Cash In Carries 1: Detroit Lions Edition

For the Cash In Carries series, we look at NFL teams who can give you fantasy gold in the 2020 running game.

Like my first set of articles, we take the raw data and examine it for the answers we seek. Which teams will give fantasy owners the best shot at rushing success in 2020?

THE STATS

The stats that form the basis of these articles have come from the analysis of a team’s carry performance over the 2019 season. The vast majority of these numbers have mainly come on a weekly basis from the ESPN.com website, with additional stats from pro-football-reference.com. Collated and up-to-date Depth charts for incoming and outgoing players have come from ourlads.com. Game film was watched using the NFL Game Pass.

Players within these teams may have a significant share of the carries already, and will likely continue to get that share next season. Another answer may lie in the numbers about who can take advantage in 2020.

For those teams, carries over each regular season game has been recorded to produce every player’s total number of carries. This leads to a total number of carries for each team. To produce a player’s carry percentage relative to the whole team:

Player’s total carries ÷ team’s total carries = player’s share of the team’s carries (%)

Players leaving their teams will take those percentages with them, and add it to the team they are joining (if applicable). After incoming / outgoing calculation, this gives teams a final percentage of carries that could be available in 2020.

Outgoing players’ total % – incoming players’ total % = available carry share for 2020 (%)

BREAKING THE RUNS DOWN 

Further analysis has separated carries by position (QB/RB etc.), and has looked at remaining carry share after removing that of the RB1. For example, removing Christian McCaffrey’s 287 carries from the Carolina Panthers RB total leaves 28 carries. That’s a 8.89% share between other 4 Running Backs.

Another piece of game analysis that occurred was to log and measure each rush made by the team, and note their length and direction. This helped determine the number of rushes through each area of the offensive line, and where rushes were most and least effective.

There are some exemptions that apply to this data collection. Only fantasy-relevant positions had carries recorded. Only regular season games were included as not all teams compete in post-season. These stats take players’ mid-season moves into consideration, as their contributions will affect more than one team’s carry share.

Be warned – these articles use projections of carry numbers in the 2020 season being similar compared to those in the 2019 season.

The first focus is a team who used a LOT of rushers last season.

DETROIT LIONS

The Lions struggled in 2019.

Bottom of the NFC North with a 3-12-1 record. Losses in all their division games. Inconsistency and a long list of injuries. Fantasy players struggled to find more than a handful players who could provide their team any worth. At least, not for more than a couple of weeks.

This reached a peak with large-scale change of staff over the new year. All necessary changes considering the nature of the Lions’ season. But, after a dismal year, why is there hope for fantasy owners when it comes to Detroit?

CONSISTENCY BLUES

As mentioned before, the Lions had a huge consistency problem in 2019. This was particularly apparent in the running department. The Lions used 13 players to rush the ball in the 2019 season. This was the 2nd highest in the NFL, behind New England’s 14. Out of those 13 players, 8 of those were Running Backs – the highest in the NFL.

That lack of consistency reflects in weekly rushing leaders for the Lions. Kerryon Johnson leads the way with 5 top spots. But Johnson’s feature on the board isn’t anything to shout home about. Of those 5 spots, only one is over 70 yards – a 125 yard breakout against Kansas City. The other four are under 50 yards.

The remaining 11 weeks are divided between 6 other players. Jeff Driskel’s ‘high’ of 37 yards rushing at Chicago in Week 10 was enough to get him on the board.

One reason for the inconsistency may well have been injuries. Johnson himself suffered a Week 7 knee injury that kept him out for 9 games. What followed was a virtual carousel of Running Backs making minimal impact before their replacement. All in all, the Lions running game was nothing to take pride in.

STAFFING SWITCH

With the season behind them, the Lions made sweeping changes. This started with staff. There were many significant names in the cut list. Defensive line, defence and special teams coordinators were amongst the members let go. But the offensive coordinator stayed. Darrell Bevell brought a wealth of experience to the team when he signed last year. And, in terms of the pass game, he helped push Matthew Stafford and the Lions into the top ten for passing yards and touchdowns. The quarterback was likely on track for a 4,000 yard+ season before his injury.

