I'm so not looking forward to writing this one, but it must be done. People need answers. As do I. So, today we're comparing Kenyan Drake, Alex Collins and Jay Ajayi for 2018 fantasy football purposes. They're all "supposedly" the lead back on their respective team, but the exact interpretation of what that means is anyone's guess. I'm here to try and make that guess a little easier for you.
Let's take a look at where they're currently getting drafted according to MFL ADP:
Different sites will have this order a bit scattered, but all the same, they have relatively close ceilings and floors in my opinion.
We'll look at Alex Collins first:
Alex Collins - Baltimore Ravens
ADP - Overall 48, RB22
He's basically an enigma, and it's very hard to tell what you're going to get out of him. Collins was a former 5th round pick for Seattle, who cut him after a single season, picked up by the Ravens last year and was on their practice squad until they promoted him after Week 1. It didn't take long for Collins to emerge. Having been drafted in 2016, he's just 23 years old. Anyone who watched him in 2017 could tell within a few runs that he was by far and away the best back on the Ravens depth chart. He'd finish the season running for 973 yards and 6 touchdowns on 212 carries, adding an additional 187 yards through the air on 23 receptions. He scored 6 rushing TDs while only getting 3 GL carries. That was in 15 games. So we're talking about over 1,160 total yards in 15 games for a guy who started the year on the practice squad.
By halfway through the szn, the backfield was Collins' seeing 19.2 touches/game from Week 8 through the end of the year. He ranked highly in a large number of categories in 2017, most noticeably he graded out as Pro Football Focus's #1 running back in 2017, followed closely by Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley and Dalvin Cook in his limited time. His 4.6 YPC, ranking 5th among NFL RBs with more than 120 carries (36 running backs). His 3.0 YAC was 8th in the league, his tackles avoided/attempt (PFF) ranked 12th, his success rate per Football Outsiders was 8th among 47th qualified RBs, and when we look at PlayerProfiler, he had the 2nd most breakaway runs (15+ yards), 2nd highest % of runs go for breakaways, 5th highest broken tackles/touch, 8th in yards created, and 4th in yards per carry versus a stacked box (5.3 ypc).
When you really start diving in, Collins was actually amazing last year. And as Evan Silva said in his Raven's team preview: Collins did this while "LG Alex Lewis (shoulder) and All-Pro RG Marshal Yanda (ankle) were lost for 30 combined games due to injury in 2017."
Collins was widely written off as a 0 in the passing game, but that wasn't the case. As I mentioned before, he added 187 yards on 23 catches with a respectable 8.1 yards per reception.
Ok, so Collins was amazing last year right, he's so good, yack yack yack, what's the problem. It's two-fold. Although they didn't address the position through free agency or in the draft, which is a good sign, Suck Allen is still on the roster and Kenneth Dixon will return to the team in 2018. For one reason or another, Allen was still used a ton in 2017. He was a very good pass-blocker, which was probably a big part of it, but the Ravens legitimately think Allen is good in the passing game. He saw 60 targets last year. There is not a single reason on Earth Allen should have seen 60 targets. His 5.4 YPR ranked 74th among 78 running backs last year. Also ranked 74th in yards after the catch. Just awful. But no, let's also get him involved in the RZ, leading the Ravens with 32 RZ carries, 37 RZ touches overall, good for 13th in the NFL, despite ranking poorly in every efficiency category when it comes to rushing as well.
Alongside Suck, is Kenneth Dixon who makes the 2nd enigma in this Ravens backfield. I'm old enough to remember when he was a thing. It's really like one of ya X girl's at this point, you keep blaming timing, or school, or injuries and suspensions, but you can't stay away. BUT THIS TIME. But this time, it's gonna work. That's what we have here.
Dixon, a former 4th round pick in the 2016 draft, has a plethora of red flags. He missed the first four games of his rookie year with a torn MCL, and the following summer in 2017, when people pegged him for a breakout, he landed on the I.R. with a torn meniscus, missing his entire sophomore year. On top of that he was hit with a 6-game suspension for PED use, this shit didn't make sense, it's like when someone gets 7 life sentences in court, like okay my guy. My afterlife self gonna be pissed for this one! 4th round draft picks usually don't have a leash long enough to keep them on a roster through multiple injuries and off-field issues. It tells me the Ravens still believe in him, but he certainly has to earn his role back and I wouldn't say he's a lock to get close to significant playing time.
