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Thomas Rawls was initially running outside the top three in our open ‘Rewind’ voting, but once Marshawn Lynch retirement rumors hit—Rawls launched into the #1 spot. Thank you for all your votes!! Here we go with our first ‘Rewind’ report of 2016…
So…how did you spend your day? I spent mine watching 147 regular-season carries by Thomas Rawls from last season. I went back through Rawls’s entire 2015, from the preseason to games where he barely got a touch, plus observing all his targets, and re-watching those memorable games that he produced his big numbers in—I watched it all.
After countless hours of observation and note-taking, I am now able to come to a definitive conclusion on what you should think about Thomas Rawls going forward, as far as him as an NFL talent. My conclusion: “He’s good.”
That’s it. He’s ‘good’.
If you don’t like long-winded reports, then there you go…he’s ‘good’. For most of you expecting a novella about this, as always, you’ve come to the right place. Here we go…
He’s not great. He’s not bad. He’s ‘good’. He’s fine. What else do you want me to say?
I want to emphasize the fact that I think he’s ‘good’, because it’s the proper evaluation. Some people are wondering whether he’s a superstar based on his excellent flashes in 2015—I don’t think he is. Some people are wondering whether he’d be a great Fantasy Football acquisition, and to that I say, “Maybe. He’s ‘good’…but I also need to warn you of storm clouds ahead.”
It really needs to sink in for many of you that he’s just ‘good’, and for all that ‘good’ means. He’s like an Alfred Morris. He’sJeremy Hill. He’s maybe Mark Ingram. He’s ‘good’, not ‘great’. Shove any of them a bunch of carries in a good offense, and they’ll give you 1,000+ yards rushing in a season…they might even win a rushing title if all the pieces fall into place. Put him on a poor offense, or split him with other talented specialist RBs, and he’ll be Joique Bell–2015 or C.J. Anderson–2015, a guy floating on and off Fantasy Football waiver wires all season. These guys will be as good as their touch counts and offense allow them to be. It’s a sad reality for them. One year Alfred Morris is a darling, the next year he’s a yawn.
At his core, Thomas Rawls is just a plain old good running back. He doesn’t possess super speed, or have stunningly nimble feet, or an imposing physique. However, he’s fast enough, agile enough, and strong enough to hang in the NFL…obviously he can, because he already has. Everybody knows he’s capable. We’ve already seen it.
The Fantasy-Dynasty argument is not whether he’s ‘good’. The argument becomes, “How will he be used in this Seattle offense?” That’s the question you have to ask yourself. That’s the question that makes him the next Chris Ivory–2015 (exciting in stretches), or the next C.J. Anderson–2015 (heartbreaking in stretches). What he’s not going to be—is the next Adrian Peterson–2015, orDoug Martin–2015, or Todd Gurley–2015+, or David Johnson–2015+. He’s just not in that class. When you exclude him from that upper tier of running backs, he falls into a tier of running backs where there are 10–20+ guys just like him.…as far as talent goes.
When you take Rawls out of the ‘next superstar RB’ tier, he then falls into a cluster of RBs who you are left trying to figure out which ones among them will not be attacked/overtaken by a backup, or will be a part of a poor offense scheme, and/or stuck with a bad schedule. Rawls-2016 literally could be the head fake Jeremy Hill of 2014 into 2015 was. Hill burst onto the scene with a couple of nice output games, and a nice rookie season overall. The following offseason/preseason everybody went Fantasy Football bonkers, and pushed Hill into the first round of redrafts and valued him as a top 5–8 Fantasy RB in Dynasty formats…and then he mostly tore owner’s hearts out in 2015; save for a couple of games with the multiple TD pops. Hill’s regular, week-to-week output was a mess in 2015. At best, you could call Hill ‘useful’ in non-PPR in 2015, but everybody assumed he would be a sure-fire star after his partial season rookie splash. I worry that’s where Thomas Rawls may be headed in 2016.
You look back over Rawls’s 2015, and you see the multiple 100+ yard games, and how much better Seattle’s team/offense was when Rawls was the lead running back (5–1 record), and you wonder if you might have a 1,500+ yards in a season running back is in your Fantasy midst. I get it. I’m not saying it’s not possible. I’m just saying there are several barriers that may get in the way of that ‘dream’.
Let’s look at what those barriers are…
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Rawls’s 2016+ barriers
Barrier #1: Mostly what everyone is banking on, for the future with Rawls, is the fact that he had 4–5 great output games in his six real opportunities he had in 2015. It’s not crazy to think that after looking at his game log. I can go either way interpreting what happened in 2015.
