Hill-Bernard, and Murray-Henry), second-year breakout candiates (Johnson, Abdullah, and Gordon), steady veterans (Forte, Gore, and Stewart) and backups who earn committee touches (Johnson, Hill, Sims, Williams, Henry, and Powell), and promising rookies (Henry, Dixon, Booker, and Washington).
To the first-time reader, it may appear that I've recommended every back available in these rounds. Look closer, and I've recommended approximately three per round and spread out reasonably well to account for ADP so you're likely to land at least one of these players at each turn.
Profiling The Mid-Round Choices
If They Fall to Round 5...
Later this summer, I'll be profiling the "FF In The Groin Strategy"—an approach named after my buddy Mike MacGregor's past fantasy football column and his ability to create winning teams by "taking all the players that nobody wants." After all, isn't this just another phrase for letting value fall in your lap?
My top potential values at running back for the fifth round are Matt Forte, C.J. Anderson, and Duke Johnson Jr. Forte's combined ADP is 36 but the lowest ADP source in this average is 49. My Fantasy League is that source and the savviest fantasy owners I know use this league manager. MFL's data and what I saw during recent mocks has me believing that Forte has a good chance of dropping to the early fifth round.
There's no sense in re-packaging last week's argument for Forte. I do have an addendum. Two days ago, Darryl Slater reported that we should expect an even split between Forte and Powell in carries with a slight edge to Forte. This is the biggest reason Forte's ADP will dip to the fifth-round range.
While this will cause Forte's value to dip and Bilal Powell's to rise, let's note that the report mentioned "carries", not touches. As analysts and fans alike sound the death knell for the veteran's fantasy value, need I remind you that Chan Gailey plans to split Forte as a receiver a lot this year. For most of you, "alot" for most running backs compared to receivers is like dog years compared to human years.
But Forte is no ordinary dog. Two years ago, he caught 100 passes in Chicago's offense. He may not remotely approach that figure in New York but I agree with Footballguy Jason Wood's projection of 60 receptions for Forte and 230 carries. Wood may adjust his projections upon hearing this news but let's look at some numbers.
Last year, the Jets' running backs had 386 total carries. I'm more optimistic that the Jets will give its backs a heavier workload this year. New York always like Powell as a reserve but was never fully invested in him as a runner until he proved otherwise down the stretch in 2015. Forte is a significant upgrade to Ivory. Even Khiry Robinson is an upgrade to Zac Stacy and Stevan Ridley, who couldn't manage 3 yards per attempt.
So let's bump the team carry count to 64—one extra carry per quarter for the year. That total gets New York to 450. Let's give 18 percent of those touches to the backs behind Forte and Powell—the same figure those backups earned last year. Then, we'll do a 55/45 split between Forte and Powell with the remaining touches.
In this projection, the reserves earn 81 carries, Powell earns 166 carries, and Forte 203. But let's steal some of those carries from the reserves.
Last year, Ivory missed a game and Powell missed five. The Jets averaged 24 carries per game last year. The two most active backs averaged 22 of those carries per game. Stacy and Ridley accounted for 67 carries during the weeks Powell and Ivory were limited or out.
If we take 60 of those carries from those reserves to account for Forte and Powell staying healthy all year at that 55/45 split and Forte's looking at 236 carries and Powell at 192. Add Wood's projection of 60 receptions to the touch-count and we're staring at 296 touches.
This workload for Forte is good enough to generate top-15 production at his position:
Forte ~290 Touches
Remember, we're not expecting bull's eyes in the fifth round, merely a good talent capable of starter production to complement the top talent you got at the other skill positions. The backs I'm recommending have that bull's eye upside based on talent, track record, and or scheme. If Powell gets hurt, it's reasonable to add 30-40 touches even if Khiry Robinson sees the field.
Keep in mind, Forte's career average reception rate per season is 61 and Gailey's history suggests that he'll mold his scheme to his talent. In Marc Trestman's offense, Forte averaged 88.5 receptions per year. If a reasonable high-side for Forte in New York is 80 catches, we're looking at 310.
