An Unlikely Star
Until last season, Justin Forsett personified the NFL journeyman.
- 2008 -- Drafted in the 7th round by the Seahawks, waived after one week
- 2008 -- Claimed off waivers by the Colts, waived a month later
- 2008 -- Re-signed by the Seahawks and added to the practice squad
- 2009 through 2011 -- Rushed for a combined 278 carries for 1,287 yards and 7 touchdowns
- 2012 -- Signed a 1-year deal with the Texans
- 2013 -- Signed a 1-year deal with the Jaguars
- 2014 -- Signed with the Ravens
Forsett was playing for his fifth team and was solidly behind Ray Rice and competing for touches with Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro. Then, the Ray Rice incident happened, and Bernard Pierce was elevated to the starting role. Pierce struggled and Forsett got his chance. He never looked back. Forsett was a perfect fit in Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking system, and enjoyed a career year:
- 235 rushes
- 1,266 rushing yards
- 8 rushing touchdowns
- 44 receptions
- 263 receiving yards
- RB8 fantasy ranking
Forsett enters the 2015 season with high expectations as the team re-signed him to a 3-year, $9mm contract and the unquestioned #1 role. As we'll see below, Forsett is going to make for a fascinating case study of whether fantasy owners should ascribe more value to historical trend analysis OR a player's individual circumstances.
The Crushing Weight of History
Forsett is only the 10th player in NFL history to have his first 1,000-yard season at age 29 or older. If you're a student of history, that's not encouraging company to keep. As the table below illustrates, the other "late bloomer" running backs were nothing special beyond that one breakout season.
Table 1: Running Backs with 1,000+ Yards for the First Time, Age 29 or Older
|First||Last||Year||Age||Team||Rush||Yards||TDs||Year N+1||Rush||Yards||TDs||1K Ever Again?|
Let's analyze the data:
- 10 running backs, including Forsett, had their first 1,000-yard season at age 29 or later
- Not a single member of this cohort ran for 1,000 yards the following season
- On average, their carries fell 44% year-over-year (from 276 to 155)
- On average, their rushing yards fell 48% year-over-year (from 1,148 to 599)
- On average, their rushing touchdowns fell 58% year-over-year (from 8 to 3)
- Only two of the nine EVER had another 1,000-yard season
You don't get a more damning statistical set than this grouping. Not a single runner with Forsett's profile matched their success in Year N+1. And on average their value was halved.
An Advantageous Coaching Change
Normally the loss of Gary Kubiak -- who runs an RB-friendly system -- would be problematic, but Forsett lucked out because the Ravens hired Marc Trestman as the new offensive coordinator. Matt Forte caught a combined 176 receptions in two seasons with Trestman, and that's not an outlier. As the below table shows, Marc Trestman has ALWAYS favored his running backs in the receiving game.
Table 2: Running Backs as Receivers under Marc Trestman
|Year||Team||Name||Recs||Team Rank||% of Total|
Let's analyze the data:
- On average, Trestman's running backs have ranked 3rd on the team in total catches
- On average, the lead running back has caught 18% of the team's receptions
- On average, the lead running back has caught 66.9 receptions
It's not out of the question to think Forsett could be in-line for 70-80 receptions this year; which would make him a bonafide fantasy RB1 particularly in PPR leagues.
Breaking the Tie: Other Contributing Factors
On one hand we've got NFL history telling us to run screaming away from Forsett. On the other hand we've got Forsett's new play-caller and his propensity to create dual-threat lead running backs. Perhaps a closer examination of the other contributing factors will help break the logjam:
- Strength of Schedule -- According to our own Clayton Gray, the Ravens have a middle-of-the-road schedule, although it does project to be 12% easier than last season (POSITIVE)
- Offensive Line -- The Ravens rank as the NFL's 2nd best offensive line per our own Matt Bitonti (POSITIVE)
- Alternative Receiving Targets -- The Ravens still have Steve Smith Jr. and drafted Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams, but neither Perriman nor Williams are expected to make immediate contributions. With the prospect of Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken playing meaningful snaps, it stands to reason Forsett will be one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets (POSITIVE)
- Depth Chart -- I believe Buck Allen can thrive as a 3-down starter if given the chance, but Forsett has gotten all the 1st team reps and Allen won't get an opportunity for major playing time unless (until?) Forsett struggles (NEUTRAL)
The tale of the tape says 3 positives, 0 negatives and 1 neutral contributing factor.
