By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
The most impactful news from the first week of NFL training camp was Baltimore Ravens running back Kenneth Dixon having season-ending knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Whenever a fantasy-relevant player, particularly a Brad Evan’s favorite, is scheduled to miss time, most Fantasy Football enthusiasts spend .0000005 second acknowledging the trauma of a season-ending injury before reflexively spinning the scenario forward: “Who is the next man up on the Ravens depth chart?”
Fantasy Football is cold game. The coldest among us are the first to consider the future fantasy production ramifications of severe injuries, and I’m as cold as they come. The moment the Kenneth Dixon injury news broke, after “Glad Kenneth Dixon is not on my fantasy team,” the first neurons to fire did not emit the predictable message: “Get Terrance West. Get Terrance West. Get Terrance West. Get Terrance West. Get Terrance West.” My initial cognitive impulse was…. “Oh snap, Danny Woodhead will be an RB1 in PPR fantasy formats.”
Year of the old Running Back
From Adrian Peterson’s immanent rebirth in New Orleans to Darren Sproles being Darren Sproles to Frank Gore’s impossible run at 3500 career touches, 2017 will be the year of the old running back. But no running back age 30-plus possesses a higher floor than Ravens running back Danny Woodhead.
The Dixon injury absolutely helps Woodhead for two reasons:
1. Dixon was the Woodhead’s only competition for touches in passing situations and special packages.
2. Woodhead will absorb vacated carries from Dixon, red-zone carries most notably.
Running Back Metronome
Zooming out to review Woodhead’s advanced stats and metrics, reveals one of the NFL’s most athletic all-around running backs. Leveraging PlayerProfiler’s Data Analysis Tool, only three running backs, who project to absorb a significant Opportunity Share in 2017, posted Speed Scores, Burst Scores, and Agility Scores above the 60th percentile before entering the NFL:
1. David Johnson
2. Melvin Gordon
3. Christian McCaffrey
Woodhead is #GoodAtfootball, the metronome of NFL satellite backs. In his two full seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Woodhead averaged the following:
Danny Woodhead’s Exceptional Consistency
2013 (16 games)
2015 (16 games)
Red Zone Carries
When Woodhead plays 16 games for high-pass volume offenses, he scores copious fantasy points. His 227 total PPR fantasy points finished No. 12 in 2013 and his 244 PPR fantasy points finished No. 3 among NFL running backs in 2015 – when the Chargers led the NFL in pass attempts.
Pass First, Ask Questions Later
Woodhead smartly followed the targets in free agency to the Ravens. Serendipitously in 2016, Baltimore led the NFL in pass attempts. Joe Flacco was the only quarterback to average more than 700 pass attempts from 2015-2016, and the Ravens finished in the top-10 in pass attempts three out of the last four seasons. The loss of Dixon matters to Woodhead, because it ensures that the Ravens running back passing game burden fully shifts to Woodhead.
The Ravens project to skew pass-heavy in 2017, and to target running backs in particular. Baltimore targeted running backs on 23.1-percent of pass attempts last season, No. 4 among NFL teams. Not only will Dixon’s projected targets likely shift to Woodhead, a significant percentage of Dennis Pitta’s 121 targets – the veteran was released after a potentially career-ending injury – should also funnel to our diminutive hero. Furthermore, between Steve Smith (retired), Pitta, Kamar Aiken (now with the Colts), and others, Baltimore lost a league-high 56.0-percent of its 2016 targets this offseason, and training camp is just getting underway. In this context, no one is allowed to be surprised when Woodhead surpasses 100 targets this season.
Red Zone Usage and Efficiency
Beyond locking up a significant target share, the Dixon injury also boosts Woohead’s projected carries, more notably red zone carries. Yet, many fantasy analysts are simply shifting Dixon’s projected red zone usage 1:1 over to West. On the surface, this rudimentary reallocation of opportunity makes sense, because West and Dixon are strikingly similar prospects. Both were dominant small school running backs with impressive Speed Scores drafted in the middle rounds. West is bigger, Dixon is a better receiver, but otherwise, they are very similar backs.
The rapidly-filling West bandwagon drivers are not accounting for Woodhead’s history of red-zone usage and touchdown scoring efficiency. While West absorbed 30 red-zone carries last season, Woodhead logged 20 red-zone carries in both full seasons played in San Diego. Quick calculus incorporating running back red-zone targets projects Woodhead to command 50-percent RB Opportunity Share in the paint this season.
Woodhead’s volume and efficiency fueled his ascend into the top-three fantasy running back echelon in 2015, and his red-zone efficiency was paramount. He was Top-12 in touchdown rate among qualified running backs inside the 10-yard line that season. Amazingly, Woodhead was 12-pounds lighter than the next-smallest running back on that list, Devonta Freeman, and one of only three under 210-pounds (RIP Jeremy Langford).
Woodhead is easily the highest-ranked running back over 30-years old on PlayerProfiler.com’s PPR Player Rankings. With a clear path to top-12 fantasy production, Woodhead also checks in 22 slots ahead of West.
A month from now, West will be a C.J. Anderson-level, over-drafted stay-away player, while Woodhead continues to be the back to own in Baltimore and an exceptional value in all Fantasy Football formats.