Letting the Tape Untangle the Thomas Rawls vs. Eddie Lacy Debate
Thomas Rawls was a Rushing Expectation favorite last year. So after an injury-ridden 2016 season, it was great to hear he seems healthy—not to mention he’s been “flying around the field” since the start of OTAs.
That was our first clue that Eddie Lacy is probably not the play.
After hearing a constant drumbeat that Rawls “appears to be the clear number-one,” and seeing him operate as the clear feature back on the first preseason drive, fantasy owners need to adjust—and fast.
Then there's C.J. Prosise, who has always been a player I've enjoyed the idea of. But I like his theoretical upside more so than I like actually pulling the trigger on him in drafts, as he could see limited volume. I was excited to dig into his film from 2016, but realistically, even if 60 receptions is "not a stretch," he needs stay healthy, and have a few breaks to go his way before that even matters.
As I sift through narratives to write these introductions, it’s tough not to piggyback off Chris Raybon’s 3 Key Fantasy Football Facts About Every NFL Team's Offense article—it’s that good. This gem on Rawls perfectly encompasses the current situation in Seattle:
Rawls is slated to benefit most from Seattle's renewed commitment to the run ... Seattle's' overall run-play rate ranks have been 1, 2, 2, and 4, before jumping to 18 last year. Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell have both stated in the offseason that they want to get back to running more. But after injuries decimated Seattle's backfield last season, it's more likely that Seattle acquired Eddie Lacy as depth rather than to play a featured role. In the team's first preseason game, Rawls started while Lacy didn't get any first-team reps.
Can we touch Lacy at his ADP given what we have (not) seen in the preseason? Does Prosise deserve a bigger role? Or is Rawls one of the most undervalued players in fantasy drafts?
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 Seahawks' backfield in fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Eddie Lacy
Lacy has good strength and above average power, but regardless of Pete Carroll’s affirmation that Fat Eddie is “a really good fit,”, I’m not ready sound the alarm in Seattle for the second coming of Marshawn Lynch. Of course, Lacy’s sample from 2016 is limited:
On the surface, Lacy’s biggest similarity to Beast Mode comes after contact. Lacy finished in the 82nd percentile relative to my 60-player sample. His pad level below average, but he’s unique in that he still can break tackles while running high. That said, Rawls also finished in the 86th percentile in yards after contact when I charted his games from 2015, so that seems like more of a wash for me than a unique identifier if comparing the two. More on this later.
Lacy has above-average athletic ability for his size. He pairs it with rare balance through contact and uses jump cuts and spin moves with a lot of success. He knows when to get downhill and punish defenders, but still has good enough vision to take advantage of big-play opportunities.
But did Lacy exceed or fall below expectation from an efficiency/metrics point of view?
The Packers' overall Expected Success Rate in 2016 on rushing attempts was 43.2 percent, slightly below the 46.3 percent NFL average. Surprisingly, the offensive line provided below-average Adjusted Reception Yards as well, setting the bar low for Lacy’s expectation in the receiving game.
Despite limited help from his blocking, Lacy was successful between the tackles, particularly on runs through the middle:
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. Lacy finished with an Expectation Score in the 61st percentile, but he also faced seven or less in the box at a much higher rate than Prosise or Rawls. Because Lacy played with one of the game's elite quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, in Green Bay, defenses didn’t have the luxury of dedicating more than seven defenders to stopping the run, which is hard to hold against Lacy.
Lacy’s burst is average, but he has good quickness, and is capable of bouncing runs outside, even for a back his size. He is at his best when he can hit holes hard use his above-average mental processing to adjust to each situation or opportunity. Lacy performed well in key metrics such as yards before contact with a 77th percentile score.
Lacy’s sample in the receiving game falls below my threshold to carry a relevant Expectation Score, but most of his targets came through routes coming through the inside of the offensive line. Although he was very efficient on those targets, his receiving ability is adequate at best.
Overall, charting Lacy has provided three noteworthy takeaways:
He was very efficient running the ball.
It remains to be seen how productive he can be facing more situations of eight or more in the box in Seattle.
He lacks versatility in the passing game.
At this point, I’m not sure Lacy is good enough to send Rawls to the bench, even though that is how Lacy is being drafted.
Rushing Expectation: C.J. Prosise
The top pass-catcher in this backfield is clearly Prosise, so let’s see what we can find. Watching Prosise, it doesn’t take long to realize that his athletic ability is nearly elite, and his balance when making cuts and making defenders miss in the open field is rare.
From a talent perspective, there is a lot to like about Prosise on film, but he needs to run with more control. His pad level can get sloppy, which could be why he is easily dropped by arm tackles. He also displays marginal finishing ability and minimal balance through contact. His yards after contact numbers tied Giovani Bernard’s 2016 season for the worst of my 60-player sample.
As for the positives, Prosise has rare burst and can accelerate quickly into the second level. He can also turn the corner on defenders huddled around the line of scrimmage. Linebackers will see a lot of heels and elbows quickly with Prosise, and will have a hard time catching him.
The Seahawks' overall Expected Success Rate in 2016 on rushing attempts was 40.5 percent, well below the NFL average of 46.3 percent. That’s not super surprising, but let’s not forget my metric is based off of Adjusted Line Yards and Team Success Rate, with the former assigning a certain amount of responsibility to the offensive line for every rush based on length, rather than being a traditional offensive line “grade.” That being said, Prosise has been most successful running through the middle, which is by far his largest sample:
Prosise has rare ability in the passing game, which probably makes up for his below-average strength. A former safety and slot receiver, he runs strong routes through the middle of the field, and can catch the ball with his hands in stride.
