FLAFFL Feud - Jordan Howard Edition

FLAFFL FEUD: Battle Amongst Bears Fans

 

Welcome to the first of many FLAFFL Feud articles. If you listen to the FLAFFL House podcast (Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/flaffl-house-podcast/id1084230452 ) then you know not everyone at FLAFFL agrees all the time. To be fair, the guys on the podcast do so well together because they really hate one another. [Editor’s Note: Steve loves everybody, Sal hates everybody and Kevin only hates Sal]

To add fuel to the fire fellow feature writer, Tony Reimer, came up with a new segment of articles where we take one player and someone argues each side. Well, what a better way to kick off the new articles than pitting two Bear’s fans together who disagree on Jordan Howard? Jordan Howard had an outstanding rookie season in 2016. Will he hit that dreaded sophomore slump or prove he can be elite in this league?

Here are your opponents! In the blue corner, standing 6’10” and weighing in at a robust 350 pounds (while wearing a fat suit and standing on stilts), we have Rob Schwarz arguing for Howard. In the red corner, we have Tony Reimer. Tony is weighing in at a measly 105 pounds soaking wet and can barely see over the counter at a deli! Clearly, Rob will win this fight as Tony goes and cries in his corner. (Can you tell who wrote the intro?)

Jordan Howard is a God Amongst Men

By Rob Schwarz (@chiruxinDFS)

Jordan Howard was second in rushing yards in 2016 despite not starting until Week 4. His goals for 2017 include making the playoffs (yeah right!) and having the most rushing yards in the NFL in 2017. Boom! Mic drop! I win!

Those reasons are not enough for you? Fine! I will explain to you why Jordan Howard is not the next Jeremy Hill (I am sure this is going to be in Tony’s argument!).

First of all, let us back up to 2015 when Jeremy Langford came onto the scene and everyone knew the writing was on the wall for Matt Forte. It was clear that the Bears would part ways and move onto Langford. Langford had a decent season, but when you look deeply into his stats, he was just average. Fast forward to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bears select Jordan Howard in the fifth round. Analysts speculated who would start for the Bears and in the end many thought Howard would push Langford for playing time.

Not long into the season Jeremy Langford goes down with an injury and in steps Jordan Howard. Now, before I go into his 2016 NFL stats, let us take a quick look back at his college career. I mean, how could a fifth round running back end up being better than guys drafted in the first four rounds? Simple. Hard work and determination.

Howard started his collegiate career at UAB. He was a productive runner in his two years as a Blazer but the competition was hardly elite. He played 12 games for UAB in 2014 and finished with 1587 yards on 306 attempts. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 13 rushing touchdowns. In 2015, Howard transferred to Indiana to play for the Hoosiers. He only played nine games but finished with 1,213 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. The competition was obviously much better in the Big Ten and Howard proved he was worth drafting.

When we look at how he was graded we see some surprising information. Pro Football Focus (PFF) actually had Howard ranked higher than fellow Big Ten player Ezekiel Elliott. Let us break it down even further though. Howard averaged 3.7 yards after contact while at Indiana. That ranked him second in the Big Ten. He also notched 35 missed tackles that season. PFF defines explosive plays as runs of 15 yards or more – Howard had 20 as a Hoosier. These are pretty good stats, don’t you think?

So why did Howard fall to the Fifth Round? Durability seems to be the best answer. Howard is a hard, physical type runner. He does not shy away from contact. He missed four games while at Indiana due to injuries. He also never proved himself as a pass-catcher. He only had 11 catches in Indiana and combined for 13 catches over two seasons at UAB. He did not help himself in the pass-catching department last year either as he had the most drops among running backs.

That brings us back to his rookie season. Howard finished the season with 1,314 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He was second in rushing behind only Ezekiel Elliott who saw 70 more rushing attempts than Howard. Howard also averaged nearly three yards after contact per carry. Howard finished in the top-10 for many categories his rookie season and was third in most carries of 15-plus yards (behind Elliott and LeSean McCoy).

Before I go into why I think Jordan Howard will have a solid 2017 season, I must point out a big difference between Howard and Jeremy Hill. Howard has shown signs of being elusive. In fact, PFF had him ranked seventh in his elusive rating for 2016. Jeremy Hill on the other hand has never shown he could be elusive and is one of the worst at gaining yards after contact. (Again, throwing this in here because I know how Tony thinks!)

Alright, now onto my conclusion on why Howard will be worth a high draft pick in fantasy. Howard is going to be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Yes, I said one of the best and it involved the Chicago Bears. The interior of the Bears’ line was great last season and they are all back for 2017. The tackles are not the greatest but they are better in the run game than the pass game.

Furthermore, everything out of camp (I know, camp talk is useless most the time) is that Howard has slimmed down a little and has focused on his pass catching. Howard does not want to come off the field in passing situations and he is working hard to prove he is an every-down back. The hard work that I have heard about and seen on camp highlights makes me a true believer in Howard. This is why I targeted him in my dynasty start-up auction. This is why I have Howard ranked as my RB6 in standard re-draft leagues and as my RB9 in PPR formats. Some may call me a homer. Others may call me crazy. All I know is that the title of my section may be extremely exaggerated but Howard will be a top-10 fantasy running back in 2017 and Tony is a traitor of a Bears fan! 

