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5 Free Agent Running Backs for the Patriots

Rotoworld has passed along news that the Patriots are considering Alfred Morris, Joique Bell, Chris Ivory, and Matt Forte as free agent running back acquisitions. Of course, they could also retain Legarrette Blount. Let’s break it down.

NAMEruATTSruFPOEPATRGSreFPOEPTSim LowSim HighLast CapPredicted
LeGarrette Blount1650.1170.974.710.50.951 / 1
Joique Bell900.04270.64.59.93.52 / 4
Matt Forte2180.05580.3210.514.39.23 / 12.5
Chris Ivory2470.08370.247.714.12.73 / 13
Alfred Morris202-0.0213-0.14.79.51.574 / 17.75

I built this table using data from the Fantasy Efficiency and RB Sim Apps. Contract information comes from Over the Cap. Here’s how to read the salary information. “Last cap” was the player’s cap charge, in millions of dollars, in 2015. “Predicted” is the number of years and average per year, for the player’s next contract, according to Over the Cap.1

Let’s run through the candidates.

Legarrette Blount

Blount was the most efficient of these runners over the past three seasons. And he’s also likely to be the cheapest to sign. That alone gives him good odds of being New England’s 2016 big back. But there are a few reasons to think Blount won’t return. First is the just the fact that there’s so much speculation about New England signing a different back. But then there’s also the fact that Blount is limited. Blount’s success seems dependent on the presence of a pass catching back.

download (3)

No pass catching complement, limited Blount utility. Lewis already missed time due to injury last season, so New England might be worried about that happening again. Then there’s this.

Capture

Lewis’ last game was Week 8, but Blount’s workload kept declining through Week 13, at which time Blount was lost for the season. I know it’s tricky to read much into New England’s RB usage, but it doesn’t look like they thought they could rely on Blount.

Joique Bell

Bell fell off a cliff last year and I’m not sure he’s hit bottom yet. But that might make him nearly as affordable as Blount, and Bell is a much more accomplished pass catcher. And just maybe he’s not as awful as it felt like he was last year. His 1.18 receiving yards/snap were top-eight among RBs with more than 100 snaps, and his 1.28 rushing yards/snap was a smidgen above average.2 And he was basically as efficient as Forte running the ball. No single thing here is really very exciting, but the combination of cost and versatility give Bell a small chance at latching on in New England.

Matt Forte

What’s not to love about this idea? Even at his age, the RB Sim App gives him the best floor and ceiling. He’s also at a point where he might value winning over a big contract. That’s the likely obstacle here, as Forte will be able to command a much higher salary than these other backs, and New England has limited flexibility in that regard. The main issue for fantasy is that this would kill the value of Dion Lewis – or any other New England RB. Something to think about if you’re a Lewis owner. But it would also be a reason to have some optimism for Forte. Here’s how the top New England RB has finished in PPR formats over the past five seasons.

Top NE RB 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
P / Season 39 20 35 15 28
P/Game 5 29 11 22 37

Those RBs included Lewis, Blount, Stevan Ridley, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, and Shane Vereen. Hardly world beaters. A top-five RB season – matching Lewis’ pace from last year – might be a stretch, but it’s also not inconceivable. And it also looks like there’s a decent floor – roughly an RB2 – for New England’s top RB. That’s a big drop from Forte’s seventh overall finish last year. But it’s also a bit reassuring; it seems like the bottom wouldn’t fall out, which is something you might worry about if Forte went to a really bad team.

Chris Ivory

Offers a higher floor and ceiling than Blount, so he makes sense from that point of view. But Over the Cap estimates he’s able to get a much more expensive contract. Although he performed well as a receiver last year, for his career he’s very pedestrian in that regard. It doesn’t seem like he offers much that Blount doesn’t, other than being younger. He’d be an incremental upgrade, but wouldn’t change New England’s backfield rotation.

Alfred Morris

I’ve already outlined the reasons I like Morris, so I’ll just add a couple of points here. He’s the same age as Ivory and has similar contract value. But unlike Ivory he’s never missed a game.3 There’s also this bit of symmetry.

download (5)

The top comp here is 2004 Corey Dillon.4 That was the year Dillon was traded from Cincinnati to New England, and rushed for 1635 yards and 12 TDs. And even though that was 12 years ago, the Pats still have the same coach and quarterback,5 so it seems that a similar back entering a similar situation could have similar results.

Okay, so that’s mostly narrative. But of all these backs, Morris has the most favorable set of comparables. Fourteen of the 25 improved in year N+1. The next best set of comps belongs to Bell, but only eight of his comps showed year-over-year improvement. Moving to a good offense like New England would help any of these backs, but in a vacuum, Morris is the one most likely to play better in 2016 than in 2015. So I think Morris should see the greatest improvement in fantasy value, if he’s the one that ends up in New England.

Conclusion

The only RB that seems likely to disrupt business as usual is Matt Forte. If you’re a Dion Lewis owner, that’s something to be sensitive to. Right now, the dynasty trade calculator values them evenly. But if they’re both Patriots, one of them will likely be worth a lot more, and one a lot less. In fact, Forte is valued less than Thomas Rawls right now. I figure there’s no guarantee Rawls is Seattle’s starter next year. And Forte has value wherever he goes, but if it’s New England it could be RB1 value. If I can move from Rawls to Forte and pick up something else, I’d do it.

I really don’t care if Blount ends up in New England. He just seems so limited – not even an RB3 on a per-game basis last year. Bell would be mildly interesting, since I think he’s versatile enough to have more usage than Blount, but his decline is frightening. I’m interested in Ivory or Morris, although I think Ivory would be hard pressed to post another RB1 finish in New England, whereas Morris would see a big jump in value, just because his value has much further to climb. It also seems like, if the contracts they can command are similar, that New England would rather have Forte than Ivory.

My non-scientific ranking of who I think is most likely to sign with the Patriots:

  • Blount
  • Forte
  • Morris
  • Ivory
  • Bell

  1. I estimated Joique Bell’s, based on recent contracts to similarly aged running backs.  (back)
  2. 1.28 vs 1.24.  (back)
  3. To be fair, Ivory has been healthy the past couple of seasons too.  (back)
  4. His second and third comps are kinda nice too.  (back)
  5. Even current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was an offensive assistant on that team.  (back)

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