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Is Lance Dunbar a Lock for the Joique Bell Role? History Tells a Different Story

As a Detroit Lions fan, I’m aware of the good things Scott Linehan can do for an offense. As a fantasy football fan, I’m excited about what he might be able to do for the Dallas skill players as well, since it appears he’ll be running the offense. But I think there are some reasons to be concerned, especially about Lance Dunbar. Ultimately my doubts about Dunbar boil down to three questions:

  • Will there be enough volume to support two fantasy relevant running backs?
  • Will Scott Linehan employ a meaningful running back time share?
  • If the answers to the first two questions are “yes,” will that second running back be Lance Dunbar?

Let’s explore the answers.

Will there be enough volume to support two relevant running backs?

I’m not really concerned about DeMarco Murray. He’s productive and efficient enough to remain a top end fantasy back. There may not be enough volume to improve much on last year’s numbers, but his ADP seems pretty accurate at the moment. As for Lance Dunbar, I have some significant doubts about the likelihood he has fantasy relevance this season. Here’s why:

Play Volume

Last season, Dallas ranked dead last in total offensive plays. Detroit ranked sixth. The Lions had 445 rushing attempts vs. just 336 for Dallas. That’s a huge opportunity gap. To put that in perspective, Reggie Bush, despite yielding 166 attempts to Joique Bell, had more rushing attempts than DeMarco Murray last season. So unless Dallas runs a lot more plays, any increase in Dunbar’s usage would have to come at Murray’s expense. That could happen because of injury, but probably not otherwise, which we’ll explore later.

Game Script

This is the flip side of the play volume coin. Using the Drive Stats App, we see that Dallas ranked 28th in total offensive drives last season. We know Dallas’ defense is poor based on last season, and we know they already lost arguably their best defensive player, Sean Lee, for the season. Finally, we also know they rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of defensive investments. So Dallas’ sixth-worst run defense from last season is likely to be even worse this year. That means it will be even harder for their defense to get off the field, and even easier for opposing offenses to control the clock. The result? Fewer possessions for the Cowboys’ offense. It’s hard to increase the number of plays without also increasing the number of possessions.

Turnovers

In 7 of Linehan’s 12 seasons, his team his finished in the bottom (w0rst) half of the league in offensive turnovers and turnover margin. A potential for more turnovers exacerbates concerns about play volume and game script. Even if Linehan’s offense itself doesn’t lead to more turnovers, negative game script does, and Dallas looks to have its share of that.

Will Linehan employ a meaningful running back time share?

A lot of the excitement about Dunbar’s prospects stems from how Scott Linehan used Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in Detroit. With a similar workload split, Dunbar would be an interesting prospect. But there are a couple of problems with that assumption.

Historical running back usage

If you define a “workhorse” running back as one getting more than 65 percent of rushing attempts, then seven of Linehan’s 12 coaching seasons have featured a workhorse back.1 Of the 5 seasons featuring a committee, 2011 was fraught with backfield injuries, so it’s not even clear that he meant to use a committee approach. Another season, 2003, featured a 3-headed committee. In other words, only 3 of Linehan’s 12 seasons featured a 2-back committee. Last year, Detroit’s running backs had a 57/43 split in rushing attempts, which is pretty even. But look at the splits for all of Linehan’s coaching career:2

Yr/RB Pct Att
2002
RB1 75.2%
RB2 24.8%
2003
RB1 46.9%
RB2 28.8%
RB3 24.3%
2004
RB1 63.9%
RB2 36.1%
2005
RB1 55.2%
RB2 44.8%
2006
RB1 100.0%
2007
RB1 73.4%
RB2 26.6%
2008
RB1 76.2%
RB2 23.8%
2009
RB1 70.0%
RB2 30.0%
2010
RB1 65.5%
RB2 34.5%
2011
RB1 28.6%
RB2 27.2%
RB3 24.5%
RB4 19.7%
2012
RB1 72.4%
RB2 27.6%
2013
RB1 57.3%
RB2 42.7%

In other words, our hopes for Dunbar to part of a significant time share are based on exceptional seasons, not representative seasons.

