Everything You Need to Know About Drafting DeMarco Murray in 2016

Recently, my colleague Anthony Amico argued DeMarco Murray will be an RB1 in 2016. Unfortunately, I have to disagree.

Anthony argued it would be very easy to see Murray compiling a massive workload with the Titans, that Murray is a good receiver, and that Marcus Mariota will have a positive impact on Murray’s rushing efficiency. Let’s start on the rushing side.

Where Are the Carries?

First of all, let’s compare how the Eagles and Titans used their RBs in 2015.

2015 Eagles Att Yds/Att TD/Att
DeMarco Murray 193 3.64 0.031
Ryan Mathews 107 5.04 0.056
Darren Sproles 83 3.82 0.036
Kenjon Barner 28 4.43 0.000
RB Total 411 4.09 0.036
2015 Titans Att Yds/Att TD/Att
Antonio Andrews 143 3.64 0.021
Dexter McCluster 55 4.49 0.018
David Cobb 52 2.81 0.019
Bishop Sankey 47 4.11 0.021
Terrance West 16 3.19 0.000
Jalston Fowler 7 1.86 0.143
RB Total 320 3.66 0.022

So DeMarco used to play in an offense that gave RBs almost 100 more carries, had RBs averaging almost a half-yard higher YPC (despite Murray dragging it way down), and had RBs scoring TDs at a rate over 60 percent higher than his new team (again despite Murray dragging it down). That argues both the size and the value of the opportunity got significantly worse for Murray as he changed teams.

Moreover, Murray had 392 rush attempts in his career year in 2014, while in Dallas. We have to assume he’ll be spelled by other backs at times, so the size of Tennessee’s 2015 RB shares is troublesome.

As for the value of the opportunity, a counter might be that the Titans RBs just weren’t very good, so maybe this isn’t an apples to apples comparison. That said, the efficiency numbers — particularly Murray’s YPC compared to Ryan Mathews’ and the TD rate for Titans RBs — paint a pretty bleak picture. Either you think Mathews is leaps and bounds better than everyone on the Titans — and therefore Murray is still a significant upgrade over them — or you have to acknowledge Murray is actually going into a worse situation, where holes to run through and scoring chances will both be fewer.

Receiving Opportunity

Here are the top options in each passing game alongside the main RBs.

2015 Eagles Targets 2015 Titans Targets
Jordan Matthews 126 Delanie Walker 133
Zach Ertz 112 Harry Douglas 72
Darren Sproles 83 Dorial Green-Beckham 67
DeMarco Murray 55 Kendall Wright 60
Nelson Agholor 44 Anthony Fasano 42
Josh Huff 42 Dexter McCluster 41
Riley Cooper 41 Justin Hunter 31
Brent Celek 35 Antonio Andrews 29
Ryan Mathews 28 Bishop Sankey 22
RB Total 178 RB Total 100
Team Total 620 Team Total 543

A couple notes here. First of all, the Eagles obviously threw to their RBs much more frequently than Tennessee did.

Second, even if Dexter McCluster is gone (as Anthony speculated), there is still a lot of competition in Tennessee for targets. Both Dorial Green-Beckham and Kendall Wright are being drafted in early drafts as if they will take a step forward in 2016. That would require projecting both for more targets. It’s also hard to imagine free agent acquisition Rishard Matthews will see significantly fewer targets than the 72 presumably vacated by Harry Douglas, and there’s a good chance he fills that hole pretty much by himself.1

What about new coach Mike Mularkey’s tendencies? He’s been offensive coordinator or head coach for seven seasons in the last decade, leading four different offenses over that time.2 According to our projection machine, only one RB on any of those teams saw more than nine percent of the team’s targets.3 More to the point, the lead back in those seven offenses never saw more than 6.6 percent of the team’s targets in a given year, and averaged about four percent.4

In fairness, the league has evolved over the last decade in terms of passing to RBs, and to be frank I’m not really comfortable suggesting anything about coaching trends in this case. McCluster could be back playing his third down role, or Mularkey could continue a trend of ignoring RBs in the passing game, but Murray could probably see double digit targets as well. Take it with a grain of salt, but it’s one more in a list of reasons to believe Murray’s opportunity will be more like Philly in 2015 than Dallas in 2014.

DeMarco as a Receiver

Apart from disputing the available role, I would also dispute the notion that DeMarco’s receiving ability will stabilize his value, or that he was improved in 2015. Anthony looked at the AYA App to examine Murray’s numbers with Sam Bradford in 2015 versus his numbers with Tony Romo over his four-year career in Dallas, but let’s take a peek at his year-by-year yards per target and receiving fantasy points over expectation per target (reFPOEPT, per the Fantasy Efficiency App).

Year Targets YPT reFPOEPT Long
2011 35 5.23 -0.04 18
2012 42 5.88 0.14 22
2013 66 5.30 0.12 22
2014 64 6.50 0.27 34
2015 55 5.85 0.16 44

In 2015, Murray was 24th out of 33 RBs with at least 40 targets in reFPOEPT. Interestingly, that poor showing was actually right around his career average of 0.14, suggesting Murray was never a particularly good receiver.5 Additionally, his bump in efficiency was actually in his career year in 2014.

