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, SI’s Michael Beller, 4 For 4’s T.J. Hernandez, and 4 For 4’s Joe Holka debate Mark Ingram vs. C.J. Anderson vs. Spencer Ware
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints (ADP: 61.25)
Michael Beller makes the case for Ingram over Ware and Anderson…
Here is the full list of running backs who had at least 300 carries, 4.8 yards per carry and 90 receptions over the last two seasons: Le’Veon Bell, Mark Ingram. That’s it. Any debate involving Ingram must acknowledge that right off the top, and use that fact as its jumping off point. The guy is in a statistically based club whose only other member is, at worst, the second best running back in the league.
We’ll address the Adrian Peterson-sized elephant in the room a little later. For now, let’s focus on what Ingram has done the last two seasons, and why he will remain in control of the Saints backfield. In 12 games in 2015, he ran for 769 yards on 166 carries, good for 4.63 YPC, caught 50 passes for 405 yards, and hit paydirt six times. The four games he lost to injury pushed him down the running back rankings, but he finished that season fifth among backs who played at least eight games in standard-league fantasy points per game.
Last year was the best season of Ingram’s career. He ran for 1,043 yards on 205 carries, totaling 5.09 YPC. He caught another 46 passes for 319 yards, and posted the first 10-touchdown season of his career. What’s more, he remained healthy for all 16 games, giving fantasy owners explosive-scoring ability and consistency. He was 10th among backs in standard-scoring leagues, and eighth in PPR formats.
Imagine for a second that you’re Sean Payton or Drew Brees. You’ve seen exactly what Ingram can do, and how he fits in your offense. You’ve watched the last two years, as he has had the best seasons of his career. You know that he’s 27 years old, right in the middle of his physical prime. Are you really going to reduce his role in the offense?
From what I can tell, the only knock on Ingram this year compared with the last two seasons is that the Saints signed Adrian Peterson. It’s true that Peterson’s presence can only be a bad thing for Ingram, but are we sure it’s actually that bad? Peterson is, unquestionably, an athletic freak and one of the best running backs anyone alive has ever seen play the game, but he has put a lot of mileage on his 32-year-old body. He played just three games last year after tearing the lateral meniscus in his knee, the second significant knee injury of his career. Ingram has far from a clean injury history, but he has never dealt with anything like a torn meniscus, let alone the torn ACL Peterson suffered at the end of the 2011 season.
Ingram is five years younger than Peterson, a known fit in the Saints offense, and at a significantly lesser risk to suffer a serious injury. Ingram is also much better in the passing game, and the fact that Peterson is largely a non-threat as a receiver should funnel more targets than usual in Ingram’s direction. With those two handling the bulk of the rushing duties, there will only be so many snaps to go around for AlvinKamara, though the rookie is admittedly a skilled receiver who could take away some of Ingram's targets.
The Saints didn’t sign Peterson to keep him on the sidelines or to be a glorified backup, but this backfield still belongs to Ingram. Offenses led by Brees have never failed to deliver or lift the fantasy prospects of everyone involved who has a central role. Ingram will have one of those roles. Give me that, even with the knowledge that he will give up some of the work to Peterson and Kamara, rather than a back in the far less lucrative offenses in Kansas City and Denver.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Broncos (ADP: 60)
T.J. Hernandez makes the case for Anderson over Ingram and Ware…
The Broncos, Chiefs and Saints all added pieces to their respective backfields this offseason, but of the incumbent running backs on those teams, Anderson may have the safest role.
New Orleans signed Adrian Peterson to a two-year, $7 million contract and drafted Alvin Kamara in the third round of this year’s draft. At the very least, Peterson figures to cut into Ingram’s goal-line work, and if AP is anywhere near his 2015 form, he will take over a significant chunk of Ingram’s overall workload. Kamara was one of the better pass-catching running backs in college last year, and seems destined to inherit the valuable Darren Sproles role in this offense. Head coach Sean Payton has even went as far as comparing Kamara to Marshall Faulk. Add touchdown vulture John Kuhn to the mix, and it’s almost certain that Ingram finds himself as part of a crowded running back committee.
Kansas City also added a running back in the third round of this year’s draft, and while Kareem Hunt was drafted after Kamara, the fact that the Chiefs traded up to land Hunt suggests that they may have even bigger plans for their rookie running back than the Saints do for theirs. Hunt has plenty of work to do in preseason to usurp Ware as the Chiefs’ starting running back, but reports out of Kansas City camp have been nothing but positive for the rookie as his role with the first team has steadily increased throughout the offseason. Even if Ware starts Week 1, Hunt figures to play a significant role in 2017 on a team that “will almost certainly use a committee approach...this season.”
