We're byke with another In the Muck Monday! We're I'm dissecting two players that you'll have to potentially choose between this summer in your 2018 fantasy football draft. They are two NFC South running backs in Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons and Christian McCatchfrey of the Carolina Panthers.
Plug draft weekend.
Devonta Freeman - Atlanta Falcons
Current ADP: Overall 22, RB13
After zominating the NFL and the fantasy running back landscape over a two year stretch of 2015 and 2016, Freeman came back down to earth in 2017, finishing at a "terrible" RB13 overall, RB11 in PPG, top-10 if you discount the game where he left against Dallas after two carries. Not a bad overall year despite the massive expectations upon entering the szn.
I had to figure out what was going on here for Freeman. Why the inconsistency, why the down year, what can we expect in 2018.
Since taking over as the starter in Atlanta in 2015, Freeman has played in 50 games. 45 regular szn, and 5 playoff games. In those 50 games, Freeman has 40 touchdowns. 80% of his games he has scored a TD. We're looking at a guy who has scored in 80% of his games over the L3 years. In 2017, the Falcons started off hot, a 3-1 record to kick things off, Freeman scoring 4 times in four games, touching the ball nearly 20 times/per. Then something happened. Their Week 5 bye happened. After their Week 5 bye, they decided to tweak their offense. Just a fun fact, prior to 2017, over the last 8 seasons the Falcons were 7-1 after their bye week. They played the fucking Dolphins, at home and lost 20-17 in an unbelievably embarrassing loss. I remember this because the Falcons MIGHT have been 2 touchdown favorites in this one and I might have bet on them.
Regardless, something changed. And it had to do with Julio. Over those first four weeks, a month of the season, Julio saw two RZ targets, and one 10zone targets. They have their bye, and Sarkisian says, no mas. We're feeding Julio and that's it. He would, as you've probably heard this stat already, wind up finishing with 19 RZ targets, and 11 10zone targets. Only 6 WRs in the NFL saw more RZ targets, despite JJ registering a 26% catch rate on those. And only 2 WRs had more 10zone targets. Listen to this, there were 51 players last year that had 12 RZ targets or more, Julio's 26.3% catch percentage, only Mike Wallace had a lower catch % then Julio, among 51 players.
After their bye week in week 5, starting in Week 6, Freeman went on a 6-game touchdown-less streak, through Week 13. Guys, this is factored into his 80% touchdown rate. That's insane, a guy who has an 80% TD rate, 91% if you don't count these 6 games, and he goes 6 games without scoring?? What happened. Well, like I said, they started forcing Julio the ball among other things. After Freeman saw 20 touches/game from Weeks 1-4, he averaged just 11.5 touches/game during this 6-game TD-less streak. And guess what, the Falcons went 2-4 during this span. Ok, so Week 14 hits, and they start feeding Freeman the ball again, he gets 24 carries, and a huge win over the Saints. Over those last 4 weeks, Weeks 14-17, Freeman averages 21 touches/game, scores in 3-of-4 games and the team goes 3-1.
And I want to add this in, per Evan Silva of Rotoworld in his Falcons Team Preview column, which I'll link in the show notes:
"Suffering a preseason concussion, missing Weeks 11-12 with another concussion, and wearing down while playing through MCL and PCL sprains. Freeman’s stretch-run efficiency plummeted, averaging 2.64 yards per carry in Atlanta’s final four games. Freeman avoided surgery, but admitted in May he wasn’t yet 100%. Still, indications are Freeman will regain full strength well before training camp to return as the job-secure lead back in an offense primed for positive-TD regression." This down szn came in a year when Freeman was clearly not at full health for most of the year, after playing in 31-of-32 games from 2015-2016.
As you can see, in games that Freeman touches the ball, the Falcons do well. In 2017, in games where Freeman had 16+ touches, the team went 5-1, yes that only happened 6 times. In 2016 it happened 10 times, and they went 8-2 in those games.
When it comes to Tevin Coleman, should you be worried about their touch split? Will Freeman's touches go down?
Well, if you look at this chart, the answer is no. Their splits remained equal, and was even more positive towards Freeman in 2017 actually. While his touches/game went down again, if you look at the ratio column, you're seeing that in terms of Freeman's touches in comparison to Coleman's he actually saw a bigger piece of the pie in 2017 the he did in 2017, so you can expect that split to remain nearly the same.
The last thing we need to talk about is this offense overall, who despite seemingly taking a step back, was actually very good last year. They ranked 2nd in the NFL in yards per drive, 3rd in yards per play, 2nd in plays per drive and 1st in TOP/drive, HOWEVER, they ranked 15th in PPG (22.1). So they just couldn't finish man. They moved the ball with ease and dominated between the 20's, but they sucked up clock, ranking 1st overall in TOP, but couldn't score TDs, that's going to kill fantasy points. This goes back to Matt Ryan and his TD %. His career average is 4.6%, in his MVP szn it shot up to 7.1%, so you expected a regression in 2017, which happened and he hit a really low mark of 3.8% which of course is below his average. I'm expecting a bounce back to the mean, if not higher given how efficient this offense was at every part outside the RZ. If his number goes up from 3.8% to his average of 4.6%, his passing TD numbers go up by over 4, and not to mention that 2017 was his lowest pass attempt total since 2009. So, if we assume a pass attempt increase, plus a TD % spike, just back to the norm, not getting crazy, Ryan should be back to his 27-28 passing scores/game which has been his seasonal average since 2010. That's big for the offense overall and especially a guy like Freeman who is heavily involved in the passing game as well as the main beneficiary of GL carries.