Mariota Running

One thing I glossed over above was the fact that the Eagles ran the second most plays in the league last season, while Tennessee was 27th. Comparing the rushing attempts and the targets directly wasn’t totally fair.

That said, while we should expect some natural regression in terms of volume of plays, one of Anthony’s chief arguments was Mariota could improve Murray’s efficiency by running more.

As a rookie, Mariota had a season that paralleled the likes of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin. All of these QBs have helped their most recent RBs tremendously.

The obvious objection in comparing Mariota to the rest of this group is that he only ran the ball 2.8 times per game as a rookie compared to 7.2 attempts per game for Newton, Wilson, and Griffin.

Anthony went on to argue — convincingly — that Mariota will run more in 2016, based on Mularkey’s quotes. He concluded Mariota might run as many as 100 times in 2016.

While that might be a positive impact on Murray’s efficiency as a runner, what impact would Mariota running 100 times have on Murray’s workload? This is an offense that ran 976 plays in 2015, including 551 passes and 371 carries.6 Those 371 team carries are 21 fewer than what Murray saw on his own in his huge 2014 season.

Even if we expect some natural regression toward league average in the overall number of plays — league average last season was 1,030.5 plays, so the Titans were roughly 55 plays below — we’d actually be losing available RB rushing attempts, considering Mariota fell 66 carries shy of 100 in 2015. In other words, it’s very difficult to project Murray to see a workload anywhere near what he saw in his big 2014 season. And if we do project him for anything close to that type of workload, we likely have to eliminate the potential benefit of Mariota running more on Murray’s efficiency, because we probably can’t see both.

A Projection

Our Fearless Leader recently fired up the Projection Machine, and RotoViz writers will be doing some initial projections in the coming weeks. I gave a quick run-through to the Titans offense to try to understand why Murray’s ADP has been rising,7 and where that fits in among the Titans offense. I have to say it’s difficult to fulfill all the narratives that are being floated around for this team.

Tennessee Projection

This is what I would call an optimistic projection for DeMarco Murray. Here are a few decisions I leaned toward Murray.

  •  Total plays are up a lot closer to last year’s league average of 1,030. This required projecting the Titans to be much better in terms of average scoring differential (remember they were a 3-13 team last season).
  • A league average run/pass split despite the fact the Titans leaned pass-heavy in 2015.
  • A significantly reduced number of conceded sacks, again despite it being difficult to imagine them in a lot of positive game scripts.
  • WR volume that doesn’t seem to reach ADP expectation.
  • Stripping the contributions from depth RBs, WRs, and TEs a little too thin for my liking.8

And yet, giving Murray eight percent of the passing attempts — despite that being high for a lead back in a Mularkey offense — plus a very strong 80 percent catch rate and six yards per target (above his career average, as noted above), we still only see about 35 catches for 260 yards.

And despite keeping Mariota well below 100 rushing attempts and only setting aside about 100 carries for however the backups shake out, you’re not even left with 250 carries for Murray. Assuming Murray’s YPC bounces back to 4.0 and assigning him a 2.7 percent TD rate — well above the rates of Tennessee’s backs in 2015 — we don’t see promising rushing numbers.

The end result is just above a 200-point PPR season, which would have been just outside the top 12 RBs, even in the injury-depleted 2015 season.

I’m not trying to say this is the end-all, be-all projection. Maybe your plan is just to fade all the Tennessee receiving options. But it’s worth considering there are a lot of things that have to change from 2015 for Murray to get a decent workload, and that his ability to get back to elite efficiency will still be in question. Plus, that projection doesn’t account for the injury potential of an aging back with a troubling medical history.

Sure, Murray could have an anomalous TD season (i.e. get in the end zone 10-12 times for a team that only had 10 rushing scores last year) — or surprisingly catch 50+ balls — and fall into the back-end of the RB1s. But looking at the facts, there’s just no way to comfortably project DeMarco Murray as an RB1 in 2016.

  1. Douglas and Justin Hunter are both still on the roster currently, but the expectation appears to be that they have fallen down the depth chart. One or both of them would presumably still slot in as the No. 4 WR, and would pick up 30 or so targets.  (back)
  2. Miami, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tennessee in 2015.  (back)
  3. That was role player Jerious Norwood, who saw just 17 percent of the carries, similar to Dexter McCluster last season.  (back)
  4. 6.6 percent of last season’s 543 targets would be about 36.  (back)
  5. He’s 31st of 50 backs with at least 100 targets from 2011-2015.  (back)
  6. The 54-play discrepancy is sacks.  (back)
  7. It is just outside the third round (37 overall) in 16 drafts over the last two days, which is the 13th RB off the board.  (back)
  8. There are only about 80 targets for Hunter, McCluster, Douglas, and whatever other TEs get involved, from Anthony Fasano to Phillip Supernaw.  (back)