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Spotlight: The Giants Backfield

A detailed look at the state of the Giants' running back situation for 2015

THE BRITTLE VETERAN: Rashad Jennings

There’s simply no sound reason to expect starting caliber fantasy production from Jennings in 2015. His profile just doesn’t suggest it; in fact, it never really has.

The common reaction to the above statement is, “Well, if he’s bucked trends before to succeed, he can do it again.” But aside from a seven-game stretch two years ago Jennings has never succeeded as a fantasy back. That’s largely a byproduct of the fact that he’s never played a 16-game season, and in fact has only played 13+ games in three of his six years. (He’s missed 32 of 96 overall.) But injuries haven’t told the whole story; after flashing in a backup role in 2009-10, he just hasn’t been a very effective back. Over his three seasons of 100+ carries, he’s averaged a ho-hum 3.8 yards per carry. He’s found the end zone on just 10 of his 37 rushes from inside the 10, a weak rate that’s resulted in very modest touchdown production. Already 30 and as fragile as glass, there’s really no reason to expect these trends to reverse, generating very little upside.

2015 looks like the death knell for Jennings the fantasy prospect. The Giants have effectively crowded their backfield, with second-year man Andre Williams and passing down specialist Shane Vereen in the mix. Williams was no great shakes as a rookie, recording just 3.3 yards per rush and predictably bombing in the pass game, but he offers youth, a great athletic profile, and more touchdown potential than Jennings. He’s a shoo-in to siphon at least half the team’s rushing opportunity, and possibly the bulk of it. And Vereen, an elite receiving back in New England, was clearly brought on board to head that role with the Giants. All told, Jennings profiles best as a backup to both spots – if he makes the final roster. The team can save $2.25 million by giving him the axe.

The bottom line on Jennings is that his profile offers no real upside but gobs of downside. He’s not merely the strongest bet on the Giants to plummet into irrelevance – he has as good of a chance as any back in an NFL rotation. His combination of advanced age, inefficiency, and lack of a defined role make him a guy to avoid with a fury before the last 3-5 rounds of your draft. He’s obviously a definite no-no at his current 62.4 (RB26) ADP. There are easily 20 or more backs lurking after that point with similar outlooks and far more potential.

THE MULTI-FACETED FREE AGENT: Shane Vereen

The natural thought process is to covet Vereen in PPR leagues. That’s understandable; since 2013, only Matt Forte has seen more targets per game among running backs. Vereen has been an inconsistent yet dynamic receiver capable of running routes and generating real yardage (a career 9.6 yards per reception, with seven touchdowns).

But the usage (or lack thereof) is a concern. Perhaps no other back with such perceived RB2 value has been yo-yo’d in and out of the gameplan more wildly. Since integrating into the Patriots offense in 2012, he’s failed to top eight looks (rushes plus targets) in 18 of his 37 games (51%); as a result, he’s posted fewer than 50 scrimmage yards in 10 of them. And his new offense looks strikingly similar to his old one in terms of volume. Last year, the Giants and Patriots posted nearly identical numbers of snaps, pass plays, and target rate to running backs. If Vereen is going to find consistency, he’ll have to assert himself to Eli Manning in dominant fashion right off the bat. Free agent additions rarely do that, especially in crowded, talented offenses.

We can also expect his red zone usage to drop. Vereen surprisingly saw 21 looks (rushes plus targets) from inside the 10 last year, and a whopping 11 from inside the five – only one fewer than Eddie Lacy and Arian Foster. In New York, the red zone is pretty well spoken for; few teams throw the ball more from near the goal line, and Williams has a much better short-yardage profile. So, a repeat of his career-high five touchdowns seems unlikely.

Still, there’s a glimmer of hope that his prior inconsistency could change. He’s been transported to a less potent offense with a similarly crowded backfield, but his role seems entirely up for grabs. Williams is a drop-prone liability out of the backfield, and Jennings is a walking red flag who could conceivably be cut. Vereen is still a youngish 26 and probably talented enough in the passing game to dominate the moderate RB targets.

In all, Vereen should be viewed as a solid PPR RB3, but his ceiling is likely to be exaggerated by the high-profile nature of his Patriot days. He’s currently being taken as the RB31 off the board. It’s a fair slot, but his tier includes a handful of options with similar upside and sexier price tags. Ameer Abdullah, Darren Sproles, and Danny Woodhead project similarly and are going 2-3 rounds later.

