We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
Second-year RB Antonio Gibson is a bit of a mutant in the nicest sense of the word. Six-feet tall and weighing in at 228 pounds, the Memphis product somehow boasts sub-4.4 speed, plenty of elusiveness and high-end ability in the pass game to boot. It’s tough to name five players at the position with more swagger; Gibson has looked the part of an elite RB since the Washington Football Team drafted him as such with the 66th overall pick of the 2020 draft.
For those that are unaware: It was far from a given that Gibson would be utilized as a primary RB at the NFL level considering he had more career receptions (44) than rush attempts (33) in 19 collegiate games. Gibson certainly made the most out of those carries, averaging an absurd 11.2 yards per rush while making countless defenders look silly in space. Still: This was still one of the tougher college-to-NFL projections that we’ve had to deal with.
Fast forward 12 months and suddenly we know that Gibson is more than capable of holding his own as a rusher; the problem is whether or not he’ll have the sort of receiving workload to become a fantasy football superstar. What follows is a breakdown on what makes Gibson such an alluring fantasy option as well as what we should expect from him and this Football Team backfield in 2021.
Gibson can do everything you could ever want an RB to do
It only took a week for Gibson to largely relegate early-down grinder Peyton Barber to the bench; the larger issue was getting targets away from fellow RB/WR hybrid J.D. McKissic. This isn’t to suggest Gibson wasn’t the clear lead back: He had at least 15 touches in eight of his final 11 healthy contests. However, the reality that McKissic received a position-high 106 targets (!!!) left Gibson managers yearning for more.
Pick a rushing metric and there’s a good chance that Gibson performed well in it:
- PFF rushing grade: 85.1 (No. 5 among 47 qualified RBs)
- Missed tackles forced per rush: 0.22 (tied for No. 5)
- Yards per carry: 4.7 (tied for No. 15)
- Yards after contact per carry: 2.6 (tied for No. 33)
- Stuff rate: 4.1% (No. 1)
The latter stat in particular was impressive to see from a rookie that doesn’t have all that much experience at the position. Nobody had a lower percentage of their runs go for no gain or a loss than Gibson. It wasn’t like Gibson didn’t still break off plenty of big runs; he had a respectable eight carries of at least 15 yards. Still, maintaining this sort of high-end success rate undoubtedly helped Washington feel comfortable with him handling the majority of the offense’s rush attempts.
The main question is whether or not Gibson will overtake McKissic as the offense’s primary pass-down back. I wrote “will” instead of “can” because there’s little doubt that Gibson is capable of making the most out of his opportunities in the passIng game.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 16, 2021
There simply wasn’t a big enough difference in production to warrant the discrepancy in pass-game usage between McKissic (106 targets) and Gibson (43). McKissic held narrow leads in yards per reception (7.4 vs. 6.9) as well as yards per route run (1.48 vs. 1.36), but this could be due to Gibson's lower target depth. McKissic wasn't nearly as dynamic as Gibson in yards after the catch per reception (6.3 vs. 8.5), and the rookie caught a higher percentage of his catchable targets (92.3% vs. 92%).
Credit to McKissic for only allowing six pressures on 65 snaps as a pass-blocker; Gibson gave up two on just 18 opportunities. Still, I have a hard time believing McKissic (who is roughly 30 pounds lighter than Gibson) is so much better in pass blocking, let alone any other aspect of receiving, to warrant the sort of mega discrepancy in pass-game usage we saw last season.
The most likely answer for why McKissic was largely force fed the ball last season is because it made things more comfortable for Alex Smith. Don’t get me started on why Washington felt Smith was better off dumping the ball down to a fifth-year journeyman RB who had just joined the team as opposed to its third-round pick that literally played more WR than RB in college, but that was the unfortunate reality in 2020.
Don’t be surprised if we see a far different discrepancy from this backfield in 2021 thanks to the reality that this unit as a whole looks better than ever on paper.
