Stock Watch: Jordan Howard
Stock Watch: Jordan Howard

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

The Bears reportedly considered running back alternatives even before Jordan Howard demonstrated his limitations in the Matt Nagy offense last year, so it wasn't surprising to see the Bears trade Howard last week. It's not surprising that Eagles were the team trading for him given their similar trade for a veteran power back in Jay Ajayi two years ago. But as the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick for Ajayi versus a sixth-round pick for Howard, so parallels their talent estimations, and with a lesser cost comes lesser commitment. Since rookie sixth-round picks commonly don't make their teams, it's perhaps best not to take Howard's job security for granted on a team with a general policy of a three-back rotation in any given game.

There is an opening for Howard to take if he plays well, though. The Eagles backfield collection is basically Howard and then four guys who shouldn't be more than RB3s but also aren't easy to cut. Corey Clement played a meaningful role in Philadelphia's Super Bowl run, Wendell Smallwood totaled 594 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage last year, and Josh Adams saw two 20-carry games as a 21-year-old rookie. Then there's Boston Scott, who was hyped in the summer after the Saints took him in the seventh, and if nothing else he's a fast/quick running back who was very productive at Louisiana Tech. Free agent Darren Sproles even remains a candidate to re-sign after averaging about 29 snaps per game in the final six weeks of 2018.

Despite the seemingly crowded group, there's reason to bet on Howard emerging its clear top fantasy back, in which case he could establish noteworthy fantasy value especially if the Eagles offense regains its 2017 look. Howard may get some extra benefit of the doubt in the competition since he's one year removed from a two-season stretch where he ran for 2,435 yards at 4.6 yards per carry. He would get more leash yet if the Eagles saw his one-year contract as currency, limited as any resulting compensatory pick might be (Latavius Murray's four-year, $14.4 million deal with New Orleans is projected as a sixth-round pick by OverTheCap).

Maybe we can't, but if we can assume the Eagles don't draft a running back in the first four rounds, then I'd guess they go into next year with Howard, Clement, Smallwood, and Sproles. If Sproles doesn't re-sign, then I'd guess either Scott or a rookie takes his place. Adams can be intimidating in the open field, but as a lanky runner with minimal pass-catching upside it can be difficult to apply him in a varied offense. Howard is a pass-catching liability as well, but at a denser build he's better suited to decisive running in traffic.

Because Howard has the same pass-catching limitations as Adams, we can maybe look to Adams' usage from last year to guess what Howard might do in 2019. There are a couple points in this sample that I'd call anomalous – his two 40-snap games when Smallwood was either nicked up or in the doghouse, and then the two-game playoff run where Adams played just one snap, an outcome perhaps precipitated by playing through shoulder and back issues earlier. The remaining games had Adams playing between 18 and 28 snaps per game, and I think the higher end of that sounds about right for Howard's tentative projection in Philadelphia. If we project 20-to-28 snaps per game for Howard then we get 320-to-448 snaps for 16 games. If we combine the per-snap carry averages of Adams, Ajayi (2017-2018), and LeGarrette Blount (2017), then that snap projection would result in 143-to-200 carries. The receiving projection based on the same sample is a dreary 14-to-20 targets, but you expected that.

Fallibility of my projections aside, the question of how much 143-to-200 carries and 14-to-20 targets might be worth is open to interpretation. Your outlook might depend on how you answer the question of Howard's declining rushing average the last two years (5.2 → 4.1 → 3.7). The circumstances probably don't explain it – Howard's best season featured Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer at quarterback, and the offensive line isn't a viable excuse. My own suspicion from watching tape was that Howard seemed to lack something physically last year, or at least for some reason tacklers didn't seem to bounce off of him like they used to. Our own player page metrics imply Howard was indeed failing to break tackles last year, as his 6.7 percent broken tackle rate ranked only 40th percentile. That he still averaged 3.7 yards per carry while running for nine touchdowns perhaps speaks to his floor, but he at the very least will be at risk for hot-hand volatility if he doesn't perform better. Howard often played hurt at Indiana, so it wouldn't surprise me if his bruising running style led to similar situations in the last two years, but even if that's a plausible explanation it would remain a real risk going forward.

If Howard were to average 4.4 yards per carry as Blount did in 2017, then for this example it would project for between 629 and 880 yards. Considering he can't project for more than maybe 120 receiving yards, this projection would generally imply Howard offers only a mediocre ceiling despite the week-to-week risk he'd otherwise carry. Perhaps the Eagles will score often and Howard will benefit as their main power runner, but the Eagles have run for maddeningly few touchdowns the last two years, with running backs combining for just 21 rushing scores. Clement led the team with four in 2017, though to be fair Ajayi had three in four games before getting hurt last year.

Even if you're an optimist for Howard in 2019, I think the change of scenery warrants a downgrade in his projected fantasy value. After totaling 1,080 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage last year, 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns might be a more realistic hope for 2019, and it could easily go worse than that. Even if the Eagles add no further workload threats this offseason, Howard's pass-catching limitations would make him a bad candidate for 200-plus carries unless at least two other current or prospective Eagles running backs are hurt for some significant period – Adams saw his two 40-snap weeks because Smallwood and Sproles only contributed 14 snaps in the span.

The timing of the trade is interesting because now Howard's ADP might not stabilize until after the draft, which starts April 25 and ends April 27. It's a dreadfully small sample particularly in the second case, but Howard's stock is initially up from the post-Mike Davis signing ADP (85.0 DRAFT/82.78 BB10) to a new height following the Eagles trade (77.3 DRAFT/67.4 BB10). I've generally been a Howard optimist over his career, and that price increase surprises me. It seems to bet on both that Howard's own downward trends will reverse and that he will also score rushing touchdowns at a rate recent Eagles runners mostly haven't. I'll probably see it that way even if the Eagles draft no runners.

Rather than Howard at his blurry current ADP, I'd prefer Latavius Murray by miles, and all of Darrell Henderson, Damien Harris, Mike Davis, and Carlos Hyde otherwise. For now I'd probably compare Howard's projection to Peyton Barber's box score from last year.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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