- Forsett was a Top 10 fantasy running back last season, was re-signed, and has the clear cut #1 role entering the season
- Marc Trestman's running backs have always been monsters in the receiving game, averaging nearly 70 receptions
- The Ravens offensive line is among the best in the NFL
- Forsett is a journeyman who was a non-factor for six seasons
- NFL history says that if a running back cracks the 1,000-yard mark at Forsett's age, they have NEVER matched that production in Year N+1
- The Ravens have tenuous depth at WR/TE; which could allow opposing defenses to stack the box
Justin Forsett was an unlikely fantasy star last year, but fantasy owners are betting on a repeat. Forsett is going to serve as a test case against whether NFL historical analysis should be valued more/less than an individual's anecdotal narrative. Although the historical data on older breakout running backs is downright depressing, Forsett's situation is undeniably appealing. If I'm breaking the tie, it's in FAVOR of Forsett.
The Ravens committed financially to Forsett in the offseason, improved the offensive line, and most importantly replaced Gary Kubiak with Marc Trestman as offensive coordinator. Kubiak was a known commodity and his zone-blocking scheme has worked wonders for RBs over the years; but Trestman has been a fantasy boon himself. Trestman's RBs have always caught an inordinate number of passes. While Forsett's usage in 2015 might not mirror last year, what he loses (if any) in rushing productivity will be more than offset via his role as a receiver. In PPR formats Forsett is a fringe RB1 that can be had in the 3rd or 4th round; that's how you win fantasy leagues. In non-PPR formats, Forsett remains a solid RB2. Draft accordingly.
Thoughts from Around the Web
Our staff view Forsett as one of the the most undervalued fantasy running backs:
Michael Brown: A lifetime ago, an unheralded Ravens RB put up solid numbers every chance he got. But for some reason, those opportunities never really sustained themselves. It took him going to Kansas City to really break out. That player, of course, was Priest Holmes. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, I’m not suggesting Forsett is the next Holmes. But prior to joining Baltimore, Forsett had 347 career carries for 1,693 yards and 8 scores – so it’s not like 2014 came out of nowhere. And the beauty is that he doesn’t have to become Holmes to provide value. Forsett has averaged over 5 YPC for his career, and is coming off a 1500-yard campaign. There is little competition for touches, he is expected to see a bigger role, and the Ravens brought in a coordinator who oversaw Matt Forte catch 102 passes a year ago. Forsett oozes value.
ESPN's Matthew Berry sees a wide range of possible outcomes:
Meanwhile, someone like Justin Forsett, who has a much shorter track record of being a top fantasy running back, is older and has a new offensive coordinator this season. Now, the new offensive coordinator is fantasy-friendly, the Ravens say they are keeping most of what they did last season under Gary Kubiak and it's a very good offensive line. So he could easily repeat. It could also all go downhill. There is a wide range of outcomes for Forsett.
Joseph Hutchins of FFToday tags Forsett as one of the possible Top 10 backs likely to fall out of this year's Top 10:
Justin Forsett, BAL: ...The tragedy, of course, is that Forsett turns 30 soon, the age at which most backs are breaking down, not hitting their stride. He has fewer miles on his tires than most, but he seems unlikely to be sustainably successful at such an advanced age. Moreover, Gary Kubiak, whose zone-blocking scheme was a perfect fit for the diminutive but powerful Forsett, has moved on to Denver. Though incoming coordinator Marc Trestman swears the scheme won’t change, it’s unusual for a coach not to incorporate some of his own principles into an existing system.
Which brings us to the primary reason I think Forsett will struggle to reproduce his stellar 2014: Javorius “Buck” Allen. The Ravens drafted the former USC Trojan in the fourth round of this past April’s draft primarily because of his advanced pass-catching and pass-blocking skills. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize Trestman’s influence on this decision since his favorite thing to do, if last year is any indication, is throw footballs to his running backs. Matt Forte led all running backs with 102 receptions last season and nobody else was even close. Not that Allen will necessarily be a mere third-down specialist. He’s a solid, patient runner who stands four inches taller and weighs 25 pounds more than Forsett. The Buck starts here?
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