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The Rams Backfield (Part 5): The Next S-Jax and “The Shanny Moneyball Strategy”

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In Part 1 of this analysis of the Rams backfield, I suggested that Terrance Ganaway can become the most valuable member of the Rams backfield in 2013 and beyond . . . if he manages to stick on a roster in his second year.

In Part 2, I looked at Daryl Richardson’s prospects through an analysis of prior non-FBS RBs to enjoy top-30 seasons in the NFL, and I noted that Richardson did not have the collegiate production or physical attributes generally associated with the top-30 non-FBS cohort.

In Part 3, I looked at Richardson’s prospects through a consideration of the careers of prior rookies who either shared some of his physical attributes or produced first-year seasons similar to his, and I noted that Richardson’s status as a seventh-round selection, especially when combined with his small size, does not speak well for his future.

In Part 4, I looked at Isaiah Pead’s future prospects vis-à-vis his draft position, his performance as a rookie, and Jeff Fisher’s RB-usage patterns as a head coach, arguing that Pead’s usage as a rookie suggests that he will not be made the 2013 starter, despite the probability that he would be successful if given the job.

Specifically, I said this: “In the end, for Pead the question comes back to his size. He is not built like a starter. Since 2000, only two RBs entering the NFL under 200 lbs. have been selected in the second round as RBs [. . .] According to this screener, they are Ray Rice and Tatum Bell. Unless he puts on 15 lbs of muscle in the offseason, Pead should not be compared to Rice. No, he is much more like Bell, and his realistic best outcome is to be to Fisher what Bell was to Mike Shanahan in Denver—a highly-drafted small RB capable of producing a couple of barely usable seasons while his coach looks for better talent. [. . .] If anything, the comparison between Pead and Bell suggests something I’ve been dancing around and will explore thoroughly in a later article—in his usage of RBs, Jeff Fisher is very much like Mike Shanahan, except his Terrell Davis never got injured and he never traded away his Clinton Portis. In 2012, after years of searching, Shanahan ostensibly found his next stud RB. Fisher still needs to find his.”

Here is where I would like to begin (the series-concluding) Part 5, a consideration of all the other options Jeff Fisher has available, because—despite my bullish case for Ganaway—I don’t think he’ll be any real part of the long-term solution to the backfield problem. I’ll go through all the possibilities, but here I’ll just tell you upfront what I think will happen: Fisher is going to draft a big RB within the first three rounds of the draft, and that guy will be the next Steven Jackson, if not in 2013, then definitely in 2014 and 2015. And if Fisher doesn’t draft such a runner, a specific brand of ADP arbitrage (“The Shanny Moneyball Strategy”) will likely present itself to savvy fantasy players, and those who employ this strategy will stand to benefit from the uncertainty currently surrounding the Rams backfield.

But, first, let’s look at all the other possibilities, starting with the fourth-string RB, Chase Reynolds. Last month RotoViz’s Davis Mattek wrote this excellent piece on five backup RBs who could become future contributors. While I agree with Davis’ opinion that some of these guys could actually be fantasy options in the future, Reynolds won’t be, and I have a very simple reason for believing this.

It’s not that he’s already 25 years old, which—as this RotoViz article confirms—is the tail end of a RB’s physical peak. And it’s not that, according to his Rotoworld profile, he managed only 24 yards rushing on 14 preseason carries in 2012. It’s not that he’s yet to log an actual carry in a regular season game. It’s not even that, according to the statistics found at Total Football Stats, he got worse as a rusher each college season while playing against non-FBS competition. And it’s not that he’s buried on a depth chart behind three guys who were all drafted and are probably better runners. And it’s not that he went undrafted in 2011 out of the University of Montana. It’s not that, like both Richardson and Pead, he’s probably too small to be a workhorse back. And it’s not that, according to his profile at NFL Draft Scout, he ran the 40 in only 4.58 seconds at 201 lbs (and, fine, I’ll acknowledge that his Agility Score of 11.01 is good). Here’s why—when bench pressing 225 lbs. at his pro day he managed only eight reps. Eight. That’s worse than any of the RBs present at the 2013 combine—and I imagine any of the combines for at least the last decade. He could have doubled the number of repetitions and still been the worse BP performer at this year’s combine except for Montee Ball, Mike Gillislee, Stefphon Jefferson, and Robbie Rouse, all of whom disappointed with 15 reps.

I have a rule: If I’m not 100% sure that a player can do better on the bench press than Jeff Fisher, I don’t predict success for his future. For all I know, Fisher can pound out eight reps of 225 lbs. without breaking a sweat. I’m not sure I can say the same for Reynolds. Granted, I don’t know all of the circumstances under which Reynolds “performed” at his pro day (maybe he had some undisclosed injury), but his inability to exhibit anything approaching adequate NFL strength upon entering the league suggests that, for all his accomplishments as an undergrad, he is not a legitimate candidate to lead Fisher’s backfield.

