Alex Collins and Regression Mean a Lot for Ravens Offense
One of the most interesting things about forecasting an NFL season is trying to determine the outliers of the basic rules of the NFL. Which rookies will be instant stars? Which quarterbacks on new teams are going to vault their teams into another level of team success? A lot of the success of an NFL season can actually be traced to these offseason storylines and how they turned out.
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For a Ravens-centric example, Breshad Perriman’s health was supposed to be an X-Factor in each of the last two seasons. Coming out of Central Florida, he had first-round talent and was supposed to be the sort of target who would give Joe Flacco enough help to make the passing offense become 2014 all over again. Instead, the Perriman the Ravens thought they were getting has been banged up and ineffective. Perhaps a healthy Perriman was exactly the No. 1 receiver the Ravens needed — we’ll never know, because we don’t live in that parallel world — but his absence contributed to the gigantic anchor that is the Baltimore passing attack.
It’s in that spirit I want to talk about Alex Collins today, because the situation is fascinating to me.
So typically with a player like Collins, the statistical response to a season like he had in 2016 is to just stamp “regression” on what happened last year and move on. The list of running backs to come from obscurity to post a season like this is long, but the list of running backs who were given up on by their original team to do this is actually pretty short. As a sixth-round pick of the Seahawks, Collins was buried behind several other running backs on the depth chart. His ascension to the top of Baltimore’s depth chart was almost one of necessity after Kenneth Dixon’s injuries and suspensions forced the entire position into flux.
And … Collins still put up a 15.1% DVOA over 212 carries, the third-best DVOA of any running back with enough carries to qualify for Football Outsiders’ leaderboard. It was a humongous season in the face of a passing game that was almost non-existent.
Normally seasons like this are earmarked for regression for a number of reasons: running back success tends to be fickle, yards per carry is a statistic that tends to be almost impossible to predict on a year-to-year basis, offensive line instability and quarterback instability can threaten production, and so on.
But Collins is actually in a pretty unique situation for a few reasons, and I think it’s worth going over them:
Collins’ lack of success in Seattle doesn’t mean much: Seattle’s running backs have been terrible since Marshawn Lynch retired, to the point where they rushed for negative yardage in the red zone last season. Nobody should really have their lack of success in that situation weighed against them as a player — the offensive line was terrible enough to sink all boats.
Baltimore has a much more functional situation, and Greg Roman’s influence on the running game after similar good work in San Francisco should help boost confidence in the idea that Collins can repeat last season.
Lamar Jackson being the heir apparent actually helps Baltimore’s running game as much as its passing game: If there’s one sure-fire way to boost your rushing DVOA over the past five years, it’s a mobile quarterback who can generate yardage on the ground. Tyrod Taylor’s detractors usually fail to note his success as a runner and how that helps his offenses as a whole. Jackson is a generational prospect as a quarterback rusher, and should he take over, he’ll take a lot of the emphasis off Collins and force defenses to play quarterback runs and option plays honest.
While this is hardly a guarantee to happen early on, first-round quarterbacks don’t usually sit too long in the current NFL. And if Flacco is playing well enough to keep Jackson on the bench — well, that’s also an upgrade on last season for Collins.
While Ryan Jensen is gone, Marshal Yanda is back: Instability sucks for an offensive line, but if there’s one thing that can offset it, it is the return of a six-time Pro Bowl guard who only played in two games last season. NFL teams worry the last about generating starters out of interior linemen, and even if Baltimore’s starting center winds up being Matt Skura, well, peak Yanda can account for a lot of things — if he’s healthy.
His success already came in a passing-game deficient environment: One reason to doubt an NFL player’s success is when it comes in easy circumstances. Dion Lewis’ production last season was amazing; but it’s pretty easy to put up numbers like that when Tom Brady is behind you. Collins’ success came in spite of a poor passing game, not because of it. While this is subjective, it makes some sense that a player like that would be less likely to fall prey to regression, having already found last year’s yards in a tough situation.
While none of these are surefire reasons that Collins won’t face regression, they are reasons to believe that he might — or at least that he might blunt most of regression’s effects. We didn’t even get into Collins’ actual talents as a runner that point to him having a career as an early-down back: his vision, his nimble feet, and his power that helped him break 64 tackles in 235 touches.
How great the Baltimore run game can be is a major factor in the AFC North chase. How Collins shakes out on regression may be a huge reason for the success (or lack thereof) of Baltimore in 2018. And it’s one of those open questions that truly can be challenged depending on what you believe.