Spencer Ware's League-Winning Fantasy Upside is Being Ignored
Update: Per Jennifer Eakins: After finally earning the feature-back title, Spencer Ware is out in 2017 due to a knee injury. Ware’s right knee will keep him off the field this season, so rookie Kareem Hunt should get the nod, along with a swift jolt to his current RB39 ADP. Hunt is a solid pass-catching option out of the backfield and should also get most of the carries. Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller should see some work in relief of Hunt and could make for nice late-round fliers in deeper leagues.
Ware’s 5-foot-10, 230-pound frame and punishing running style led him to five scores on seven carries within the five-yard line in 2015 -- the most efficient rate of any running back in the NFL with at least 10 red zone carries that year. In 2016, Kansas City had just the 13th-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL, but Ware’s 12.9-percent red zone touchdown rate ranked just 28th out of 35 qualifying backs, per TJ Hernandez's touchdown regression article. However, prior to last season, Kansas City was on an insane run of first-, third-, and fifth-place finishes in rushing touchdowns over the three seasons prior, so I'm buying on Ware seeing positive touchdown regression this season.
Hopefully Ware will come into this season much healthier as well. Early last season, he was threatening top-five running back status before suffering a concussion in Week 8. That week he also lost one of his best offensive lineman, Parker Ehinger, to a torn ACL.
While I suppose it’s possible that Ware couldn’t handle the full load, it's more likely that the concussion dramatically impacted his production down the stretch, but one thing is for sure: Tyreek Hill and his 8.0-yard average target distance stole the show in Kansas City. The emergence of Hill last season as it relates to Ware's fade down the stretch is going vastly understated, in my opinion. From Week 8 on, Ware’s targets went down while TyFreek's went way up:
If Hill sees an expanded role as an actual wide receiver, it makes sense that some of those short-distance targets could find their way back to Ware -- a role he destroyed last year. Some of this work could also go to third-round pick Kareem Hunt (Toledo), but it remains to be seen if Hunt has the talent to steal work between the tackles from Ware.
Could a reduced workload actually help Ware, and can he stay healthy enough to regain his RB1 upside? Or will the Chiefs implement a committee?
Ware's Rushing Expectation charting, which balances metrics with film evaluation (one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football), will provide some clues as to how to attack the Chiefs’ backfield in 2017 fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Spencer Ware
On just 88 potential touches in 2015, 88.5 percent of Ware’s rushing attempts came through the middle, while he saw just six targets in the passing game. But in 2016, Ware's Sample Size chart highlights more confidence in him from the Chiefs' coaching staff, but also Ware’s adaptability and skillfulness to do far more than he did in the year prior:
Ware is a versatile runner that has proved he can be a feature back if called upon. His mental processing skills are rare and his vision behind the line is elite -- he consistently avoids penetration to get positive yardage. He uses his quickness to move through tight spaces and make defenders miss even before he starts to run through tackles or contact. He is also technically sound and plays physical, pairing elite strength with unique power and leg drive at the point of attack. His athletic ability is very good, his short area quickness is rare, and he runs hard. He displays quick feet, low pad level, good second effort, and rare balance, all of which are huge components of an excellent short-yardage runner.
But after being an absolute rock star in his 2015 Rushing Expectation charting sample, did Ware progress or regress from an efficiency/metrics standpoint in his featured role in 2016?
The first thing that stands out about Ware's 2016 season efficiency-wise is that he was most successful when running outside towards left end, despite possessing acceleration that can only be described as merely average. Of my entire 60-player sample, just 29 running backs saw ten or more rushing attempts towards left end, but Bilal Powell (70.6-percent Success Rate) has been the only player who can even sniff Ware’s efficiency when running in that direction:
I will continue to stress that Expected Success Rate is an insanely useful metric because it does a great job of separating a running back's performance from that of his blocking, which pertains to Ware's case because the Chiefs' offensive line disintegrated after Ehinger tore his ACL.
Despite Kansas City’s below-average run blocking in the second half of last season, Ware performed well above expectation rushing the football. Among my 60-player sample, he finished in the 94th percentile in terms of Expectation Score on the ground (and in the 99th percentile through the air, albeit on a smaller sample of 20 targets). He consistently stands out in my methodology due to his ability to make consistent gains that help the offense, but he is also far less reliant than the typical running back on big plays or soft defensive fronts to produce.
Yards per carry/target can be a stat that is highly skewed by big plays, which is why I prefer to use Success Rate. The argument against Ware's efficiency in the passing game is that it is probably due to a small sample size being skewed by big plays, but in my opinion, that concern is completely alleviated because of what I saw from Ware in the open field and through contact. He made big plays happen -- they didn’t happen to him. Big difference.
Quickly, below are a couple of excerpts from my profile on Ware last year in regards to his involvement in the passing game:
It is being reported that Ware has “caught a lot of passes” in OTAs. This is an encouraging development, as I found his receiving ability to be above average even in a limited sample size. Ware showed a good ability to make adjustments on the football in tight coverage and catch the ball with his hands.
