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Fantasy Football: Andre Ellington, Weight Gain, And Comparable Players

Andre Ellington, the Arizona Cardinals running back who is slowly but surely being talked up as the team’s bell cow, might become fantasy football’s most important Rorschach test of 2014.

Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington




Andre Ellington, the Arizona Cardinals running back who is slowly but surely being talked up as the team’s bell cow, might become fantasy football’s most important Rorschach test of 2014.

In one corner, we see fantasy owners frothing at the mouth to draft the guy who averaged a hefty .49 fantasy points per touch — including a 5.5 yard per carry average (YPC) — in (very) limited action as a rookie. These pro-Ellington fantasy gamers also see the runner who snagged 39 receptions while running a measly 220 pass routes (fewer than Jacquizz Rodgers).

Standing opposite the pro-Ellington crowd are the detractors and the skeptics who see an undersized running back who is 25 years old in only his second pro season. They see a guy who isn’t exactly a metrics freak of the week, and whose average draft position has risen — and will continue to rise — as he prepares to play six 2014 games against brutalizing NFC West defensive fronts.

And then there’s this from Cardinals training camp: Ellington has put on an extra 8-10 pounds this offseason in an effort to bulk up for a starter’s workload. We’ve heard this story before, and it often ends in fantasy heartbreak.

Steve Slaton, a year after becoming a fantasy deity, reported to training camp in 2009 18 pounds heavier than he was during his breakout 2008 campaign. Slaton proceeded to plod his way to a disgusting 3.3 YPC — a full 1.5 yards less than his 2008 YPC — before being benched for fumbling and eventually having his season shortened by injury.

Felix Jones, whose ungodly speed and breakneck open field moves led to a 5.9 YPC during his time as a backup to Marion Barber in Dallas, packed on almost 20 pounds as the Cowboys vowed to give him the majority of carries in 2010. Jones’ explosiveness was gone — vanished — with his new, bulkier frame to blame, game watchers said.

Jones’ weight gain experiment went so haywire that he lost the extra pounds after the 2010 season.

Then there’s Ryan Mathews, whose waking nightmare of a 2012 campaign was preceded by muscle-bound weight gain meant to help him hold up under the strain of a full workload of carries in Norval Turner’s offense. Observers gawked at Mathews’ physique. He performed nothing like he did in the latter half of the 2011 season, when he seemed destined to morph into a fantasy force for years to come.

You know the rest of the sad, sad story. Mathews posted a 3.7 YPC, fell into a disastrous timeshare backfield, and proved to be less elusive than Michael Turner, Vick Ballard, and Fred Jackson, according to Pro Football Focus.

Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, to different extents, have also seen the downside of packing on the pounds. Rice in 2013 looked like a purple bowling ball compared to Rice in 2009 and 2010.

History says the Ellington skeptics have a valid case in fading the runner who has jumped up draft boards. He’s the 15th running back taken off the draft board in the middle of the third round, and I could see him surpassing Doug Martin and Zac Stacy in the coming weeks.

Searching For Ellington Comps

Finding running backs to compare to Ellington headed into 2014 has become a somewhat subjective quest. The weight gain is to blame. Sure, Ellington is 209 pounds, but is that who he is? He was 199 pounds just six months ago.

I used the RotoViz RB Sim Score Lab to pinpoint who, exactly, has most reflected Ellington’s age, weight, and likely workload.

The machine pumped out a variety of backs from the past decade and a half — guys like Charline Garner in 2000, Matt Forte in 2010, and Ray Rice in 2009 and 2010.

I’m not solid on Garner as a fair Ellington comp because ol’ Charlie was 28 years old in 2000 and weighed 19 pounds less than Ellington does today. Rice in 2010 was two and a half years younger than Ellington will be during the coming season. Forte in 2010 weighed in at 20 pounds heavier than Ellington’s original 199 pounds.

My Ellington comps arrow settled on Tiki Barber during his 2000 campaign, when he ran 213 times for 1,006 yards (4.7 YPC) and caught 70 passes for 709 yards. This was two seasons before Barber’s breakout 2002 season that saw him pile on more than 1,900 total yards.

Barber in 2000 was 25 years old, the same age as Ellington, and weighed in at 200 pounds. Perhaps he was built differently than Ellington is, maybe he was stockier above the waist or had thicker legs or ankles or something. I don’t know. The age and weight comparison is good enough for me.

Many a fantasy footballer has scoffed at the prospect of Ellington getting 25 touches a game, as Arizona head coach Bruce Arians has said. That would be a giant leap in workload from one year to the next. Ellington saw 10.4 touches per game in his rookie year.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think he needs 25 touches every week to be a viable top-10 fantasy back. He won’t necessarily have to pound the ball between the tackles, and his receiving prowess shouldn’t be ignored here. If Ellington can up his routes per game from 14.6 to something close to 18 routes per game, I think it’s more than feasible that he can make a statistical living through the air.

Barber, during his 2000 season, averaged 13.3 carries a game and caught 4.3 passes per contest. That doesn’t seem like anything beyond what we can expect from Ellington in 2014. I see Barber’s 2000 season — in which we finished with 278.6 fantasy points — obviously represents Ellington’s ceiling.

Barber’s 2000 totals would’ve made him fantasy’s No. 5 running back last season.

 

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