Fantasy Football Advice: Giovani Bernard’s Misleading Advantage
Fantasy football advice is never an exact science, but it’s always been a game of numbers. Coming off a season where Giovani Bernard – as a rookie – compiled 226 touches, 1,209 yards from scrimmage, 8 total touchdowns and finished as the RB16 in standard leagues (RB13 in PPR), there is a large amount of hype going into year two of the Cincinnati Bengals’ young star running back, but is all the hype justified?
Some of the hype surrounding Bernard revolves around natural expected growth after experiencing the NFL for the first time, but some of the hype is also stemming from the offensive coordinator change the Cincinnati Bengals made for 2014, which has many GMs in fantasy football leagues salivating.
With former OC Jay Gruden taking over as head coach of the Washington Redskins, the Bengals chose to promote Hue Jackson from running back coach to OC. A revered play-caller around the league, Jackson spent 2010 and 2011 calling shots for the Oakland Raiders and got the very most out of a team with underwhelming talent. With this coordinator change taking place, many are expecting Giovani Bernard to see an increased workload due to the pass-heavy reputation of Gruden and the run-heavy reputation of Jackson.
The Hue Jackson Effect
To try to garner what kind of numbers we should expect out of Giovani Bernard in 2014, let’s look at each coach’s previous stop as OC and see if those reputations hold, and if so, to what degree they may effect Gio.
Jay Gruden with Cincinnati Bengals
2013: 587 pass attempts and 481 rush attempts (1,068 total, 54.96% pass, 45.04% run)
2012: 540 pass attempts and 430 rush attempts (970 total, 55.67% pass, 44.33% run)
2011: 535 pass attempts and 455 rush attempts (990 total, 54.04% pass, 45.96% run)
Gruden 3-year average: 554 pass attempts and 455 rush attempts (1,009 total, 54.89% pass, 45.11% run)
Hue Jackson with Oakland Raiders
2011: 524 pass attempts and 466 rush attempts (990 total, 52.93% pass, 47.07% run)
2010: 491 pass attempts and 504 rush attempts (995 total, 49.35% pass, 50.65% run)
Jackson 2-year average: 508 pass attempts and 485 rush attempts (993 total, 51.13% pass, 48.87% run)
This is not a true direct comparison as it doesn’t attempt to account for game-specific situations, personnel differences, quarterback scrambles, and relativity to the ever-changing league trend, but with that in mind we can then go ahead and apply Hue Jackson’s average play-calling tendencies in Oakland to the Bengals’ 2013 number of plays, because being informed by statistics in part is always better than not at all.
Bengals 2013: 587 pass attempts and 481 rush attempts
Possible Bengals 2014: 546 pass attempts and 522 rush attempts
Not The Change Many Expected
Clearly, there is not a huge difference in the previous stats. If Bernard had the exact same share of plays and the exact same per-touch efficiency, he would have gained 14 carries for 57 yards and lost 4 receptions for 37 yards. A net gain of just 20 yards only adds 2 standard fantasy points to his 2013 numbers and he even loses 2 from his total in PPR. Without diving super deep into some of things I mentioned a moment ago, it would be hard to expect run-to-pass ratio alone to have a dramatic effect on Bernard going forward. Thankfully there are a few more things we can look at.
Under Jackson, the Raiders averaged 4.75 YPC which was a steep incline from the 4.24 YPC from the two years prior to his arrival with the same Darren McFadden/Michael Bush pairing at running back. Last year the Bengals only averaged 3.65 a pop which was bottom 5 in the NFL. It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s quite possible Jackson’s play-calling increases the efficiency of the Bengals’ rushing attack more than the raw number of attempts, which may bode well for fantasy football league owners looking for hidden upside.
We can further narrow down that split by just looking at the lead running back. McFadden, the Raiders’ primary back when healthy, had averaged 5.27 YPC with Jackson compared to only 3.55 YPC in his other 4 seasons of play. Bernard’s 4.09 YPC as a rookie was not terrible, but there is certainly room for improvement if another year of experience and Jackson’s scheme can coax it out of him. The same relative increase would leave Bernard over 6 yards a carry which is almost certainly not realistic, though if a sophomore Bernard even gets to the 4.5 YPC area his prospects increase quite a bit.
Stylistically McFadden and Bernard are different players, but they actually had similar roles in their offenses. Both players were the lightning to another back’s thunder, leading the position in carries and targets while being pulled in short-yardage and goal line situations. So how did Jackson use a player in a similar role in his previous stop? When McFadden was healthy he handled about 56% of the Raiders’ carries as a team. That’s a stark contrast to the 35% Bernard represented last year. At the same pace and using Jackson’s rough rushing attempt projection, Bernard could see almost 300 carries (292). That’s probably on the extreme end, though quite a few reporters have speculated that he will see well over 200 carries. Whether or not his YPC increases, anywhere near that kind of newfound volume would likely spring Gio into the top 10 fantasy options at the position barring injury, and explains why he is a leading name mentioned by those brave enough to dish out fantasy football advice for 2014.
Giovani Bernard: The Next Ray Rice?
A player Giovani Bernard was often compared to in the pre-draft process was Ray Rice. A similar player in a similar role when Willis McGahee was siphoning carries and touchdowns away, Rice averaged 281 carries, 71 catches, and 1,909 yards from scrimmage in 2009 and 2010 to go along with 14 total touchdowns. He finished 4th and 9th respectively among running backs in standard fantasy football leagues before taking another step forward when McGahee departed in 2011. After going over the possibilities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Bernard could be fantasy football’s next Ray Rice beginning in 2014 (the good version). Even 90% of Rice would suffice.
And, lest we forget, at age 22 Bernard obviously makes for a killer dynasty league investment. There are always a few players every year that offer the potential for great upside at solid relative value, and Bernard just might be that guy this year, although perhaps not for all the same reasons people expected.