Typically in this column, we look at one of each of those alliterative opposites. This week, however, we’re going to focus on fact and stay away from fiction. The topic up for discussion deserves our undivided attention.
From Jeremy Hill to DeMarco Murray to C.J. Anderson, early-round running backs are once again disappointing their owners at a rate unmatched by high draft picks at other positions. Yet mid-round pick, often the sweet spot of the draft within the running back position, have stepped up across the league. Doug Martin, Giovani Bernard and LeGarrette Blount and Todd Gurley are all in the top 15 in fantasy points per game among running backs, and all had average draft positions of 69.7 or worse, which is at the end of the seventh round of a 12-team league. But one other back selected in the same range has turned into a truly elite fantasy option. Chris Ivory has risen from the middle of the running back pack to the top tier of the position. He isn’t going anywhere.
Fact: Chris Ivory is a top-five fantasy running back
Ivory was a popular breakout pick heading into the season, with the hype carrying him all the way up into the fifth round of a typical 12-team league by time most people were drafting in late August and early September. If you’ll allow me to brag a little bit (you don’t have a choice), here’s what we said about him at the beginning of that month in our AFC sleepers column:
Let’s play a game I like to call “Chris Ivory Facts”. Fact one: Ivory has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 636 career totes. Fact two: In seasons in which he has played at least 12 games, he’s never had fewer than 102 fantasy points, despite always being part of a timeshare. Fact three: Last season was the closest he ever came to being an outright starter. He racked up 964 total yards and seven touchdowns on just 216 touches. Fact four: The running backs listed second and third on the Jets’ depth chart right now are Bilal Powell and Zac Stacy. Meanwhile, Stevan Ridley is still rehabbing a torn ACL and is on the PUP list. Fact five: Ivory is set for the best season of his career to date.
Many of those things suggested that a breakout season was in the offing, and today Ivory is one of the five best fantasy backs in the league. He’s currently second in fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues, trailing only Devonta Freeman, and is fifth in raw points, behind Freeman, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles and Mark Ingram. There’s no reason to expect Ivory to fall out of the top five. With the way he and the other contributors on the Jets’ offense are playing, Ivory should continue providing one of the year’s best returns on investment based on his average draft position.
Back in that sleepers column from the summer, we highlighted that Ivory was fourth in missed tackles last season, despite getting fewer than 200 carries. Yards after contact per carry and missed tackles are two of the best predictors of future success. Circumstances beyond a running back’s control will change from season to season, but if he makes it hard for defenders to get him to the ground, he’s going to succeed. Ivory is once again proving to be one of the most challenging players to tackle in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ivory is getting 3.25 yards after contact per rush. That is second in the NFL, behind Le’Veon Bell’s 3.31 YAC per rush. Going back to 2007, 24 players have topped 3.0 YAC per rush, topping out at Adrian Peterson’s 3.93 in 2012. The last player to do it was—surprise, surprise—Ivory, when he got 3.01 YAC per rush in 2013. This has been a demonstrable skill of his for years.
Ivory is also back among the league leaders in missed tackles forced, racking up 18 in his four games, which has him tied for sixth with Bell. Remember, though, that the Jets have already had their bye, and that Ivory missed one game due to injury. Three of the five players who have forced more missed tackles—Carlos Hyde (28), Doug Martin (20) and Freeman (19)—have at least seven more carries than Ivory. Of the 11 backs who have forced at least 15 missed tackles, just three have fewer than Ivory’s 83 carries.
PFF attempts to measure all of this together with a stat it calls “elusive rating” and defines as “the impact of a runner with the ball in his hands, independent of his blocking.” What FIP is to a pitcher, elusive rating is to a running back. Ivory currently ranks second, behind Hyde. He was third in 2013 and 2014.
Let’s see some of Ivory’s elusiveness in action. He had five plays that went for at least 18 yards in the Jets’ win over Washington last week, including two that traveled a minimum of 30 yards from scrimmage. The longest of those was a 54-yard run in which he showed off his patience, vision and speed.
