Running Back Stock Market Report — NFC EAST
By Brian Hawkes
The relatively healthy seasons, and consistent production, we saw among the top running backs (Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Lesean McCoy, etc.) in 2016 has made some question if we should welcome the ‘return of the running back’ in fantasy football. Although it’s entirely possible those elite running backs could continue to perform at the level we saw this past season, it is not likely.
A primary driver is the fragility (injury risk) and volatility (turnover) of the running back position. Injury risk comes with the physicality and volume of touches we see from running backs, and volatility comes as a result of the devaluation NFL teams have shown us through draft trends. Consider this, from 2012-2016, an average of 1.2 running backs were drafted in round one of the NFL Draft. During the previous 5 years, 2007-2011, the average was more than double – at 2.8 running backs drafted in the first round. The impact of this shift is NFL teams are no longer investing significant money at the running back position, which reduces their commitment, and can lead to roster turnover/ depth chart changes.
As dynasty owners, there is little we can do to minimize the fragility, or injury risk; Injuries happen and they are virtually impossible to predict. We can, however, minimize the volatility (roster turnover/ depth chart changes) by investing wisely in running backs who are guaranteed money and have clear paths to playing time.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at some free agent running backs sign who signed contracts this past offseason:
- Lamar Miller
- Chris Ivory
- Doug Martin
- CJ Anderson
On the surface the new contracts these players signed shows a renewed commitment to them. If we look closer, however, we see that some of the deals were structured as short term deals.
- Doug Martin & CJ Anderson are due no guaranteed money beyond 2016
- Chris Ivory is due $7.25 million guaranteed in ‘17, $3.25 million in ‘18, and $2.25 million in ‘19
- Lamar Miller is due $8.5 million guaranteed in ‘17, $2 million in ‘18, and $1 million in ‘19
Put yourself in the NFL General Manager’s shoes…If you have a player who has little guaranteed money and he hasn’t performed to expectations (whether due to on field performance, injury, or otherwise), what would you do? If we do this, it’s easy to see why rumors are spreading that the Buccaneers are willing to part ways with Doug Martin or the Broncos may draft a running back in 2017. A savvy dynasty owner looks at salary cap commitments before acquiring a player to assess the stability of the player’s situation. This article will do just that.
Here is the start of an in-depth look at all 32 depth charts. We will assess cap commitment for 2017 and beyond, and also the potential opportunity that may present itself if there is roster turnover/ depth chart changes. Today: the NFC EAST.
Dallas Cowboys: This backfield is extremely stable. Ezekiel Elliott has a firm hold on carries and targets; as a high first round pick, he is due significant guaranteed money for the foreseeable future. If Elliott were to go down due to injury, Alfred Morris is a nice handcuff for 2017.
New York Giants: The Giants depth chart is completely up for grabs. Rashad Jennings has been the most consistent contributor of late, but he is 31 years old and due only $563,000 guaranteed in 2017 and nothing beyond. The team may choose to part ways with Jennings and save close to $2.5 million. If they do this, early down duties are potentially there for Paul Perkins, or they may add player through Free Agency/ the NFL Draft to compete. A Jennings departure would create an opportunity for another player to the tune of 17 touches per game. Shane Vereen is stable for 2017, and penciled in as the pass-catcher for one more year.
Philadelphia Eagles: This backfield could be up for grabs. Mathews was not fully healthy (a common theme for his career) in 2016, but he did act as the “lead back” when he played. That being said, he’s 29 years old, was not brought in by the current head coach, and the team could save $4 million if they cut him. Behind him, the 33 year old Darren Sproles contributes in the passing game… but the team could save $4 million if he is cut as well. This would leave Wendell Smallwood. Smallwood showed flashes in his rookie year, but may not have left the team with enough confidence to hand over the reigns. In the end, this has the makings of a landing spot for a high end rookie running back, or free agent – with Smallwood being the complementary player/ handcuff. If the team can secure an every down back, the opportunity could be significant if they assume the void left by Mathews and Sproles (24 touches per game).
Washington Redskins: The Redskins backfield has some similarities to the Seahawks of 2015. We saw the emergence of an undrafted player, Robert Kelley (Thomas Rawls), and some depth chart competition from a player who the team once had high hopes for in Matt Jones (Christine Michael). Proceed with caution as Kelley is due no guaranteed money and there is a real possibility the team may consider adding competition at some point – either by releasing Matt Jones, choosing to move on from Chris Thompson, or promoting the explosive Keith Marshall when he returns from injury.