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DeMarco Murray: Fantasy bust or value pick in Tennessee?

By Jared Smola 1:40pm EST 3/8/16

The Eagles and Titans got the new league year rolling on Monday, agreeing to a trade that will send RB DeMarco Murray to Tennessee.

There’s no arguing that Murray was a bust in Philadelphia. After signing a big 5-year, $40 million deal last offseason, he totaled just 702 rushing yards and 6 TDs on 193 totes. That 3.6 yards-per-carry average ranked 40th among 44 RBs who carried 100+ times.

Scheme or Player Problem?

The question going forward is whether Murray’s disappointing 2015 campaign was a result of a poor fit in Chip Kelly’s offense or the start of his decline. Remember that Murray carried a whopping 436 times (including playoffs) back in 2014.

Here’s what we know …

Murray averaged a stellar 4.85 yards per carry through his first 4 NFL seasons — all with the Cowboys. Only Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles posted a better mark over that span (among 20 RBs with 600+ carries). Check out Murray’s yards per carry by year, including 2015:

5.5

4.1

5.2

4.7

3.6

This past season certainly looks like an outlier. Murray never looked comfy in Kelly’s shotgun-heavy, zone-read running game. ESPN’s Matt Bowen notes that Kelly’s scheme forced Murray too often to run laterally before hitting a hole. He’s more of a 1-cut, downhill runner.

Murray was also working behind an offensive line that finished 30th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. He averaged just 2.11 yards before first contact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, which ranked 38th league-wide.

Murray didn’t help his blockers, though. He ranked a matching 38th in yards after contact per carry, averaging just 1.53. That was down significantly from his 1.89-yard mark in 2014. Murray also finished 2nd-to-last in Pro Football Focus’ 2015 rushing grades.

So the ugly 2015 season looks like some combination of poor fit and poor play. That 2014 campaign will almost certainly go down as the peak of Murray’s career. But in a system that better suits his strengths, there’s a chance he bounces back. Murray just turned 28, and he has a reasonable 1,127 career carries — fewer than Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson.

“Exotic Smashmouth”

That’s how HC Mike Mularkey describes the offense he’s implementing. And he says it’ll be based on the system he ran in Pittsburgh from 2001-2003. Here’s how those teams ranked in key rushing stats:

Mularkey inherited a Steelers offense that finished 4th in rushing in 2000. He helped them vault to #1 in 2001. That squad got 537 rushing yards from QB Kordell Stewart but also produced a 1,072-yard season from RB Jerome Bettis (4.8 per carry).

Stewart made just 5 starts in 2002, and a declining Bettis shared the backfield with RB Amos Zereoue. That pair combined for 1,428 yards on 380 carries (3.8 YPC).

Bettis averaged an ugly 3.3 yards on 246 carries in 2003. Zereoue posted a matching 3.3-yard average on his 132 totes.

So, at best, Mularkey’s run-game results in Pittsburgh were mixed. Since then, he’s called plays in 8 seasons for 4 different teams. Here’s how those squads fared on the ground:

Similar to those Steelers teams, these rushing results are inconsistent.

The good news for Murray, though, is that Mularkey seems committed to the run game — at least when game flow allows it. Seven of his 11 teams finished among the top 11 in rush attempts. The other 4 won 6, 5, 6 and 2 games, respectively. Tough to establish the run when you’re consistently playing from behind. Whether the Titans will have game flow in their favor this coming season is a fair question.

More good news for Murray: Mularkey appears to favor a clear lead back. Check out the number of carries and percent of team carries each of his lead RBs has garnered:

Mularkey’s lead back has seen 55% or more of the carries in 7 of his last 9 seasons calling plays. In the other 2, his starter missed time with injury (Michael Turner and Maurice Jones-Drew).

To put that 55% mark in perspective, only 7 RBs topped that mark this past season. And with David Cobb, Antonio Andrews and Bishop Sankey as his “competition,” a healthy Murray is a virtual lock to zoom by that mark in 2016.

Volume is King

Regardless of how much gas you think Murray has left in the tank, a big workload should carry him to a solid fantasy season in 2016.

Volume remains the most important part of RB fantasy production. Nine of last year’s top 12 PPR RBs also finished among the top 12 in total touches. Seven RBs topped 275 total touches, and they all ranked 14th or better in PPR points.

275 touches seems like a reasonable floor for Murray, barring injury. He’ll dominate carries and should also be busy in the passing game. Murray has averaged 3.15 catches per game over his 5-year career — a 16-game pace of 50.4. He’s tallied 53, 57 and 44 receptions, respectively, over the last 3 seasons. Only 4 RBs have more grabs during that stretch.

A Potential Value

Murray will certainly come with some risk in 2016 fantasy drafts. He’s a 28-year-old RB coming off a season that might mark the beginning of his end. He also has a new system to learn and will be playing for a team that might not be much better than the 3-13 record it posted last year.

But it’s also possible that Murray’s ugly 2015 was more a result of his poor fit in Chip Kelly’s offense than a decline in his own play. He’ll also benefit in Tennessee from the rushing room created by the threat of QB Marcus Mariota’s legs. We’ll see what the Titans do with their offensive line this offseason, but there’s a chance they add highly regarded OT Laremy Tunsil with the 1st pick of the draft.

Most importantly, though, Murray will have volume on his side. He’ll dominate carries in a backfield that lacks legitimate competition and should also see lots of action in the passing game. That alone should make him a reliable weekly fantasy starter — and gives him RB1 upside.

We’ll see where Murray settles in ADP. But the general vibe from the fantasy community so far seems mostly negative. A 4th- or 5th-round price tag would negate much of Murray’s risk and make him a potential value pick.

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