The Gut Check No.523: Phillip Lindsay Gives You A Puncher's Chance

Matt Waldman examines the game of Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay, an elite running back talent in a reserve's frame who gives fantasy GMs in need of a running back a puncher's chance down the stretch. 

Phillip Lindsay Is a Great Ball Carrier But A Below-Average Running Back

I whiffed something awful on my evaluation of Phillip Lindsay for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I had the 5-7, 184-pound running back graded as a Developmental player who would compete for a spot on special teams and if he wasn't earning his keep there, he'd be on the bubble of the active roster or practice squad.

Here's what I wrote about Lindsay:

Lindsay has good long speed and runs with intensity for his size. He'll alter his stride to patiently set up gap plays like counter as well as inside and outsid ezone. With his speed, he's well-suited for the counters and wind-back plays Colorado used.

He'll hit the hole with a decisive burst or set it up and jump-cut to the open crease. He understands angles and is able to spot whent he defensive leverage is ripe for him to bounce a run outside. However, Lindsay often needs multiple steps to cut downhill on perimeter runs, and he doesn't win there as much as one might expect for a back of his speed.

When he wins, he's fast enough to force defensive backs playing outside containment to re-calibrate their angles and give chase. Despite forcing safeties to change their angle of attack, these defensive backs often recover and catch him if he doesn't have the runway to fully build up his speed...

...At his weight, power will never be his game. He lacks the strength to truly push a pile without help. He can slide off indirect contact by defensive ends to his upper body and lean thorugh it for another yard but that's about it. He can earn a little more against linebackers and defensive beacks when he's earned downhill momentum into the collision. When wrapped, Lindsay finishes with good body lean.

He'll mitigate penetration with his quickness, identifying the angle to reach open sapce or the soft-spot of a crease to push. Despite his long speed, he's not sudden. Defensive linemen and linebackers often catch Lindsay from bheind in pursuit before he reaches a crease.

Expecting a back of his size to become a competent NFL blocker is s stretch. Howerver, Lindsay does a good job of squaring his target and delivering an uppercu punch. He has a tendency to leave his feet while delivering his punch and it damages his ability to maintian leverage while moving with the defender during the second-strike/follow-up phase of a block. AT the same time, leverage is only so effective when there' sa massive size disadvantage....

His receiving game is promising and the linchpin of his NFL potential. Lindsay runs an effective double-move in the middle of the field to fake out linebackers on routes in the flats or up the seams. He's targeted on vertical routes up the sidelien and adjusts well to them.

While much of the description of Lindsay's running style is correct, it's likely that my concerns about his lack of suddenness had more to do with how he set up creases with footwork that was correctable. There may also be some situations where my assessment of Lindsay's acceleration was too harsh for the specific situations where he got caught from behind.

Ultimately, I didn't think Lindsay didn't possess the compensatory factors to make up for his lack of size and strength. I also didn't believe he'd add enough weight to his frame to reach the 190-pound range that would at least give him a fighting chance to earn a contributing role on offense.

Lindsay not only added the weight, but he displayed good vision and decision-making that has become borderline-great as he continued developing his footwork. If I had graded Lindsay's acceleration, contact balance, and elusiveness a little higher and gave put him a tier higher in each category, he would have earned a contributor grade, which the RSP defines as a player with starter execution in a limited role.

Notable players who earned that grade in Lindsay's draft class were Jordan Wilkins, Boston Scott, Chase Edmonds, and Bo Scarbrough.

Unlike these four players, who arguably have more well-rounded games in terms of acceleration, power, balance, pass protection, and receiving, Lindsay is an elite ballcarrier with a reserve's frame and game when it comes to pass protection and power. Running backs of Lindsay's size rarely remain durable when used as primary ballcarriers in the NFL year-after-year and because NFL teams play the odds in this respect, it's easy to see why fans and John Elway are at loggerheads about Lindsay.