If fantasy analysts are correct that last year's running back totals are a sign of the times, which I think is a rash conclusion, a projected touch-count of 310 still puts Forte's projected work above all the carry counts of backs not named Devonta Freeman and Adrian Peterson—the top-2 PPR backs in fantasy football.
So let the world tell you that Forte's run as a fantasy RB1 is dead. They might be right but even so, a top-15 or top-20 back in the fifth round is still a value. I think they're wrong in a big way.
"C.J. Anderson Could Lose Touches to Devontae Booker." That's the headline in many fantasy owners' minds when they read reports from Broncos staff that Booker has the skills to play in a game right now or his pass receiving will get him on the field. Summertime is the time for what I call "aspirational coaching quotes"—statements from coaches expressing the desire to give reserves playing time because they like the skills they see in practice or brief moments in games.
Of course, coaches want to give talent chances to shine. As fantasy owners, we're so emotionally primed for any news that might give us a chance to conclude we've found the next late-round mega bargain that these aspirational statements lead us to bump the value of these players while dropping the values of the starters. Increasing the value of the late-round guys by a couple of rounds isn't a mistake, dropping the value of a starter often is.
Anderson is finally healthy and featured in Gary Kubiak's true offensive system that involves a fullback and a quarterback under center, not a Manning on career life support. The offensive line is solid, the defense is strong, and the receivers are better than what Mark Sanchez had in Philly.
It's enough for me to jump on Anderson if he somehow falls this far. His lowest ADP is 42 and if Booker continues to be the focus of aspirational quotes, Anderson could fall far enough to take him.
Larry Fitzgerald or Russell Wilson is my RB alternate for round five. I prefer Fitzgerald because I think his value after a top-12 season in 2015 is ridiculously low. Listen, the Cardinals like to throw the ball and Fitzgerald is the most scheme flexible receiver on the team. John Brown is more than a deep threat and Michael Floyd can win after the catch but Fitzgerald is the smartest, wisest, most football-savvy player on the roster.
The team can move Fitzgerald around, get him the ball in the short area of the field, and watch him turn 2nd and 7's into 1st and 10's much easier than handing the ball between the tackles. This what so many fantasy analysts and fans don't understand about the Cardinals' infatuation with Chris Johnson but I've been trying to tell you: Johnson's maturity as a decision-maker keeps the offense on schedule.
It's easier for the Cardinals to pick up first downs with Fitzgerald outside. The team also has more flexibility with the range of plays it can call with a higher rate of success. Fitzgerald is more viable on 2nd and 7 after the elder Johnson earns three yards on a ho-hum play than he is on a 2nd and 12 if the younger Johnson tries to get too fancy. Sure, the younger runner could break a huge play on any given snap but to borrow from baseball, a runner giving you 2nd and 7 is getting on base; a runner giving you 2nd and 12 is striking out.
This is why Bruce Arians and company stated this week that the two Johnsons are "even at running the ball." Fantasy prefers the flash of big yards and care little about victories. It's the opposite in real football. Take Fitzgerald as your third or fourth receiver and you earn a high PPR option whose worst-case "healthy scenario" is playing at the value of his selection spot.
If Fitzgerald is gone or you hate late-round quarterbacks and won't listen to my arguments, Wilson is my top quarterback on the board. Even if Tyler Lockett doesn't become the next Antonio Brown, Doug Baldwin might be the next Derrick Mason and Wilson is developing along a track that still has me convinced he's on a trajectory to rival Drew Brees one day. If that's all malarky to you (and I'm not talking Titans) there's no denying that Wilson has always been a top-12 fantasy QB and his rushing totals weren't as massive a part of that equation as perception may suggest.
Johnson's potential to deliver Bernard-like production as a scatback with potential between the tackles is appealing. If Isaiah Crowell plays to his capability, I'm buying the breakout for Johnson but it doesn't impact my decision. His potential as a receiver keeps him in the top-25 conversation if Crowell remains the bell cow.
