Are you once again sleeping on Isaiah Crowell? If so, let me explain why that’s a bad idea.
Over the last couple years, Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell has become a bigger name in fantasy football circles. Since recording an eight-touchdown season in 2014, Crowell has seemingly improved each year. After producing over 1,200 multi-purpose yards last season while still splitting touches with Duke Johnson, Crowell has proven himself a commodity in fantasy football.
With the Cleveland Browns signing guard Kevin Zeitler away from the Cincinnati Bengals and center J.C. Tretter from the land of cheese, the Browns’ new-look offensive line has garnered much attention.
From a fantasy standpoint, Isaiah Crowell’s stock has benefited the most from these signings and the hype surrounding them. As you can see from Fantasy Football Calculator, Crowell’s fantasy average draft position (ADP) has increased fantastically since March. Not so coincidentally, Mar. 9 is when the Zeitler and Tretter signings broke.
Clearly the Crowell hype has been duly noted by the fantasy football community. However, his current RB16 ADP per Fantasy Pros is still an under-valuation of the Cleveland rusher. Let’s take a look at why.
The Obvious: Offensive Line
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Isaiah Crowell hype is his aforementioned new offensive line.
First look at the new Cleveland Browns offensive line (with 2016 season PFF grades). pic.twitter.com/kmlgwAReFz— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 10, 2017
Barring their young right tackle who had too small of a sample size last year to judge, the Browns bring together a collection of good to great offensive linemen. In fact, Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked this unit second in the entire league heading into the 2017 season.
To a get a better idea of what this means exactly for Cleveland running backs, we can look to some Football Outsiders (FO) stats. Despite running behind FO’s 28th-ranked run blocking offensive line last season, Crowell still managed to average 4.8 yards per carry. This makes sense when you consider that the Browns back had a 47.5% breakaway percentage (15+ yards) while ranking second in yards after contact last year per PFF.
This narrative is further confirmed in FO’s numbers. While Cleveland’s offensive line had one of the lowest adjusted line yards last season, they had the second-highest running back yards. This indicates that the running back did most of the work in creating positive yards through the ground attack. I can only imagine the work Crowell will be able to do next season if his offensive line is even just middling.
The Less Obvious: Touch Share
Isaiah Crowell has always shared the backfield with at least one other back, never having eclipsed 200 rush attempts in his career. However, the signs look promising for Crowell going in 2017.
First, both his rush attempts and targets have increased season-on-season from 148 to 197 and 14 to 53, respectively. As Crowell has grown more and more reliable, the coaching staff has clearly placed more trust on the young back.
Further, it seems as though Crowell could be much closer to being a true bell-cow in 2017. His greatest obstacle to a 250-300 attempt season is Duke Johnson. Although many believed second-string running back Duke Johnson would benefit from Hue Jackson’s arrival in Cleveland, that has not been the case.
Using gifted pass-catching running backs extensively in Cincinnati (see Gio Bernard), Johnson was seemingly poised for a breakthrough season. However, last season, Duke saw his touches decrease. Furthermore, though he received the same number of targets in the pass game as he did in 2015, he recorded eight fewer receptions.
Moreover, Duke has been essentially a non-factor in the redzone, surrendering touches to Crowell and only scoring three touchdowns over the last two seasons. Crowell was always a much bigger threat in the redzone than Duke Johnson.
Finally, Crowell has really come into his own as a pass-catching running back. With 40 receptions on 53 targets last season, the former Georgia Bulldog proved the reliability of his hands. What’s more, the rusher has shown ability to make plays in space. According to FO, Cleveland’s run game ranked second in second level yards last season and first in open field yards.
As Crowell has developed into a more complete back with the ability to make plays at every level and every down, Duke Johnson’s play-making, pass-catching role at Cleveland has become superfluous. With Hue Jackson adamant in committing more to the run game in 2017, Isaiah Crowell is poised for a huge season.
The Least Obvious: Pass to Rush Ratio
No one expects the Cleveland Browns to be world beaters or even .500 at the end of the 2017 season. However, we can definitely expect improvement from their 1-15 season from last year. The second offseason head coach Hue Jackson will have had with his team will be huge for the Browns.
The Browns also made critical additions to their team in the NFL Draft, including three first round picks. Football Outsiders liked the Browns’ offseason moves enough to add four wins to their record, projecting a 5-11 year for Cleveland. While I don’t know about 5-11, I am confident that Cleveland will be a much better team in 2017.
This brings me to the main idea of this section. Last season, the Browns were trailing during nearly 70% of their offensive plays. When they were trailing, their pass to rush play ratio was a whopping 1.75. This means Cleveland threw the ball 75% more than rushing it when behind in the game. While this makes sense in that you need to score quickly when down, it doesn’t make so much sense when you choose to play to your clear weakness.
In stark contrast, while ahead or tied last season, the Browns had a 1.39 pass to rush ratio (1.36 when simply winning). With a much improved team in 2017, I expect the Browns to at least be tied during more plays than last season. This means more rush attempts for Isaiah Crowell. Further, Hue Jackson’s aforementioned stronger commitment to the run foreshadows an amplification of this effect.
Ultimately, Isaiah Crowell has all the pieces lined up for a fantastic 2017 season in fantasy football. An improved offensive line, more touches on the ground and through the air, and better game situations should all contribute to top-tier production. I can see Crowell easily putting together 1,600-1,800 multi-purpose yards and double digit touchdowns next season. Very conservatively, 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns translate to 220 fantasy points in standard scoring, good for a top-eight finish among RB’s last season. Simply put, RB16, while a huge jump from last season, is still undervaluing the NFL’s next bell-cow back.
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