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Player Spotlight: Matt Jones

A detailed examination of Matt Jones' fantasy prospects for 2016

Can Opportunity Outweigh (Lack) of Ability?

Long-time Footballguys subscribers know that I often say that the key to fantasy success is the confluence of Ability and Opportunity. In Matt Jones' case, we're presented with an interesting test case. He has unquestioned OPPORTUNITY, but has displayed a disturbing lack of ABILITY. When the two are at odds, which direction should we go? Avoid the player if we don't believe in his skills? Or embrace the opportunity in recognition that a guaranteed number of touches can be valuable in and of itself in today's NFL?

Let's Talk Ability (Or Lack Thereof)

Matt Jones looks the part. At 6'2", 231 lbs., Jones is big enough to bowl over most linebackers. Washington handed Jones a major role in his rookie season as he seemed a better fit than Alfred Morris in the team's power blocking scheme.

In Week 2, versus the Rams...Jones had a "break out" game:

  • 19 rushes
  • 123 rushing yards
  • 6.5 yards per attempt
  • 2 rushing touchdowns
  • 3 receptions
  • 23 receiving yards
Fantasy owners who took a chance on the rookie were overjoyed, figuring they had one of the sleepers of the year. They couldn't have been more wrong.
 
  • 12 games (other than Week 2)
  • 125 carries
  • 367 yards
  • 2.9 yards per attempt
  • 1 rushing touchdown
  • 16 receptions
  • 128 yards
  • 1 receiving touchdown

Contextually, Jones had an abysmal season:

  • Four (4) fumbles lost (2nd worst among RBs)
  • Stuffed on 17% of his carres
  • One 100-yard rushing game
  • Nine (9) games of 50 yards or less
  • Ten (10) games averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry
  • Seven (7) games averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry
  • Two games with a rushing touchdown
  • One game with a receiving touchdown
  • Three (3) games with 100+ yards and/or a touchdown
  • Ten (10) games with neither 100+ yards nor a touchdown

Unimpressive Company

Over the last 20 years, sixteen (16) rookie running backs had at least 125 carries and averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry.

FirstLastYRGRSHRSHYDYD/RSHRSHTDRECYDRECTDRank RookRank Yr2Best Rank
Lawrence Phillips 1996 15 193 632 3.27 4 28 1 RB38 RB28 RB28 (1997)
Ricky Williams 1999 12 253 884 3.49 2 172 0 RB27 RB18 RB2 (2002)
J.J. Johnson 1999 13 164 558 3.40 4 100 0 RB34 RB71 RB24 (1999)
Cecil Collins 1999 8 131 414 3.16 2 32 0 RB54 N/A RB54 (1999)
J.R. Redmond 2000 11 125 406 3.25 1 126 2 RB41 RB82 RB41 (2000)
Travis Prentice 2000 15 173 512 2.96 7 191 1 RB28 RB97 RB28 (2000)
Ron Dayne 2000 16 228 770 3.38 5 11 0 RB29 RB27 RB27 (2001)
James Jackson 2001 11 195 554 2.84 2 56 0 RB49 RB118 RB47 (2003)
Travis Henry 2001 13 213 729 3.42 4 179 0 RB28 RB8 RB8 (2002)
Jonathan Wells 2002 16 197 529 2.69 3 48 0 RB44 RB142 RB43 (2004)
Tim Hightower 2008 16 143 399 2.79 10 237 0 RB32 RB23 RB23 (2008)
Jahvid Best 2010 15 172 563 3.27 4 487 2 RB23 RB41 RB23 (2010)
Andre Williams 2014 16 217 721 3.32 7 130 0 RB28 RB80 RB28(2014)
Alfred Blue 2014 16 169 528 3.12 2 113 1 RB38 RB39 RB38(2014)
Matt Jones 2015 13 144 490 3.40 3 304 1 RB40 TBD TBD
Melvin Gordon 2015 14 184 641 3.48 0 192 0 RB53 TBD TBD

Disturbing Findings

  • On average, these runners ranked 37th among fantasy RBs as rookies
  • On average, their ranking FELL to RB60 in Year Two
  • Only two of the group managed a Top 20 season in Year Two (Travis Henry and Ricky Williams)
  • Nine failed to finish in the Top 24 (in other words, as an RB2 in 12-team leagues)
  • Only five improved their fantasy standing from Year One to Year Two
  • Only five of these runners EVER had a Top 24 season in their careers

Numbers can be misleading, but it's VERY hard to look at the last 20 years of NFL history and see much hope for Matt Jones. Does anyone think Matt Jones is the second coming of Ricky Williams?

Undeniable Opportunity

Nothing in Matt Jones' rookie year speaks to a star in the making. Yet, the Washington personnel department seemingly disagrees with that analysis. How else can we explain the team's complete lack of depth behind Jones?

