“Daddy, I want to play the Bean Boozled Challenge.”
That was my five-year-old daughter a few days back as we were leaving Target. I looked down to see a colorful box with pictures of jelly beans, some sort of game board, and a bunch of fine print I (dull-wittedly) didn’t bother to read written on it. It seemed innocent enough and I still haven’t learned to say no to my daughter, so I walked out of the store game in hand, $21.95 lighter, and promising to play with her later that night.
Fast forward two hours and there I was hoping the green jelly bean I was about to eat tasted like lime instead of lawn clippings.
The family fun didn’t stop there. That white jelly bean that should have been delicious coconut? Now I know what baby wipes taste like. Thought I was getting peach? Nope, that would be vomit.
It would go on this way for about a half hour until this cruel mockery of a children’s game mercifully ended (my daughter waved the white flag when she bit into a canned dog food flavored jelly bean masquerading as chocolate pudding). Needing a diversion to keep from dry-heaving, I hopped on Twitter to check out the latest in NFL free agency -- only to find my night of sadistic bait and switch had only just begun.
Chris Ivory signs with the Jaguars? I had been Bean Boozled all over again.
Second-year Jacksonville running back T.J Yeldon’s arrow was pointing up entering the offseason. Yeldon -- the third running back selected in last year’s draft -- may not have set the world on fire as a rookie, but he ran well enough to finish as the PPR RB18 on a per game basis. A lack of touchdowns and Jacksonville’s pass happy offense figured to make Yeldon an underappreciated 2016 fantasy value at a late-third/early-fourth round asking price.
Yeldon’s main appeal was that he was one of just a handful of workhorse running backs in the league. He finished the season with roughly 55% of Jacksonville’s backfield touches last year -- the 13th highest market share -- despite missing four games. And to his credit, Yeldon ran well last season, displaying the foot quickness and creativity that made him a first-day selection, with the underlying numbers to back it up.
Per PFF, Yeldon forced 34 missed tackles last year - 9th most among RBs. Only had 182 carries (24th most)— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) March 9, 2016
Sadly, the Jaguars signing Ivory to a surprisingly rich five-year contract worth $32 million, dashes any hopes of a low-end RB1 season for Yeldon. Jacksonville passed on 65% of their offensive plays last season, the second highest percentage in the league. We can expect that ratio to normalize in 2016 due to the addition of a second capable back in Ivory, the massive improvements they made on defense in free agency, and a more experienced Blake Bortles cutting back on mistakes. But even if the Jaguars run the ball closer to the league-median 26 times per game (up from 22 last year), there won’t be enough opportunity to support much more than low-end RB2 seasons from either Yeldon or Ivory (provided both stay healthy -- something they’ve each struggled with in their careers).
Assuming Jacksonville will have to divvy up about 350 running back carries (up from 302 last season) and 65 receptions (down from 71 last season when Jacksonville was decidedly pass-heavy), I’d expect the breakdown in production to look something like this:
|Rush Att||Rush Yds||Rush TD||Rec||Rec Yds||Rec TD|
While Ivory proved last season he’s been underutilized as a receiver in his career, Yeldon is better out of the backfield and after the catch. Considering Yeldon was also decent in pass protection as a rookie and Ivory has often struggled in that department, Yeldon should be considered the favorite for passing down work.
What he figures to lack in receiving production, Ivory should make up for in goal line opportunity. Over the last two seasons combined, Ivory has more carries from inside the opponent’s five-yard line than any other running back. But there’s a few problems with projecting Ivory as an elite touchdown producer.
Ivory hasn’t proven to be an exceptional goal line runner. The league-average touchdown conversion rate for carries from inside the five-yard line over the last two years is 37%. Ivory converted 31% of his opportunities over the same span.
80% of the Jaguars offensive touchdowns came via the pass last season. They threw the ball from inside the 10-yard line at a 64% clip -- fifth highest in the league. Again, those numbers figure to balance out a bit next season, but we have to question just how much due to…
Allen Robinson and Julius Thomas being awesome red zone receivers. Among wide receivers with at least 10 targets from inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, Robinson’s 59% touchdown conversion rate led the NFL last season. And while he’s coming off an injury-plagued down-year, Thomas converted 60% of his red zone targets into touchdowns as recently as 2014.
