Which RB Should Fantasy Football Owners Draft: Isaiah Crowell Or Carlos Hyde?

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The Debate Series of the SI/4 For 4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, 4 For 4’s Chris Raybon and SI’s Michael Beller debate Isaiah Crowell vs. Carlos Hyde.

Isaiah Crowell, RB, Browns (ADP: 37.0)

Chris Raybon makes the case for Crowell over Hyde…

As far as we know, time machines that actually work haven’t been invented yet. But if people are willing to draft Carlos Hyde over Isaiah Crowell, how do we explain being back in the year 2016?

There’s no way around it: Crowell was a riskier fantasy play than Hyde last season. Browns coach Hue Jackson would frequently abandon the run, which resulted in Crowell finishing with fewer than 10 carries on five separate occasions. Hyde, meanwhile, never had fewer than 13 carries in a game. Going into Week 5, Crowell was averaging 15.3 carries for 98.3 yards per game (6.3 yards per carry), but guard Joel Bitonio was lost for the season that week, and from then until the Week 13 bye, the Cleveland offensive line went full-on Browns. It couldn’t even give Crowell enough room to clear 2.8 YPC in seven of eight games over that span, resulting in classic struggle lines such as 13-22, 9-16, 11-29, 6-4, 9-23, 8-10, and 16-44.

That’s unlikely to happen again in 2017.

Not only will Bitonio be back, but Cleveland’s moneyballing braintrust even took time out from tanking to make it rain for ex-Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler and ex-Packers center J.C. Tretter. As SI’s Andy Benoit notes, those moves now give Cleveland one of the league’s best offensive lines—especially on the interior. Two-thirds of Crowell’s runs went up the middle last season, so a revamped interior should put an end to his sub-3.0 YPC games. Also, Jackson went on record as saying he abandoned the run too often last season and wants to make Crowell the focal point.

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Meanwhile, new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t one to abandon the run. In 2016, he called a run while down more than one score at a higher rate than all but one active playcaller, per research by 4for4’s TJ Hernandez. But as you have probably heard by now, Shanahan might abandon Hyde.

Even if Hyde does manage to hold onto the job, he’s unlikely to match his 18.8 touches per game from 2016. Shanahan only gave Devonta Freeman 17.6 touches per game last season, despite Freeman turning in a breakout 2015 campaign. Was it because Freeman wasn’t a Shanahan draft pick? It’s hard to argue with anything Shanahan did in last season’s first 18 games, but it’s worth noting that Tevin Coleman‚ a Shanahan selection, saw his workload jump from 7.5 to 11.5 touches per game from 2015 to 2016. Also noteworthy is Coleman starting as a rookie in Week 1 of 2015, and out-touching Freeman 20–13, before ceding the job the following week due to injury. The Joe Williams hype initially got out of control, but that doesn’t mean it was completely unwarranted—Shanahan clearly likes to get his guys on the field.

With the anticipated workloads of Crowell and Hyde now on an opposite trajectory, the 3.9 touch-per-game advantage Hyde enjoyed over Crowell in 2016 is likely to evaporate. Per 4for4’s Player Touches App, Crowell reeled off more fantasy points per touch than Hyde in standard formats (0.69–0.67) and PPR formats (0.86–0.78) last season. The more Crowell closes the gap on Hyde usage-wise, the more Crowell’s upside relative to Hyde rises. And remember Crowell’s abysmal eight-week stretch? It didn’t prevent him from finishing with 4.9 YPC—0.3 more than Hyde, and ninth among 42 qualified running backs.

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There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being unconvinced by reasons for pessimism surrounding Hyde—general manager John Lynch outwardly wondering if Hyde is a fit for Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme; Shanahan banging the table for Lynch to draft Williams despite Williams not being on the team’s draft board; the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reporting Hyde looks like "the slowest and most indecisive running back on the team"; CSN Bay Area reporting Hyde will have to compete for the 49ers' starting job; NFL insider Gregg Rosenthal passing along word that Hyde may be a surprise cut—but Hyde’s ADP suggests that the pro-Hyde camp is drafting him as if causes for concern never existed in the first place. That’s a mistake.

Crowell and Hyde have similar upside, but Hyde is more likely to bust. Unless someone invents a time machine that can take us back a year, a similar ceiling and higher floor make picking Crowell over Hyde in 2017 a no-brainer.

Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers (ADP: 42)

Michael Beller makes the case for Hyde over Crowell…

If you happen to stumble into a conversation of fantasy players discussing Carlos Hyde this summer, the tone of the conversation is just as likely to sound like a eulogy as anything else. Did you hear, the 49ers might cut him? Kyle Shanahan loves Joe Williams. Hyde can’t possibly figure out outside-zone rushing attack. Sure hope he’s ready to put that Ohio State degree to use, right?

Hyperbole runs rampant in an NFL summer, thanks in large part to the dearth of actual news to report. Everything in the above paragraph is hyperbole at best, and unsourced innuendo at worst. Hyde is a 26 year old coming off a season in which he totaled nearly 1,200 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns in 13 games. It’s not time for his career’s eulogy. It’s merely time for its second chapter.

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Let’s first start with the conclusion to which so many seem ready to leap, no matter how wide a gulf that leap must cover. Much of the trepidation in the fantasy community surrounding Hyde concerns Kyle Shanahan’s reported Nikita Khrushchev turn in the 49ers war room, when he “banged the table” for Joe Williams, whom the team selected in the fourth round. If Shanahan loves Williams, the popular theory goes, he therefore hates Hyde. The theory further posits that Williams is a far better fit for what Shanahan wants to do offensively than Hyde. Rarely do you get so misguided a thought packed into one tidy theory.

First, it’s possible for a coach to like two players, even if they play the same position. Crazy, I know. Second, the idea that a coach won’t tweak his system to fit his best player, or that a world-class athlete who has played a certain sport his whole life can’t learn a new system when, you know, it’s his job, is lunacy. Let’s not forget, too, that Shanahan had a roster ideally suited to his system last year, with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield, Julio Jones occupying a ton of attention down the field, and Matt Ryan directing it all. He doesn’t have any of those luxuries this season. An audit of the 49ers offense will quickly reveal Hyde as its best player. Shanahan isn’t boxing him out of his offense, and Hyde won’t have any long-term issues learning a new offense. Don’t buy into that foolishness.

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Second, the assumption that Williams is simply going to usurp the starting gig is laughable. Hyde was one of the few bright spots in San Francisco last year, running for 988 yards and six touchdowns on 217 carries. He missed three games due to injury, but set career highs across the board, including in yards per carry, where he was one of eight backs to average at least 4.6 yards per tote while rushing at least 200 times. The other seven? LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard, Mark Ingram, Ezekiel Elliott, Jay Ajayi, Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman. Not bad company for a guy who’s supposedly going to get run out of town by a rookie, especially when you consider Football Outsiders graded the 49ers offensive line as the worst run-blocking unit last season.

I have nothing against Isaiah Crowell. He’s a fine player who is clearly on an upward trajectory, and will spend this season running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. This isn’t a bet against Crowell, but rather a bet on Hyde. The competition in the San Francisco backfield is overstated, as is the idea that Hyde will have trouble learning what his new coach wants out of his running back. Now in his fourth season in the league, Hyde is ready to come into his own.