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Pierre Thomas Is(n’t) A Bargain: A RotoViz Brodown

pierrethomas

For RotoViz readers who aren’t aware, my brother Pat and I have been attempting to solve the age-old question, “which of us do our parents love more?” in the only reasonable way that we know how: by debating the fantasy value of NFL players. As part of this ongoing series, each of us will make the case for why Player X is a redraft bargain in PPR, and the other will rebut. We’ve already taken this mind-blowing and revolutionary format to wide receivers, when we profiled a phoenix who will rise from the ashes of Christian Ponder, the next Alshon Jefferya PPR monsterand a free couch. Now we’re turning our attention to the running back position, where fantasy seasons are often won or lost. 1

Last week we took a look at a top 25 RB going in the 10th round.  This week I’m highlighting a RB being drafted later than his 2013 finish, but who has more upside than ever before.

The Case For Pierre Thomas (Mike) 

I’m imagining a lot of groans at this selection, and that those groaners can be lumped into one of two categories. Category No. 1 is made up of hardcore RotoVizians who have already read compelling evidence for Pierre Thomas and like him. Category No. 2 is made up of people who would rather invest in something like this than invest in the Saints backfield. Group No. 1: Please indulge me while I double down on Thomas. Group No. 2: Message me privately for an exciting opportunity guaranteed to make you money!2

In all seriousness: Thomas is still significantly undervalued.

While his ADP has climbed steadily over the last month, he remains a solid bargain at PPR RB23.  Now, it is July, which means it’s the NFL’s silly season.3 Saints fans and reporters love this time of year as much as anyone, relishing the chance to serve us our annual pupu platter of “Mark Ingram Will Emerge” and “The Saints Will Be More Balanced” story lines. If you think the fourth time’s the charm on that, then by all means head on down to Ingram town. But I’m more inclined to trust in what we know for sure, which is:

  1. Under Sean Payton and Drew Brees, the Saints will throw the ball a shitload. Here are Brees’ passing attempt totals for his last three campaigns, starting with 2013: 650, 670, and 657, good for second, second, and first in the NFL for those seasons.
  2. Brees likes to throw the ball to his running backs. The Saints had the third- (Darren Sproles) and fifth- (Thomas) most targeted RBs in the league last year.
  3. Thomas is the only accomplished pass-catching RB on this roster. Ingram had 11 targets last year, keeping in line with his three-year average of 11.33 targets per season. And despite receiving 73 fewer targets than Thomas, Ingram still managed to put up a lower AYA number with Brees. Meanwhile Khiry Robinson, considered by many to be a sleeper, was literally targeted zero times last year.

Traditionally, RBs have been coveted in fantasy and a big reason why is that their volume, game to game, is much more stable than every other position outside of quarterback. You KNOW a bell cow RB is going to get at least 15 carries a game, whereas a receiver or tight end could be held to only a few catches based on his matchup or other factors. Thomas does not offer you the carries; in fact he’s never had more than 200 in a season.4 However his volume, game to game, looks remarkably stable. Sproles is gone, and while Brandin Cooks may well receive some of his vacated targets and there are likely to just be less RB targets in general, it’s hard to see that as anything but positive for Thomas’ value.

Put simply: this offense presents an incredible opportunity for pass-catching RBs, and Thomas is the only one who currently looks capable of seizing it. That last part wasn’t true last year, and he still finished the season as PPR RB16. Given what I’ve laid out above, I’m struggling to formulate a reasonable explanation, outside of injury, for why Thomas will have a worse performance than last year, and yet he’s being taken seven spots below his 2013 finish.

And one last point: As I’ve explained, Thomas is mostly a bargain because his floor looks to be comfortingly high relative to his ADP. But what about his ceiling? After all, this is a player you’ll likely have to spend a fifth round pick to acquire. Take a look at what the Sim Score App has to say about that:

Projection Summary

Standard Half PPR PPR
Low 4.4 5.4 6.1
Median 6.5 8.2 9.9
High 11.5 13.7 16.7
The App likes Thomas for a PPR high of 16.7 points per game, which is better than what two top ten RBs put up last year, including Eddie Lacy. And remember, it doesn’t know that Darren Sproles is gone.

So in Pierre Thomas we have a player coming off a top 20 season, with an expanding opportunity in a high powered offense, who offers you both safety and upside, and is being taken outside the top 20 at his position.

Three words: Buy, buy, buy.

