Fantasy draft debate: Jordan Howard vs. Jay Ajayi vs. Devonta Freeman

Which running back should you pick in your fantasy draft between Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi and  Devonta Freeman?

Around the Round 1-to-Round 2 turn in 12-team leagues, fantasy owners in the market for a workhorse running back face a hair-pulling dilemma. To prevent self-inflicted baldness, our fanalysts are here to calm nerves and instill confidence in their guy. Read their planks. Choose sides. And declare a winner in the latest version of Spin Doctors.

Evans Bears down on Howard: Claims the second-year running back is about to undergo a Todd Gurley-like downturn are completely baseless and unfounded. Seriously, people who buy into the narrative are straight trippin.’ Consider the facts. For starters, Howard is locked into a 300-plus touch role running behind an ironclad offensive line in 2016 (No. 8 in overall run-blocking per Football Outsiders). Secondly, several advanced analytics from his rookie campaign don’t suggest he’s some Chumbawumba. Howard ranked top-10 in multiple categories including breakaway runs (16, RB3), yards after contact per touch (1.5, RB10), yards after contact per game (28.7, RB7), yards per touch (5.8, RB13) and total evaded tackles (73, RB6). Slimmer, expected to play a pivotal role in the pass game (40-45 receptions?) and setting his sites on a rushing crown, he could actually take a forward step in Year 2. And stop with the “Tarik Cohen is a threat” nonsense.

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People believe the Bears offense will lumber under John Fox, which is understandable. Speaking as a Bears fan, I’m convinced the bumbling coach would only order a salad at Portillo’s — moronic. His decision making largely stinks. Some fear the QB situation more, which they shouldn’t. Remember Howard tallied spectacular 2016 numbers (1,612 combined yards and 7 TDs) with Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler and Matt Barkley at the helm. Mike Glennon isn’t a world beater, but at worst he’s a parallel move. More promising, the Bears defense should improve, potentially awarding Howard occasional fourth quarter salt-away carries. Again, it boils down to volume and hole creation. With that in mind, “sensation,” not “slump,” applies to the sophomore. It’s rather unreal he continues to fall well into the second round (15.4 ADP, RB8). Give me his run-blocking, high-volume and projected consistency over the likes of Ajayi and Freeman any day.

Jay Ajayi Block

 

Loza casts a line for Ajayi: It took Adam Gase a minute to figure this one out, but once he caved and leaned on the former soccer player, the Phins’ ground game exploded. After Miami’s bye, and through the end of the season, Ajayi averaged nearly 20 carriers per contest, which was second only to Le’Veon Bell. In a league chockfull of platoons, Ajayi’s potential volume makes him worthy of a first round selection.

As Scott Fish mentioned on a recent episode of the X’s and Y’s Podcast, Ajayi led the league in yards-after-contact per attempt last season. Even after removing his three 200-yard efforts, Ajayi still ranked a respectable ninth in the category. His efficiency is doubly impressive when considering that he managed 15 total carries of 15+ yards (fourth most of any RB in the league) and 4.6 evaded tackles per game (ninth most among RBs).

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Averaging 4.9 YPC against a base front (56.5%) and 5.0 YPC when facing a light front (40.8%), Ajayi should continue to dominate with Jay Cutler under center. Defenses will have to account for Cutty’s canon in tandem with downfield weapons Davante Parker and Kenny Stills, which should keep lanes relatively open for the team’s 6-foot-tall and 221 pound running back.

The pro-Howard and Freeman contingents will point to the strength of their players’ offensive lines. Admittedly, Ajayi’s success is somewhat dependent on Laremy Tunsil’s ability to move from guard to left tackle. Don’t forget the Dolphins traded veteran LT Branden Albert to Jacksonville in order to make room for Tunsil. But given the lineman’s pedigree, the transition should go smoothly. And o-line injuries can happen at any time… so the argument is flimsy, at best.

Ranked inside my top-ten players at the position, Ajayi’s dual-threat ability, in tandem with the lack of depth on the roster, make him a no-brainer in the first round. I’ll take him over a reckless sophomore runner who figures to consistently face eight in the box, or a small(ish) RB who’s entering the season without the offensive coordinator who orchestrated his breakout.

Scott Pianowski loves the consistency Devonta Freeman provides. (AP)

Pianow fights for Freeman: Why are we trying to be cute here? Freeman has been a dominant fantasy running back for two straight years, finishing first and sixth at RB over that span. He’ll cede some work to Tevin Coleman, sure, but a two-headed time-share is not a problem in the shape of today’s NFL.

Although some backs can occasionally beat a losing situation, we generally want our bell-cows to come from winning teams. Don’t talk to me about a Super Bowl hangover in Atlanta; the Falcons are still projected to win 9.5 games, while Miami is at 7.5 and Chicago is at 5.5. Why run uphill when you don’t have to? Why get invested in sketchy offenses when it can be avoided? You really want to ride shotgun with Mike Glennon and Jay Cutler? Good luck with that.

Maybe you want some Player Profiler to support Freeman. No problem. Freeman ranked sixth in breakaway runs last year, 10th in evaded tackles, and seventh in catch rate. Freeman plays lots of pinball with defenders, checking in as the No. 8 runner in yards after contact. He’s proven durable as well, missing just one game in the last two years. I implore my esteemed colleagues to fix their rankings while there’s still time.

Throw darts at our “experts” on Twitter: Brad Evans (@YahooNoise), Liz Loza (@LizLoza_FF), Scott Pianowski (@scott_pianowski)

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