THE BRUISING 2ND YEAR CONUNDRUM: Andre Williams

Yes, Williams posted a thoroughly unimpressive rookie year, racking up just 3.3 yards per rush across 217 carries. Never confused with a speed demon, Williams produced just four runs of 20+ yards, the second-lowest rate in the league. And his sizeable passing game struggles carried over from Boston College, where he caught just 10 passes in four years. All told, Williams was arguably the least efficient and least versatile of the 2014 rookie backs to draw strong playing time.

But there were sneaky bits of fantasy value once Rashad Jennings’ annual injury woes began in Week 4. Jennings’ overall production slid off a cliff, and Williams was asked to pick up the slack; he struggled mightily, but heldfast to his role and saw it expand to include goal line duties and a surprisingly solid share of the passing game.

And it certainly isn’t as though Williams is incapable of rebounding. He certainly has the profile to suggest he can. Williams ran for 2,177 yards (6.1 YPC) and 18 touchdowns as a college senior, then posted an excellent Combine that featured great agility and explosivity numbers. His reputation as a plodding Alfred Morris type doesn’t really match his college productivity or athletic measureables, so there’s plenty of upside for improvement on his poor debut.

Ultimately, among the Giants’ three backfield options, only Williams brings RB2 upside to the table. After all, he did post seven weeks as RB24 or higher as Jennings battled injuries and ineffectiveness, two things we can expect every year. And that came with Williams churning out some extremely inefficient football. Similar usage with a boost up near 4.0 YPC would cement Williams a real RB2 candidate all year. He’s not only the most promising option in this backfield, but also the safest.

Rashad Jennings Positives

  • Jenning sis by far the most proven and productive runner in this backfield, having run for more career yards than Andre Williams and Shane Vereen combined
  • Eli Manning treated Jennings as a true checkdown option in 2014 ,resulting in 4.4 targets per finished game. An extended season with Jennings in the driver's seat could land him 40+ catches, giving him a bit of PPR upside that Williams likely doesn't share

Rashad Jennings Negatives

  • At age 30, Jennings has long passed the productivity curve for running backs. Yes, a handful of backs do produce at that age, but Jennings’ mediocre play certainly doesn’t suggest he’s one of the elite few to buck that.

  • With a nasty history of injuries throughout his entire career, Jennings looks like a poor bet to play a full season, and an even poorer bet to maintain a dominant role when he’s on the field.

  • In Williams and Vereen, the Giants have a talented and well-rounded duo of much younger options. Even if Jennings retains the starter’s cap, both will be involved in the gameplan all year, rendering Jennings a rotational back with little upside.

  • As the 26th RB off the board, Jennings carries a near-RB2 cost with none of his considerable downside baked in. You’re paying for his best-case scenario.

Shane Vereen Positives

  • He’s seen as many targets per game as just about any RB, and few backs leaguewide can boast Vereen’s receiving production on a per-target basis. Neither Jennings nor Williams can approach Vereen in the pass game, so he appears to have a defined role and a solid PPR floor.
  • Last season, the Giants’ first in Bob McAdoo’s offense, saw the team send roughly as many passes to running backs as did Vereen’s former team, the Patriots. That helps to calm fears of a sudden plummet in usage.
  • Though he’s never been given a steady diet of carries, he possesses the best athletic profile of this trio. And he’s still just 26, with very few touches on his odometer.

Shane Vereen Negatives

  • It could just be a Belichick Thing, but in New England, Vereen was given a wildly unpredictable workload. He was essentially a fantasy non-factor in half his games – and his path to the field doesn’t get any less crowded in New York.
  • Vereen is an elite receiver but not much of a ballcarrier. His career 4.2 YPC is uninspiring considering his dynamic skillset and the wide-open offense he’s been in.
  • His 2014 fantasy line was only rescued by a career-high five touchdowns – which required career-high red zone usage that will be very unlikely to repeat in New York.

