Monday August 15th, 2016

The ranking

Beller: No. 8 RB, No. 18 overall | Fitz: No. 11 RB, No. 25 overall | Consensus: No. 11 RB, No. 23 overall

The skinny

Lacy caused a lot of heartache last season. Tabbed by some, including a certain writer, as the No. 1 running back, Lacy instead went down as one of the league’s biggest busts. He fell short of 1,000 total yards, scored just five touchdowns after hitting paydirt 24 times in his first two seasons, and ended the season as the No. 25 running back in standard-scoring leagues. An absolute disaster.

One of the more interesting developments of fantasy prep season is that Lacy isn’t really paying for last year’s nightmare. You can see that evidenced in his rankings—both ours, and the consensus—as well as his average draft position. Early drafters call Lacy’s name at pick No. 18.6 on average, which makes him the sixth pick in the second round of a typical 12-team league. Both the industry and civilians are confident that Lacy will be able to rebound this season.

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While there’s no way to spin Lacy’s 2015 season as a positive, there are more than a few reasons to help explain it away. The first is the trickle-down effect of Jordy Nelson’s knee injury on the rest of the Green Bay offense. Nelson isn’t just the team’s best receiver. He’s one of the most dangerous receivers in the entire league, and the only player on Green Bay’s roster capable of stretching a defense. In 2014, with Nelson healthy all season, the Packers led the NFL with 6.2 yards per play and finished sixth with 70 plays of at least 20 yards. Last season, with largely the same personnel, they averaged 5.1 yards per play—tied with the Browns and Titans for 27th—and had 64 plays that traveled 20 or more yards.

Without the threat of Nelson beating them deep, defenses crowded the line of scrimmage, blitzed Aaron Rodgers more often, and forced Green Bay to beat them with a combination of short passes and the running game. Lacy faced more eight-man fronts than he’d seen in his professional life, and certainly more than a Rodgers-led team typically has to combat. Running behind an average-at-best offensive line, Lacy never really had a chance last season.

This is the most important factor when looking at Lacy, and really everyone on the Green Bay offense, this season. Unfortunately, Nelson has been dealing with left knee tendinitis since the beginning of training camp, and there’s a chance we won’t see him in any of Green Bay’s preseason games. We know too well how the Packers offense suffers without Nelson on the field. If he’s still compromised when you sit down to draft, you’ll want to knock Lacy down a few slots.

Much was made of Lacy’s 2015 playing weight, and with good reason. No one needed the Alabama product to step on a scale to see that he’d put on a few pounds between his second and third seasons in the league. Head coach Mike McCarthy came right out this off-season and said Lacy had to lose weight before training camp. Lacy took the criticism in stride and did exactly what his coach asked, reportedly shedding 15 to 18 pounds off last year when he weighed in at the team’s mini-camp in May. A lighter Lacy is a better one, and that appears to be the one fantasy owners will be drafting this season.

An exaggerated focus on last year ignores the fact that we’ve seen far more good than bad from Lacy in his first three NFL seasons. He ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, while factoring in the passing game modestly, catching 35 of 44 targets for 257 yards. He shook off a slow start the following year to post an even better stat line, ending that season with 1,139 rushing yards, 42 receptions on 55 targets, 427 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns. Lacy was a top-six fantasy running back in standard-scoring leagues in both of his first two seasons, and is still just 26 years old.

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James Starks is still in Green Bay, reprising his familiar role as one of the better change-of-pace backs in the league. That will limit Lacy’s volume to a certain degree, but this, too, is a net positive. Even with Starks in the fold, Lacy is certain to approach, if not surpass, 300 combined carries and targets. As a prospective Lacy owner, I’d rather have him fresh for, say, 280 carries and targets rather than overworked at 330 combined possible touches.

The prediction

Green Bay’s offense should be up and running at full speed after an uncharacteristically inefficient year followed from Nelson’s season-ending knee injury. Just like his absence adversely affected everyone on the roster, so, too, should his return be a tide that lifts all ships. A slimmed-down Lacy will be ready to take advantage. We know from recent experience that a handful of backs from the low-end RB1 through low-end RB2 range on draft day will go bust. Lacy won’t be one of them. He’s appropriately priced in the middle of the second round, and could again threaten the 1,500-total-yard and 12-touchdown thresholds.

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