If you followed along throughout our series of positional reviews, you already are aware that one of the free agents I was really intrigued with was running back Donald Brown. On the first day of free agency, Brown inked a three-year, $10.5 million dollar deal to join a crowded San Diego backfield.
Immediately, all three parties involved (Brown, Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews) have their 2014 values dinged a touch, so let’s explore what this signing could mean for all of their respective fantasy futures.
In 2013, Brown’s career was at a crossroads. He was in the final year of a rookie contract that he failed to live up to and was coming off of a season where he lost playing time to fifth round rookie runner Vick Ballard. On top of that, the Colts brought in free agent Ahmad Bradshaw and then traded for sophomore runner Trent Richardson just two weeks into the season. That easily could have been the end of a player that most of us had already written off and we wouldn’t have given him a second thought (we’re a cruel group). Instead, Brown turned in one of the most efficient running back seasons of 2013. Let’s see how Brown’s 2013 season stacks up in comparison to his new teammates and where each player finished amongst all running backs in the league.
Non TD Pts/Touch
6.2 % (1)
4.4 % (6)
2.3 % (32)
*100 carries and/or 100 touches to qualify as leaders
With a possible new sense of purpose in revitalizing his career, Brown was good in every facet and made the most of every opportunity given. He totaled 751 yards from scrimmage on just 129 total touches and added eight touchdowns.
Mathews and Woodhead were the offensive yin and yang in San Diego in terms of roles, but Woodhead still made good on the allotment of carries he was given, adding 429 yards rushing to his 605 yards through the air. Mathews turned in his finest season as pro, carrying 285 times in the regular season for 1,255 yards but that was pretty strictly volume driven. He was below average compared to his peers in terms of efficiency in nearly every area.
He also had his role in the passing game nearly completely neutered. After averaging over three receptions per game in the two seasons prior, Mathews caught just 26 balls while participating on just 25 percent of all Charger passing plays.
The reason Brown is a perfect fit for San Diego is his versatility allows him to be a backup for both Woodhead and Mathews should one go down at any point going forward.
Mike McCoy and then offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt really had a tale of two seasons in terms of play calling. Over their first eight games, San Diego threw the ball on 58.6 percent of all plays. That number dropped to a dead even 50/50 split over the final eight weeks as the Chargers played games very conservatively, coinciding with the reemergence of Mathews in fantasy circles. San Diego made no secrets with how they were going to use both of their backs as Mathews touched the football on 66 percent of all of his offensive snaps, the highest percentage of any offensive skill player in the NFL last season. I liken his situation to an effective version of Mark Ingram and his usage in New Orleans. When Mathews was in the game, the Chargers were running the football with him two-thirds of the time. Look at the half and half splits for each back in 2013 as the game management changed.
First 8 Games
Top 24 Weeks
Final 8 games
Top 24 Weeks
Here’s where this becomes problematic for all parties involved. Because both Woodhead and Mathews’ fantasy value is strictly tied to our friend game script, this makes them likely both guys I won’t have many shares of this upcoming season. I personally don’t try to attach myself to any back who is dependent on one aspect of his game to carry him because you’re then exposing yourself to the unpredictably of game flow. I don’t seek out to avoid those types, but the value needs to exist in what kind of draft equity I’m relinquishing. That and we have to expect Brown to take paper cuts into both roles for each player, even if miniscule.
Draft Value and Future Implications
For the reasons stated above, I’m not likely to own either guy with a clear role, but I will make a push for Brown in the right spots. Before the signing, Mathews was being drafted between the third and fifth rounds, something I anticipate will not really fluctuate given the lay of the 2014 running back land. Woodhead was being drafted from the seventh through ninth in PPR leagues, while a teamless Brown was being taken from the 12th round on.
I don’t set out to handcuff backs by any means, but double-digit rounds are where you hit on them. While teams were taking Ben Tate, Bernard Pierce and Bryce Brown in single digit rounds a year ago, late round picks like Fred Jackson, Joique Bell and Rashad Jennings were difference makers. Combine that with the fact that Brown can fill either role being the back up to both players, and he has possibility to become a great late round addition.
Both Mathews and Brown will be 27 years old this season and believe it or not, Brown actually has 352 fewer regular season touches than Mathews in his career. Brown also signed on for three years and Mathews is a free agent after this upcoming season as well as the 30-year-old Woodhead who signed a two-year deal last summer. I’m not predicting to know how the front office views retaining either player, but 2014 should tell a lot and a role could open for him in 2015 if either isn’t resigned. While I would’ve liked to see Brown go to a clearer situation for immediate touches, he is a solid buy at his low-cost in both redraft and dynasty leagues at the moment as long as your expectations are in check for what could be a massive 2014 timeshare.
*Stats were provided from ProFootballReference.com and ProFootballFocus.com