  • Alfred Morris was allowed to leave in free agency; the team made no effort to re-sign him
  • The team waited until the 7th round of the draft to select Keith Marshall -- a back with a gruesome injury history
  • Chris Thompson returns as the presumed backup -- the team has only trusted him with 38 carries in three seasons

If Jones can stay healthy, it's hard to project anything less than 15 touches per game based on the rest of the roster.

The Offensive Line Helps, Too

Footballguys offensive line expert -- Matt Bitonti -- views the Washington offensive line as one of the league's most promsing:

Washington

  • Preseason rank: 7th. Difference from the end of last season: +8.
  • Run Blocking: A. Pass Blocking: B+. Total: A.-
  • Projected Starters: LT Trent Williams, LG Shawn Lauvao, C Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Brandon Scherff, RT Morgan Moses.
  • Key Backups: Ty Nsekhe, Spencer Long, Austin Reiter, Josh LeRibeus.

Washington’s offensive line is led by left tackle Trent Williams, who continues to earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Williams isn’t perfect but he is among the league’s most effect pass protectors, at any position. Right tackle Morgan Moses took a step forward last season and solidified himself as a starter in the league. Left guard should be a competition between veteran Shawn Lauvao and Spencer Long. Lauvao was the starter before he was hurt last season, and he will have a shot to regain his job in the preseason. Center Kory Lichtensteiger is well regarded by the coaches but he could have trouble fending off a bulked up Austin Reiter, who is single-minded in his pursuit of a starting gig. Josh LeRibeus is also in the mix at the position. Right guard Brandon Scherff had a trial by fire last season but held up well against top competition and he can be considered a key building block for the franchise. Overall this line has a good mix of veteran and young talent, and they have the potential to be among the league’s better units. 

Positives

  • Jones is the only running back on the roster built for a full-time role
  • The GM, head coach, offensive coordinator and position coach have all endorsed Jones and insist he'll have a relatively long leash
  • The offensive line has the potential to be among the league's best

Negatives

  • Jones was ineffective by virtually any measure as a rookie
  • History suggests that players with his rookie resume are HIGHLY unlikely to ever amount to much more than a middling RB3
  • Jones has a long injury history including a torn meniscus and a bad foot

Projections

YEAR GRSHYDTDTARGRECYDTDFumL
2015 WAS 13 144 490 3 25 19 304 1 4
2016 PROJ-Dodds 15 215 839 6   29 247 1 4
2016 PROJ-Henry 15 245 940 6   29 250 2 3
2016 PROJ-Wood 16 210 815 5   32 300 2 3
2016 PROJ-Tremblay 16 247 916 6   25 129 1 3

Final Thoughts

Matt Jones is going to be given a lot of touches early in the season. If he produces with those touches, he'll become one of the NFL's true feature backs. Washington doesn't really have a credible alternative on the roster. As exciting as the OPPORTUNITY may be, I'm not sure it should supersede what the FILM and HISTORY says about players of his ilk. Over the last 20 years, rookie running backs with similar resumes have almost all been fantasy also-rans. If you're not a fan of using history as your guide, watch the film last year. One great game (versus the Rams) and 12 HORRIFIC games. No wiggle. No vision. Lost fumbles. Stuffed on nearly one fifth of his carries. A 2.9 per carry average. If you are looking for a breakout sleeper in the mid rounds, look elsewhere. Jones is a high-risk, low-reward choice at his current ADP (RB22 and 55th overall).

Other Viewpoints

NFL.com's Matt Franciscovich sees Jones as a high risk, high reward choice (in contrast to my own view):

From a fantasy perspective, 2016 is a clean slate and presents a brand new opportunity for Jones. Washington is ready to put him in a position to break out as they groom him to be their primary back. Morris has moved on to Dallas and Jones is now set up for a high-volume workload. Right now Jones is coming off of draft boards in the middle of Round 5 which feels about right. The upside with the unproven Jones is 250 rush attempts that he can hopefully be productive with. That potential volume alone is worth a draft selection in Round 5. But the risk is that Jones' inconsistency and fumbling issues continue, and that he ends up losing snaps to Chris Thompson (and possibly rookie Keith Marshall) who has been used mainly as a third-down back during his few seasons in the league. Jones is has the size to handle goal-line work as well, but once the team realized that he was a fumble risk in the red zone, Kirk Cousins just started tossing up end zone balls to Jordan Reed when the team was in a position to score points. You probably would lean on the pass too if your backfield averaged 1.75 yards per carry on 48 red zone attempts, with just three touchdowns and one lost fumble, as Alex Gelhar recently pointed out.

To put it simply, Jones is shaping up as a high-risk, high-reward RB2 for the 2016 campaign.

Jacob Gibbs from Numberfire agrees with me that Jones' only real asset is his potential for a heavy workload:

Don't get me wrong -- Jones is far from a sure thing. He was one of the least efficient runners last year, he'll lose passing down work to Chris Thompson, and Marshall is waiting in the wings if he struggles. However, he has the opportunity to be 250-plus carry back (Morris averaged 292 in his three years as the bellcow) and hog the red zone rushing work for a potentially explosive offense.