After one week of NFL action, we know one thing for sure — running back is the most dangerous non-military profession in the United States. Last week, I highlighted the NFL’s running back fragility problem and profiled three particularly at-risk backs as well as their high-ceiling back-ups.
On cue, medics have already descended on the starting running back battlefield to evaluate and treat the wounded. Ben Tate: sprained knee, out 2-4 games. Eddie Lacy: concussion protocol, missed practice. Maurice Jones-Drew: hand surgery, missed practice. Andre Ellington: walking boot, missed practice. Doug Martin: injured knee, missed practice. Toby Gerhart: injured ankle, missed practice. These injuries are unsettling, but the fantasy show must go on.
As fantasy footballers, our job is to recognize the depth charts in flux, evaluate the team’s back-up talent, and make transactions accordingly. Indeed, injury buzzards win fantasy football titles. Let’s spread our vulture wings and cruise the waiver wire in hopes of spotting some juicy fantasy carrion.
As we soar over Fantasy Land, we first encounter an immobilized Ben Tate. Unfortunately, we are not the only vultures in the fantasy skies. We can barely make out Tate’s profile through a sea of ruffling black feathers. The Browns’ running back depth chart was quickly dissected and picked clean as Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell were on all vulture watch lists.
Soaring on … In the distance, we see a flock of Ravens running backs. Let’s not approach this situation. Too soon.
Flanking left, we see a hobbled Doug Martin. His coach, Lovie Smith, has publicly announced that Martin’s knee injury was “minor,” but we know that coaches are notoriously inaccurate injury prognosticators. Time to swoop in for a closer look.
In the first half vs. the Carolina Panthers, Doug Martin was ineffective as a runner and was badly beaten on multiple pass protection assignments. He then left Sunday’s game with a knee injury. After spending some time in the locker room, he re-entered the game and finished with 18 total yards on 10 opportunities. While Martin was in the locker room, his back-up, Bobby Rainey, racked up 20 yards on six opportunities.
What happened before the injury, as well as the injury itself, matters. Regardless of whether Doug Martin plays in week 2 (I put the chances squarely at 50-50 after he missed Wednesday’s practice), Martin is clearly not the same running back that was a consensus top-5 fantasy pick in 2013. Now, he is hurt.
It would be easier to dismiss Doug Martin‘s awful performance if he were an intrenched starter. However, Martin has two depth chart-related issues working against him:
1. Tampa Bay’s current coaching staff was not involved in drafting Martin.
2. The Buccaneers have one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented running backs corps.
40-time: 4.56 (50th percentile)
Agility Score: 10.74 (98th percentile)
Burst Score: 120.4 (55th percentile)
Bench Press: 24 (78th percentile)
40-time: 4.55 (54th percentile)
Agility Score: 10.95 (89th percentile)
Burst Score: 121.2 (61st percentile)
Bench Press: 28 (95th percentile)
Beyond being good to great across the board in all relevant workout metrics, Bobby Rainey‘s 48.2 percent College Dominator Rating (his share of team offensive production in college) was extraordinary. Rainey’s prospect profile suggests that he has is both athletically gifted and instinctual on the football field.
The football metrics community has taken notice. Coming out of Western Kentucky, RotoViz‘s Coleman Kelly compared him to Giovani Bernard, because of Rainey’s otherworldly quickness and agility. Writing for Pro Football Focus, Shawn Siegele found that as the NFL continues to emphasize spread-based offensive systems, pure quickness is increasingly important for running backs, particularly on passing downs. Siegele’s research discovered that both receptions per touch and receptions per snap were correlated with Agility Score.
Regarding Bobby Rainey‘s agility, Coleman found that since 2000, Rainey has the 16th best weight-adjusted Agility Score (similar in concept to Speed Score). Since entering the NFL, Rainey has put on 10 pounds and is now a rocked up 212-pounder with a 32.2 BMI (89th percentile) to go along with well above average strength. Among current NFL tailbacks, only DeAngelo Williams, Roy Helu, and Christine Michael recorded better agility scores.
Bobby Rainey is an elite pass-catching back who is more than just a third-down specialist. Rainey’s BMI and bench press reps indicate that he possesses the necessary size and strength to be an every-down NFL running back and ascend to fantasy football RB1 status. When has an ascending RB1 been this underreported and inexpensive? Owned in a mere 2.2 percent of ESPN Fantasy Leagues, the vast majority of fantasy footballers are currently unaware that a first round-caliber running back is crouched on a launch pad in Tampa, FL.
If Doug Martin misses week 2, Bobby Rainey would be an insta-start in all leagues at home against the Rams. As the season progresses, if Martin misses additional time or continues to be ineffective, Tampa Bay will not hesitate to thrust Rainey into an every-down role. The changing of the guard will happen quickly. Just as Andre Ellington, Zac Stacy, and Rashad Jennings seized their opportunities during the 2013 season, Rainey is poised to be the first fantasy stud to emerge from the NFL’s RB wreckage, and the smart scavengers will be the first on the scene to scoop him.
Matt Kelley (@fantasy_mansion) is an XN Sports contributor and founder of RotoUnderworld (@rotounderworld) and PlayerProfiler.com, which distills a wide range of advanced metrics into a single player snapshot.