Does Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson Offer More Fantasy Value?
Going into last season, Hue Jackson averaged a higher percentage of run plays than all but three active play callers in the NFL over the past ten seasons. And in four of the last five seasons, Jackson has led the offense he's coached to a top-seven finish in rushing attempts and touchdowns. The one outlier? You guessed it: last season's Browns, who finished 31st in attempts and 17th in touchdowns (as well as 18th in rushing yards).
Intuitively, it makes sense to project a spike in rushing volume in 2017 behind newly acquired center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler, two of the best interior lineman in the league.
And even if the Browns don’t crack the top 10 in rushing attempts this season, Jackson's running back usage down the stretch last season hints that even reaching the top 15 or 20 would result in a huge workload for Crowell.
Going into last season, I was down on Crowell's backfield partner Johnson relative to the optimistic stance of most analysts, but admittedly, a lot of that was volume-based:
“Coming off of just two touchdowns (both receiving) in his rookie season, Johnson's touchdown upside is likely to be severely capped again, as he will almost certainly defer to Crowell at the goal line. So if Johnson loses more targets in the passing game than we initially feared, look out.”
Crowell indeed was relied upon for a much bigger passing-game role last season, and in Jackson’s first year as the coach, bested Johnson 28-7 red zone carries. Johnson saw just three touches inside the 10 all season. While both backs played a significant amount of snaps, Johnson deferred to Crowell in terms of rushing usage. Crowell accounted for 71.0 percent of the team’s rushing attempts by running backs, while Johnson accounted for just 26.2 percent.
Once an untouchable asset in dynasty leagues, Johnson has 74 targets in back-to-back seasons, but the Browns seem committed to involving Crowell in the passing game — he finished 17th among all RBs last year with 40 receptions. For context, that was more than Giovani Bernard, Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller, Jordan Howard, and Jay Ajayi.
There has been a positive drumbeat surrounding Crowell all offseason, but he received just a one-year, $2.81 million contract; clearly the Browns want to see more from him before making a long-term commitment.
Will the Browns remain fully committed to Crowell? And would Johnson have similar RB1 upside if he was the starter instead?
My Rushing Expectation charting, which balances metrics with film evaluation (one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football) can provide some clues as to how to attack the Browns' backfield in fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Isaiah Crowell
Crowell has good vision between the tackles, so it's no surprise most of his carries are designed to go up the middle. What is surprising is his passing game involvement -- Crowell displays a legitimate three-down skill set.
In charting Crowell, I saw a decisive runner at the line of scrimmage who shows patience, creativity, and rare mental processing skills. He routinely spots opportunities to make splash plays. He also catches the ball with his hands and makes above-average adjustments to the ball in flight.
So far, I am a fan of Crowell’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 Browns' overall Expected Success Rate in '16 on rushing attempts was 40.1 percent, fifth-lowest in the league, and well below the NFL average of 46.3 percent. They were better on targets to running backs, with a middle-of-the-pack Expected Success Rate of 43.2 percent.
Albeit in a limited sample, Crowell appeared to be most successful running left, which is not surprising given the presence of six-time All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. His efficiency dropped off significantly to the right side.
Save for his success on a limited sample size of carries in Thomas's direction, Crowell's best runs were up the middle, although his performance on those runs was still slightly below average relative to expectation.
Surprisingly, Crowell's best work came in the passing game. He has a natural ability to gauge the angle of an oncoming defender in the open field, then use his arm to avoid contact.
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.
Statistically, the Browns were one of the worst offensive lines in the league. However, even when taking the Browns' poor blocking into account, Crowell performed below expectation in 2016. In fact, among my 60-running back sample, Crowell finished with a bottom-15 percentile Expectation Score.
Crowell overcame his poor Success Rate with rare burst and good acceleration, taking 16 of his carries 15 yards or more, tied for fourth in the league. While big plays don’t skew success rate like they do yards per carry, they definitely still matter in fantasy football. The problem is they can’t always be counted on to continue. Nevertheless, an improved offensive line should help keep the big plays coming, as well help with overall efficiency, especially since Crowell's elusiveness is above average and he has good balance and athletic ability.
One reason I believe in Crowell is his above-average 6.1 yards before contact in one of the league’s worst situations. That’s not insignificant. As mentioned in the Rushing Expectation introduction, elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage is an extremely underrated ability among the league's best running backs.
That said, Crowell underwhelms with just 3.2 yards after contact per carry, which is essentially in line with the average runner in my sample. This is interesting; despite above-average power, there were times when he skipped out of bounds to avoid contact. But who can really blame him down when his team is down two scores? He seemingly does a solid job of turning contact into gains when motivated.
