There’s a lot of love for Danny Woodhead in the fantasy community, and justifiably so. Despite being one of the NFL’s least-likely success stories today, he’s a team leader, a gifted football player who has put up lofty numbers (he was the No. 3 RB in PPR leagues last year!), and he has little proven competition in the Chargers’ backfield. Experts I admire are touting him as a PPR RB1, which is awfully optimistic.
Woodhead’s points-per-game average is good. In his excellent counterargument John Paulsen pointed out that the RB averaged 13.6 PPR points in his last 37 appearances — but his week-to-week value depends mostly on receptions (76 and 80 in his last two healthy years) and touchdowns (8 and 9). It’s taken Woodhead 16 games in both of his best years to crack the 1000-yard mark, meaning he averages about 64 total yards per game. A 10-point floor is great but if he doesn’t score, he doesn’t give you an RB2 performance very often. In 2015 he scored 8 of his 9 touchdowns in three games; he was held out of the end zone in 12 of 16 contests.
Touchdowns are notoriously difficult to predict, week to week and season to season. While Woody has a proven nose for the end zone, sooner or later defenses are going to adjust to what he’s doing. Near the goal-line that draw play or little shovel pass to Woodhead can be seen coming from a mile away, even to the TV viewer. I can’t project him to match his career-best TD totals.
In general, this is not a player I can’t comfortably pencil in for similar production year after year. Circumstances continue to thrust Woody into a starring role, but for a number of reasons San Diego doesn’t want that. He’s never going to be Plan A, not entering a season or a single game. Here are three reasons why…
1. His size.
We’ll start with the most obvious argument. While the Chadron State product is tough as nails and remarkably shifty, especially near the goal line, Woodhead is 5’8, 200 pounds. He averages about six carries per game for a reason. Even with San Diego struggling to give Woodhead a running mate who can both produce and stay on the field, about 100 carries has been his ceiling. As good as he is, you don’t want to overuse him. No player is immune to injury, and Woodhead is certainly not built to carry the load. While his durability is above average, to this point, it’s worth noting that he missed the final 13 games of the 2014 season with a broken fibula.
2. The Chargers want to get the ball to other guys.
We have just a two-season sample size with Woodhead’s production, as he was lightly used with New England and missed most of 2014 due to injury. In 2013, his first with San Diego, Woodhead shared the backfield with Ryan Mathews, a washed-up Ronnie Brown and fullback Le’Ron McClain. Amazingly, Mathews played all 16 games. But outside of a rookie Keenan Allen, the Chargers’ receiving corps consisted of Eddie Royal, Seyi Ajirotutu, Vincent Brown and Lavelle Hawkins (Malcom Floyd played two games). Antonio Gates led the team in receptions with 77 and Royal chipped in an unlikely 8 touchdowns on 47 grabs, but Woodhead finished third in the pecking order for passes with 87 targets. He made Chargers fans forget Darren Sproles and was invaluable to Philip Rivers’ resurgence.
In 2015 injuries struck a now-mature Keenan Allen and an ever-brittle Stevie Johnson, with Gates missing five games due to suspension and injury. The line was a train wreck, mostly due to still more injuries, and rookie Melvin Gordon’s struggles have been well documented. Even super-sub Brandon Oliver, who acquitted himself well in Woodhead’s 2014 absence, went down after 8 games. It’s no wonder that Woodhead wound up leading the Chargers in receptions (81), receiving yards (756) and total touchdowns (9). With the pocket collapsing around Philip Rivers, time and time again, dumping the ball to Woody was often his best option.
Once again, San Diego enters a season hoping that other players will carry a larger share of the load. To replace Malcom Floyd, whose solid career ended with a fizzle in 2015, the Chargers signed receiver Travis Benjamin away from Cleveland. The newcomer has played all 16 games in consecutive years (a relevant stat in this discussion) and offers Rivers an intriguing, high-upside second receiver opposite target hog Keenan Allen, who should account for 25% of the targets himself. Benjamin may play the Floyd role better than Floyd has in recent years, being younger, arguably the better route-runner, and possessing as much speed as anyone. 90 targets and/or a 15% market share are well within reach.
Allen, Benjamin and Stevie Johnson in the slot would present a better trio than the Chargers had in either of Woodhead’s career years, and Gates is back as well.
Then there’s Melvin Gordon. At this point, it’s entirely possible that Gordon is another Wisconsin bust, but I’m not writing Gordon off just yet and neither are the Chargers. The team still hopes their 2015 first-round pick (whom they traded up to get) will become a big part of this offense. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt liked what he saw from a healthy Gordon in minicamp, saying he’s “seen some really nice cuts, some explosive runs and hopefully that trend will continue.” For now, Gordon’s knee is not a concern.
Based on 2013’s timeshare with Mathews, we can conclude that Woodhead’s passing-downs role is safe even if there is a workhorse back carrying the mail on first and second. Gordon has yet to prove he can even do that. However, as FootballGuys’ Sigmund Bloom has observed, when Gordon was used in the “Woodhead role” he was more effective and totaled a surprising 33 receptions on 37 targets. Pass protection wasn’t the former Badger’s forte coming out of college, but he is a big-play threat after the catch because of his initial burst and open-field running ability. It’s entirely possible that some of Gordon’s snaps come at Woody’s expense.
In any case, running backs coach Ollie Wilson told Chargers.com that Branden Oliver “is going to have a big role for us this year.” If all three backs are healthy, this is your classic committee backfield. And that’s fine — Woodhead doesn’t need a ton of snaps to produce his numbers — but a three-way timeshare could certainly limit his opportunities. Even rookie fullback Derek Watt is a receiving threat and could siphon a few targets out of the backfield.
Woodhead defies logic every time he takes a snap, so maybe he’s also an age-proof player. (The parallels to Sproles continue.) It could be that his quicks continue to be killer for at least another year, and his body doesn’t begin to break down under the rigors of this violent sport. The gritty, gutty Bolt showed no signs of slowing last season. But as a guy who turns 32 at season’s end, he’s already well past the point that we expect running backs to decline.
Conclusion: Woodhead is overvalued
It’s unfair to say it required a “perfect storm” of injuries and poor play by his peers to produce Danny Woodhead’s high-volume role in the Chargers’ offense. He’s a dynamic weapon, and every team sees players underperform or get hurt. Nonetheless, I put the odds of Woodhead again being thrust into such a prominent role at 50/50, or worse. Will I be shocked if circumstances and stellar play put Woodhead atop the PPR leaderboard again? No. But I’m not going to bet on it, either. My projection is 68 catches, 900 total yards, and 5 or 6 touchdowns, with a lost fumble or two. In 2015 those numbers would have made him a low-end RB2 in a 12-team league.
Eight running backs being drafted later come with lots of question marks but are currently slated for bigger workloads than Woodhead’s (Matt Jones, Jeremy Langford, etc.). In most of these cases, the plan is to give this player more touches than the Chargers intend for Woodhead. I’d take Jay Ajayi over Woodhead in a heartbeat, even with the specter of Arian Foster looming, because of his workhorse potential. And if I can pass on Woodhead and land Gio Bernard or Jonathan Stewart two rounds later (according to Fantasy Calculator ADP), that’s better value.
Based on probability, the best way to value Woodhead in PPR is as a low-end RB2, reliable flex who could give you sporadic RB1 production… if things break right for him.
And they often do.