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Spotlight: BenJarvus Green-Ellis

posted by Jason Wood on Jul 31st


Jason Wood's thoughts

What to make of BenJarvus Green-Ellis? The former undrafted free agent out of the University of Mississippi was considered an afterthought in a crowded New England backfield and garnered little attention even by dynasty league owners who are used to scouring the depth charts for young talent. But a series of injuries opened the door for Green-Ellis, who was promoted from the practice squad and eventually started four games in the 2008 season, scoring five touchdowns in limited action. He was a forgotten man again in 2009, but re-emerged as a part-time starter (17 games) over the last two seasons. Ellis' best year came in 2010, when he rumbled for 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns on 229 carries. Fast forward to this offseason and Green-Ellis opted to sign a 3-year, $9mm contract with $4mm in guaranteed money to join the Cincinnati Bengals.

There is little consensus on Green-Ellis' prospects. The argument for drafting BenJarvus Green-Ellis is because you think he can be more effective than his predecessor, Cedric Benson. Benson had worn out his welcome in Cincinnati; with some speculating Benson's straight-line, "three yards and a cloud of dust" style didn't fit with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's preferences. The argument against drafting Green-Ellis is that Bill Belichick drafted not one, but two young running backs right after Green-Ellis' breakout season, and then used him less in 2011 than 2010, and then let him leave for a very modest free agent contract. So which is it? Is Green-Ellis a plodder and beneficiary of a great system, or is he a part-time guy who will flourish in a new featured role?

Green-Ellis' value in New England was largely tied into his touchdown production. He scored 24 touchdowns in the last two seasons and 29 touchdowns over his four year career. Twenty-four of Green-Ellis' touchdowns have come at the goal line. So it's important to determine:

A) Is Green-Ellis more effective at the goal line than Cedric Benson?
B) How frequently do the Bengals reach the goal line versus the Patriots?
C) Will offensive coordinator Jay Gruden favor running the ball as often in goal line situations?

Q: Is Green-Ellis more effective at the goal line than Cedric Benson?
In the last four seasons, Cedric Benson has attempted 89 rushes at the goal line (defined as the opponents' 10-yard line or closer). He's scored 16 touchdowns in those attempts (17.9% conversion rate). Over those same four seasons, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has attempted 62 rushes at the goal line and scored 24 times (38.7% conversion rate). On the surface, it seems that Green-Ellis is the much better short yardage back - 39% versus 18%. But this wasn't an apples-to-apples comparison because Benson spent the last four years in Cincinnati while Green-Ellis was lined up with the Patriots. It's going to be a lot easier to find a hole at the goal line when defenses have to key on Tom Brady and his collection of ultra-talented receivers and tight ends. Let's try to add some further context to their short-yardage TD tallies:

Touchdown Conversion Rate (2008-2011, Minimum 40 Carries) - 10-Yardline or Closer

Rank First Last Years Rushes RuTDs Conv%
1 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2008--2011 62 24 38.7%
2 Pierre Thomas 2008--2011 43 16 37.2%
3 Mike Tolbert 2008--2011 53 19 35.8%
4 Brandon Jacobs 2008--2011 87 31 35.6%
5 Adrian Peterson 2008--2011 110 39 35.5%
6 Kevin Smith 2008--2011 40 14 35.0%
7 Rashard Mendenhall 2009--2011 78 27 34.6%
8 Ronnie Brown 2008--2011 55 19 34.5%
9 Chris Wells 2009--2011 47 16 34.0%
10 Tim Hightower 2008--2011 59 20 33.9%
11 Ahmad Bradshaw 2008--2011 57 19 33.3%
12 Peyton Hillis 2008--2011 48 16 33.3%
13 Jonathan Stewart 2008--2011 58 19 32.8%
14 DeAngelo Williams 2008--2011 44 14 31.8%
15 Michael Turner 2008--2011 133 41 30.8%
16 Willis McGahee 2008--2011 62 19 30.6%
17 LeSean McCoy 2009--2011 56 17 30.4%
18 Marion Barber 2008--2011 73 22 30.1%
19 Maurice Jones-Drew 2008--2011 108 32 29.6%
20 Arian Foster 2009--2011 78 23 29.5%
21 Clinton Portis 2008--2010 41 12 29.3%
22 Joseph Addai 2008--2011 56 16 28.6%
23 Ricky Williams 2008--2011 42 12 28.6%
24 Chris Johnson 2008--2011 67 19 28.4%
25 LaDainian Tomlinson 2008--2011 86 24 27.9%
26 Marshawn Lynch 2008--2011 69 19 27.5%
27 Ray Rice 2008--2011 66 18 27.3%
28 Ryan Grant 2008--2011 45 12 26.7%
29 Michael Bush 2008--2011 64 17 26.6%
30 Knowshon Moreno 2009--2010 44 11 25.0%
31 Fred Jackson 2008--2011 45 11 24.4%
32 Steven Jackson 2008--2011 62 15 24.2%
33 Thomas Jones 2008--2011 101 23 22.8%
34 Frank Gore 2008--2011 89 20 22.5%
35 Steve Slaton 2008--2011 42 9 21.4%
36 Cedric Benson 2008--2011 89 16 18.0%
37 Matt Forte 2008--2011 92 11 12.0%

As you can see, Green-Ellis has had the most success converting touchdowns of all qualified runners, while Benson ranked 2nd to last (out of 37). That's enough to tell me that even though Green-Ellis' situation was more advantageous, there's a good bet he'll have more success than Benson in identical conditions.