One of the nice components about this strategy is the fact that you're putting one of those big plastic trash cans over the annoying ADP Hall Monitor. You're taking a block of talent; what's first may come in last and vice a versa. Both players are talented, both will see touches, and if one gets hurt, don't whisper Terrell Watson unless you're sure someone strapped a compass to his hind parts and it delivers a stimulating electro-shock when a hole opens at the line of scrimmage.
Everyone is down on Murray. Jason Kelce took a potshot at him this week through the media. Cowboys fans are joyously reveling in Murray failing in Philadelphia and landing with the team jettisoned from Texas. I won't be surprised of Murray's mom is wondering if she can figure out an excuse to let him drop a couple more rounds in her church draft.
I get the fears about Derrick Henry, the Titans offensive line, another coaching change, and a bad defense. All are valid concerns. Murray's ability didn't fall off a cliff. Ryan Mathews outplayed Murray in Philadelphia but from what I'm hearing, many of the Eagles packed it in last year.
It's a common issue with individuals on teams where the coach loses the players. Chip Kelly lost that team in a big way the past two seasons and once that happens, it's every man for himself. Your jobless friend, a Kelce wannabee who lives in his mom's basement, pumps iron to sports talk radio, and supplements his workouts with a nightly regimen of curls at the neighborhood bar won't touch Murray because—ironically—he'll be the first to point out that Murray's lack of effort makes him a person you can't count on.
I dislike the lack of effort just as much as Mr. Beer Curls spouting off about this topic 20 minutes longer than anyone can stand. It's also an unfortunate reality. I won't let emotion dictate my decisions here.
In the fifth round, I'll take a healthy back two years removed from a 2461-yard season and be happy if I get half that production. Murray is still a good football player and if he's healthy, a receiver capable of catching 40-50 passes while splitting time with Henry. Plus, Henry is on my list as a reasonable handcuff option later.
Last year, the Titans had Antonio Andrews and Bishop Sankey and I never thought much of either player as a future starter. Then there was an undisciplined Terrance West and an out of shape David Cobb. The team's best back was Dexter McCluster. Murray and Henry are a significant upgrade to the top of the depth chart.
Let your competition think that the lead back in Tennessee will only earn 143-520-3 for the year. A better conservative estimate for Murray is somewhere between Bob Henry and Jason Wood's 200-220 carries, 800-900 yards, and 5-7 scores. Throw in 40 catches for 300 yards and you're looking at 1200 total yards and 6-9 TDs. It's not fantastic but Chris Ivory was the No.7 runner last year with roughly that total. If last year was a trough for RB production and we see a rebound, it's still similar to Joique Bell's 14th-ranked effort in 2014 or Giovani Bernard's 16th-ranked season in 2013.
I'll take it.
Speaking of Hill and Bernard, I appreciate Hill's talent enough to take a chance on him here even if I don't believe enough in his maturity to make good on it year-to-year. I'd rather lean on Bernard because I value his versatility more. But if Bernard is gone and I already took my non-RB exception, then I'll grab Hill and hope we get the back that made the most of his 2014 opportunities and delivered top-10 production.
I already profiled Fitzgerald. If he's gone, Eric Decker is continually underrated and in a balanced offense that affords him WR1 opportunity. Funny how we overlook that Decker has scored at least 11 TDs in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He's a lock for 75-950-8 and I'm still underselling him. We can't say the same about Hill.
Bernard works for fantasy owners whether he's the lead or the committee back. As long as Ken Zampese's offense isn't radically different, Benard should continue his string of top-25 season. He's never been anything but a fantasy RB2 since entering the league. He's this generation's Brian Westbrook.
I'm holding steady on Abdullah as a player worth your short and long-term investment. Abdullah's yards after contact stat is the data that my colleagues use to malign his potential.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Joe Holka of 4for4 and we had a private film room session on running back play. Holka has unveiled a new projected called Rushing Expectation, which he modeled after Matt Harmon's Reception Perception.