On one hand, I look at his six games from 2015 where he had16 or more carries in a game, resulting in four 100+ yard rushing efforts, and I’m impressed—but I’m also somewhat skeptical because of the teams he accomplished this against. Through the luck of the draw, Rawls was not a main running back against Arizona or St. Louis/LA…two of the tougher defenses in the NFL, both big division rival matchups, and teams Seattle faces four times in a year. Rawls was only active against the Rams once and the Cardinals once, and had just two carries in each game. What if Rawls had taken on those four Arizona + St. Louis/LA matchups, and had four games with like 17-carries-for-40-yards-rushing mixed with all his other nice performances? Would it put a damper on things? Midseason 2015, when Seattle faced the rugged run defense of Carolina, Rawls took just one carry. Maybe Rawls would’ve starred against CAR-ARI-STL if given the chance, but it’s worth noting that Rawls missed the most hardcore matchups for Seattle in 2015, and flourished in ones that were a little more graceful on the difficulty scale. His true signature games were against Cincinnati and San Francisco.
Against Cincinnati, a team that allowed the 22nd-most yards per carry to opponents, Rawls rushed for 169 yards. On one of his carries in that game, Rawls sprung through a wide-open whole, broke a tackle in the secondary, and completed a 69-yard touchdown. A nice moment, but big breakaway runs are not normally Rawls’s game. Aside from that one play, Rawls had a nice 22 carries for 100 yards vs. Cincy.
Against the 49ers, the second time he faced them, Rawls popped for 209 yards on 30 carries. That’s a lot of carries. That’s almost like two 100+ yard rushing efforts on 15 carries. It’s definitely not a bad thing that Rawls had such a good game against the 49ers, but note he also had a ton of rushing attempts. Also note, the 49ers allowed the fourth-most rushing yards per game to opponents last season. Might Christine Michael had done the same?
When Rawls faced more stringent defensive fronts as a starter, against Detroit and Pittsburgh, he did not achieve 100+ yards rushing like he had another games—and adding both the Lions and Steelers contests together, he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. That’s what ‘good’ (not great) running backs do. They do well in a favorable environment (it helps if they have a lot of carries)—they are mediocre in a tougher environment, and they may get shut down facing high-end run defenses…only in Rawls’s case, he never really faced a high-end rushing defense in 2015.
Many paragraphs ago, I started this section with ‘on one hand’…now ‘on the other hand’, I can tell you by watching every carry through all his 2015 games, Rawls was the same running back in all of these contests. He’s a high-effort, pretty instinctual, fairly physical, sound NFL running back…with one added boost, in my opinion. ‘The boost’ being that Seattle had one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.
The Seattle O-Line did their job—they opened up space for Rawls, and Rawls took and found what was there. That’s all you want as an NFL team—you want your running back to find the holes that the offensive line is creating for him. To Rawls’s credit, he found them. But to me even more credit goes to arguably one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL—Tom Cable. This O-Line group struggled a bit early on in the 2015 season, partially because of problems at the center position (they traded their long-time starter Max Unger for Jimmy Graham, and were converting a defensive lineman to the center position at times), and partially because Marshawn Lynch had retired before the season started, in his mind, and neglected to tell anyone. Lynch was not good this past season. The Seattle struggles in the ground game were not so much their offensive line…it was that Lynch didn’t give a rip, and Graham is not a very good blocker. Rawls came in and gave an excellent effort, and usually most of his longer runs can be seen occurring with Luke Willson in as the blocking tight end, and Jimmy Graham either out of the game or spread out as a receiver.
Marshawn Lynch has been great for years with this coaching staff, and Thomas Rawls picked up the baton that Lynch dropped, and ran with it…and when Rawls went down, Christine Michael popped back up, and did just fine.
Essentially, with all these paragraphs in this section, I’m trying to say that Rawls is ‘good’. I’m also saying that Seattle surroundings are ‘very good’. The mix of ‘good’ and ‘very good’ can be ‘pretty, pretty, pretty good’ for Fantasy Football output and NFL purposes. The system is favorable to Rawls/Lynch/Michael, which is not a barrier, except when you consider they are somewhat system-dependent runners…and consider that when reading the next three barriers.
