As a Producer
Frank Gore’s foray into Indianapolis went almost exactly as expected. A 32-year-old back with 2,784 touches already on his tires, Gore wheezed to an inefficient line that blew no socks off, but generally fell in line with his RB16 ADP. (He finished as the overall RB13, with 12.39 PPR points per game.) By typical logic, we should only expect a further decline in Gore’s play and fantasy appeal. He’s now 33, fresh off his worst NFL season, and the Colts offensive line remains a question mark.
But let’s not bury Gore just yet. Fantasy sports are about far more than talent and athleticism; opportunity and volume tell the tale more than anything. That principle was on full display in 2015, when the final PPR RB1, RB3, RB10, RB11, RB12, RB13, RB17, RB18, RB21, RB22, RB23, and RB24 all averaged 4.2 yards per rush or less. That makes me a lot more comfortable projecting Gore as the RB17 - or maybe better - for 2016.
How do such relatively inefficient runners keep reaching RB2 value (or better)? With volume and with receiving production, of course. Today’s NFL utilizes rotational backs with varied skillsets, and fantasy football rewards those who (a) dominate their team’s backfield snaps and/or (b) catch plenty of balls out of the backfield. It’s important to not sound the death knell for slow, plodding, and even old runners. They can carry their value as well – their RB1 upside is capped and iffy, but they get the ball and they produce. And the “he’s boring” discount usually creates outstanding bargains in the middle rounds.
Of course, the potential for such backs is almost entirely dependent upon external factors. Which offense does he play in? Is it a strong one that creates a lot of second-half rushing opportunity and touchdown chances? One that runs a healthy number of offensive plays that boost his volume potential? One with a dynamic passing game that keeps defensive attention out of the guard-tackle box?
That’s where Gore fits for 2016. He’ll start – and likely dominate backfield touches to a wild degree – in a Colts offense that soared two years ago as a healthy, Andrew Luck-led unit. In 2014, Indianapolis fielded one of the NFL’s most explosive and prolific offenses:
|Off Play||Yd/Play||Off Yd||1st D||Off TD|
source: Pro Football Reference
For the most part, I’m throwing out the Colts’ 2015 season for projection and expectation purposes. Luck missed nine games, spelled under center by both the ancient (Matt Hasselbeck) and the atrocious (Ryan Lindley, Josh Freeman), and wasn’t especially good when on the field. But I expect the 2016 Colts to look much more similar to the 2014 version. Luck is presumably recovered from his kidney ailment, and new coordinator Rob Chudzinski carries a strong offensive resume. This offense should rebound noticeably, and everyone – especially its high-volume starters – should benefit appropriately. A Colts bounce-back should yield the following effects for Gore:
More positive game scripts. Last year, the Colts ran the ball just 194 times over the second half of games (including overtime) – 10th-fewest in the league. The previous year, an 11-5 season for the Colts, they ran 26 more times across their second halves. If we can add 15-20 more carries to Gore’s 2015 total, it should create at least another half-point per game in rushing yardage alone.
More touchdown opportunity. The 2015 Colts took 39 offensive snaps from inside the 10-yard line, a solid number on its own. But in 2014, they ran 50 plays from there – third-most in the NFL. Apparently, replacing Luck with the dregs of the NFL’s backup market means fewer long drives and less time spent in scoring position.
More general efficiency. Colts running backs managed a meager 3.54 yards per rush last year, with Gore finishing at 3.72 (the worst of his career). We can put a lot of blame on the sorry state of the Colts offensive line, but we’ll note that they stood at 3.90 in the team’s awesome 2014. If the offense re-clicks to near its previous form, we can confidently expect at least a small boost in rushing production; another 260-270 carries should easily top 1,000 yards in this offense.
Altogether, if we apply these expectations, Gore could easily see an additional 100-200 scrimmage yards and a handful more touchdowns. Add that to last year’s RB13 line, and you have a clear low-end RB1 candidate in mid-round clothing.
Of course, those are all theoretical assumptions that could certainly fall apart – especially for an old back with limited ability to overcome a shaky offense. There’s a strong chance Gore looks just as old and lethargic as he did last year. But before we compare him unfavorably to his more exciting peers, we have to note that he’s simply not like most of them. He’s a volume dominator, and provided he’s healthy, he’ll almost certainly see enough touches to make up for his fading efficiency.