His team bio lists some favourable stats for a team who have struggled with the run game. In his time with Seattle (2011-17) and Minnesota (‘06-’11), both teams saw huge jumps in rush production and efficiency. He has worked wonders with the pass. Can he do the same to the moribund Lions rushing offence? The stats say so.

AN OFFENSIVE LINE TO TAKE

Bevell has started this work with decisive moves to shore up that offensive line. The unit struggled with making effective gaps for the rushers, particularly on the right.

Times backs stopped on or behind the line of scrimmage (0 or negative yardage):

Left end / left tackle: 13 rushes (14.95% of rushes in that area)

Left guard / right guard / centre: 27 times (15.1%)

Right end / right tackle: 25 times (22.75%)

Total: 65 times (17.5% of all rushes)

(source)

This right-hand area saw an immediate reshuffle. Out went 7-year veteran right tackle Rick Wagner – who was then picked up by Green Bay. Right guard Graham Glasgow headed off to Denver. In response, the Lions have kept backup players to increase depth in competition. They signed Hala Vaitai from the Eagles, who had an active role in Philly’s victorious Super bowl season. He has left and right tackle experience – useful if LT Taylor Decker leaves after the season.

The Lions also took in fresh talent, drafting strong guards in Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg. Both helped their college teams’ rushers to ridiculous stats in 2019. 3rd-round pick Jackson blocked for J.K. Dobbins, as Dobbins became the first ever Ohio State 2,000 yard rusher in the program’s history. Stenberg, at 6’6” and 327lbs, carved out paths for Lynn Bowden at the University of Kentucky. In 2019, the side set school records for rushing yards and touchdowns.

On a side note, this move should not only help running lines, but will likely boost pass protection. Stats for sacks allowed are recorded for the player responsible. Going off these stats, Wagner and Glasgow are responsible for only 3 sacks between them. But game film shows outgoing Wagner and Glasgow being in some way liable for 23 sacks combined. That’s over half the sacks for the season (43).

ROSTER TRIM

The ruthless approach continued with running players. Of the 8 Running Backs who saw carries in 2019, four are no longer Lions. C.J. Anderson, Paul Perkins and Tra Carson were released, and J.D. McKissic has joined Washington. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, the Lions’ rushing leader in Week 10, joins the Broncos with a 5.42% carry share.

Between them, they account for 100 carries over the season – a 24.64% share.

Coming in the opposite direction are two players with 2019 carries. Quarterback Chase Daniel arrives from Chicago after spending the season as Mitch Trubisky’s backup. He is joined by Geronimo Allison, the former Packer wide receiver. They bring a total of 1.76% carry share.

After the ins and outs, this gives 22.88% of carries available in 2020 – equivalent to 93 carries in 2019. But there’s more to be thought about.

NO RECEIVERS ALLOWED

Lions Quarterbacks made 50 running attempts between them in 2019. All three QBs made runs in the games they played in. It could be expected that, if Daniel played, he would also take a small share of the carries. However, Lions non-QB/RB roles only made 3 rush attempts (0.74%). That is the lowest in the NFL.

It was just Darrell Bevell following one of his trends. In his time at the Seahawks, the non-QB/RB roles saw an average of just under 9.5 carries/season. The highest? 18 rushes in 2014, including 2 from a punter. 

Which means those 93 carries should be heading to a Quarterback or Running Back. But over half of the QB ‘rushes’ in 2019 were, in fact, scrambles (28/50). It is unlikely that many of those runs will head in the QB’s direction. Which then leaves the running backs to reap the benefits.

So who could benefit?

THE OLD GUARD

KERRYON JOHNSON AND BO SCARBROUGH

Last season was a disappointment for the Lions running core. The reasons are numerous. A lot of injuries. The lack of chemistry from the constant backfield switches. The previously discussed problems with the offensive line. 7 rushing touchdowns accounting for the third lowest in the NFL. Five of those rushing touchdowns were from the opponent’s 1 yard line. The longest? 5 yards.

This year, there is a glimmer of hope for the rushing group. With those offensive line additions, the focus looks to be bringing the rush offence up to the pass game’s level. Both rookies have experience of carving out gaps for their rushers to head through. And this space can only bode well for those running through it.

This should benefit two existing running backs quite well. Bo Scarbrough and Kerryon Johnson (when healthy) saw the majority of the downs in 2019. As a result, they were most affected by the difficulties at the line. They should be some of those to see the benefit in 2020. With that raises the question – which player will be ahead on the depth chart?