Another possibility for the St. Louis backfield is that Fisher brings in a veteran free agent to lead for a year or two. While a number of workhorse-type of backs are still available (Ahmad Bradshaw, Beanie Wells, Cedric Benson, Michael Turner, Brandon Jacobs, and even Tim Hightower), only once has Fisher brought in a guy he didn’t draft to be his starter. In 2005, Fisher brought Travis Henry to the Titans and, after serving as the #2 back behind big-bodied Fisher-pick Chris Brown for one season, Henry was made the starter in 2006. Henry did OK, finishing the season with a positional ranking of 22, but that was his last year with the team, as he was replaced in 2007 by the next big-bodied Fisher-pick, the second-year LenDale White. So a precedent does exist; Fisher could bring in a free agent to start, and that guy could do well enough to be a fantasy option, but realistically that guy would be nothing more than a stop-gap option as Fisher continued looking for his next stud RB through the draft.

Yes, the draft. I know that Fisher just drafted two RBs last year, but his usage patterns of RBs and the way that he acquires them suggest that he is not satisfied with the guys he has on his roster, and when he is not satisfied with his RBs he simply drafts more—a pattern that I have shown in this series’ previous pieces.

Fisher is actually very similar to Mike Shanahan (he loves RBs and perpetually seems to be on the search for the next one), except that 1) Fisher is a rushing monogamist—when he finds his stud RB, he sticks with him for as long as possible, 2) he picks his studs by using high draft picks—whereas Shanahan can find RBs anywhere in the draft, and 3) he is currently still looking his next workhorse, while Shanahan seems to have found his in Alfred Morris.

Until Chris Johnson came along, Fisher always selected bigger guys to be his potential starters: Rodney Thomas, Eddie George, Chris Brown, LenDale White, and Chris J. Henry are all typical Fisher selections. Last year, Fisher tried to find another Chris Johnson, and that attempt seems to have failed, and so the quest for the next starter continues, and this time (I predict) Fisher will return to doing what he normally did in the past—draft a big-bodied RB within the first three rounds to be his next hopeful starter. And if Fisher does this, then basically all of my pieces on the Rams backfield up to this one are useless. That RB will be the guy you want, and all the other runners will just be bench depth.

And whom do I think Fisher will draft? I could see Eddie Lacy at the bottom of the first round or in the second, or Le’Veon Bell, Knile Davis, Christine Michael, or even Marcus Lattimore in the second or third rounds. If he does that, don’t even worry about any of the other Rams runners—just draft that guy. He’s the guy Fisher hopes will be the long-term starter. In this case, the draft strategy is simple—draft the guy Fisher just drafted and then maybe draft whoever becomes the backup (Richardson) if you want the handcuff and potential pseudo-starter for the 2013 season.

If, however, Fisher does something a little crazier—and it could happen—then the strategy changes. What do I mean by crazier? Fisher could draft (in rounds two to four) one of the mid-sized guys like Johnathan Franklin, Montee Ball, Joseph Randle, Stepfan Taylor, or Mike Gillislee. Or he could still select a bigger RB—like Zac Stacy, Latavius Murray, or Spencer Ware—but on the draft’s last day. In these cases, the drafting strategy would not be as straightforward.

Or—and this would be the craziest—Fisher could do nothing. He could stay with the guys on his roster, believing that one of them will emerge to claim the starting job. I doubt this happens, but you never know. So what is the strategy one should use if Fisher does something kind of crazy, that is, something Shanahanian? In redraft and dynasty leagues alike, I recommend the “Shanny Moneyball Strategy,” the ADP arbitrage technique I used in 2012 to great success.

Last year, in my primary redraft and dynasty leagues, I decided to acquire Roy Helu, Evan Royster, and some rookie plodder named Alfred Morris as a means of guaranteeing myself the entire production from the Shanahan RB unit. I did so for a few reasons: 1) I felt that those players were all undervalued because of the uncertainty surrounding their roles, 2) I saw this positive article on Helu and Royster, and 3) I noticed that, if one would have started all of the different week-by-week Shanahan starters in 2011, even with some of those awful weeks by Ryan Torain, one would have had a composite RB who produced a startable season. I figured with RG3 as the QB that composite RB would be at least a top-20 player in 2012, and so I decided—Shanahanigans be damned—that I would acquire all of those players at a discount and simply start the runner Shanahan made the starter in any given week, not at all caring about the exact identity of the starter, just knowing that, regardless of all the potential chaos, I was likely to get solid production at a steep discount.

In my dynasty league I had spent a low first-round rookie pick on Helu in 2011 and picked up Royster off of waivers, and so all I had to do was pick up Morris after the rookie draft and I was set. In my redraft league, I selected Helu with the 74th pick and Royster with the 134th. Again, I picked up Morris off of waivers, and the season started.

What happened next blew my mind. I earnestly expected Royster to be the breakout player, and so I selected Helu and Morris somewhat begrudgingly, but I was still determined to stick to the strategy, acquire the whole backfield, and then start the guy announced as the starter each week. When Morris won the job and kept it, the strategy was rendered obsolete. Still, even if Helu had been the breakout player instead of Morris, and if he had been only a top-10 or top-20 RB instead of a top-5, the system as a whole would have provided value, considering Helu’s draft position, and no one could have seriously predicted that Morris would be the starter for the entire season. From one perspective, the system was needless, because all I really needed to do was acquire Morris, and so the picks spent on Helu and Royster were “wasted.” From another perspective, though, the system was valuable and necessary, because it led me to draft Morris (and his handcuff) in the first place.