This Washington offense looks pretty damn good ahead of 2021
Coach Ron Rivera made some headlines by not naming Ryan Fitzpatrick the starter, but the Football Team’s decision to not add a QB in the draft makes him the heavy favorite over the likes of Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen and Steven Montez.
Yes, Fitzpatrick is a bit of a boom or bust QB. Also yes, we’ve seen way more of the former than the latter in recent years. He was fantasy’s overall QB2 in Weeks 7-17 upon receiving the full-time job in 2019 and the QB8 in Weeks 1-6 in 2020 before “losing” the job to Tua Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick was anyone’s idea of an above-average QB and made arguably the single best throw of the season:
- PFF passing grade: 72.7 (No. 21 among 44 qualified QBs)
- Yards per attempt: 7.8 (tied for No. 9)
- Adjusted completion rate: 78.2% (No. 12)
- QB Rating: 95.6 (No. 20)
Equipped with proven studs Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, as well as explosive third-round pick Dyami Brown and 2020 delightful surprise TE Logan Thomas, there’s little to no reason for this offense to funnel triple-digit targets to McKissic again. This is due primarily to the desire to get the ball to more talented playmakers, but it’s also simply unlikely that McKissic has the same sort of part-time receiver role with high-priced addition Samuel now in the fold. Overall, McKissic spent 33% of his snaps in the slot or out wide last season and had 51 targets from this alignment — no other RB had more than 30 such targets.
The Football Team’s reigning 10th-highest-graded offensive line in run blocking has added longtime Bears LT Charles Leno and LG Ereck Flowers to the equation. We don’t have to pretend to have a great idea about whether or not they’ll slightly improve or decline in 2020; the important thing is that there isn’t enough of a red flag here to have any real sort of concern in regards to Gibson’s ability to make the most out of his opportunities. I generally don’t put a ton of weight behind preseason offensive line projections when evaluating RBs — last season's bottom-five offensive lines in PFF's run-blocking grade produced the same amount of top-24 PPR RBs (4) as the top-five O-lines (4). It’s all about volume, people.
Add it all together and …
An overall RB1 finish is in Gibson’s potential range of outcomes
The Football Team never had Gibson play more than 65% of the offense’s snaps in a game last season. In an ideal world, we see that number become the floor with the hope that fewer designed touches for McKissic will lead to less overall usage in the offense. From here Gibson can more consistently soak up the majority of the backfield’s targets in an offense that has a good chance of finishing as an above-average scoring unit.
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner served as the Panthers QB coach while his dad, Norv, ran the show during the 2018-2019 seasons. During that span, Christian McCaffrey played at least 90% of the offense’s snaps in an absurd 26 of 32 games, never dipping below 78% in a non-Week 17 game along the way.
This is Gibson’s ceiling: DC CMC, or better yet, DCMC. I’m not here to suggest Gibson is the same level talent as McCaffrey and capable of supplying similar high-end efficiency, but I also wouldn’t count that out. Ultimately, we want to chase volume, not talent, in fantasy football: Gibson has the potential to have more volume than just about anyone.
Of course, it’s all about potential. Right meow we’re forced to assume McKissic will still hold some level of involvement in the offense: potentially far more than any of us Gibson truthers would prefer. It’s great that the only real competition for early-down touches consists of Barber and Lamar Miller; we simply can’t be sky high on Gibson without more guaranteed targets, which are a cheat code in fantasyland and can serve as the reason why a true real-life monster like Nick Chubb hasn’t finished higher than RB8 in PPR points per game over the past two seasons.
Ultimately, Gibson is somebody I’ve found myself rising up the ranks as the offseason progresses. At the moment, he’s my RB13 in my “With some luck these dudes could bounce up two tiers” third tier, narrowly behind Cam Akers, Joe Mixon and Jonathan Taylor. At the time of this writing, I’m drinking coffee, but a switch to something with alcohol could cause a leap over Taylor due to the potential target concerns.
Don’t be afraid to spend heavily on one of the league’s few RBs with true 400-touch upside if everything goes right, particularly as long as his Underdog Fantasy ADP rests as the RB14.