The only other season where two running backs got a similarly equal percentage of usage was 2005. In that season Linehan was in Miami, and his running backs were Ricky Williams and  Ronnie Brown, both of whom were very talented. In the seasons tilted most heavily to a single running back, there was a pretty clear talent difference between the top two backs.

Year RB# Player
2002 1 Michael Bennett
2002 2 Moe Williams
2006 1 Steven Jackson
2007 1 Steven Jackson
2007 2 Brian Leonard
2008 1 Steven Jackson
2008 2 Antonio Pittman
2009 1 Kevin Smith
2009 2 Maurice Morris
2010 1 Jahvid Best
2010 2 Maurice Morris
2012 1 Mikel Leshoure
2012 2 Joique Bell

The one exception there appears to be Mikel Leshoure over Joique Bell in 2012, however, I’d surmise that (a) Leshoure may well have been more talented prior to his Achilles injury, (b) The Lions believed Leshoure to be more talented and weren’t sure yet how good Bell was.

That last part is important. Despite replacing Leshoure with the very talented Reggie Bush, Linehan substantially increased Bell’s workload in 2013. The implication here is that when there’s a big talent differential, Linehan will lean on one running back. When the runners appear roughly similar in talent, he splits the workload up more evenly.

How Good is Lance Dunbar?

Actually a better question might be “How good is Dunbar compared to DeMarco Murray?” If they’re similarly talented, then there’s maybe hope for him to get a decent percentage of the running back workload. But even then, there may not be enough volume to make him fantasy relevant.

Another important question: is Lance Dunbar better than Ryan Williams? Might Williams get work ahead of, or alongside Dunbar?

Player Ht Wt 40 Spd Score Agility Vert Broad Explosion Score
Murray 72 213 4.37 116.8 11.46 34.5 130 164.5
Dunbar 68 205 4.47 102.7 10.94 35 120 155
Williams 69 212 4.59 95.5 11.14 40 123 163

It’s pretty clear, based on measurables, draft pedigree, and production to date that Murray is top back in Dallas. Among running backs with more than 500 snaps last year, Murray ranked sixth in the NFL in fantasy points/snap.3 I think it’s a stretch to say Dunbar’s talent is sufficient enough to take work away from Murray.

Dunbar has a speed and agility advantage over Williams, but Williams’ agility is respectable and Williams also has the edge in size and explosion. It’s fair to question whether or not Dallas would play the chronically injured Williams in a significant role, but I think there are a few reasons to think they would. First of all, they signed him, so presumably he’s healthy. Second, they signed him despite Dunbar being healthy. Third, despite missing lots of time due to injuries, Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure got significant work under Linehan. If the guy can get on the field, Linehan will use him. Finally, Dunbar himself has only appeared in 21 games out of a possible 32, so it’s not like he’s been exceptionally durable anyway.

Conclusion

Let’s review our three questions:

1. Will there be enough volume to support two fantasy relevant running backs?

Verdict: Doubtful

2. Will Scott Linehan employ a meaningful running back time share?

Verdict: Questionable

3. If the answers to the first two questions are “yes,” will that second running back be Lance Dunbar?

Verdict: Unclear

If we take a look at Dunbar’s ADP, it’s pretty obvious that public sentiment is increasingly enthusiastic about his prospects.

dunbar

In my opinion, it’s not clear that he makes a good target at that ADP. For one thing, despite his recent ADP rise, he’s still an undesirable Large Gap RB2. Some backs you could get instead:

  1. If you drop the threshold to 60 percent, then 8 of his seasons feature  a workhorse.  (back)
  2. Based on RBs with more than 50 attempts in a season.  (back)
  3. Ahead of Adrian Peterson, for example.  (back)

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