Should You Draft Tevin Coleman or Mike Gillislee in 2017 Fantasy Football Drafts?

Tevin Coleman is a yardage machine for a dominant Falcons offense but here is why Patriots' RB Mike Gillislee has a higher ceiling in fantasy.
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The Debate Series of the SI/4for4 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, SI’s Michael Beller and 4for4’s Chris Raybon debate Tevin Coleman vs. Mike Gillislee.

Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons (ADP: 75.75)

Michael Beller makes the case for Coleman over Gillislee…

I’m not going to pretend that Coleman can match last year’s touchdown rate. He found the end zone 11 times on 149 touches, good for one touchdown every 13.5 times he had the ball in his hands. To give you an idea of how outrageous that is, Le’Veon Bell would have scored 25 touchdowns last year if he hit paydirt at the same rate as Coleman. It’s completely unsustainable, and anyone drafting him for that reason should think twice.

You know what isn’t unsustainable, though? Pretty much everything else Coleman did last year. He was a yardage machine for the Falcons ruthless, efficient offense, churning out 961 total yards on those 149 touches (118 carries, 31 receptions). He was one of three players with at least 100 carries and 30 receptions to hit thresholds of 4.4 yards per carry and 10 yards per reception. The other two were Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard.

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Coleman isn’t going to get the volume of touches those two will. If he were slated for that sort of role, this wouldn’t be much of a debate. Even with Kyle Shanahan gone, though, it’s hard to imagine new Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian changing much of what was so successful last year. Every coach is going to put his own fingerprint on a team, but the Falcons were one of the best offenses in NFL history last year, racking up 415.8 yards and 33.8 points per game, and a ridiculous 6.7 yards per play. The last time a team hit that mark was the 2011 Saints, a 13-3 division champion and offensive juggernaut. Sarkisian would be wise to keep many of Shanahan’s principles in place.

One of those principles is Coleman’s role as a dual-threat back. Even with Devonta Freeman the primary runner, Coleman was a crucial part of the offense in all 13 games he played. He had double-digit touches in all but two games, and the Falcons lost both of those. This is a better offense when Coleman is heavily involved. We know it, and the Falcons know it, and knowledge is strong currency in fantasy football.

Coleman may not have Gillislee’s ceiling, but we know what his worst-case scenario role is in Atlanta. It looks a lot like the 149 touches he got a season ago. The same can’t be said of Gillislee in New England. The Patriots are saying all the right things about him, but we know for a fact he’s going to lose a lot of work on passing downs to James White. Passing downs in the Patriots offense have a way of leading to the no-huddle, which keeps the same personnel on the field from play to play. As great as Gillislee was in Buffalo, he wasn’t much of a receiver. It would be silly to bet on that changing this year.

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The assumption is that Gillislee will handle the bulk of the goal-line work for the Patriots, but that isn’t a guarantee. His ADP assumes that he’ll be in a role similar to what LeGarrette Blount had last year, and there’s certainly a chance that’s the case. If it comes to fruition, he’ll reap the rewards of an offense that produces plays inside the 10-yard line like no other. If it doesn’t, though, he’s going to have a tough time living up to his ADP.

Coleman’s value isn’t just what he brings to the table directly. There’s also the non-zero chance that Devonta Freeman gets hurt, handing the reins of the Atlanta backfield to Coleman. No one is cheering for an injury, and it’s an eventuality fantasy owners cannot assume, but that possibility has to be included in his valuation, as well.

Even if Coleman’s touchdown rate regresses to the mean, he’s a safe bet to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage. The Falcons offense should continue to hum, producing plenty of touchdown opportunities for everyone who touches the ball as frequently as Coleman. He may not score 11 times like he did last season, but 600 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and six scores is well within reach. I’ll take that rather than Gillislee’s alluring, though uncertain, ceiling.

Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots (ADP: 78.75)

Chris Raybon makes the case for Gillislee over Coleman…

Drafting Tevin Coleman over Mike Gillislee is like playing the lottery with the winning numbers from the last drawing—and paying extra to do it: Sure, you could technically still win, but you’re not getting good value, and you’ll most likely go broke trying.

Coleman is not only a poor value relative to Gillislee. He’s a poor value at his ADP, period. Last season, Coleman scored 11 touchdowns on 149 touches. That was great for drafters who snagged him somewhere around pick 110 last year, but largely irrelevant for 2017. Since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978, nine running backs have scored 11 or more touchdowns on 149 touches or fewer and returned to play in the following season. Collectively, those backs averaged 11.7 touchdowns in their “Coleman season.” The next year—we’ll call it their “regression season”— those same backs collectively averaged just 5.8 touchdowns, or less than half of their Coleman-season total.

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Whether you actually refer to it by its official name, regression to the mean, or not, I’m sure you’ve always been aware that things tend to even out over time. Inevitably, a few inflated ADPs pop up because the average drafter isn’t accounting for regression—remember Allen Hurns in the sixth round last year?

If you’re still strongly considering Coleman over Gillislee, ask yourself if availability bias has anything to do with it. Availability bias describes the unrecognized tendency of decision-makers to give preference to recent information, vivid images that evoke emotions, and specific acts and behaviors that they personally observed.

Since you’re reading an article about who to take in the seventh or eighth round of your fantasy draft, it’s probably safe to assume you watched the Super Bowl, and, dare I say, maybe even a few postseason games, the most “recent information,” at least in the form of meaningful games, we have on hand. You may remember Coleman, wearing a red No. 26 jersey, catching a 6-yard pass in the right flat from Matt Ryan for the last Falcons touchdown in the B.C. (before choke) stage of the Super Bowl, which put Atlanta up 28–3 while the camera panned to Bill Belichick muttering into his headset—definitely all “vivid images.” In fact, you may even recall that Coleman scored a touchdown in every postseason game; “specific acts and behaviors” that you may very well have “personally observed.” Add in the fact that Atlanta’s postseason opponents—the Seahawks, Packers, and Patriots—are some of the league’s most polarizing teams, which means they are likely to “evoke emotions.”

Even if availability bias hasn’t affected you in the particular case of Coleman, you can be sure it has affected other drafters, and you should exploit it, starting with taking Gillislee over him.

Unlike Coleman, Gillislee will be a starting running back from day one. On the first day of training camp, the Boston Herald reported that Gillislee “was signed with the intention of replacing LeGarrette Blount,” and that “Bill Belichick was infatuated with Gillislee last season and raved about him during their two game plans for the Bills.”

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If you’re still not convinced about Gillislee, look no further than the oddsmakers, who by virtue of their profession have a lot more at stake than beat reporters. BetOnline installed Gillislee with +1200 odds to lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns. You know how many other running backs have better odds? Three: David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy, who collectively averaged 14.7 rushing touchdowns last season. Gillislee has greater touchdown odds than Devonta Freeman (+1400), who has rushed for 11 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. Gillislee is tied with Le’Veon Bell, and while I’m not suggesting Bell has been a rushing touchdown machine (his career high is eight), he averaged 21.8 carries per game last season. Oddsmakers wouldn’t place Gillislee in with that type of company if they didn’t believe he was going to get a significant amount of carries.

The power back role that Gillislee is expected to fill for New England has produced 10+ rushing touchdowns in four of the past five seasons. And unlike the majority of touchdowns, which tend to heavily regress to the mean, there’s evidence that New England’s rushing touchdowns can be sustainable. For five consecutive seasons, New England has been among the top four teams in the league in terms of plays run inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Once there, they have handed the ball off on at least half of their plays in four of those five seasons.

Gillislee is the lottery ticket to own in 2017. Coleman’s regression tax won’t be cheap.