Maybe Ivory was brought in to be a goal line hammer. His signing combined with Jacksonville’s reluctance to use Yeldon at the goal line last season (only six carries from inside the five) suggests as much. But at this point, there’s a greater than zero chance this develops into a hot-hand backfield, with no clearly defined roles for either Ivory or Yeldon. If Yeldon is having a good series, who’s to say he’ll get pulled at the goal line?
Ultimately, there’s no denying Ivory is now a major thorn in the side of those hoping Yeldon would build on his rookie year numbers. Consistency was a big problem for Yeldon last season (he scored less than 15 PPR fantasy points in 75% of his games as a rookie) and now he’ll have competition for carries. But if the Ivory signing tanks Yeldon’s ADP (think sixth round or later), he’ll still be plenty worth your while. The 163 fantasy points I have Yeldon projected for would have placed him in fringe-RB2 territory last season -- numbers no one’s rushing to cut from their team.
It’s just a shame a few days ago Yeldon stock tasted like tutti frutti, but now you can detect a hint of skunk spray.
More Free AgenCY Thoughts
Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, and maybe Jamaal Charles. That’s the entire list of running backs I’d rather own than Lamar Miller next season. Miller averaged nearly a fantasy point per touch last season -- a very noteworthy accomplishment for a back who had 240 total touches. Houston led the league in plays per game last year and finished fifth with 29.2 rushing attempts per game. Opportunity will finally no longer be an issue for Miller.
Most folks glossed over Jermaine Kearse re-signing with Seattle, but it’s a move with more fantasy ramifications than you might expect. The last time we saw Kearse he was lighting up the Carolina Panthers secondary for an 11-110-2 receiving line in the NFC Championship. It was a performance that didn’t come out of nowhere. Over the last six games of the regular season, Kearse averaged four receptions, 50 receiving yards, and had four touchdown catches -- basically WR2 numbers. Kearse and hot-shot rookie Tyler Lockett had nearly identical target market shares last season (about 15%), and a similar split wouldn’t surprise me in 2016. Considering Lockett’s ADP should settle around the seventh round, and you’ll be able to get Kearse for free, I’d much rather have the latter.
No matter where C.J. Anderson lands next season, I’m buying. Anderson may not have lived up to his first round ADP last year, but once he had a chance to heal some nagging injuries over Denver’s bye week, he ran like the back everyone thought they had drafted. From Weeks 8-17 Anderson ran for more than 4.5 yards per carry in all games but one, and exceeded six yards per carry in five out of nine games. The problem of course was Gary Kubiak’s insistence on platooning Anderson with Ronnie Hillman. If Denver matches the Dolphins offer sheet for Anderson, he won’t have to worry about Hillman -- a free agent who won’t be re-signed. And have you seen Denver’s offseason moves? That team is going to run the ball a ton next season (out of necessity). If Anderson ends up on the Dolphins, not much changes from a fantasy perspective. Sure, Jay Ajayi is an interesting prospect, but he’s also a fifth-round draft pick of the previous regime. New Dolphins head coach Adam Gase oversaw Anderson’s 2014 second half breakout and has shown a pattern of using a feature back during his three years as an offensive coordinator of the Broncos and Bears (injuries notwithstanding). Anderson is currently my RB8 regardless of whether he’s a Bronco or Dolphin.
Anyone who’s been writing about fantasy football for at least a few years probably has a Ladarius Green puff piece to their credit (here’s mine from back in 2013). There’s finally some substance behind all the years of hype now that Green is no longer blocked by Antonio Gates and playing in Pittsburgh’s high-end passing offense. It’s a safe bet Green inherits Heath Miller’s 80 targets from last season. If he maintains his career reception, yards per target, and touchdown per target rates we’re looking at a baseline projection of 52 receptions, 545 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. The resulting 136.5 fantasy points would have placed Green as the PPR TE12 last season, but there’s clear upside for more. Miller and the now-suspended Martavis Bryant leave behind 35% of the Steelers’ red zone targets from last season. It’s not a stretch to imagine the 6’6’’, 240 lbs. Green soaking up the majority of those looks and reaching double digit touchdowns, putting his upside somewhere near the top five at the position.