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Jonathan Stewart: Top 10 Fantasy RB?

A look at Jonathan Stewart's 2015 fantasy value following the NFL Draft.

The sunniest of springtime fantasy outlooks can quickly give way to cloud cover once the dust settles on the NFL Draft. You'll recall prior to last year's draft we thought Giovani Bernard was no doubt looking at 300 total touches, Zac Stacy was primed to receive 70% of the Rams carries, and Tampa Bay was going to "lean on Doug Martin" in 2014.

After watching the Bengals, Rams, and Bucs take a figurative blow torch to each of those sound bites by investing early round draft picks in running backs last year, it was sensible to head into this year's draft skeptical of Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera's claim Jonathan Stewart would receive 15 carries per game this season

Rivera's workload projection for Stewart became more implausible when you considered the context of his quote:

Ideally we'd like to get about 15 carries from Jonathan Stewart and then 8-10 from another back.The thing you’ve got to be careful about in this league is you can’t rely on one player at one position. Running back has definitely been proven that you’ve got to have a good two-back tandem. And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that complement to Jonathan.”

With DeAngelo Williams leaving Carolina to back up Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, it seemed a foregone conclusion the Panthers would draft a running back in the early rounds to pair with Stewart. And if Rivera's history of distributing carries since arriving in Carolina was any indication, a 50-50 workload split appeared far more likely than a 65-35 timeshare in Stewart's favor.

Of course, the 2015 NFL Draft is now in the books, and while the Panthers did indeed select a RB – Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne – they waited to do so until the fifth round. With all the pieces of Carolina's RB depth chart now in place (for the time being anyway), can we trust Rivera when he says he intends to give Stewart 15 carries per game? If so, does Stewart actually possess Top-10 RB potential in 2015 fantasy leagues, as some pundits have suggested?

Projecting Stewart's Workload

Last season, Carolina averaged about 30 rushing attempts per game (fifth highest in the league), with Cam Newton accounting for nearly six of those attempts. Assuming no dramatic shifts in the Panthers' offensive philosophy this season, we're left with about 24 rushes per game to divvy up between Carolina's RBs (which jives with Rivera's assertion he's looking to dole out 23-25 carries per game between two backs).

Perhaps unfortunately for Stewart, there's little in Rivera's history with the Panthers to suggest he's willing to give one RB the lion's share of the carries. Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have appeared in 35 games together since Rivera took over as head coach in 2011. Here's a snap shot of how the carries and production got divided over that sample:

  Rushes/G Rush Yds/G Rush TDs/G Rec/G Rec Yds/G
Jonathan Stewart 9.03 41.4 .17 2.31 19.74
DeAngelo Williams 9.46 41.34 .31 .86 7.09

Digging deeper, in his 44 total games played since 2011, Stewart has taken or exceeded 15 carries in a game only seven times (16%). Williams was active in just two of those seven games, which means when Rivera's two back system was functioning as planned, Stewart received 15 carries or more in just 4.5% of his games played.

Had the Panthers used a pick in the first three rounds on a RB (or taken the gamble on Jay Ajayi's knee in the fourth), Rivera's past tendencies would be a definite cause for concern. However, given the minimal draft capital Carolina invested in Artis-Payne, it would take a major leap of faith to believe the Panthers will slot the rookie directly into DeAngelo Williams' role in the offense.

Williams was a former first round pick with a 1,500+ yard, 18 TD season on his resume. Artis-Payne is a late round rookie, with questions about his pass protection, open field wiggle, and ability to get around the edge in the NFL. It's also notable Artis-Payne only caught 14 passes in his entire collegiate career. Stewart sports a career 72.6% catch rate, and was the more active receiver when splitting time with Williams (see chart above). It would be a shock if Stewart cedes third down work this season, which bodes well for his projected role as feature back.

Given the state of Carolina's RB depth chart (besides Artis-Payne, the only other RBs currently on the roster are career nobodies Fozzy Whitaker and Jordan Todman), it's likely Stewart's workload resembles the 15.89 carries per game he's averaged in nine career games played without DeAngelo Williams.The only thing standing in his way is an unfortunate history of lower body injuries. Since entering the league in 2008, J-Stew has missed time due to foot, ankle, calf, knee, and hamstring ailments. Chronic foot and ankle issues have plagued him as far back as 2006 at Oregon, and he's had multiple surgeries on his ankles since 2010. If he plays a full 16 games this season, it will be the first time he's done so in four years.