One of the interesting insights I gleaned from our conversation, film study, and getting a sneak preview of his data on about 15-20 backs is that he values yards before contact more than yards after contact. The reason is that there's not as broad of a difference in yards after contact in the NFL. Once you get hit, you're most likely going down.
Yards before contact are not only a reflection of line play but what a back does with his agility, burst, and understanding of the scheme. Guess whose yards before contact is among the best of backs on Holka's list? IHe wears a silver and blue jersey with No.21 sewn on it and he fumbled the ball too much last year.
As long as Abdullah's surgically repaired shoulder remains on track for the season, I see top-20 production from the second-year runner this year. If the offensive line and scheme continue improving the way it did down the stretch last year, Abdullah has, even more, upside. In terms of his short area quickness, explosion, agility, and versatility, he was one of the most impressive athletes at the position in last year's draft.
Once upon a time, Jonathan Stewart looked like the next great back. Injuries and the Panthers' insistence to chain two excellent players together on a prison work farm in Charlotte killed that potential. But even a hobbled Stewart offers RB2 production. He hasn't played an entire 16-game schedule since 2011 but if you want steady, his situation is a lot like DeMarco Murray's (red zone vulture lurking) in a more proven offense but with less upside.
If you want to reach a bit for upside, I'm gambling on Melvin Gordon III this year. The word from Chargers camp is that Gordon is cutting really well and his form of microfracture surgery was not as major as many athletes who have made successful recoveries.
Although his numbers deflated the collective excitement surrounding Gordon last year, he ran hard. I liked what I saw from his effort. We have to remember Gordon and Philip lost starters in the receiving corps and offensive line last year. I think Gordon should offer a fantasy floor of RB3 production. If he develops as a pass protector—something he struggled with and is tantamount for him to see three downs—his upside is RB1 territory.
If none of these backs are available or you just can't bring yourself to take Stewart or Gordon and you haven't grabbed your Non-RB Exception, may I suggestion Hurns? If you don't know why then read here.
If there's a round where I'm most apt to invoke my Non-RB Exception, this is the one. I like the Gordon gamble, I'll always have a special place in my heart for Frank Gore's skills, and Sims could be the NFC's Gio Bernard but give me Lockett or Jones. I think both have WR1 upside and a WR3 floor at a great price. I'm betting both earn top-15 production this year.
The herd followers will probably see Lockett as the "IT" receiver of drafts thanks to Harmon (kind of like seeing a dog dressed up, isn't it?). Most will eschew Jones because he disappointed their expectations and was a low-round NFL pick.
Give me either. Both have the general's stamp of approval, even if he's cuckoo for Lockett Puffs.
But if you've invoked your Non-RB Exception in the 5th or 6th round, Gore is the safest pick. Despite poor line play, Gore was the No.14 PPR back last year. One of the reasons is what running back coaches across the league have long-known: Gore is the best craftsman at the position. An NFL personnel man told me recently that Gore's tape is the most frequently shown tape to young runners because he's so skilled at setting up blocking schemes the right way.
For this reason and his great work ethic, if there's a back who is well past the age cliff who I'll take a chance on one more year, it's him.
At the same time, Charles Sims' production was similar, he's younger, and if Doug Martin gets hurt, he's the lead back in an offense that supported a top-five runner in 2015 PPR leagues. I probably won't reach for him unless Lockett or Jones are gone but if I have to reach, I can think of far worse choices.
I find it difficult to believe Williams' value will remain here. I anticipate a bump to the rounds 5-6 and if it happens, it might prove too rich for me. You know I love him. I was all over him last summer. But if he's here, I'm jumping on that instant top-10 RB production for September.
The reason is the rest of this crew. Sims has upside equal to Williams and perhaps a better floor. He's still a backup to a fine feature back. Henry is a goalline vulture in-waiting and with feature back upside but again, he's a backup. The best combo of floor and upside is Isaiah Crowell and depending on your draft spot vs. his ADP, you can get him in the 9th round.
