6 Reasons Jordan Howard Will Not Be a Fantasy Football Bust
Most of the criticism in fantasy football circles for drafting Jordan Howard in 2017 has basically circled back to the same opinion: “The Bears might suck.” There has been so much written both for and against Howard that it’s time to simply take a data-based, objective look at the second year running back’s prospects and let you decide for yourself.
I’ll leave my opinion out of it minus this statement: I’ve found more reasons than not to like the man who was second in the NFL in rushing yardage (1,313 yards) despite not getting starter's touches until Week 4. Does that mean he’ll repeat his 2016 top-10 RB season? We can’t know for sure, but like any good fantasy manager should do, we’ll make the most of the information available.
Let’s run through the six main knocks on Howard.
1. "The Bears might suck"
This is true, but the Bears sucked last year too (3-13 record). Some have argued it will be difficult for Howard to repeat his highly efficient season, rushing for 5.2 yards per carry, if the offense is really bad in 2017.
Then I remembered that awful Matt Barkley started seven games at quarterback in Chicago last year (1-6 record, 8 TD, 14 INT, 68.3 rating). It doesn’t get much worse than that. I assumed I would find Howard’s numbers took a hit in that stretch. I was wrong.
Howard, with a third-string quarterback under center, still averaged 5.1 yards per carry over those seven games and 15.6 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues (what Mark Ingram averaged as RB8 last year).
2. "Howard’s schedule was easy"
Howard averaged 5.7 yards per carry in eight games versus bottom-half run defenses last year. Howard averaged 4.2 yards per carry in five starts against top-half run defenses.
But look at Howard’s 2017 schedule:
I count only two games against top-10 schedule-adjusted fantasy RB defenses, with none higher than 15th after the Week 9 bye. You won’t find many fantasy running backs with better looking schedules heading into 2017 than Jordan Howard.
Yes, fantasy defenses change from one year to the next. However, if you are going to knock Howard’s schedule from last year as a reason to be skeptical this year, it’s only fair to acknowledge what his 2017 schedule actually looks like.
3. "Look what happened to Todd Gurley in 2016"
Todd Gurley had to run behind arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL last season. The Rams' adjusted line yards (meaning how many yards their running backs should have gained on each run based on blocking) was a miserable 3.40. Howard’s was an above-average 4.17, and Howard’s offensive line projects to return all five starters. Look where Howard was versus Gurley in this tweet from 4for4’s TJ Hernandez.
4. "What about the offensive line?"
While Gurley's offensive line will feature three mediocre-to-below-average starters, Howard's offensive line was so good that he beat out Ezekiel Elliott and LeVeon Bell as the NFL leader in rushing yards between the tackles. The only possible change to the Chicago offensive line will be guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton swapping sides. Even if the offensive line was worse for Howard, he was fifth last season in yards after contact.
5. "Howard doesn’t catch passes"
Theoretically, let’s just say Howard catches zero passes in 2017 -- obviously won’t happen, but for argument's sake -- and regresses from 5.2 yards per carry down to 4.5.
Given his 18.46 carries per game as the starter from Week 3-17 last year, at 4.5 yards per carry he’d rush for 1,246 yards in 15 games. I’d say that’s a prettttttty, prettttty, pretty good fantasy floor.
6. "But...the sophomore slump"
Fun fact: Howard is only the fourth RB in NFL history drafted in the fifth round or later to post 1,500 scrimmage yards as a rookie. The others: Alfred Morris (2012), Mike Anderson (2000) and Don Woods (1974). Overall, Herschel Walker is the only other rookie RB to post 1,500+ scrimmage yards.
Sophomore slump? Here’s what that group did in year two:
Context is needed when looking at this table. Anderson split backfield work in his second year with an all-time great, Terrell Davis. Howard is expected to be much closer to a bell cow back. Also, Woods only played in five games in his second season.
So, let’s evaluate this group on a per-game basis without Anderson’s split backfield in his sophomore season. Morris, Walker and Woods averaged 17.3 carries for 75.2 yards and 0.48 touchdowns per game on the ground and 2.48 receptions for 27.1 yards and 0.03 touchdowns per game as a receiver with 0.3 fumbles per game. Collectively they averaged 15.2 PPR points per game in their sophomore seasons following 1,500 scrimmage yards as a rookie. That fantasy output would have finished exactly where Howard did last season (RB9) over 16 games.
The Bottom Line
Despite the possibility of the Bears' continued ineptitude, Howard appears to have a higher floor than most other fantasy running backs in 2017.
The Bears' strong offensive line, historical trends of rookie RBs with 1,500 scrimmage yards, and a very manageable schedule back that up, even when allowing for some regression in Howard's yards per carry.
Are there fair arguments that other running backs near Howard's ADP, such as Jay Ajayi, DeMarco Murray, and Leonard Fournette, have higher ceilings ? Sure. But to simply say Howard is a bust candidate in 2017 for the same reasons Gurley was a bust in 2016 ignores data that tells a much more positive story about Howard entering the 2017 season.