Denver doesn’t have anyone behind Anderson that is a threat to take over as the starter. In a recent Rushing Expectation analysis, 4for4’s Joe Holka points to Devontae Booker as a player with “a ton of data points slapping us in the face saying he may not be any good.” I do like Jamaal Charles as a bounce-back candidate in 2017, but as a player that will return to fantasy relevance rather than to superstardom. New Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has already mentioned that he wants to get Anderson more involved in the passing game this season and is just looking to get Charles “eight or 10 touches a game if he can survive."
Speaking of McCoy, he has consistently used his running backs as much as any playcaller in the league. The evidence so far this offseason is pointing to Anderson shouldering most of the backfield load for Denver. And while you can make the argument that Sean Payton will match McCoy in terms of running back opportunity, there are simply more mouths to feed in New Orleans and a greater chance that Ingram slips in the pecking order.
Do I think Anderson is the best running back of this group? Not at all. The fact of the matter, though, is that fantasy football comes down to opportunity, especially for running backs. Signs so far this preseason are pointing to larger roles for the backups in New Orleans and Kansas City with reports out of Denver favoring the starter. I want the player on the team that wants a workhorse and in this case that player is Anderson.
Spencer Ware, RB, Chiefs (ADP: 58.25)
Joe Holka makes the case for Ware over Ingram and Anderson…
I'm currently 60 running backs into my Rushing Expectation methodology. I can now confidently say very few running backs come close to the dominance Spencer Ware has shown in the metrics I value most—and he's done it in back-to-back seasons. Mark Ingram is one misstep away from a permanent residence in Sean Payton’s dog house, and C.J. Anderson has posted two straight seasons with a 15th percentile or worse Expectation Score on the ground.
Ware’s 5-foot-10, 230-pound frame and punishing running style led him to five touchdowns on seven carries within the 5-yard line in 2015, the most efficient rate of any running back in the NFL with at least 10 red zone carries that year. In 2016, Kansas City had just the 13th-most rushing touchdowns, but Ware’s 12.9% red-zone touchdown rate ranked just 28th out of 35 qualifying backs. Per 4for4’s TJ Hernandez, Ware is a prime positive touchdown regression candidate in 2017.
The hope is that Ware comes into the 2017 season much healthier. He was threatening top-five running back status before suffering a concussion in Week 8, a week in which he also lost one of his best offensive lineman, Parker Ehinger, to a torn ACL.
Expected Success Rate is a useful metric I created that separates a running back's performance from that of his blocking. Despite Kansas City’s below-average run blocking during the second half of last season, Ware performed well above expectation rushing the football. Among my 60-player sample, Ware finished in the 94th percentile in terms of Expectation Score on the ground. He did even better as a receiver, finishing in the 99th percentile, albeit on a smaller sample. Ware consistently stands out in my methodology due to his ability to make consistent gains that help the offense. He is also far less reliant than the typical running back on big plays, or on soft defensive fronts, to produce.
Yards before contact can be a reflection of either a running back's ability or his offensive line's quality of play, to varying degrees. The running backs that pique my interest the most are those who post strong yards-before-contact numbers despite below-average blocking, like Ameer Abdullah, or due to facing a lot of loaded-box situation, like DeAndre Washington. Ware checks both boxes. He finished in the 84th percentile in yards before contact, despite below-average run blocking. He also faced eight or more in the box at a rate in the 86th percentile and finished with a Success Rate in the 94th percentile, up from the 54th percentile the previous season.
Ware is one of the best runners at working through contact that I have ever seen. Ware’s elite balance through arm tackles is truly unique, and so is his size differential. Thus, the strong yards-after-contact numbers as a receiver that Ware posted last season make sense, as he saw the majority of his targets before his concussion. Ware’s 38th percentile average in rushing yards after contact last season doesn’t look too great, but he finished in the 94th percentile the season before, which leads me to believe that his concussion played a large factor in the decline. We should see him rebound in 2017 or fall somewhere in between, at the worst.
I believe that rookie Kareem Hunt can be a functional contributor in the league after he showed a strong ability to force missed tackles in college. However, Hunt can’t match Ware’s upside in terms of running through contact after catching the football. It’s unlikely that the presence of Hunt will affect Ware’s usage ceiling any more than the presence of Charcandrick West did.
Among Ware, Anderson and Ingram, the latter is in the best offense, but with that comes more competition and uncertainty than Ware’s situation. Anderson shouldn’t have much competition for touches, but since 2014 he has been injury-prone and occasionally barely relevant.
On the other hand, Ware has flashed top-five upside as recently as 2016, and is a prime touchdown-progression candidate. Tyreek Hill will be taking on more responsibility down the field, which should allow for Ware’s receiving workload to rebound. Ware has the league-winning upside that I am willing to gamble on in the fifth or sixth round of a fantasy football draft every single time.