Ameer Abdullah vs. Danny Woodhead: Which Back is the Better Pick in 2017 Fantasy Leagues?

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Tuesday August 29th, 2017

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 T.J. Hernandez debate Ameer Abdullah vs. Danny Woodhead.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions (ADP: 79)

Michael Beller makes the case for Abdullah over Woodhead…

Though it hasn’t been completely his fault, Ameer Abdullah has disappointed the fantasy community both seasons that he’s played in the NFL. After enjoying a hype-filled summer before his rookie season in 2015, Abdullah totaled just 780 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, finishing as the No. 42 back in standard-scoring leagues, and the No. 44 back in PPR formats. Abdullah got off to a great start to the 2016 season—he ran for 63 yards on 12 carries, caught five passes for 57 yards, and scored a touchdown in the Lions 39-35 Week 1 win over the Colts last season—but he fractured a bone in his foot Week 2, costing him the rest of the season.

Given that reality, it’s not a surprise that Abdullah has no shortage of doubters this season. On top of that, Theo Riddick is one of the most dangerous pass-catching backs in the league, and proved himself capable of handling a significant workload as a rusher last year. Even if Abdullah’s best-case scenario comes to fruition, he’s going to cede plenty of work to Riddick. Add it up, and you get few members of the fantasy world that are in the middle on Abdullah. People either love him or they hate him. Count me as one of the former.

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First, let’s dismiss of the previous two letdown seasons. Abdullah wasn’t the first running back to struggle in his rookie season, and he won’t be the last. Remember, too, that the Lions were a mediocre team top-to-bottom that season. They went 7-9, and finished 18th in the league in points and 20th in total offense. Abdullah wasn’t totally blameless, but there were structural issues that held him back, as well.

As for last season, well, injuries happen. There’s no reason to consider him an injury-prone player. Abdullah was remarkably durable in college, missing just one game in his four years at Nebraska; over his final three seasons in Lincoln, he racked up 771 carries and 72 receptions, and didn’t miss a game. Last year was an anomaly—don’t push Abdullah down your cheat sheets.

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Now that Abdullah has a clean slate, let’s look at what he’s capable of this season. Even with Riddick in the fold, Abdullah is going to be a dual-threat back for the Lions. That much was clear in the one game he played last season, when he racked up 120 total yards and a touchdown on 17 carries plus targets. He’s unlikely to have a distribution of touches typical for a lead back, but the volume will be there in one way or another. He should push up or beyond 250 carries plus targets.

Yes, the Lions throw the ball nearly as much as any team in the league in Jim Bob Cooter’s offensive scheme. While that plays to Riddick’s advantage, it’s not as though Abdullah is some slouch as a receiver. He, too, is capable of big plays through the air, and is a far superior runner to Riddick. The notion that Abdullah is going to miss out on early-down work because of Detroit’s offense is overblown. And while Cooter is second to only Sean Payton is pass-play rate in neutral situations since taking over as the Lions offensive coordinator, we intuitively know that some of that owes to Abdullah’s injury last year. When you’re options running the ball are Riddick, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington, you’re probably going to throw more often than you’d like. Don’t look at that and assume it will carry over exactly this season. Now that Cooter has a weapon worth using as a runner, it’d be foolish if he didn’t. And if you’re concerned about Matt Asiata at the goal-line, I’m assuming you didn’t watch many Vikings games over the last few seasons. Abdullah will be the Lions goal-line back.

Woodhead is a fine player who I’m happy to take at ADP, but this Ravens offense could be the worst he has played in during his career. He won’t make much impact as a runner, with Terrance West holding down primary ball-carrying duties. That makes him entirely reliant on his receiving skills for his fantasy value, and while he’s a good bet to deliver on those skills, they still leave him woefully short of what Abdullah can provide fantasy owners.

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There’s a reason Abdullah was a second-round pick just two years ago, and why he captivated fantasy owners that same summer. We saw a glimpse of it last year before he went down with a season-ending foot injury. This year, we’ll see the whole picture.

Danny Woodhead, RB, Ravens (ADP: 78)

T.J. Hernandez makes the case for Woodhead over Abdullah...

Danny Woodhead has been one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history, and there may not have been a better landing spot for him than Baltimore. Over the last two seasons, no team has targeted the running back more than the Ravens, who have thrown to the position 324 times, accounting for nearly a quarter of all team targets in that span.

In Woodhead’s four years in San Diego, he averaged 4.5 catches on 5.6 targets per game. To match those numbers in Baltimore, he would need to account for less than 60% of the passing game out of the backfield. This, of course, assumes that the Ravens continue to throw to their running backs as often as they have over the last two years—but that assumption is not far fetched.

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After wide receiver Steve Smith retired, Baltimore didn’t draft a single skill position player in the NFL draft and only added Jeremy Maclin, a receiver that has caught more than 80 balls just twice in his eight-year career. Since the signing of Maclin, the Ravens lost Kenneth Dixon, their projected starting back, and tight end Dennis Pitta, Baltimore’s target leader in 2016, to season-ending injuries. In other words, Woodhead’s role in this offense is only growing as the season approaches.

No matter your league type, Woodhead offers a relatively high weekly ceiling because of his involvement in the red zone. During his time in San Diego, Woodhead averaged 1.22 targets per game in the red zone. While that might not seem like that many on the surface, consider that only 18 players averaged more red zone targets per game in 2016. Of those 18, Theo Riddick was the only running back. Woodhead now finds himself on a Ravens team that threw on 63% of its red-zone plays last season, the fourth-highest red-zone passing rate of any team in 2016.

Speaking of Riddick, he is one of the biggest reasons to fade Ameer Abdullah in 2017 fantasy drafts. Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as the playcaller in Detroit, the Lions have been one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league—only Sean Payton has a higher passing rate in neutral situations than Cooter. Not only has Detroit been pass-heavy, but Cooter barely reacts to game script, meaning that he is going to throw whether his team is winning or losing. This doesn’t bode well for Abdullah.

Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Le’Veon Bell is the only running back to average more targets per game than Riddick. In Cooter’s pass-first offense, Abdullah will surely lose a significant portion of first- and second-down work to Riddick, who will already dominate third-down snaps. The rebuttal to this logic is that Woodhead might not get much first- and second-down work himself. The difference is the touchdown upside.

Detroit was one of the three teams that threw more often than the Ravens in the red zone last season, and Riddick was the favorite running back in that situation. When the Lions do decide to run at the goal line this year, there is speculation that it could be Zach Zenner, not Abdullah, that gets the nod to punch it in. Abdullah has just two rush attempts inside the 10 in his career, as Detroit opted to lean on Joique Bell near the goal line in 2015. Last season, while Abdullah was out for most of the year, Zenner converted half of his eight rushes inside the 10 into scores. Keep in mind, too, that Detroit signed Matt Asiata in May. At this point, it’s unlikely that Asiata makes the 53-man roster, but if he somehow makes the final cut, the goal-line situation in Detroit becomes a complete mess.

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What we’re left with in Abdullah is a running back who isn’t guaranteed early down work and could miss out on goal line snaps in a pass-first offense. Woodhead, on the other hand, has one of the safest floors of any running back outside of the top 10—his pass-catching prowess almost guarantees that he will never be sidelined because of negative game script—and massive touchdown upside because of his involvement in the red zone. There are few players as likely to not only meet, but exceed, their ADP as Woodhead. I’m taking him over Abdullah in 10-out-of-10 drafts.

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