Simply put, at the moment, Gore is the Colts backfield. The touches in any offense (let alone a high-octane one like this) have to go somewhere, and there’s not a single profile elsewhere on roster that looks poised to take many away. Last year, Gore’s 294 touches accounted for 75.0% of the team’s RB touches – a rate squarely among the league’s leaders. Lost amidst his ho-hum season was the fact that he drew 45 targets, 10th-most among running backs and third among three-down bell cows. Sure, most of that can be chalked up to a horrendous RB depth chart, but it wasn’t out of line with expectations. Ahmad Bradshaw was horrid (2.7 yards per rush) before his season-ending injury, and neither Dan Herron nor the late Zurlon Tipton made any kind of case for attention. As a result, Gore represented the only RB weaponry the coaches wanted to feature.
Good news: little has changed. The team basically eschewed the 2016 free agent class, then completely ignored the position in the NFL Draft. Their RB additions cost the team virtually nothing to acquire and carry little to no NFL track record to speak of.
Don’t get me wrong: Ferguson isn’t valueless, and his NFL outlook is decent. He was undrafted, but a Colts source claims the team began considering his services in Round 4. He was used very heavily in the pass game at Illinois, catching 166 passes and 8 touchdowns over his four years. It’s easy to see him stepping into that role as a Colt, and he could even draw another 30ish targets away from Gore as a rookie. But that’s a best-case scenario; Ferguson is a ho-hum athletic prospect who’s never played a pro down, while Gore remains well respected and useful to a complex NFL passing game. Odds are, Gore maintains a stranglehold on the passing game, just not quite as strong of one as last year.
Beyond Ferguson, there’s no real light here. The three main veteran reserves have appeared on more NFL teams’ rosters and practice squads (13) than they’ve scored touchdowns (8). Turbin has plodded to just 4.01 yards per rush over four seasons, and his offseason arrest bodes poorly for his chances. He’s produced all of three NFL touchdowns and doesn’t look set to threaten for any real work. Todman was semi-electric as the Jaguars’ No. 3 back in 2014, but is also a special teams journeyman (this is his sixth team) and no lock to make the roster, let alone play on offense. Williams’ career thus far looks very similar to theirs.
- An elite-level stranglehold on the Colts backfield, with gobs of three-down usage and red zone opportunity
- A surrounding offense that has set the NFL ablaze as recently as 2014
- An offensive line that added first-round center Ryan Kelly and three other draft picks to its stable – and gets back left tackle Anthony Costanzo
- An advanced age that portends doom for running backs – though not quite to the level we tend to assume
- A semi-intriguing rookie teammate that could steal a chunk of Gore’s workload
- An offense that flashes greatness, but vacillates in efficiency and could again faceplant
All told, it appears only an injury or a transcendent Ferguson preseason could bar Gore from again dominating the backfield. And you’re very unlikely to find that kind of stability beyond the first few RB tiers. That volume creates golden value in fantasy drafts – especially in Round 7, where Gore is currently being taken on average. There’s no excuse for that kind of undervaluation. Gore can be chosen as your RB4, way below intriguing wild cards like Carlos Hyde or Matt Jones, but with a terrific RB3 floor for that range. Add a hint of touchdown ceiling, assuming the Colts offense gets back on track, and there may not be a better all-around running back value in this draft.
Our own Jeff Tefertiller is on board with Gore as a major draft day steal:
“The forgotten RB. Gore should get ample touches to be a reliable RB1/2 for fantasy owners. He still ran strong late in the season.”
Evan Silva is in on Gore’s upside and price point:
“Still facing minimal competition for backfield snaps, Gore is an appealing sixth-/seventh-round target for fantasy owners employing a receiver-heavy approach early in drafts. He has locked-in touches in an offense with high-scoring potential.”
Raymond Summerlin is intrigued, but wary – and reminds us to keep an eye on the Colts’ backup situation:
“Frank Gore is undervalued, but he is also 33 (soon) and coming off his worst season. If he craters there is going to be value somewhere.”
 Furthermore, RBs 25-29 and 31-32 also landed at or below that mark.
 A safe bet: Gore hasn’t missed a game in five years.
 No other Colts back reached 86 rushing yards, notched a single rushing touchdown, or caught 11 passes.