I am willing to overlook “coach speak” at times early in the season. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has said recently that Ware needs to “improve in pass protection”. I found that to be a strength of Ware’s game, and intuitively this type of comment is actually a positive in my eyes. It means that Ware is actually being considered in passing situations. The fact that Reid is mentioning him at all in this way is bad news for West and great news for Team Ware.
Early in 2016, Ware proved to be an insanely efficient factor in the passing game. He was arguably most effective when split out wide as a receiver -- another reason I believe the emergence of TyFreek hurt Ware’s target upside down the stretch. Meanwhile, the best way to describe Ware in pass protection is that he has a high level of competitiveness on every play. Even if he isn’t positioned in the best spot to make a block, he is physical and shows no fear of attacking defenders that come his way. Unlike competitiveness and heart -- which Ware has in excess -- positioning is a teachable skill.
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 David Johnson). Ware checks both boxes: He finished in the 84th percentile in yards before contact despite below-average run blocking, and also faced eight or more in the box in the 86th percentile relative to my 60-player sample, finishing with a Success Rate in the 94th percentile, which was up from his 54th-percentile finish the year before.
On tape, Ware is also one of the best runners I have ever seen working through contact. His pad level may be one of his strongest attributes. His elite-level balance through arm tackles and his size differential are truly unique as well. Ware is consistently looking to punish any defender who dares to come near him. He's a player who is going to put everything he has into every play and fight for extra yardage. Thus, his strong yards after contact numbers in the passing game make sense, as he saw the majority of his targets before his concussion in Week 8. While his 38th-percentile yards after contact numbers in the run game last season don't look great, he was in the 94th percentile in 2015, so my best guess is that his concussion played a large factor in the decline, and we should see him rebound in 2017 -- or at least fall somewhere in between.
Overall, charting Ware twice now has provided two noteworthy takeaways:
Ware is a top-ten back with top-five upside.
Ware has ridiculous efficiency numbers when facing eight or more defenders in the box, which he has done frequently over the past two seasons.
Now that I'm 60 running backs deep in this process, I can confidently say I've seen very few running backs come close to the dominance Ware has shown in the metrics I value most -- and he's done it twice.
However, everyone wants to talk about a rookie that could potentially cap Ware’s fantasy upside: Kareem Hunt.
Is Kareem Hunt a Threat to Spencer Ware's Fantasy Value?
I’m not going to spend any time on Charcandrick West, because I wasted enough words on him already in last year's piece, but I would be a fool to not at least acknowledge the possibility that Hunt is a threat to Ware from a volume perspective -- even if I’m of the opinion that the Chiefs ultimately traded up in the third round for Ware’s backup.
Hunt displays good power, agility, and balance, but I question his burst, which I found to be below average. He could end up getting chased down more than he creates separation at the NFL level. I think Hunt can be a functional contributor in the pros, but even though he showed strong ability to force missed tackles in college, I don’t think he has the receiving upside after the catch through contact that Ware has consistently shown. Hunt boasts a pretty pathetic 19th-percentile SPARQ score and Ware has close to 15 pounds on him -- not to mention Hunt is making a large jump in competition after playing in the MAC.
Hunt's elite ball security is a concern for Ware after Ware lost a fumble in three straight games from Weeks 2-4 last season. However, from what I have seen on film, I respectfully disagree with most analysts that Hunt is more versatile than Ware. That said, comparing two players using college film for one and NFL film for the other is not always reliable. This will be a competition to watch closely, but I believe the most likely outcome is that the presence of Hunt won't hurt Ware’s volume ceiling much more than the presence of West did, and there will not be anything close to a 50/50 split.
Spencer Ware 2017 Fantasy Outlook
While Ware is currently the favorite to see a featured role, it's fair to have some concerns about his fantasy value:
- Hill's emergence impacted Ware's short-distance targets down the stretch.
- Hunt is a threat to steal touches.
That said, I believe the concerns about Ware are outweighed by reasons for optimism:
- Ware has shown top-five upside.
- Ware is a prime touchdown regression candidate.
- Ware could see his passing-game workload rebound with Hill having more downfield responsibility.
I'm admittedly more bearish on Hunt than most analysts, which also plays a part in my positive outlook on Ware, but especially if Ware sees a healthy role in the passing game, I think his ceiling is sky-high -- and not being fully taken into account by his fifth/sixth-round ADP.
Ultimately, any potential concussion issues Ware may have would be a bigger concern to me than competition from Hunt, but so far Ware has had just one concussion, and it may have actually caused the dip in production that's causing him to now be discounted in drafts.
Spencer Ware has the league-winning upside that I am willing to gamble on in the fifth/sixth round of fantasy drafts every single time.
Note: Use 4for4's ADP Tool for the most up-to-date ADP on Ware and Hunt.
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