Can Charles Sims Be a Feature Back for the Buccaneers?
Week 2 was a rough week to be an NFL running back.
After a relatively injury free preseason, this past Sunday we saw major injuries to big named players such as Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Danny Woodhead, Jonathan Stewart, Thomas Rawls, Ameer Abdullah, and of course, Doug Martin.
After just seven carries and just over a quarter of action, Martin was lost for the game (and now perhaps the next three weeks) with a hamstring issue. It appears the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would like to keep him out until after their Week 6 bye, ensuring he has the time to heal and return at full strength for the remainder of the season.
In his absence, backup Charles Sims appears poised to take over the lead role in an offense that, while inconsistent against good defenses, has proven to be explosive given the right matchup.
For those who drafted Sims as a handcuff or as depth on their bench, the question now becomes just how good can he be with this Tampa Bay backfield all to himself. To break this down, we will need to look not only at his work as a runner but also as a receiver before evaluating his potential as a featured back for the Buccaneers.
Sims the Running Back
As a runner, Sims has had modest success given his role, producing an identical Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush (-0.01) last season as Martin, although obviously on a much smaller workload.
Additionally, his totals were bolstered by several big runs in high leverage spots, and Sims rarely found himself having to "grind out" tough yardage in difficult downs and distances. In essence, he's had the benefit of being a change-of-pace back who defenses didn't gear up to stop as they did with Martin, and yet he still was only able to produce pedestrian numbers.
Of course, Sims did post a Rushing Success Rate of 44.58%, the percentage of his 107 carries that led to positive expected point gains, which ranked seventh among 44 backs with at least 100 carries last year. In that regard, he got the job done when given the ball.
So far in 2016, though, Sims has been dreadful, posting a -0.23 Rushing NEP per rush on his 13 carries. That puts him in Shaun Draughn territory. Of course, Martin hasn't been much better, and his -0.17 mark is well below what you would like to see from a top back.
Among the 52 running backs with at least 10 carries, Martin (20.00%) ranks 51st in Rushing Success Rate, and Sims (23.08%) ranks 50th.
But inefficiency as a runner isn't the only obstacle Sims must overcome as the starter. He also will face some of the most brutal matchups for a running back the next three weeks, with games against the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos, and Carolina Panthers. Last season, those teams all ranked in the top 12 in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per rush, and each looked dominant once again in Week 2.
Expecting the Buccaneers' backup to have success in those games is perhaps unfair, even given the likelihood of a bigger workload.
Additionally, this is a Tampa Bay offensive line attempting to replace a Hall-of-Fame guard in Logan Mankins and has battled injuries and inconsistency in the early portions of the season on their interior. High-priced free agent signing J.R. Sweezy was placed on the PUP list this summer, and the team has been rotating bodies at guard attempting to find a combination that will work.
This is a unit that was ranked just 20th in run blocking last season according to Pro Football Focus before losing their best player.
Based on the tape, Sims looks like an average athlete with limited power and speed, and his creativity as a runner is not nearly as impressive as his touchdown against Atlanta made him appear. He has just one touchdown on 186 attempts, and the Buccaneers have never viewed him as an effective goal line back. Behind average blocking, he looks like an average back, and his 2.54 yards per carry average this season demonstrates that.
What you can see from that particular run, however, is his ability to eat of yards as a receiver in open space. At least when three defenders tackle themselves.
Sims the Receiving Back
When the Buccaneers drafted Sims in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, former coach Lovie Smith saw him as a Matt Forte clone who could be extremely productive in the passing game. With 70 catches for 751 yards in his first two seasons, the young back certainly showed flashes of that ability, although not nearly to the Forte level.
In 2015, Sims' Reception NEP per target of 0.48 was in the same ballpark as players such as Giovani Bernard (0.51) and Forte (0.43), and he proved to be an efficient and effective player in that pass catching role.
While Martin is certainly capable of catching the ball (49 receptions as a rookie), he doesn't have natural hands or a good feel for running routes and is prone to dropping or bobbling even the simplest of catches. Sims, on the other hand, has a much more natural feel for the passing game (his drop against the Arizona Cardinals aside), and the team has no hesitation in lining him up outside or running him down the field on wheel routes or go routes.
His versatility allows Tampa Bay to open up their playbook, with Sims lining up in the backfield or out wide depending on the look the offense wants to see.
His limitations as a runner don't allow him to be as dominant after the catch as a player such as David Johnson, but he certainly catches the ball well enough to challenge defenses like a Shane Vereen type of player. Keep in mind that the Bucs have targeted their running backs 14 times in their first two games, and production is there to be had for Sims.
The team did sign Jacquizz Rodgers, a former favorite of head coach Dirk Koetter, and while it remains to see what his role will be in the absence of Martin, he does present a very similar skill set to Sims. Still, it appears doubtful that Rodgers will take enough touches from Sims to dimmish his role.
Sims the Feature Back
It goes without saying that we can expect Sims to touch the ball like a featured back in the absence of Martin. The depth chart simply doesn't have a player ready to challenge him for carries, unless they are much higher on undrafted rookie Peyton Barber than they have let on. Rodgers may get a carry or catch here or there in 3rd-and-long situations, but this is clearly Sims' job to lose, and he is by far the most talented back on the active roster.
That said, nothing we have seen through three years would give us the indication that Sims is anything more than an average back on an inconsistent offense with an average offensive line. And given the difficulty of his upcoming matchups, I'm certainly not going out of my way to get him in my lineups in season long or daily leagues.
While a solid workload is almost a guarantee, solid production is not. Unless Sims finds a way into the end zone against some outstanding defenses, his value outside of PPR leagues is likely limited, and this might be the perfect opportunity to sell high on him (perhaps to the Martin owner).
As for me, I'm simply not buying Sims as a feature back.