Speaking of terrible situations, Crowell faced eight or more in the box on nearly one-third of his runs last season, an above-average number in the NFL, and a far higher percentage than Johnson. Surprisingly, Crowell's Success Rate was actually better in suboptimal situations, and it should be noted that a large amount of his big plays were also against a loaded box in poor game script.
Overall, charting Crowell has provided two noteworthy takeaways:
- Crowell has big-play ability.
- Crowell is an asset in the passing game.
Due to a lot of good things I see on tape, this is a rare case where I am prone to look past at least some inefficiency on the ground, especially since such a large percentage of the overall sample involved carries against loaded boxes. Volume, of course, is a key component of fantasy success, and Crowell should see that in bunches.
Rushing Expectation: Duke Johnson
Now let’s take a look at what Duke did in a change-of-pace role last season.
Johnson is not a running back who will blow you away with power and size, but he is not a prototypical speedy space player who relies solely on his rare athletic ability, either.
Like Crowell, Johnson's largest amount of rushing attempts were up the middle, Johnson’s only rushing sample that hits the 10-attempt threshold.
Of course, Johnson's calling card is in the passing game. He gets targeted all over the field, although the majority of his targets were in the same area of the field as Crowell, which likely has something to do with Jackson's scheme.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Johnson was a lot more successful than Crowell on runs up the middle, where Johnson's Expectation Score ranked in the 90th percentile. Johnson showed very good mental processing skills and instincts behind the line of scrimmage, rarely misdiagnosing how to approach a given situation or opportunity.
Johnson also has very good hands, continuously proving he can catch the ball in difficult areas of his catch radius. However, his Success Rate on targets out wide regressed from 66.7 percent in '15 to just 16.7 percent in '16, though disparity could easily be related to inconsistent quarterback play. His efficiency on targets to the outside remained solid, with a Success Rate hovering between 55-60 percent in each of the past two seasons.
Behind statistically one of the worst offensive lines in the league, Johnson performed above expectation from an efficiency standpoint on the ground, with a 79th-percentile Expectation Score overall.
However, Johnson was less efficient in the passing game overall this year, as his 0.96 Expectation Score is well below last year’s 1.16 mark. His yards before contact on targets dropped from 6.3 to 4.0 per target, despite only a minimal increase in average target depth.
Johnson’s average rushing yards before contact (7.0) was well above average in my overall results. Last year he rushed for 1.5 yards less per carry per carry before contact. After watching him for two years now, he probably falls somewhere in the middle of that range.
What might have been responsible for Johnson's strong showing before contact is that he faced loaded boxes on fewer than 1-in-5 runs I charted.
I’m skeptical that Johnson's Expectation Score may be skewed by facing seven or less in the box so frequently; he faced eight or more in the box just eight times in my charting sample, and his 87.5-percent Success Rate was in sharp contrast to last year's rate of 34.9. Though I do think smaller samples can be representative, we have to be careful. My guess is his true talent level falls somewhere in between.
That said, Johnson shows good elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage, and I rarely saw him bounce runs outside on inside-run concepts. I also found him to have very good lateral agility and a rare ability to find small creases to avoid contact in tight spaces.
As far as the ability to finish runs, I found Johnson merely average. He could stand to get back to his college days, where he showed much better balance off of initial contact. His strength is good, but he has to pick his spots better when he attacks defenders as a smaller back. Once in the open field, his long speed is above average, and on tape he appeared to have good acceleration.
Isaiah Crowell 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Coach Jackson believes Crowell can "take it to another level," and given Crowell's talent, I fully expect his efficiency to improve behind one of the top offensive lines in the league. Problems will still arise from playing on a poor team in an offense that will not find itself in scoring situations often. That said, Crowell did see a significant increase in the percentage of his targets that came on first down (49.0% in '16, 36.3% in '15), which is good news given the high probability of the Browns playing in a lot of negative game scripts.
The bottom line is Crowell made a lot of big plays last year in suboptimal situations, and all signs point towards him seeing a large market share of carries again this season.
While Crowell's current ADP (RB15) is a tad steep for my liking given his reliance on big plays, I don't have much trouble envisioning a scenario where he meets value in all formats.
Duke Johnson 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Johnson is best suited for PPR formats, but will have trouble meeting is current ADP of RB36.
The biggest factor in my pessimistic view of Johnson is that the Browns made little effort to design a role for Johnson as a receiver last season despite his solid on-field showing and known skill set in that area. Barring an injury to Crowell, there is not much reason to believe Johnson's role will increase. Johnson had an outside chance to earn the starting job last season. That ship has likely sailed.
Though I believe Johnson is both elusive and explosive, this season he may be limited to Zero RB appeal.
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