Love Freeman to have a monster bounce back this year.
Christian McCaffrey - Carolina Panthers
Current ADP: Overall 21, RB12
After being picked 8th overall by Carolina in last year's draft, C-Mac did not disappoint in his rookie year, leading all RBs in targets and finishing 3rd with 80 receptions, which would've tied for 1st in both 2016 and 2015 FWIW.
C-Mac was involved enough in the passing game to see him finish as RB15 in standard leagues, RB13 in 0.5 PPR and RB9 in PPR.
Imagine he actually performed on the ground last year? Sheeesh. Along with his 80-651-5 statline through the air, the Panthers back ran the ball 117 times for 435 yards and two scores. Overall a great year for a rookie, who finished just under 1,100 total yards and 7 scores, despite getting less than 200 touches.
The efficiency and volume in the run game are the make-and-break for C-Mac heading into year two. Obviously that 117 carries hurts, especially when he couldn't find a way to get more work with only Jonathan Stewart in front of him last year, who saw just shy of 200 carries. C-Mac also only averaged 3.7 ypc, and YPC is of course a bad metric to look at by itself, but taking a peak at the other efficiency metrics, he just wasn't very good as a runner. His tackles evaded per attempt ranked 36th among running backs per PFF, YAC was 62nd, his yards created per carry per PlayerProfiler.com ranked 52nd. He was 34th among 47 qualified backs on Football Outsiders for their DYAR rank which is pretty much their version of an efficiency metric for running backs. He saw double-digit carries just 3 times and averaged 2.7 ypc or less in 9-of-17 games including their playoff game at New Orleans.
The question then becomes, what is C-Mac's usage in the run game going to look like in 2018. They let go of J-Stew and bring in C.J. Anderson, who is pretty much just a younger version of J-Stew at this point. They have a very similar skill set and I think C.J. basically slips right in to occupy that role in this offense. Anderson is coming off of his first 1,000-yard rushing szn in 2017 and should be more efficient than Stewart was last year who hit a career-low 3.4 YPC. Something that does concern me is the offensive line, who ranked 24th in RB per FO, and a mediocre 15th per PFF in yards before contact for RBs, lost their All-Pro LG Andrew Norwell to the Jags in free agency. That certainly isn't a plus for these running backs.
However, more volume for C-Mac should help overcome that. Reports out of camp, and take these as you want to, have McCaffrey telling reporters he's added about 5lbs of muscle to his his 203lb frame which should help in the run game. RotoWorld did say McCaffrey "looked noticeably different" in pictures, so maybe it's true. Ron Rivera backed this up saying that he definitely believes McCaff can handle a bigger workload, going back to his college days where he was a true workhorse running both inside and outside of the tackles at a high volume.
I do think that the volume in rushing attempts will go up a bit under new OC Norv Turner. But, I'm also afraid that the targets might dip a bit. Turner didn't coach in 2017, but he did in 2016 as the OC in Minnesota, that team targeted their RBs on 21% of passes which was the NFL average. I don't want to discount Turner though, as he's been the beneficiary of many legendary backs during his tenure in the NFL such as Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson. And this offense will probably utilize the run-pass option a little more than the 2017 Panthers. They are getting Greg Olsen back who missed a lot of time last year. I looked back at C-Mac's numbers last year in games with vs. without Olsen, and it's not good for McCaffrey's receiving outlook.
He saw nearly 2.5 more targets, and caught 2 more passes/game without Olsen in he lineup. He also had 3 more carries in those games. It's hard to say how much of a factor the rest of the pieces this team brought it will directly effect C-Macs target totals, but they used their first round pick on D.J. Moore, they added Torrey Smith through a trade with the Eagles and signed Jarius Wright in free agency, and they'll be getting Curtis Samuel, they're 2016 1st round pick back. Again, it's possible these weapons are really nothing and aren't a sum of their parts, but it can't possibly be a positive for C-Mac in the passing game.
When all is said and done, I think we're going to see a similar performance from C-Mac in 2018 as we did in 2017. A lot receptions and playmaking. Although they're saying all the right things about wanting to give McCaffrey more work, them bringing in C.J. Anderson speaks louder to me. Anderson should serve just as J-Stew did last year, seeing a hefty portion of the early-down work as well as the GL work, where Stewart out-carried McCaffrey 12-2 in 2017. However, Anderson is only on a one-year deal, worth under $2-mil so it's nothing to the Panthers if he winds up as a bust.
I look at Freeman and I look at this offense and if he's healthy for a full season, I think it's nearly impossible for Freeman to finish with less than 1,300 total yards and an absolute minimum 9 touchdowns, which he crushed in 2015 and 2016 and was on pace to hit those marks in 2017 before missing a couple games. 1300 total yards and double digit TDs, in my eyes, seem likely for Freeman and the ceiling for McCaffrey given the additions of the weapons and losing Norwell. It's an easy choice for me, Devonta Freeman. In a full PPR league, which is of course where people would be targeting C-Mac, I'll be honest I'm still leaning Freeman. CMac finished above Freeman in overall PPR scoring in 2017, but they were both at exactly 14.4 PPR fantasy points per game, and again that is counting Freeman's 2-carry game which he exited early.