With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at whether the Texans’ starting running back is being undervalued.
There’s almost always a handful of running backs each season that flash enough big-play ability and wiggle to make everyone wonder how great they could be with a workhorse role. This was Lamar Miller to a tee with the Dolphins when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and was one of just six backs with at least 20 rushes of 20+ yards from 2013 to 2015.
The Texans were happy to hand Miller a top-five contract along with all the touches Miller could handle in the ensuing offseason.
Unfortunately for both parties, reality hasn’t been kind to their partnership thus far.
Miller Has Disappointed with the Texans
All of Miller’s shortcomings in Houston are relative to his aforementioned success during his time in Miami. He hasn’t thrived by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s managed to play 30 of a possible 32 games while functioning as one of just 10 running backs with at least 190 PPR points in each of the past two seasons.
Still, 2016 was a disaster for Miller relative to ADP. This season, the public has dismissed his potential as even a top-15 fantasy back:
Lamar Miller ADP and PPR finish with the Texans
2016: RB4 – RB20
2017: RB18 – RB16
2018: RB26 – ?
Miller was the RB11 in PPR per game in Weeks 2-8 with Deshaun Watson under center.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) July 10, 2018
Daily fantasy investors lost faith as well last season. Per our NFL Trends tool, Miller’s average ownership rate on DraftKings and FanDuel fell by 2.3% and 2.8%, respectively, from 2016 to 2017.
Of course, life hasn’t been consistently peachy for anyone involved in the Texans offense over the last two seasons. Their skill position players have dealt with both a constant revolving door at quarterback and a below-average offensive line (to be kind). DeAndre Hopkins, who some people actually think is better than Odell Beckham Jr., also lost his powers during the Brock Osweiler experience before regaining his dominance last season.
The good news for everyone involved is the presence of Deshaun Watson, who just might be the Michael Jordan of fantasy football.
Watson Makes the Texans a Different Offense
Watson took over for Tom Savage after just two quarters of football and never looked back. He proceeded to put together one of the better six game stretches the league has ever seen from the position, while elevating the performance of everyone around him.
Texans with/without Deshaun Watson starting in 2017:
Hopkins PPR: 21.1/20.5
Fuller PPR: 21/4.9
Miller PPR: 14.9/9.9
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 9, 2018
The fantasy-friendly nature of Watson’s skill set produced an endless supply of deep balls along with the consistent threat of a scramble or designed rush. Defenses truly must account for every last inch of the field with him under center.
This threat opened up both newfound rushing lanes and scoring opportunities for Miller:
- In 6 Watson six starts: 17 rushes and 3.2 targets per game, 13 red-zone carries, 8 rushes inside the 10-yard line
- In 10 non-Watson starts: 13.6 rushes and 2.6 targets per game, 8 red-zone carries, 3 rushes inside the 10-yard line
Interestingly, Miller averaged fewer yards per rush during his time with Watson under center. This would be more of a cause for concern if the Texans had shown any offseason interest in adding another running back.
Miller has Minimal Competition for Touches
There isn’t anyone in the Texans backfield that currently appears to be a threat to Miller’s featured workload.
- D’Onta Foreman flashed as a rookie and racked up at least 10 carries in five of his 10 games, although he was still a non-factor in the passing game. Foreman is attempting to recover from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is a candidate to start the season on the PUP list.
- Alfred Blue out-carried Miller 46-27 over the final three weeks of the season — aka once the Texans were officially eliminated from playoff contention. Blue’s special-teams prowess helped earn him a minimally guaranteed one-year contract extension worth less than $1 million.
- Tyler Ervin is the team’s smallest back and has only touched the ball by way of kick and punt returns since being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Ervin is attempting to return from a torn patellar tendon that ended his 2017 season.
- Troymaine Pope saw a combined 13 touches from the Jets and Seahawks in 2016 after catching on as an undrafted free agent but didn’t see the field in 2017.
There will be additional bodies available in training camp, and the team could always look to bring in a veteran free agent such as DeMarco Murray or Jamaal Charles. Still, Miller appears to be the man for now in an offense that was incredibly productive when at full strength last season. One of the key factors in finding fantasy-friendly running backs has been targeting backs with elite quarterbacks, something that has seldom been afforded to Miller throughout his career but appears to be the case entering 2018.
Volume is the single most important factor in a fantasy projection for a running back, and there’s a mounting body of evidence that suggests Miller could be in for a boost in touches.
2018 could also be the first season he gets to play 16 games with competent play under center.
Ultimately, even a repeat of either of his previous two disappointing campaigns would still be enough to smash his current ADP.
Pictured above: Lamar Miller (26) and Deshaun Watson (4)
Photo credit: Kevin Jairaj – USA TODAY Sports