Barrier #2: I keep saying that Thomas Rawls is ‘good’. We do all remember that he tested as an average athlete at the NFL Combine and had his Pro Day, right? He was a 4.65 runner at the NFL Combine. He popped a 7.10 three-cone at his Pro Day. He only benched 15 reps. It’s not like Rawls has any ‘superstar athlete’ DNA flowing through his veins. We’re not talking David Johnson orTodd Gurley ‘special’ here. We don’t use the ‘S word’ on Rawls. We use the ‘G word’…‘good’.
Rawls is an average running back, on paper, with very good instincts and energy/effort, playing in a favorable situation (Seattle’s offense) in 2015. The barrier on that is…what if 2016 is not as favorable as 2015? What happens to our average/‘good’ running back hero then?
Barrier #3: I previously mentioned that Rawls luckily missed/wasn’t a starter/barely played in all of Seattle’s hardcore 2015 matchups—with the Rams, Cardinals, and Panthers. In 2016, assuming Rawls is the day-one starter, and stays on the field all season, then he will face the Cardinals twice. He will face the Rams twice. Also on the new schedule, he will also face Tampa Bay, the Jets, the Patriots, and the Panthers—four of the better/best run defenses in the NFL in 2015.
In 2015, Rawls had two what I would consider tougher matchups against Pittsburgh and Detroit, and he was average/‘good’ against them. In 2016, in a full season, half+ of his projected schedule is going to be against higher-end defenses. You take a ‘good’ running back in a ‘very good’ system, and thrust him into a very difficult schedule…what do you get?
That’s the million-dollar question for fantasy/dynasty GMs. My first reaction is…it might not be all that great—at least not as great as people are daydreaming it might be with Rawls. People are starting to buy Rawls as a top 10 Fantasy RB for 2016…I’m not sure their ROI in 2016 is assured.
Barrier #4: We all remember that the 2015 Rawls season ended early with an ankle injury/surgery, right? Torn ligaments and all?
Is it a given that Rawls comes back as normal after surgery and rehab? Is he such a major talent that Seattle is also going to plan on the fact that Rawls will make a comeback without a hitch, and just keep the starting running back spot warm for him upon his return?
What would you do if you were the Seattle GM this offseason, and you just lost Marshawn Lynch, and your next best running back is coming off a serious ankle injury? Do you just retain Christine Michael and Fred Jackson, and not worry about it…and just hope/assume Rawls can come back in and carry the run game for 16 games? I don’t think so.
No matter how much Seattle likes Rawls, they are going to have to draft or otherwise acquire more depth/talent at running back…and that’s the easiest thing to acquire in the NFL. When Thomas Rawls returns, there may be 1-2-3 fairly talented runners trying to take his space, or eat into his target or touchdown counts.
Rawls has battled minor ankle and knee injuries his entire college career, and now has a more serious one in his first NFL season. Do we just assume it won’t be an issue going forward? Do you think Seattle’s going to assume that? We’re not even talking about the fact that Rawls stole an old lady’s purse, and was charged with a crime in his final season in college (only got probation and community service). Do you think Seattle is going to look at all these injuries, and his checkered college past that got him bounced from Michigan (grades) and almost bounced into the slammer while at Central Michigan…and just hang all of their hopes on his clean return in 2016?
I don’t want to be ‘Debbie Downer’, but what we’re potentially looking at here is a good running back talent on a very good/favorable offensive system, who is now going to face a tougher schedule, plus more competition from within the roster, all while battling back from yet another injury.
Does this sound like a Fantasy player you want to build your 2016 season around?
If you look at early January 2016 Fantasy drafting and rankings, you’d see Rawls drafted and ranked all over the place…as people tried to make sense of his world running alongside Marshawn Lynch. The moment Lynch retired, Rawls begin shooting up the draft boards. In various February drafts, I’m seeing him consistently go in the top 25 overall; as high as the top 10.
I’m not saying Rawls couldn’t finish as a top Fantasy guy in 2016. If you told me he would be a healthy starter for all 16 games, I could see him making a run at leading the league in rushing in 2016—Seattle can do that for a ‘good’ running back. If you’re asking me to bet on it, I’d say he’s ‘good’, but there are a lot of barriers in the way—and I can find a lot better, more assured players thanThomas Rawls in the top 25 overall. If I owned him in Dynasty, and someone wanted to pay me full price as if he was a top 10–25 overall Fantasy entity—if you were going to give me that value for Rawls, I’m all ears. Because in the end, I know Rawls is just ‘good’…not ‘special’. Seattle 2016 may be ‘special’, but Rawls is just ‘good’ (with risk) looking long-term.