What Can History Teach Us About Ben Tate, Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings?
There's a simple equation that I keep in mind when evaluating players and situations from a fantasy perspective:
Talent + Opportunity = Success
There are other variables like competition, durability, work ethic, character, and giving a damn, but talent and opportunity are the two biggest components to fantasy success.
I've been in a friends and family keeper league for over 10 years. Heading into the 2007 season, I had my eye on Michael Turner, who at the time was backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. After rushing for 1,257 yards on 228 carries through four seasons (5.5 YPC), it was pretty obvious that Turner was going to be the starter somewhere else in 2008. The Chargers had no interest in spending the money required to re-sign him when they already had their bell cow back.
Long story short, I picked Turner in the late-middle rounds of our 2007 draft and he was one of my keepers heading into the 2008 season, when the 26 year-old rushed for 1,699 yards (4.5 YPC) and 17 TDs after signing with the Falcons. He was the #2 RB that year. Turner was an obvious talent who just needed a chance to carry the load. And carry the load he did.
It's not as if fantasy owners had to recognize Turner's potential in 2007, either. Heading into the 2008 season, Turner was the 20th RB off the board, going on average in the middle of the 4th round of fantasy drafts. Warrick Dunn led the Falcons in rushing in 2007 and was no longer on the roster, so the opportunity was definitely there. People just weren't used to thinking of Turner as a fantasy starter, but he finished as the #2 RB in 2008. That's the kind of draft day value that wins championships, and that’s exactly what happened in my keeper league.
Turner isn’t the only example of a backup running back having success after a change of scenery. Heading into the 2005 season, a 27 year-old LaMont Jordan was signed by the Raiders after averaging 4.9 YPC in four seasons with the Jets (backing up Curtis Martin). In his first season with Oakland, he rushed the ball 272 times for 1,025 yards (a 3.8 YPC) and nine TDs, and also caught 70 passes for 563 yards and two scores. He was the #8 RB in standard formats as a 3rd round pick that season.
The following season it was the Chester Taylor (also 27) who made a splash with a new team. He averaged 4.3 YPC in four seasons with the Ravens, but got his chance to start in 2006 with the Vikings. He carried the ball 303 times for 1,216 yards (4.0 YPC) and six TDs while also catching 42 passes for 288 yards. Those were #12 RB numbers that year, so Taylor was a fringe RB1 that was available in the middle of the 4th round in fantasy drafts.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m spending so much time on Michael Turner, LaMont Jordan and Chester Taylor, three backs who aren’t even in the league anymore. Well, we normally might have one backup getting the chance to start with a new team. This season, it looks like we may have three: Ben Tate, Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings.
2014 Free Agent Running Backs
Let’s start with Ben Tate, who turns 26 in August, since the consensus seems to be that he holds the most value at this point.
Heading into the offseason, Tate said he wanted to be a feature back and he'll have his chance in Cleveland. He has averaged 4.7 YPC in his career and has touched the ball at least 15 times in 13 career games, averaging 94.5 yards and 0.54 TD in the process. That equates to 12.7 fantasy points, which is about what Chris Johnson averaged as the #9 RB in 2013. Here’s a look at the game logs from those 13 games:
Ben Tate Game Logs (15+ Touches), 2011-13
|Year||G#||Date||Age||Opp||Rush Att||Rush Yds||YPC||Rush TD||Rec||Rec Yds||YPR||Rec TD||Touches|
Touchdowns are probably going to be tougher to come by in Cleveland than they were in Houston, and Tate wasn’t used extensively in the passing game while with the Texans, though he did average 2.6 receptions in his final nine games of 2013. The big concern with Tate is his questionable durability. In addition to missing the entire 2010 season due to a broken ankle, he has missed eight other games in his career, so he has missed 24 of a possible 64 games (38%). This led to a tepid market and a two-year deal since the Browns aren’t sure he’ll hold up.
Still, as a good fit for new OC Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, Tate figures to see a big workload as long as he’s healthy. Chris Ogbonnaya will get some third-down snaps, while Edwin Baker and Dion Lewis will fight for the leftovers.
When it comes to fielding a consensus in fantasy value, Toby Gerhart seems to be the most divisive of the three. He’ll be 27 years-old to start the season and has the same career 4.7 YPC as Tate. He has touched the ball 15+ times in seven career games and has averaged low-end RB1 numbers (12.6 FP) with that workload. The former Heisman candidate is expected to start for the Jaguars after HC Gus Bradley predicted that he would see 15-20 touches per game.
Let’s take a look at his game logs when he sees starter’s touches:
Toby Gerhart Game Logs (15+ Touches), 2010-13
|Year||G#||Date||Age||Opp||Rush Att||Rush Yds||YPC||Rush TD||Rec||Rec Yds||YPR||Rec TD||Touches|
The biggest knock on Gerhart is that he doesn’t have a lot of wiggle in his game, though he runs with power and his career YPC is certainly encouraging. (I’d also like to note that no one is going to look particularly nifty as a replacement for Adrian Peterson.) He’s a deft receiver and isn’t expected to come off the field on third downs. From a durability standpoint, Gerhart has missed three games in four seasons, so he has played in 61 of a possible 64 games.
