Ameer Abdullah is the Lions Running Back to Own in Fantasy
After a hot start to last season, we were deprived of what could have been a breakout sophomore campaign for Ameer Abdullah, who suffered a season-ending torn Lisfranc ligament in Week 2. This season, the Lions skipped over running back in both the draft and free agency. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Abdullah, a former second-round pick who was coveted by the Cardinals more than David Johnson at the time, could see a "featured role" in 2017.
Sure, plenty of the negatives on Abdullah that were present last season -- questionable ball security, possibly being pulled at the goal line, shaky pass protection, a lesser receiving-game role behind Theo Riddick -- still exist, in addition to a few new ones that have crept up (durability, slow-paced offense). While not many running backs can overcome those types of concerns and still be productive in fantasy, I still believe that a breakout is imminent — Abdullah is that special of a talent. He was well on his way to breaking out in 2016, a season in which I took the optimistic stance that most of the risk involved with him was already baked into his (seventh/eighth-round) ADP:
“This was a tough one overall. There are so many reasons Abdullah’s situation should improve, but at the same time, so many question marks regarding his usage that scare me. Abdullah's talent level is just so enticing, and that is the kind of player I ultimately want on my fantasy team.”
“Enticing” actually downplays the extent as to how much he demolished nearly every metric in the Rushing Expectation methodology. In fact, now that my sample has grown to 60 running backs deep, Abdullah’s efficiency in 2015 relative to his offensive line looks even more impressive. Simply put, he has elite athletic ability and rare open-field instincts. However, his ADP has risen even more this season, which raises questions.
Will the Lions fully commit to Abdullah now that he's healthy? How much does Riddick’s passing-game involvement impact Abdullah's ceiling? And will Abdullah's ceiling also be impacted by the presence of Zach Zenner, who could theoretically handle goal-line work after playing well down the stretch last season?
In other words, are the concerns with Abdullah again priced into his current ADP? And where does that leave the value of Riddick and Zenner?
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 Lions' backfield in fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Ameer Abdullah
Abdullah’s mental processing is rare, and he makes good use of his creativity without trying to do too much. He has unique receiving ability and shows very good instincts and timing. Of course, his sample from '16 is very limited (you can read more about how I form sample size here):
Even though I think a small sample can still be relevant at times, we have to be careful in Abdullah's case. His results were so (positively) extreme that it makes sense to also include his sample from '15 in our analysis:
In charting Abdullah, I saw a running back who displays elite balance and unique athletic ability, which is also highlighted by his 98th-percentile SPARQ score. His proficiency at bending runs while remaining at top speed is impressive, and he has the hip flexibility to get downhill at sharper angles than most backs. His long speed is very good, but not elite. His acceleration, however, is very elite. He is absolutely dynamic in the open field, using his explosiveness and change of direction skills to his advantage both when running behind the line of scrimmage and when doing so at the second level.
An above-average amount of Abdullah's carries went to left and right end, but that isn’t to say he bounces everything outside. He is a mature runner with solid strength and average power who rarely hesitates at the point of attack. Over the last two seasons, he has appeared to be most successful when running to the right; his efficiency dropped off significantly when going left. Outside of those runs to the right, the rest of Abdullah’s best runs have been up the middle, although a below average percentage of his carries go in that direction. The bottom line is Abdullah performed well above expectation when running toward right tackle, right end, and up the middle in each of the last two seasons.
And while Abdullah may be stuck behind Riddick in the passing game, that's where some of Abdullah's best work has come. It just shows how dynamic he can be when the Lions get the ball into his hands using short, high-percentage plays where his rare instincts can shine through.
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, which is especially relevant in Abdullah's case because the Lions boast some of the worst offensive line numbers in the league over the past two seasons. However, even when taking the Lions' poor blocking into account, he performed well above expectation. In fact, among my 60-player sample, Abdullah finished in the 87th percentile in regards to his Expectation Score on the ground (and 89th through the air) in '15.
Abdullah overcame his poor offensive line with elite short-area burst which allows him to get to the outside seemingly at will, but he is patient enough to use his blockers. Abdullah is the kind of player that has the ability to consistently turn bad situations into positive gains using his elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage.
One of the biggest reasons I believe in Abdullah is that two seasons ago, his 7.7 yards before contact was in the 99th percentile. As I mentioned in the Rushing Expectation intro column, elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage is an extremely underrated ability among the league's best running backs.
Overall, charting Abdullah twice now has provided three noteworthy takeaways:
His usage concerns lie in his situation, not his skill level or versatility.
He hasn’t faced a loaded box frequently, but when he has, he's performed far above expectation.
He needs to improve in pass protection and ball security if he is going to earn that “featured role.”
Due to a lot of good things I see on tape, this is a rare case where I am prone to look past volume and touchdown concerns to some extent. Albeit while being stuck in a strange, upside-capping purgatory where he's not his team's primary pass-catching back or its primary short-yardage back, it’s very possible that Abdullah still could end up with the team lead in rushing attempts. And if he somehow gets a chance to dig into either of those roles, he could one of the steals of the year in fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Theo Riddick
Now let’s take a look at what Riddick, who has average speed but strong mental processing and decision-making skills, did in a pass-catching role last season. A converted wide-receiver, Riddick has been an absolute abomination on the ground in his career, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry on 164 attempts. Is it a terrible strategy to target a running back with such a narrow skill set?