With a yards before contact average in the 26th percentile relative to my sample, I found Prosise to struggle reading his blocks. But if he makes it past the first level as a runner, his vision is good, and he sets up defenders well in space. But as an undersized interior runner, he has below-average mental processing as far as judging angles, which is a huge concern.
Prosise received the majority of his targets to the inside or outside, with an efficient 70th percentile receiving Expectation Score. The Seahawks were slightly above average at blocking for targets to running backs, with an Expected Success Rate of 45.9 percent.
As a runner, he posted a 93rd percentile Expectation Score in a limited sample size (49 potential touches).
Clearly, it would be smart for the Seahawks to get Prosise more involved this season as a pass-catcher. I’m just not sure he'd carry the upside we’re looking for as a feature-back even if things broke his way. I need to see more, so hopefully I get the chance to reassess him with a bigger sample in 2017.
Rushing Expectation: Thomas Rawls
Speaking of upside, Rawls is one of my guys. Selfishly, I (still) want to believe. Let’s see how things went in 2016 for the often-polarizing undrafted free agent.
Rawls has rare power. He pairs it with a compact running style and seems to get better as the game goes on and with the more carries he receives. He plays with a low center of gravity and displays very good agility when accessing creases that would be difficult for most backs to hit. He consistently displays above-average burst in his acceleration through these creases.
Rawls is an elite finisher. He shows balance through contact, which can most likely be attributed to his violent running style. He has power that greatly exceeds his size, and is the kind of player that is looking to send a message on every play, running over anyone in his path and absorbing contact from various angles with low pad level. He relies heavily on jump cuts in which he plants hard and gets downhill in a hurry.
Rawls rarely bounces runs completely outside, which makes perfect sense considering he is a sudden runner with decisive jump cuts as he approaches the line of scrimmage. At times he is a bit too reliant on cutbacks rather than sticking to his original path.
This past year, Rawls finished with a 68th percentile rushing Expectation Score and a 48th percentile receiving Expectation Score (which barely hit my 15-target threshold). His efficiency predictably regressed from 2015, when he scored in the 78th percentile on the ground and had just 11 targets.
Rawls broke some big plays, but his value was not reliant on them for fantasy production. He has the functional power to be an every-down back and handle a starter's workload.
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 who post strong yards before contact numbers, either despite below-average blocking (like Ameer Abdullah last year), or due to facing a lot of loaded-box situations (like Spencer Ware). Rawls checks both boxes: He finished in the 93rd percentile in 2015 and in the 61st percentile in 2016, despite below-average run blocking. Last year, Rawls faced eight or more in the box on the fifth-lowest percentage of total runs among players in my sample, so I had concerns that his efficiency drop-off was due to a lack of mental processing skills. It turns out that it may have been due to be a lack of sample size. This past year, he faced eight or more in the box in the 78th percentile relative to my 60-player sample—much more frequently than Lacy—and his Success Rate in those unfavorable defensive situations spiked from the 52nd percentile in a small sample to the 76th percentile.
Charting Rawls twice now has provided three noteworthy takeaways:
The physical running style of Rawls opens him up to excessive wear and tear.
Rawls' ability to plant his foot and show immediate burst downhill is impressive.
In back-to-back seasons, Rawls posted strong efficiency and yards before contact numbers with poor offensive line play.
Rawls is an intriguing talent, but he takes a lot of chances and tries to make unnecessary cutbacks on plays, which can be counterproductive.
He made big plays happen—they didn’t happen to him. Big difference.
Eddie Lacy 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Lacy will likely defer touches to Rawls and Prosise, but could offer touchdown upside in positive game script at some point this season.
That said, there are many reasons why drafting Lacy at a RB27 ADP is completely absurd:
Lacy looks like Rawls insurance more than anything else right now, given what we have seen in the preseason.
Durability has been an issue for Lacy recently, and he spent all summer training to lose weight—not become a better football player.
Lacy's receiving usage has declined in recent years, and now Prosise—and possibly Rawls—could further limit his touches.
The offensive line is still #bad; the difference in Green Bay was that Lacy rarely had to face eight or more in the box. I’m not convinced he matches last year’s efficiency in his new situation.
C.J. Prosise 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Prosise is best suited for PPR formats, but will have trouble meeting his current ADP of RB44 unless he sees more volume in 2017. The biggest factor in my pessimistic view of Prosise is that the Seahawks made little effort to design a role for him despite his solid on-field showing. Wilson rarely looks for dump-offs to his backfield: No Seattle back has had 40 receptions with him under center. Prosise may have the frame of a feature back, but there's little more than an outside chance that he sees feature-back volume given what he has shown between the tackles. There are better Zero RB options, in my opinion.
Thomas Rawls 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Maybe I can’t let it go, but I still love what I see from Rawls on film. That said, the Seattle offensive line situation is bad, and Rawls will have to overcome a lot of the same downside as Lacy. Rawls has seen opportunities to take over the starting role, he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a full season. If he puts a good chunk of games together, he’s a slam dunk as a late-round pick.
To me, Rawls is a talented upside pick late in drafts. I tend to side with the cheaper option in a race I feel is close when there's a large ADP differential. Right or wrong, I’m taking Rawls at RB49 over Lacy at RB27 every single time. Rawls is criminally undervalued for a player with a massive ceiling in a good offense.
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