Ivory’s blockers are undoubtedly doing great work, but this play could have broken down twice before turning into a big gain. The first critical move Ivory makes independent of his blocking is cutting back to his left (camera right) a few yards after the line of scrimmage. That clears him of safety Trenton Robinson (No. 34) and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (No. 91). The second move comes when he kicks it into another gear to speed past safety Dashon Goldson (No. 38). Once Ivory gets past Goldson, he’s off to the races, sprung in part thanks to a great block by Brandon Marshall.
Ivory displays his elusiveness on this next play through his underrated vision and speed. Let’s first watch the GIF before breaking it down.
Neither you nor I were in that huddle (unless you’re reading my columns again, Ryan Fitzpatrick) so we can’t be totally sure where this play was designed to go. However, based on the tack the line takes at the snap, as well as the way Quincy Enunwa (No. 81) crashes down the line from right to left, it sure appears this is designed to go in the gap between the center and right guard. A hole opens there, but Perry Riley fills it. Here’s what Ivory sees at the point of attack:
Nothing doing, right? Well, yes, if Ivory follows the play to script. Like the great ones do, though, he freelances, bouncing it outside. Thanks to a great seal block from Kellen Davis (No. 47) and terrible contain by Bashaud Breeland (No. 26), Ivory is free to coast up the right sideline.
Ivory ran all over Washington for 146 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, but he evaded would-be tacklers mainly with speed and vision. We need to rewind two weeks to the trashing the Jets put on the Dolphins in London to find examples of him using his power to run over defenders. Ivory trampled the Dolphins for 166 yards and a score on 29 totes in that game. Where he ran by the Washington defense, he ran right through and over Miami’s.
Here’s our first good look at Ivory’s raw power. He takes this handoff out of shotgun and runs straight behind the spot of the line vacated by center Nick Mangold. Ndamukong Suh, a huge man in his own right, has Ivory dead to rights. This should be a two-yard gain, and a costly one at that, given the vicious hit Ivory is sure to take evidenced by this screenshot.
Watch what happens next:
That wasn’t an arm tackle. It was a shoulder into Ivory’s chest from a defensive tackle who tips the scales at 320 pounds. Unfortunately for Suh, he learned that if you don’t wrap up, you don’t get to give the gift of a tackle to a guy like Ivory.
In the win over Washington, we saw Ivory use his patience to set up a run, then his speed to turn it into a big play. Here we see him set up another positive rush with patience, though this time it’s his power that carries him through the second level. The Jets’ line creates a pocket of sorts for Ivory a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage on this play, but it takes an extra second or two for the hole to open up. Ivory bides his time, then sheds three tackles before Reshad Jones (No. 20) finally brings him down.
Not every back would have had the patience to wait for the hole to develop when looking ahead and seeing this:
Not only did Ivory wait for his blockers to do their respective jobs, he then earned himself about five extra yards by shaking off defenders who simply weren’t up to the task of getting him to the ground.
Ivory checks in at 6'0" and 222 pounds. He has had the reputation for being a bruiser, but as we’ve seen here, he has shown that there’s a lot more to his game than power. We’ve seen instances of him using patience, vision and speed, as well as force, to deliver for the Jets and his fantasy owners. Let’s look at one more play that shows him trusting his blockers, using his vision to find a cutback lane, then dragging tackles to churn out a few extra yards before finally going down.
First, the damage:
Again, this play doesn’t get off the ground without the great work done by Ivory’s blockers. That’s true for nearly every run play, however. Ivory still has to turn a good play into a great one, and he does that by finding that cutback lane behind Davis’s block and then forcing three Dolphins—safety Michael Thomas and linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Jelani Jenkins—to combine for the tackle.
There are a lot of different ways for running backs to star for their teams, but at the most base level, they’re all trying to do one thing: not get tackled. The great ones make tackling them as hard as possible for defenders. Ivory is proving himself one of the most adept backs at making tacklers miss thanks to his speed, power and vision. That, along with the Jets’ burgeoning offensive environment, has turned him into one of the five best fantasy backs in the league for 2015.