It means that if you waited on your Non-RB Exception, I'm gid-...I can't write the word that I always hear Wood say to describe his excitement about landing a player he especially likes. I always imagine him in a bonnet having tea with a bunch of octogenarians when he says it and some things you can't unimagine...I'm stoked to get a shot at Treadwell. He and Michael Thomas are two of the best scheme fits among the rookies in this class (if you're curious, Austin Hooper, Ezekiel Elliott, Sterling Shepard, and a Robert Griffin-led offense with Corey Coleman are the other four) .
If you're not sold on Jones or couldn't grab Fitzgerald or Lockett, I'm gambling on Treadwell. Gordon is the ultimate gamble. If he can stay healthy after a long layoff and get in sync with Griffin, he could be the league-winning pick that Williams was when Le'Veon Bell got hurt last year. His ADP is currently the 10th round, but this is the limit of where I'll reach for him this year.
If you've been good and didn't invoke any Non-RB Exceptions, take a shot on Rivers or Winston. I think both have top-5 upside this year and a floor no lower than QB12. They're my kind of quarterbacks: fiery leaders, film rats, tough in the pocket, and not afraid to make mistakes.
They're the type of players that get criticized by buttoned-up fans and analysts who project their risk-averse way of life onto these quarterback's games but they don't understand that a successful quarterback is usually an aggressive quarterback. Some know how to pick their spots than others but quarterbacks who test defenses successfully or don't crawl into an emotional shell after getting punished for it, scare defenses. Both passers have a full complement of weapons at their disposal.
Bob Henry and I are probably the two Crowell apologists at Footballguys. Hue Jackson has been steadfast about featuring Crowell and I've written enough about the former 5-star prospect that I don't need to share anything more about his ability. What I will say is that the loss of center Alex Mack in Cleveland could be overstated thanks to Cameron Irving.
The former Seminole played most of his career at left tackle. While functional for the college game in the role, he wasn't a great prospect. Until he moved to center. Footballguy Scott Bischoff profiled him with me in an RSP Film Room in March 2015 and it's evident that Irving has the talent for the position (it's a long show, so only if you're completely geeked about learning OL play).
Although tackle and guard get a ton of credit for the passing and running game, respectively, it's the center-guard combination that really makes most ground games work. The best offensive lines also have the best centers because they make the line calls and create the cohesiveness of a well-functioning unit. Irving may have a learning curve but I don't expect it to be long or difficult.
For a 9th-round pick, Crowell's RB3 floor and RB1 upside are too enticing. I also think the Browns' organization believes in him and invested enough this year in his development that he should provide fantasy owners good value.
I love Dixon's talent. I hate that he's hurt but it's only serious enough to obscure his potential mid-season value. If you got geeked on the Irving film room, check out my work with Scouting Academy Founder Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout. I introduced him to Dixon last year and you'll get a strong feel for his game and the position in this session.
Blount is my old stand-by. He's capable of carrying the Patriots offense, his value is low enough that it's not a huge loss if New England goes another direction, and frankly, he's a great bye-week option even if they do. We're getting better at predicting what kind of RB game it is for the offense based on schedule and Blount can offer RB1 numbers when called upon.
If Gordon falls here, he's worth considering above the rest of the pack. Among the backs, Blount and Powell are the safest picks with upside. Booker has a higher upside if injuries give him a shot at the featured role. He also has the most downside because pass protection could be a big adjustment. He wasn't third-down ready as a pass protector at Utah. If he learns fast, look out.
Gates is the safest Non-RB Exception of my two offerings. He's in the Tony Gonzalez place of his career—unstoppable against zone coverage and still quality in the red zone.
If you must reach, consider DeAndre Washington. But before you do, keep an eye on UDFA Jalen Richard from Southern Mississippi. He has a lot of qualities similar to C.J. Anderson and he's earning first-team reps. If Richard continues to thrive, determine whom it impacts more—Washington or Latavius Murray—before dropping the hammer and taking Washington.
Next week, late-round RBs and mock drafts with the strategy.