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Was Phillip Lindsay's rookie season a fluke?

By Jared Smola 8:05am EDT 5/29/19

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What You Need to Know:

  • Lindsay tallied 1,037 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs and 35 catches last year — all top 4 marks in NFL history by an undrafted rookie RB.
  • He finished 13th among RBs in PPR and non-PPR points — and was 9th in PPR points from Week 7 to 16.
  • Lindsay’s season ended with a wrist injury that required surgery and had him limited for May OTAs.
  • He’s a near lock to regress from last year’s 5.4 yards per carry — especially after posting subpar marks in blocking-independent metrics.

A historic 2018

Lindsay just turned in 1 of the best seasons by an undrafted rookie RB in NFL history. His 1,037 rushing yards were 3rd most by an undrafted rookie back, and his 9 rushing scores were tied for 4th most. He also ranks 4th on that list with 35 catches and 17th with 241 receiving yards.

Despite racking up 2,726 rushing yards, 750 receiving yards and 32 total TDs over his final 2 seasons at Colorado, Lindsay wasn’t invited to the Combine and didn’t hear his name called during the 7 rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. His 5’7, 184-pound frame was the likely culprit.

But Lindsay impressed throughout the summer and entered last season with a significant role. In fact, he matched 3rd-round rookie Royce Freeman with 15 carries and 71 yards in the opener and then busted out for 107 yards on 14 totes in Week 2. By October, Lindsay was entrenched as Denver’s lead back. He averaged 14.6 carries and 3.1 targets over his final 9 games from Week 7 to 16. Lindsay ranked 9th among RBs in PPR points and 13th in non-PPR over that span.

His season ended in Week 16, though, with a scaphoid fracture and ligament damage to his wrist. He had surgery on December 28 and was given a 3-4 month recovery timeline. That would have had him back by the end of April — but Lindsay was limited in May OTAs. His status will be worth monitoring closely in training camp.

Reasons to worry

The wrist issue is just 1 reason to be wary of Lindsay repeating last year’s performance in 2019. Let’s start with his gaudy 5.4 yards per carry, which led all 29 RBs who toted it 150+ times last season. 31 RBs posted 5+ yards per carry on 150+ attempts over the previous 10 seasons from 2008 to 2017. Only 4 of those guys (12.9%) managed to improve their yards per carry the following year. 22 of them (71%) saw their average dip by .6+ yards, and 14 of them (45.2%) sunk by more than a yard. The 31 guys on average lost .83 from their yards per carry the next season.

So Lindsay is a near lock to see regression there — and probably significant regression. That seems even more likely considering he didn’t fare particularly well in blocking-independent metrics. According to Pro Football Focus, Lindsay ranked 21st among those 29 RBs with 150+ carries last year in missed tackles forced per attempt and 27th in yards after contact per attempt. In other words, he was below average in picking up yards beyond what was blocked.

More worrisome is that teammate Royce Freeman actually bested Lindsay in both missed tackles forced and yards after contact per attempt. So the fact that Lindsay averaged 1.4 more yards per carry than his fellow rookie was largely a result of Lindsay getting better blocking in front of him.

Freeman was an accomplished college back, racking up 5,621 yards and 60 TDs on 5.9 yards per carry over 4 seasons at Oregon. And GM John Elway invested a 3rd-round pick in him just a year ago. So Freeman is a serious threat to play a bigger role in the running game this season.

The move from OC Bill Musgrave to OC Rich Scangarello only boosts the chances of the carry distribution shifting in 2019. Scangarello has worked under Kyle Shanahan in 3 of the past 4 years and will bring a zone-blocking scheme to Denver that will be much different than what the team ran last season.

Lindsay is a safer bet to retain a significant pass-catching role. He was solid in that facet last season, hauling in 35 of 47 targets (74.5%) for 241 yards (6.9 YPC) and 1 TD. Freeman caught just 14 of 20 targets (70%) for 72 yards (5.1 YPC). And while Devontae Booker bested Lindsay with 51 targets, 38 catches and 275 yards last year, Lindsay average more yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus.

Offensive line

Denver made some additions to the offensive line in free-agent OT Ja’Wuan James and 2nd-round rookie Dalton Risner. James ranked 14th among 80 OTs in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades last year, and Risner received strong run-blocking grades in each of his 4 seasons at Kansas State. The Broncos will also get G Ronald Leary back after he missed the final 10 games of last season.

Draft Sharks Bottom Line:

Lindsay turned in a historic 2018 season, ranking top 4 in NFL history in rushing yards, rushing TDs and catches by an undrafted rookie RB. He finished 13th among RBs in both PPR and non-PPR points.

There are reasons to worry heading into 2019, though. Lindsay is a near lock to regress from last year’s 5.4 yards per carry, especially after posting subpar marks in missed tackles forced and yards after contact per carry. Teammate Royce Freeman bested Lindsay in both metrics and is a serious threat to capture a bigger role this season. The change to OC Rich Scangarello creates more room for movement in the backfield. And we’ll need to keep an eye on Lindsay’s recovery from last year’s season-ending wrist injury.

We shouldn’t undersell how impressive Lindsay was as a rookie. He’s at least a strong bet to stay busy in the passing game this season and brings high-end RB2 upside. But the risks involved figure to make him overvalued in most fantasy drafts this summer.

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