Andre Williams Positives

  • His 2014 numbers be damned, Williams is a fine NFL prospect with plenty of rebound ability. His agility and explosivity scores from last year’s combine were very strong, and his college productivity suggests he profiles as a true bellcow.
  • Even if Williams shows just modest improvement, he could land the lead back role (and fantasy RB2 relevance) just by the process of elimination. Jennings has major age, health, and productivity red flags, and Vereen has topped five carries per game just once in four years. There’s a strong chance Williams wins the majority of rushing opportunity simply on relative dependability.
  • As a rookie, Williams did excel on the goal line, where he turned 10 rushes from inside the five into six touchdowns. That was a better short-yardage scoring rate than Marshawn Lynch managed last year. Williams brings real 8-10 touchdown potential to the table.

Andre Williams Negatives

  • Here in 2015, Williams’ sorry rookie efficiency was jarring. A poor 3.3 YPC mark is a quick way to draw perception as an early bust. The list of rookie backs to post a YPC of 3.7 or lower is a pretty uninspiring list of names – though it does include Le’Veon Bell, Reggie Bush, and Jahvid Best, all of whom rebounded as veterans.
  • Williams looks unlikely to contribute much in the passing game. He didn’t catch a single pass in his 2,177-yard senior year at Boston College and just 10 in four years there. Strangely, the Giants sent him 37 targets as a rookie, but he predictably did absolutely nothing of note with them; in fact, he bungled several opportunities. The addition of Vereen suggests that experiment is over.

Final Thoughts

All in all, this has the May/June look of a three-headed monster, destined to limit each player’s upside and infuriate fantasy owners chasing hot streaks. But if we look a little closer, we can at least form an educated idea of some semi-clear roles. Expect Jennings and Williams to compete for the vast majority of rushing opportunity, with the winner in line for a fairly high-volume role in a solid offense. While neither project to much efficiency, either could post useful fantasy lines by winning the biggest piece of that pie. Williams, with youth and athleticism firmly on his side, looks like the stronger bet, but he still has plenty to prove as an NFL runner. And while Vereen looks poised to all but repeat his receiving production from New England, his lack of a rushing pedigree and dependence on game plan make him a risky RB3 option. This isn’t by any means a “hands off” backfield, but it does require a little more clarity – and better play – to make us too excited just yet.

Rashad Jennings Projections

 

G

Rec

Yd

TD

Rec

Td

TD

FumL

Justin Howe

15

145

552

3

21

158

0

1

Maurile Tremblay

16

218

870

5

28

202

0

3

David Dodds

11

175

683

5

28

216

1

1

Jason Wood

16

180

720

4

28

225

1

1

Bob Henry

16

170

660

5

26

195

0

1

Shane Vereen Projections

 

G

Rec

Yd

TD

Rec

Yd

TD

FumL

Justin Howe

16

62

260

1

35

303

1

1

Maurile Tremblay

16

109

452

2

35

284

1

2

David Dodds

16

95

380

2

50

405

2

1

Jason Wood

16

100

480

4

48

420

3

0

Bob Henry

15

104

440

2

55

475

2

1

Andre Williams Projections

 

G

Rec

Yd

TD

Rec

Yd

TD

FumL

Justin Howe

16

190

743

7

14

103

1

1

Maurile Tremblay

16

109

452

2

35

284

1

2

David Dodds

16

95

380

2

50

405

2

1

Jason Wood

16

100

480

4

48

420

3

0

Bob Henry

15

104

440

2

55

475

2

1

Other Viewpoints

Some analysts are more optimistic on Jennings’ outlook. numberFire puts its Net Expected Points metric to use, concluding that Jennings’ 2014 rushing Success Rate “clusters him right at the top of the league”

Conversely, RotoViz’s James Todd is (tepidly) buying Williams stock:

“…drafters generally buy the theory that Williams’ stock is on the downswing. I’m not sure that’s the case. The Giants spent a fourth-round draft pick on Williams last year, and a stack of free agency cash on pass-catching whiz Shane VereenOn the other hand, Rashad Jennings is a 30 year old journeyman who’s never played a full 16 game season and is easily cut after June first. I’m trying to cheaply acquire Williams wherever I can.

As for Vereen, the great Fantasy Douche reiterates that “it’s either PPR-star, or not very valuable. In similar past situations that receiving back really needs to get into the 70+ reception range to have value based on that element.”