It's also at the crux of why my projection of Lindsay's career was incorrect but Lindsay still presents an uneasy dilemma for NFL decision-makers as well as fantasy GMs this year: He's a great ballcarrier but questions about him holding up in pass protection, short-yardage, and high-end workloads reduce him to a contributor status.

Fans don't want to hear this and I get it. Lindsay has only missed four starts during his three-year career that includes two 1,000-yard seasons as a runner.

However, Elway is probably betting on the odds of an untimely break-down, or else he wouldn't have added Melvin Gordon III to the mix—a back who is not nearly as explosive as Lindsay and may actually be Lindsay's subordinate when looking solely at their vision and decision-making between the tackles.

Lindsay's past three games offer a sterling example of his ability to read the line of scrimmage, find creases, and even make his blockers look better than they are—a trait that top running backs possess.

Graphics and Video Editing by Justin Johnson

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Adam Harstad is correct when he labels yards-per-carry average as a "garbage statistic." Still, Lindsay's 6.9 YPC average during the past three games paints the picture of his big-play skills.

As you can see above, Lindsay can beat defenses inside and outside as well as running gap- or zone-blocking. It makes Lindsay a threat every time he touches the ball, and his ratio of touchdowns to touches is likely among the highest of any back in 2018-19.

But Isn't Lindsay's Fantasy Value Problematic?

With Gordon in the mix, absolutely. Denver seems bent on splitting the workload so Lindsay doesn't get worn down. Still, there are reasons why you may want to target Lindsay if on the trade market and you can't get a top back who offers consistently high volume.

Based on the argument below, I'm coming around to the idea that Lindsay can offer RB2 with occasional RB1 games at an RB3 or RB4 discount based on the perception that Melvin Gordon III's presence is too great of an obstacle to rely on Lindsay. The risk with Lindsay is absolutely higher, but this feature is about finding edges before others discover them or exploring high-risk, high-reward options. If you need a back and you have to decide between the unknown of the week or a Chase Edmonds-like option who might learn starter opportunities in a pass-heavy offense, Lindsay might be had at a discount and offer greater value.

Lindsay scored once every 28.7 touches during the past 2 years. While it's not on par with Aaron Jones' score per every 15 touches, Derrick Henry's 1 per 18, or Christian McCaffrey's 1 per 21 in 2019, it's not far off Dalvin Cook's 1 per 23 or Ezekiel Elliott it's 1 per 25 rates. It's a good indicator that Lindsay can make the most of his touches.

Combine this data point with Lindsay's versatility and craft as a ballcarrier and it makes sense why he's on a very short list of options worth the risk that comes with investing in a ballcarrier who maximizes output with a minimal workload.

The fantasy schedule is also favorable:

  • Atlanta: The Falcons are athletic but prone to being too aggressive. Ezekiel Elliott, Mike Davis, and Aaron Jones were the only backs with the level of craft to exploit them and Lindsay has that level of craft.
  • Las Vegas: 6th-most points allowed to running backs this year.
  • Miami: 10th-most points allowed to running backs this year.
  • New Orleans: They only backs this stingy defense has allowed big plays from are quick-hitting backs with nuance to their setups who are similar to Lindsay in style, but not as sudden--Aaron Jones and Justin Jackson.
  • Kansas City: The Chiefs offense takes a lot of opposing offenses out of their gameplan to run the ball but when the offense starts slow, the defense is vulnerable to the run as Lindsay, Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Austin Ekeler, and David Johnson have shown.
  • Carolina: 4th-most points allowed to running backs this year.
  • Buffalo: 14th-most points allowed to running backs this year.
  • L.A. Chargers: 21st-most points allowed but the overzealous and reckless nature of rookie LB Kenneth Murray makes them vulnerable to quick-hitters like Lindsay who can set him up.

Although not an ideal "buy" for fantasy GMs, Lindsay's craft, explosion, and schedule of opponents give him a puncher's chance at RB1 value for at least half of the remaining fantasy weeks on the slate. If you find that you're not getting bites on bigger names and time is running out for you to make a move, Lindsay might be the unconventional choice at a relative discount.

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