Q: How frequently do the Bengals reach the goal line versus the Patriots?
It doesn't take a lot of deep statistical digging to realize that the Patriots - by virtue of ranking at the top of the league standings offensively - generally make more trips into the red zone and the goal line. And the Bengals last year were under a new offensive coordinator with a rookie quarterback, without the benefit of a full offseason - so improvement is likely. Last year, the Patriots ran 108 plays at the goal line versus 74 for the Bengals.

Q: Will Jay Gruden favor running the ball as often in goal line situations?
This too is hard to answer decisively since we only have one season of data to base our assumptions. Gruden called 34 passing plays versus 40 rushing plays at the goal line last year, whereas the Patriots called 50 pass plays versus 58 rushing plays. For those doing the math, both teams ran the ball approximately 54% of the time last year from 10 yards or closer.

Does Green-Ellis have any other "plus" skills?
I would be more comfortable betting on a breakout season if I could identify more "plus" skills in Green-Ellis' repertoire. We know he's a powerful and effective short yardage runner, but what else can we point to? We haven't seen him break many big runs. His yards per rush isn't eye-popping. He's been a non-factor as a receiver, and we've never seen him shoulder a major workload. In fact, he was never a workhorse in college, either.

Positives

  • Green-Ellis is a better short yardage runner than Cedric Benson, and appears to have little competition for the goal line role in Cincinnati
  • Head coach Marvin Lewis has called Green-Ellis a "three down back" during the preseason
  • Bernard Scott, the theoretical compliment to Green-Ellis in a committee role, has failed to earn a bigger piece of the carries even though the Bengals have been desperate to rely less on Cedric Benson

Negatives

  • Green-Ellis' only "plus" skill has been an ability to plunge in for touchdowns from the goal line
  • The Bengals made a minimal financial commitment to Green-Ellis
  • OC Jay Gruden has not echoed Marvin Lewis' views on Green-Ellis being a three-down back, and both Benson and Bernard Scott have stated a belief they will be asked to share the workload

Final thoughts

I want to like BenJarvus Green-Ellis more than I do. At 27 years old, he's going to a young team with some exciting offensive pieces, and has very little competition for a major role. Yet, at his current ADP (RB23, 59th overall), it's going to cost you a 5th or 6th round selection. That's a bit too high for someone I see as having a low ceiling. If things fall just right for Green-Ellis, he will see 250 carries for roughly 1,000 yards rushing and 8-12 touchdowns. That's his upside, which doesn't seem to fit well with some of the other players available in the same draft range.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Phlash said:

He's the kind of guy that will quietly put up 1200/12 and catch another 200 yards next year, be boringly consistent, but really bolster your RB2 spot which is where you should be able to grab him.

cheese said:

I think you can pretty much ignore his role in NE and plug him in as the new Ced Benson. Whether you think that's a good thing or not depends on you (and of course what round it is). I expect him to be a low YPC workhorse with basically no threat to his job. One of the easiest guys to predict just due to situation. RB18ish finish, no more or less.

TheDirtyWord said:

Green-Ellis had essentially a 2 year career with the NE Patriots. He proved himself to be a dependable player who never turned the ball over and excelled in short yardage situations. In those seasons, the Patriots scored an average of 515 points. That offense set up a host of scoring opportunities for BJGE which allowed him to score 24 TD's (6 more than the Bengals), 19 of which were from within the 10 yard line.

The Bengals scored 305 points last season.

The value that BJGE has is that he's not going to do anything stupid. But he's not going to do anything spectacular either. The large part of his value the last two seasons was because he was the finisher on a prolific offense. It wasn't because he's multi-dimensional (he has 4 games where he exceeded 1 reception). It's not because he's explosive (he has 5 carries of 20+ yards out of 510).

At the end of the day, he's moving to an offense that scoreboard wise the last 2 seasons, has been literally 60% of the offense that BJGE is coming from. On that basis alone, you could justifiably forecast a reduction of TD's down to 7. And given that the Bengals have averaged 9 rushing TD's the last 2 seasons...that's almost additional evidence that would back up such a forecast.

What BJGE has going in it's favor is that the last 3 seasons, they've handed the ball off to Cedric Benson 895 times. Could the motivation have been that during the last 2 seasons, they were hoping to recreate the beast the possessed Benson's body during the 2009 season? Who knows. But I wonder if they'll show such an allgiance to or reliance on BJGE. IMO, it's really the only way he'll even he able to ascend to RB2 value is to get 300 carries...and even then, TD's will still be more difficult to come by. At an ADP of 4.06 and RB21, it will be an uphill climb for him to outperform his draft position.

lbouchard said:

People that are expecting 1000 yards and double digits TDs are going to be sorely disappointed. The guy is average at best. He got majority of value due to TDs, but as previously stated, Cincy offense not nearly as good as Pats and I'm only expecting 6 or 7. He played against 4 man fronts more often than any back in football, and still had a low YPC. He doesn't fumble and can pass protect, I'll grant.

bengalbuck said:

The Bengals had 4 major gripes with Cedric Benson from what I and tell from public comments/insider speculation. 1st was his negative locker room presence as he was focused almost entirely on his own numbers and touches. 2nd was his weakness in the passing game. 3rd was his huge and increasing fumble problem. 4th was his lack of production in short yardage and goal line.

The Bengals in the Marvin Lewis era have traditionally been pretty strong in short yardage and goalline running situations, but the last 2 years were exceptions. Part of that can probably be put at the feet of the interior line run blocking, but it seems the coaches also put a lot of the blame on Benson. With 2 upgrades at OG (Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton) and a better short yardage RB, I would expect a return to the days of double digit TDs from the Bengals top RB.


BenJarvus Green-Ellis projections

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