HOW DOES SCARBROUGH FARE?

After he was thrust into the starting role, Scarbrough featured heavily in the run but was virtually non-existent in the pass game. This echoed his college production at Alabama. Scarbrough helped the college side to a 2016 national championship, amassing 812 yards off 125 carries, with 11 touchdowns in his sophomore season. The amount of rushing touchdowns were missing in 2019, but they were missing for all the running backs!

Compare his 2019 rushing stats to that of Johnson, and there are favourable sides to both players:

Games: Johnson 8 / Scarbrough 6
Attempts: Johnson 113 / Scarbrough 89
Yds/Att: Johnson 3.6 / Scarbrough 4.2
Longest run: Johnson 20 / Scarbrough 30
First downs: Johnson 22 / Scarbrough 15

However, Scarbrough’s sole use in the running game actually has him at a disadvantage. Experts indicated that Bo had limited catching ability, and it showed in his usage. J.D. McKissic was the normal pass-catching back during the games where Bo ran the ball. On the other side, Johnson featured in that side of the game when he played. It added role flexibility, and reduced certainty of the run whenever he was on the field. Now that McKissic has moved to Washington, this gives even more leverage to Johnson’s case. In my opinion, a healthy Johnson will be starting ahead of Scarbrough this season.

BOYS ON THE BOARD

Unsurprisingly, experts have also marked Scarbrough below Johnson. On the board, Bo is down in the 300s overall, and RB89. At present, he should go undrafted in virtually all but the deepest best-ball leagues. Last season, Detroit had to rely on the pass to try and chase leads, which hindered his usage. However, if Detroit’s changes are effective, Bo could be used in late-game scenarios to help chew time. Further usage likely relies on injuries higher up. In this case, eyes should be kept on the injury chart and waiver wire.

Johnson is listed on fantasypros.com as the RB36 and 102nd overall – putting him in RB3/4 range. He will likely be the Lions’ RB2, and should take at least some carries freed up by departing players. With this, he provides flexibility during bye weeks and in favourable match-ups. However, his primary back status will likely be eaten up by an arriving player…

THE FRESH FACES

The Lions picked up two running backs in the 2020 Draft. Jason Huntley ran for over 1000 yards in New Mexico State last year. He got an average of 7.1 yards per carry. But the real focus is on the second of the drafted running backs…

D’ANDRE SWIFT

Fellow writer Pittsy had the chance to write about Swift in the recent Writers’ Battle. Pittsy made a great case for the Georgia running back. To be fair to Swift, the amount of positives made the article virtually write itself. You can see Swift’s stats in the running back Writer’s Battle, or the second part of the Draft Round Values series.

His drafting goes a long way to answering the back question at Detroit. Last season, Johnson had the edge in the air. Bo had it on the ground. But Swift excels at both types of offense. Last year alone, he pounded the rock for over 1200 yards. He was the primary pass-catching RB, which tacked on an extra 200 yards. His game flexibility means he can deliver in either approach – and keeps defensive coordinators guessing. Their job is going to be a lot harder next season with such potential in the backfield.

Most importantly of all, Swift didn’t miss a game. This could be the biggest advantage for Darrell Bevell. It not only gives the Lions OC a high-calibre weapon – it gives him one that sticks. An offensive keystone that can be built around, safe in the knowledge that the plans don’t need to change. His durable nature is the key in gaining much-needed momentum that was missing last season. With that will come dominance in early down carry share AND third-down catch availability.

ADP VALUE FOR AN RB1

At the risk of re-covering old ground, it will be important to highlight Swift’s ADP.
But, as it stands, Swift has actually dropped on the ADP board. On 8th May, he stood at 67th overall, and the RB27. Nearly one month later, he remains as RB27 but has slipped to 69th overall.

However, the factors covered above only add to the value you will be getting from this pick. Swift is not an example of a rookie asked to recreate his college form in an unchanged setup. The team has developed over the last two years, including changes that means Swift slots straight in. A good thing for the Lions, and those fantasy owners who hope for a great return.

Next time we look at another team whose changes may mean more fantasy gold in the rush game.

Until then, Keep Rushing!

Rob @CowsillRob

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