The Case Against Pierre Thomas (Pat)

Before I write my killer rebuttal, I’ll start by saying that depending on where you can get Thomas, he could absolutely be a bargain this year.  For example, when James Todd wrote 7 Reasons You Should Own Pierre Thomas in 2014 back in May, his MyFantasyLeague ADP was 125—an absolute steal.  But in MyFantasyLeague drafts since June 15th his PPR redraft ADP has climbed up to 96.5  On Fantasy Football Calculator his PPR ADP is up from 82 in mid-May to 51 as of this week—an early 5th rounder in 12 team leagues.  So the question is—is Thomas still a bargain in the 5th at RB23 as Mike contends?  Here’s why I think he’s not:

Pierre Thomas is coming off a career year.  He finished 2013 as a PPR RB 16, the highest finish of his career, with career highs in attempts, targets, and receptions.  Entering his age 29 season, it seems optimistic to expect Thomas to surpass these high water marks, even with the targets opened up by the loss of Sproles and Lance Moore.

Thomas is also coming off a career year of sorts in terms of his usage within the Saints offense. Since 2006 ~23 teams per year have finished with one RB accounting for 50% or more of their team’s RB touches.  The Sean Payton Saints have never been one of these teams.  Even in a league moving away from bell cow backs and towards running back by committee, the Saints are an outlier.  Last year Thomas neared the upper echelon of RB domination that we’ve seen within this offense, posting 43% of RB touches, the 3rd highest percentage in the Payton era.6  If the Saints remain committed to their RBBC philosophy—a reasonable assumption—we may actually see Thomas’ role shrink from the statistical highs he posted in 2013, even with Sproles out of the picture.

Let’s talk a little bit about Sproles’ former role.  Yes, there are additional targets available within the offense, but is Thomas really in line to inherit a significant portion of that role?  For answers, let’s turn to the Game Splits App. Since 2011 check out how Thomas has done with Darren Sproles In/Out of the lineup compared to with Mark Ingram In/Out of the lineup.

PierreThomas_Sproles_Split

PierreThomas_Ingram_Split

Surprisingly,7 Thomas has actually been much better when the Saints have been without Ingram than without Sproles.  The Sproles split is a small sample size, I grant you, but it certainly does not provide a strong indication that Thomas will jump into a pseudo-Sprolesian role in 2014.  Instead the Ingram splits seems to indicate that Pierre Thomas is at his best when more carries open up within the offense rather than additional targets.8  I interpret this to mean that if Ingram and Robinson stay healthy this year, Thomas’ upside may be capped based on competition for rushing attempts.

Finally there’s the issue of two other players who potentially also stand to gain from Darren Sproles’ departure: Brandin Cooks and Travaris Cadet.  Scott Smith has already forcasted what we can expect from Cooks in 2014, but suffice it to say that it would be surprising if Payton didn’t find creative ways to get the ball to their versatile 1st round pick.  Cadet may be the other thorn in Thomas’ (up)side9 in 2014.  Cadet hasn’t seen the field much in his 1st 2 years with the Saints, but there was some pre-draft buzz that he might be a candidate to take over some of Sproles’ snaps and Payton’s Saints have an established track record of using unproven UDFA RBs in fairly significant roles.10  I really can’t think of anything more Saints-like than splitting up Sproles’ role between several players, thereby keeping their RBBC philosophy alive and well and as frustrating as ever for fantasy owners.

If you’re taking a RB in the 5th round you could do worse than Pierre Thomas11, but personally I doubt I own Thomas this year unless I can grab him in the 6th round or later.

  1. Or tied. But definitely one of those three.  (back)
  2. “Money” = “Angry” in the language that I just made up.  (back)
  3. Between draft season, free agency season, and Johnny Manziel partying with Justin Bieber season, at this point it’s pretty much considered “silly season” whenever there isn’t an NFL game being played.  (back)
  4. Although with a 4.6 career yards per carry average, he does offer you some decent rushing efficiency.  (back)
  5. More of a subtle steal, like when your girlfriend “borrows” a t-shirt.  (back)
  6. Deuce McAllister is 1st with 47% in 2006, Reggie Bush is 2nd with 46% in 2007.  (back)
  7. to me at least  (back)
  8. Thomas was also better last year when Khiry Robinson was out of the lineup, though the splits are less dramatic. See for yourself.  (back)
  9. see what I did there?  (back)
  10. Chris Ivory, Khiry Robinson and Thomas himself.  (back)
  11. *cough Chris Johnson cough*  (back)

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