And what was the result? In the redraft league, my “I’m Out of Your League” squad made it to the two-week championship game in Weeks 15 and 16, and the amount I lost by was the exact difference between the other guy’s kicker and mine, Lawrence Tynes, the kicking leader on the season up to that point, who across those two weeks recorded only 2 points. Such are the vicissitudes of fantasy football. In the dynasty league, my “You Don’t Score Until You Score” squad won (the bizarrely scheduled) Week 17 Championship Game (and thus my league’s coveted MacGruber Championship Trophy), primarily on the strength of Alfred Morris’ best game of the season, a 200-yard 3-TD effort. In short, the Shanny Moneyball Strategy proved effective. It worked last year.

I think this act of ADP arbitrage can work again this year with Jeff Fisher’s backfield, if he fails to take a clear workhorse of the future within the first three rounds. Right now, according to the ADP information available at MyFantasyLeague, Richardson’s ADP is 97.51, as the #31 RB. Pead’s ADP is 133.42, as the #45 RB. Ganaway isn’t even on the board. And let’s assume that maybe Fisher takes a guy like Zac Stacy in the fifth round or so to replace Ganaway; right now Stacy’s ADP is 191.59, as the #73 RB. These guys are all undervalued, and if you acquire them and then start the guy who wins the lead role, you will have a solid RB2 acquired at a nice discount. And even if the starting role changes hands in the middle of the season, you won’t care who the starter is because you will have all the possible starters on your roster and, collectively, those guys are likely to provide a top-20 season.

Why am I convinced that, under the right circumstances (devalued RBs in a backfield lacking a clear starter), such a strategy would work? Because a Fisher backfield is awfully similar to a Shanahan backfield. It always produces. Always. And—best of all—unlike a Shanahan backfield, a Fisher backfield has way more predictability. Fisher isn’t likely to screw you over by starting one guy and then playing another for the bulk of the game. If Fisher starts a guy, that’s his workhorse. And throughout the years Fisher workhorses have been productive. Here’s a table showing the most productive RBs on each team Fisher has coached since he started in 1995.

Player Team Year Positional Rank
Rodney Thomas Oilers 1995 18
Eddie George Oilers 1996 8
Eddie George Titans 1997 12
Eddie George Titans 1998 11
Eddie George Titans 1999 3
Eddie George Titans 2000 3
Eddie George Titans 2001 19
Eddie George Titans 2002 10
Eddie George Titans 2003 22
Chris Brown Titans 2004 24
Chris Brown Titans 2005 20
Travis Henry Titans 2006 22
LenDale White Titans 2007 15
Chris Johnson Titans 2008 11
Chris Johnson Titans 2009 1
Chris Johnson Titans 2010 5
Steven Jackson Rams 2012 16
Avg 12.95
Median 12
Non EG-CJ-SJ Avg 19.8
Non EG-CJ-SJ Med 20

Fisher’s RBs simply produce. And it’s not just a matter of Fisher getting lucky with a few good RBs. Even in the middle years when Fisher had a Shanahanian flirtation with different stop-gap starters each season, his RBs still provided usable fantasy production. In fact, if one subtracts all of the seasons produced by “the good RBs” (George, Johnson, and Jackson), the average Fisher starting RB still produces a top-20 season. Does the twentieth best RB season represent fantasy sexiness in its purest form? No. But when it’s produced by a guy available with the hundredth pick in the draft it wins championships.

And who knows?—maybe Pead will win the starting job and actually become the next Chris Johnson. Maybe Richardson will transform himself into the next Brian Westbrook. Maybe Ganaway will become the next Arian Foster. Or maybe someone like Zac Stacy will become the next Ray Rice. With this system, I see limited downside, a high probability of usable fantasy production, and ample room for upside. We need look no further than last year’s performance by Alfred Morris to see how lucrative this system can be.

The best part of this strategy, besides the low cost of acquiring the necessary players, is that it does not require one to predict in advance who will become the starter. In effect, the “problem” that keeps everybody from wanting to draft these guys will be a systematic benefit to you. Others have no idea who will be the Rams starter, and so they pass on the RBs. You have no idea who will be the starter, and so you take all the RBs at a discount. And once they’re on your roster, the question of who’s the starter is irrelevant.

Last year, I thought Shanahan would pick Royster. I was wrong, but it didn’t matter, because I simply started Morris in Week 1 and then went on with the rest of my Sunday. We have no idea who will be the Rams starter in Week 1 (or afterwards), but as long as all of the relevant RBs are on your roster it won’t matter, since all of them (even Richardson) will do well enough if given a chance. Just start the guy Fisher starts each week, and from a group of players no one really wanted you are likely to get a composite top-20 starter.

And, if your kicker isn’t Lawrence Tynes or Ray Finkle, maybe even a championship.

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