Bilal Powell is the Jets Back to Own in Fantasy Because Matt Forte is Trash Now
Many analysts are projecting the Jets offense to score among the fewest points in the entire league in 2017, which normally wouldn't be a backfield situation to attack. But Bilal Powell is looking like one of the best value plays out there in the back half of the sixth round -- especially in PPR leagues -- and I'm going to show you why.
With the Jets likely to be behind quite a bit in 2017, and with them having question marks at wide receiver, it's likely that whoever is in the backfield will heavily involved in the passing game. The team is in rebuilding mode, and the 28-year-old Powell is currently the favorite for touches this year over the 31-year-old Matt Forte. It's easy to forget that Powell finished as the RB22 last year, with just 189 touches (excluding Week 17); the Jets have every reason to see what he can do with more work. Running backs coach Stump Mitchell even said that Powell would be a “Pro Bowler” if used as a feature back -- but also that Forte is still in the team's plans as well.
The question is, will that if turn into when, or will the Jets stick to those plans and use both Powell and Forte?
Rushing Expectation, which balances metrics with film evaluation (one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football), can provide clues as to how to attack the Jets backfield in 2017 fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Bilal Powell
Powell has rare finishing ability and power at the point of attack, but the thing is, he loves to initiate contact; I definitely have a soft spot for players like that. I saw very good instincts and reaction time from Powell, but his effort level is also a key ingredient, regardless of the area of the field in which he touches the ball.
Powell has very good pad level, above-average vision, and good decision-making skills at the line of scrimmage. He does a good job of shielding the football with his body in the passing game and has rare balance to make plays after contact even when his quarterback puts him in a vulnerable position.
So far, I am a fan of Powell’s talent from a film evaluation perspective. The question is, did he exceed or fall below expectation in 2016 from an efficiency or metrics point of view?
The Jets' overall Expected Success Rate in '16 on rushing attempts was 45.3 percent, slightly below the NFL average of 46.3 percent. Unsurprisingly, they were slightly better on targets to running backs, with a middle-of-the-pack Expected Success Rate of 43.6 percent.
Albeit in a micro sample of just four rushes, Powell appeared to be most successful running towards the right end, but overall, he showed versatility between tackles and performed above expectation.
Now, I will continue to stress that Expected Success Rate is an insanely useful metric, because it does a great job separating a running back's performance from that of his blocking. Despite being cast as a complimentary receiving back, Powell's best work surprisingly came in the run game. In fact, among my 60-player sample, Powell finished with an 86th-percentile Expectation Score on the ground. He attacks defenses and runs with authority that is unlike many of the other players I have charted so far, and he also has very good technique in regards to ball security.
Powell has above-average burst and very good hands, running the vast majority of his routes from the backfield to the outside, which is also his most efficient route in the passing game, and a big part of his 80th-percentile Expectation Score overall as a receiver.
I want to circle back to yards before contact, a metric which I intuitively believe can be a reflection of either a running back's ability or his offensive line's play, to varying degrees. The running backs that pique my interest the most are those that post strong yards before contact numbers despite either below-average blocking (like Ameer Abdullah did last year) or facing a lot of loaded-box situations (like David Johnson). While I believe that Powell’s strong 77th percentile yards before contact average is a positive indicator, it may just be due to facing a below-average percentage of loaded boxes.
That Powell didn't face an above-average percentage of loaded boxes is surprising, given that he played for a team that consistently found itself in negative game script, but it is noteworthy in a small sample of 22 runs, he posted an 82nd-percentile Success Rate independent of his offensive line.
Overall, charting Powell has provided two noteworthy takeaways:
He has a three-down, bellcow skillset.
He's mature enough to know how to play physical and initiate a ton of contact while still displaying very good elusiveness at the line of scrimmage.
Powel should see a lot of work in 2017 after he was surprisingly efficient last year despite being in a poor offense. Comparable running backs often see a boost in value in poor game script because of the number of targets they receive, and that could easily be the case with Powell in ‘17.
However, there's a dark cloud that could potentially loom over Powell’s fantasy value: Matt Forte.
Rushing Expectation: Matt Forte
Does Forte have something left in the tank? Limited by various injuries in the second half of last season, he continued to pile up mileage, logging 218 carries and 43 targets in 14 games. His run distribution was much more concentrated than Powell’s, with over half of his runs going directly up the gut.
Despite still possessing the mental chops to be creative in the open field, Forte struggled mightily on the ground because he can't execute as well due to declining athletic ability that I would call merely average at best at this point in his career. Forte was far less efficient than Powell, finishing with an Expectation Score on the ground in only the second percentile.
This is exactly the disparity we should look for as fantasy owners, and reminds me of my profile that pitted Spencer Ware against Charcandrick West last year -- where West was complete trash. Well, at least from an efficiency standpoint, Forte was 2015-Jeremy Langford-level trash last season -- which is probably even worse.
I’m not saying Forte is Langford, but like Langford two seasons ago, Forte's fantasy production was almost completely volume-based. That’s fine in fantasy, it’s just not always sustainable when there's a better back on the roster.
The only place where Forte was better than league average as a rusher was up the middle, which may explain why he out-carried Powell 16-7 inside the 10 last season -- although 12 of those carries came in two games that occurred before Powell had taken over.
The passing game provides more of a cause for optimism, as Forte has very good hands -- it’s tough to take that away from him -- and routinely catches passes away from his body. He can still make plays with his back to the quarterback, so it's at least plausible that Forte could be a factor in the passing game; his one redeeming quality was a 70th-percentile Expectation Score through the air. That matters...I guess.
Like Powell, Forte did not face a loaded box frequently. That said, Forte provided a yard less per carry before contact than Powell -- another significant disparity between the two in a stat I put a lot of stock into when targeting a back who could potentially emerge from a committee situation to be a feature back.
As far as the ability to finish runs, I found Forte’s tape to be below average. He sets up his blocks well, but struggles as soon as blocking breaks down. He posted a yards after contact average on the ground in just the ninth percentile in ‘16.
Bilal Powell: 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Powell has spent a lot of time waiting for an opportunity to be a feature back. I think this is the year he's going to get it and show everyone how good he really is while Forte continues to take a step backwards.
Running backs who are targeted in the passing game carry more upside on bad teams than you might realize, and after getting 4.7 targets per game last season (sixth among running backs), I believe Powell will be the primary beneficiary of the likely negative game flow situations.
Powell has a great mix of talent and opportunity. If Powell digs even slightly into Forte’s goal-line role -- which is likely given Forte's ominous struggles in yards after contact -- Powell could have league-winning upside.
I have no problem drafting Powell aggressively at his ADP in the sixth/seventh round as of this writing. Powell is also a perfect target for Zero RB drafters.
Matt Forte: 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Forte is clearly not my favorite prospect at this point of his career. Maybe it’s still in the realm of possibilities that he maintains a significant role, but I doubt it, and I definitely don’t think he'll see any games with 30 touches this season.
Despite the irony that if the Jets' goal really is to tank the season, Forte would actually be a much better option than Powell to help them lose games, it's likely that we'll see the Jets move on from Forte quickly if he proves ineffective early on.
I'll let a recent Slack I had with Chris Raybon close us out:
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