I’m not so sure.
Riddick is an obvious asset in the passing game with very good hands and above-average balance through contact, and he gets targeted all over the field:
When forced into a larger role in the running game last season after Abdullah's injury, Riddick ended up taking the majority of his rushing attempts straight up the middle. Despite poor offensive line play, Riddick was (somehow) able perform slightly above expectation when running up the middle (which could be because he faced a soft box over 80 percent of the time).
An above-average share of Riddick's carries also went towards left end -- usually for a loss. In fact, the majority of his rushing inefficiency came when he would attempt to run to the outside (which isn't going to be helped by a labrum injury to left tackle Taylor Decker that could cost him time at the start of this season).
Despite struggling on the ground overall (43rd-percentile overall rushing Expectation Score), Riddick's efficiency through the air has remained strong, with an overall Expectation Score good enough for the 78th percentile in my 60-player sample, which is most closely in line with guys like James White and Bilal Powell.
So why the struggles on the ground? While Riddick displays above-average athletic ability and solid improvisational skills, his power is barely average in one-on-one confrontations, which is probably why his yards after contact numbers are below average despite his seemingly good balance through contact.
Like Abdullah, Riddick faced a loaded box infrequently (which at times can boost yards before contact average), but it still has not been much of a contest between the two in regards to running versus additional defenders near the line of scrimmage:
Abdullah vs. loaded box: 99th percentile ('15)
Riddick vs. loaded box: 26th percentile ('16)
Overall, Riddick’s Success Rate on the ground last season was pretty pathetic, falling in just the 16th percentile against seven or less in the box, and in the 26th percentile against eight or more in the box. The only reason his Expectation Score is slightly above average is because of how poorly Detroit's offensive line performed last season.
Ultimately, I’m not sold that Riddick has shown anything in the running game that would result in him taking away carries from Abdullah, but Riddick will likely continue to be the Lions' top receiving back since he has performed well above expectation on his targets to nearly every area of the field. In fact, he may even impact Golden Tate's opportunities; when Riddick was active, Tate's targets per game average (7.3) was considerably lower than it was in the six games that Riddick missed (10.3).
Rushing Expectation: Zach Zenner
I don’t think Zenner, who is competing with Matt Asiata and Dwayne Washington for the short-yardage role, is a special talent by any means. But Zenner was surprisingly efficient when given opportunity last year, showing a lot more rushing and receiving versatility than he had previously been given credit for.
Zenner ran the ball in all directions, but didn't see many targets in the flat or out wide. However, he performed far above expectation on the targets he most frequently received, which were to the inside and outside areas of the field:
Zenner has a surprisingly well-rounded chart, performing above expectation (albeit a low expectation) between the tackles in four out of the five possible directions in the running game, as well as in every area of the field outside of the flat in the passing game. He can catch defenders by surprise at times with good burst, and also sports above-average power. And while he doesn’t change direction at an exceptional rate, he is efficient in his movement and has shown maturity as far as taking whatever positive yardage is there to be had rather than bouncing the play outside.
Zenner also shows above-average vision between the tackles, but he isn’t dynamic in the open field like Abdullah, nor does he possess the pass-catching instincts of Riddick. Instead, Zenner's strength lies in reading the second level of the defense in a way that affords him additional opportunities beyond what's been initially blocked.
Like Abdullah and Riddick, Zenner rarely faced more than seven in the box, but in a small sample he performed in the 80th percentile versus a loaded box:
Zenner's play hasn't been earth-shattering by any means, but it’s obvious that he can be a serviceable asset and contribute in various roles when called upon. While I found his athletic ability to be merely adequate, he surprisingly came in above average in essentially every other category I look at when evaluating running back talent.
While Abdullah could see a featured role, it's more likely that he remains a top-five real-life talent in a bottom-five fantasy situation. Riddick is zero threat to steal meaningful carries, but will have a healthy role in the passing game, while Zenner could possibly siphon high-value carries at the goal line. Receptions and touchdowns matter, so what does all of this mean for Abdullah's fantasy ceiling?
Ultimately, Abdullah's receiving upside will be limited, and his touchdown upside is not a sure thing, either. That said, his ceiling would substantially increase if either Riddick or Zenner goes down. At fantasy’s most fragile position, a mix of talent and conditional upside can be an ideal situation to target for a drafter that is not risk-averse, but I acknowledge that Abdullah has a lot to overcome to hit value at his current sixth-round ADP.
Nevertheless, I must admit that personally I believe Abdullah's elite talent alone makes him a strong investment, and if a few things break his way, he could easily look like a bargain.
Theo Riddick 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Riddick has shown enough in the passing game to continue to be the Lions' primary receiving back yet again in '17, but he did just have surgery on both wrists in the offseason. Though I believe Riddick does just a few things exceedingly well, there is a place for that in fantasy, especially in PPR leagues.
Zach Zenner 2017 Fantasy Outlook
Zenner is a surprisingly well-rounded and efficient player, but I would not draft him in traditional leagues. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to grab on the waiver wire at some point if either Abdullah or Riddick go down.
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