Projecting Stewart's Production

Can a running back who was compared to LaDanian Tomlinson as a prospect post low-end RB1 fantasy numbers, on a run-first team, in his age 28 season, now that he finally has no significant competition for carries?

When the question is phrased in that manner, it sure seems possible.

With Williams sitting out the Panthers' final four games due to injury last season, we caught a glimpse of what Stewart looks like as a feature back. From Weeks 13-16, no running back topped J-Stew's 435 rushing yards. His stellar play helped the Panthers close out the season with four straight wins, an unlikely playoff berth, and a first round victory over the Arizona Cardinals (Stewart posted a 24-123-1 line in the playoff matchup against the league's best run defense). Based on Stewart's stretch-run performance, it's no coincidence the Panthers showed such little urgency in finding a replacement for DeAngelo Williams.

Advanced metrics lend credence to Stewart's 2014 production. He ran for 2.6 yards after contact per attempt, which ranked Top-10 among RBs with at least 175 carries. Stewart's ability to run through tackles explains how he was able to post impressive rushing totals despite playing behind Carolina's 27th ranked run blocking offensive line (per Football Outsiders). He also broke off chunk plays at an impressive clip, running for 15+ yards on 6.29% of his carries – sixth best among RBs with at least 100 attempts.

Beginning in Week 13, Rivera fed Stewart at least 20 carries in every contest, provided the game flow would allow it. The only times he failed to reach the 20 carry plateau after Week 13 were in a 34-3 blowout win over Atlanta in Week 17, and Carolina's lopsided 31-17 loss to Seattle in the NFC division round. If 15 carries turns out to be a low end projection, we have reason to be very excited. Stewart's career production in the eight games in which he's received 20+ carries is tantalizing - 126 rushing yards (5.26 YPA), and .75 TDs per game.

Even if Rivera holds true to his stated desire to run Stewart about 15 times per game, we'll likely end up pleased with the results. As mentioned previously, Stewart has averaged 15.89 carries per game in nine career games played without Williams. If we extrapolate his per game production over that sample to a 16 game season, we'd be looking at 254 carries, 1,138 rushing yards, four rushing TDs, 27 receptions, 185 receiving yards, and two receiving TDs. The resulting 195.3 fantasy points (PPR scoring) would have ranked Stewart right between Joique Bell and Mark Ingram as the cumulative RB14 last season.

Considering Stewart's previous career high for carries is 221, set in 2009 - a year in which Williams missed three games, and the Panthers finished second in the NFL with 525 team rushing attempts – those projections seem fair.

Health permitting, touchdown potential is the only thing preventing Stewart from reaching Top-10 RB status this season. 'The Daily Show' finished 2014 with just three rushing TDs, and only eight carries from inside the opponent's 10 yard line. QB Cam Newton led the team with 11 carries from inside the 10, and FB Mike Tolbert was nipping at Stewart's oft-injured heels with seven (in only eight games played).

Even if we only look at the window from Weeks 13-17 when Stewart was being featured, the results were similar – Newton led the team with five carries from inside the 10, and Stewart and Tolbert each trailed him with four apiece. As long as Newton and Tolbert remain healthy, they should be projected for similar roles in 2015.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to view the Panthers' laissez-faire approach to replacing DeAngelo Williams as anything but a vote of confidence in Stewart. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Stewart is currently the PPR RB20, an ADP at which he offers significant profit potential.

Running backs taken ahead of Stewart in early mock drafts have included Justin Forsett, Alfred Morris, Lamar Miller, Carlos Hyde, Joique Bell, and Tre Mason. Each of those players are now sharing their respective backfields with higher profile rookie running mates than Stewart. As fantasy draft season draws closer, it's fair to assume J-Stew's ADP settles near Mark Ingram territory (fringe Top-12 RB, late second/early third round in 12 team leagues).

RB12 is still a price worth paying for Stewart, but not one likely to deliver much equity. Those eager to move Stewart inside the Top-10 RBs would have to make room by pushing out players like Arian Foster, C.J. Anderson, or Jeremy Hill, all of whom have legitimate Top-5 potential. With Newton and Tolbert around to suppress his TD totals, Stewart doesn't possess quite the same ceiling as those backs, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy what's shaping up to be the best statistical year of his career.