What scares me the most, by far, is the fact that they won't even committ to Collins as their lead back. Not even a little press conference, like yup we think that Collins has earned the right to start. John Harbaugh, their coach hasn't committed to him. It doesn't make sense to me. Collins must've fucked Jim's wife or something. A vote of confidence would be good, but it hasn't come out.
I do think Collins is in line to be the guy in Baltimore this year, and I'm not as worried about his passing down work, because once Collins started getting going, he was used pretty heavily. Over the last 7 weeks of the szn, Collins had 3 games in which he saw 6 or more targets, that's big. And Buck Allen, when you look at his numbers, when Collins took over in Week 8, over the remainder of the szn, Allen caught more than a single pass in just 2-of-9 remaining games.
What I do like about the situation overall, is that the line should be better, they ranked 7th in the NFL in rush attempts, clearly, they want to run the ball. If Lamar Jackson comes in to play QB at some point in 2018, I think that's even better for Collins. RBs tend to run much more effectively with a mobile QB under center.
Overall, to the normal person this should be a no-brainer, but that's not the case. Collins should be featured, but I think we're going to end up seeing a semi-split backfield, and it's scaring me away from Collins a bit at his current price. It's a camp battle to monitor super closely throughout the summer.
Jay Ajayi - Philadelphia Eagles
ADP: Overall 49, RB23
At the fundamental base of this argument between these two, I think it comes down to Ajayi's floor, versus Collins' ceiling. I think Collins has a chance to be the 3-down workhorse in Baltimore. In Philly, I don't see a case in which that happens for Ajayi. However, Ajayi is in a very safe spot to return value as a safe pick in your drafts.
Ajayi was traded midway through last szn from Miami to Philly after the Dolphins 0-40 buttfucking by the Ravens in Week 8 on TNF. This is the 2nd year in a row that fantasy owners are left in a weird spot when it comes to Ajayi's draft value. Widely a late first, early second round pick in fantasy drafts last summer, following a 2016 campaign where he rushed for 200+ yards in 3 separate games.
Obviously, 2017 turned out to be a major disappointment for investors. Ajayi finished the year with just two touchdowns on 232 touches. I didn't look at the numbers, but I can't imagine that there's a back with a lower scoring rate than Ajayi's 0.8% rate. Things were awful in Miami, their offense was awful. They wanted him to be the workhorse but the lack of success on offense just didn't allow it. Here are his splits, in Miami versus in Philly:
The volume plummeted, but the efficiency skyrocketed. Going from nearly 22 touches/game down to 11.5, but his YPC went from sub 3.4 in Miami to over 5.8, which is ridiculously high. And it's a small sample size, which was shot up by a few big runs, but nonetheless very noticeable. The volume obviously dip came from the fact that he was stuck in a committee with LeGarrette Blount & Corey Clement. Blount is gone to Detroit now, but Clement remains, as does Darren Sproles who is coming back from injury. Down the stretch, Ajayi was getting more and more involved as the guy in the backfield, however, averaging almost 16 touches/game over their L6 including playoffs.
Something crazy I found last year, Ajayi had 0 GL carries last year. Not a single one, despite having 208 carries on the year. RBs that he played with last year Clement had 4, Blount had 10, Kenyan Drake ended up with 4. So, although Ajayi didn't' score a lot, it's hard to blame him for that.
That GL role in Philly could be super valuable, as we saw Blount finish with 10, 9th most in the NFL last year. Ryan Matthews had 16 the year before. Over the last 3 seasons, Eagle's running backs have averaged over 18 GL carries/year. There's a ton of fantasy scoring to be had. Even if Clement gets some GL work, there should be enough for both guys to score plenty.
It's a great offense, with a great offensive line. Well in theory. What was interesting is they graded out as PFF's #1 overall line, but didn't grade well in the running game. 24th per FO's in RBing, and 25th in yards before contact for PFF, behind lines from Denver, Cincy, the Giants. Jay Ajayi was PFF's 5th highest graded runner in the NFL last year. Collins, as I said, was first, Ajayi was 5th. Both really high up.