Barring a big improvement at QB, the Jacksonville offense isn’t expected to be a juggernaut, so touchdowns will be hard to come by. Gerhart projects to get most of the team’s goal line carries. At this point, Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson are his competition at running back. Todman showed some flashes last year and is expected to serve in a change-of-pace role.
Finally, Rashad Jennings joins the Giants after carrying the load down the stretch for the Raiders in 2013. While getting starter’s snaps, Jennings was the #6 RB from Week 9 to Week 15 and that included a missed game against the Jets in Week 14.
Here’s a look at the 13 career games where he has seen 15+ touches:
Rashad Jennings Game Logs (15+ Touches), 2010-13
|Year||G#||Date||Age||Tm||Opp||Rush Att||Rush Yds||YPC||Rush TD||Rec||Rec Yds||YPR||Rec TD||Touches|
He averaged 14.4 fantasy points with this workload, which would have been solid RB1 numbers in 2013.
After posting 5.4 YPC in his first 123 carries with the Jaguars, Jennings had a chance to run with the RB1 job in 2012 and fell flat on his face to the tune of 2.8 YPC and two TDs in 10 games. In his defense, he suffered a season-ending knee injury the year before, though he did not need surgery and reportedly could have returned to action by midseason. Regardless, after is woeful 2012 performance, the Jaguars let him walk and he landed in Oakland. There, he rushed for 733 yards on 163 carries (4.5 YPC) and scored six TDs filling in for an injured Darren McFadden.
Now with this third team in as many seasons, Jennings is expected to bolster a running game that struggled in 2013. The team still believes that David Wilson can contribute, but Jennings is fully capable of winning the RB1 job outright. Jennings will be 29 to open the season, so he’s close to the end of a running back’s prime. But given the limited workload he has seen for most of his career, there should be plenty of tread left on his tires.
Here’s a look at how each of the aforementioned players performed on a fantasy points per touch basis with their old teams as well as their new ones:
Running Backs Changing Teams (FP/Touch)
|Player||Age||Year||Old Team(s)||Total Touches||FP/touch||New Team||Total Touches (Y1)||FP/touch|
|Rashad Jennings||29||2014||JAX, OAK||484||0.662||NYG||?||?|
Jordan and Taylor’s production per touch decreased in Year 1 with their new teams while Turner’s production actually increased once he landed in Atlanta. The key here is that all three players went well over 300 touches after changing teams.
Since Jennings has already switched teams once, he deserves a closer look. His FP/touch in Jacksonville was 0.638. He produced 0.696 FP per touch last season with the Raiders. There's no reason that he can't produce similar numbers in New York, provided the Giants can get their running game together.
Going back to 2005, there have only been a handful of backup RBs changing teams via free agency, and Turner, Jordan and Taylor were success stories. But were there any free agency duds? Derrick Ward signed with the Buccaneers in 2009 and didn't do much, but Carnell Williams actually stayed healthy that season, so Ward was his backup. Ward was expected to start, but he was only a 7th round pick that season.
Both Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett signed with the Seahawks in 2008 and while Jones was expected to be the RB1, he too was a 7th round pick in fantasy drafts, so he wasn't really on solid footing. Jones ended up with 158 carries while Duckett had 62, but Maurice Morris was the third back in the committee with 132 carries.
The last free agent team-changer worth mentioning is Darren Sproles, who saw his touches jump from 109 in his final season with the Chargers to 173 in his first season (2011) with the Saints. He was the #10 RB in standard formats that season, but since he was more of a passing-down specialist, I didn't include him in the Turner/Jordan/Taylor analysis. Sproles was a 13th-round pick that year. The takeaway: If a team goes out of its way to acquire a running back, they're probably going use him.
If history is any guide, Tate, Gehart and Jennings will be drafted somewhere in the 3rd-5th round range, though the offseason isn’t over yet. There are several solid RBs still available, namely Knowshon Moreno, LeGarrette Blount, Maurice Jones-Drew and Andre Brown. If any one of these players (or one of the better rookie RBs) lands with the Browns, Jaguars or Giants, it will adversely impact the workload of Tate, Gerhart or Jennings. Chris Johnson is another wildcard. He’s expected to be released or traded by the Titans, but they haven’t cut him loose yet. (Also, Wilson’s health will affect Jennings’ status as the RB1 in New York.)
I value Tate and Gerhart very closely at this point. Tate is the more explosive runner, but his long injury history is worrisome. I would put Jennings in the same tier if David Wilson were not in the picture. At this point, Tate and Gerhart seem like 4th/5th round picks, while Jennings looks like a 5th/6th rounder with Wilson's status up in the air.
Remember, we’re not talking about elite running backs here. If they were special, their original teams never would have let them walk while they were still in their prime. But as Turner, Jordan and Taylor have proved, quality backup running backs getting a chance to start with a new team can be very good values on draft day. All three posted fantasy RB1 or fringe RB1 numbers in their first year in new situations, so this is something to keep in mind as we prepare for 2014 fantasy drafts.