Jordan Howard is a Man Amongst Men

By Anthony Reimer (@reimeras)

Before I get to the reasoning that makes me fade Jordan Howard this year, I want to preface all of this by saying I like Jordan Howard. While my counterpart and fellow Bears fan in this article may hurl traitorous accusations my way there is no denying what Howard did in 2016 was impressive. Amassing almost 1,600 total yards, Howard was one of the few bright spots in a forgettable Bears season. He would have been in consideration for the top rookie if Ezekiel Elliot didn't have the season he had. My problem with Howard lies with his cost and the fact that we've seen this story before.

I want you to take a journey with me all the way back to the summer of 2015. Wiz Khalifa was topping the chart, Barack Obama was still president and fantasy analysts were drooling over Jeremy Hill. In 2014, Hill had taken the fantasy world by storm in rushing for 929 yards and averaging 5.36 YPC over the final 9 games of the season. Hill was a consensus mid second round pick in 2015 and many said they saw no reason he wouldn't be a top 10 RB. Except he wasn't. Despite finishing as a top 15 RB in 2015 Hill was extremely frustrating to own.  His consistency was non-existent and you basically had to rely on touchdowns in order to return week to week value. His YPC dropped to 3.6 and he failed to reach his rookie rushing yard total despite being the starting running back for almost twice as many games.

It's natural for fantasy analysts to ignore these past mistakes.  After all, Howard is a better runner than Hill, right? Well Hill was just one in a long line of one year running backs that failed to live up to their previous draft grade. Just last season, Todd Gurley was a consensus top 8 pick in fantasy and viewed by most people as a safer player than David Johnson, Zeke and LeVeon Bell. Gurley was outstanding as a rookie but he proved that all the talent in the world isn't always enough to make up for a terrible offense and predictive play calling.  Howard experienced both last season and will this year too. While Howard was able to thrive in that setting his 5.2 yards per carry screams regression. Not to mention he only had six touchdowns, three of which came against San Francisco's historically bad rushing defense.

Over the past 20 years, excluding 2016, 14 rookie running backs have rushed for over 1,200 yards. In year 2, these running backs have averaged around 88% of the previous year's production. Seems fine right? Well, of those 14 running backs, nine of them were first round picks. Keeping in mind that Howard was a fifth round pick, eliminating those backs taken in the first round leaves you with a 66% average of their rookie season’s production.  Only Clinton Portis surpassed his previous season’s total. This makes sense as teams aren't as heavily invested in running backs taken after the first round.  This gives them a shorter leash should they struggle for a few games. Even if Howard splits the difference here that gives him an outlook of 997 rushing yards. And that’s without a high reception and touchdown potential you'd like for a top ten running back.

One of the main pro-Howard arguments I hear from analysts is a lack of competition for carries. While I fully expect Howard to be the main back in Chicago, Jeremy Langford didn't die in 2016. Heading into last season, Langford was a consensus fourth round pick in fantasy after impressing in 2015 when Matt Forte was injured. I'm not going to try and make the case that Langford is a better player than Howard. But he doesn't have to be to eat into Howard's value, he simply has to be better at different things. In 2015, Gio Bernard drove Jeremy Hill owners nuts.  Not because he was a better pure runner than Hill but because he was much better in the passing game.  This forced the Bengals to increase his usage. Unless Howard improves markedly in this facet of his game Langford, and even rookie Tarik Cohen, will steal snaps from Howard.  And don't even get me started on John Fox’s unnatural affection for Kadeem Carey.

When predicting what is to come in fantasy football the least fun part is predicting a bust. It's a lot more fun to drool over the upside that could be, rather than look at a player’s downside. With Howard having an average ADP of 2.02, the seventh running back off the board, you are investing in him at his highest upside. It would be irresponsible to not build in some risk. When I'm looking at a top 15 pick I want that risk to be a small as possible. Howard is the classic high variance running back that I have watched bust every year in the eleven years I’ve been playing fantasy. There are a couple questions you have to ask yourself when deciding to draft Jordan Howard.  First, who do you think he really is as a player? Do you think all NFL and draft scouts got it wrong and the Bears found one of the best runners in the league? I personally don't. While he had some impressive plays, most of Howard’s tape shows me that he's just another “old school” type plodding running back that usually don't possess much staying power in the modern NFL. Second, do you think the Bears offense will improve considerably? Will this lead to more touchdown opportunities to balance regressions in efficiency? I'm not buying that either. In order for Howard to return draft day value one of those has to be true. In that ADP range, I'm generally fading running back as most of the second round running backs this season have too many question marks to warrant that big of an investment.  If forced to take a running back, I'd much rather take DeMarco Murray than Howard. Every season we see around half of the running backs taken in the first two rounds fail to return draft day value. Yet every following season we lift up a new crop only to be ultimately disappointed. This trend will most likely continue for the rest of time with fantasy football. As the old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.