What you're hearing out of Eagles camp so far, you have to like. "I'm pretty sure that Jay is excited about being able to go out there and dominate and being able to be that guy," Staley said. "Just him being focused, coming in, knowing he's the guy, knowing he's the guy that's going to step up there and just put everything on his back and ride with him." This coming from Duce Staley, OG running byke, the Eagles assistant head coach and running backs coach.
See, this is what I'm talking about. It's nice to hear those things. So you can have confidence that Ajayi will be the first guy up and have a nice leash.
What makes me a little nervous is that we're going to get a guy that's only used on early down. I'd argue Clement is probably better suited for 3rd down work, and Sproles definitely is for pass-catching, than Ajayi. Clement proved to be a very capable receiver last year as a rookie, especially down the stretch catching 10 passes in their 3 playoff games, but he was also an excellent pass-blocker, graded 13th overall by PFF amongst 46 qualified backs.
But, Sproles is 35 now, coming off a major knee injury, a torn ACL. Given his age, it's far from a guarantee, and probably much more likely that Sproles isn't close to the same player he was pre-injury. Ajayi also proved that he's more than capable of catching passes, he caught 50 of them his junior year at Boise State, which was 3rd among all NCAA running backs in 2014. Again, not saying he will get these looks, but it's very likely Sproles just isn't the guy he was and they put more work on Ajayi's plate because he can get it done. And you look at this offense, they're going to be winning a lot, Sproles might have his spots for big games, but they probably won't be in catch up mode too often.
Let's also talk about Jay Ajayi's injury concerns because people like to throw that around a lot. I know he came out of college with knee issues, which is why he fell in the draft. We look at this rookie year, he missed the first 8 weeks of the szn with cracked ribs, that's not an injury that you concern yourself with long-term. 2016, he played in 15-of-16 games, the one game he missed was being a healthy scratch in Week 1, not injury. Last year, played in 14 games. He ended up getting two bye weeks because of the mid-szn trade, and was rested for the last week of the szn. No missed time due to injuries. So, for as bad of a rap as Ajayi gets injury-wise, I'm not sure it's warranted. Apart from the rookie szn where he missed time due to cracked ribs, he's been on the field. Sure reports have come up about his knee being a problem, and other things, but he's on the field. You can go write in the comments all you want about this knee being blah blah blah like you're a fucking doctor, but you're not, so don't waste your time. As far as I'm concerned, Ajayi is on the field playing and has never missed time in his NFL career due to the knee, we're 3 szns in guys.... It's time to take a step back from that narrative maybe.
This is tough. I kind of love and hate both backs. At the end of the day, what I said in the beginning, is it comes down to Collins' ceiling against Ajayi's floor. I want my pick to be Alex Collins, but no part of me trusts the Ravens to do the right thing here. When in doubt, I assume coaches are going to do the opposite of what fantasy owners think should happen. My pick here is Ajayi. He's the lead back in an offense that tied for 2nd in the NFL in scoring last year (28.6), behind a good offensive line, we saw him progressively get much more efficient coming over from Miami, he's still just 25 years old. The injury thing, which I feel like I de-bunked, plays even more of a role, while I don't believe that whole "contract-year" theory as being a big thing for players to ball out, like you're in the NFL, you're always trying to ball out, I do like the contract-year narrative for a guy like Ajayi, who if he is a little knicked up, he's going to go out there and force himself to play, because he can't afford not to if he wants to get a big contract this offseason. So, I like the contract narrative from an injury perspective, that it'll get your ass on the field, but people use that narrative like oh shit it's his contract year, he's gonna hit the 4.8 ypc now instead of 4.1. That shit's just dumb. Carson Wentz was a monster last year, but hit a TD % mark of 7.5%, coming up from 2.6% in 2016. It's a major jump. Wentz is good, but 7.5% is unrepeatable. Aaron Rodgers has hit that mark once in his career. Look for the touchdown numbers to swing back towards their rushing total a bit in 2018.