It was a Sunday that began with uncertainty in one backfield -- ESPN Cleveland Browns reporter Jeremy Fowler noted that Isaiah Crowell, Ben Tate and Terrance West all jogged out for the team's starting lineup trot-outs, and Crowell, the only one of the three with neither a start nor a game of 13-plus carries entering the day, ended up the only one to do both on Sunday -- and concluded with possible clarity in another.
Jonas Gray, a practice squad player for the New England Patriots until Week 7, and owner of an NFL résumé including just three games, 32 rushing attempts and 12 fantasy points entering Sunday night, exploded for 43 fantasy points, the second highest-scoring game by any player in 2014. In fantasy terms, there have been only 25 better days by an NFL running back since 1960.
Gray's emergence was particularly noteworthy for two reasons: First, it occurred so early in his NFL career. Only Jahvid Best reached the 40-point fantasy plateau in fewer games than Gray, doing so in his second career game in 2010.
Quickest to a 40-plus-point fantasy game, NFL since 1960
Second, he's an undrafted player, making his performance the second-best game among that group. Only Priest Holmes scored more in a game:
Best games by an undrafted player, using FPTS
Sadly, few fantasy owners in ESPN leagues capitalized. Gray was owned in 8.4 percent and started in 1.3 percent at the time of the game. Those numbers will surely rise following his big night. And for those wondering whether this represents true clarity in the Patriots' backfield, remember that the team is notorious for changing course at the position quickly and unexpectedly. But then there's this: Gray has handled 55 percent (70 of 127) of his team's rushing attempts during his four active games, 60 percent (67 of 112) in the Patriots' past three games and 84 percent (38 of 45) in a Week 11 game fresh off the bye, when one might think that competitors Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden would have their freshest legs at this stage.
And this: While Gray has much to prove before he could ever be listed in Foster's class, Foster's presence on both of the above lists does shows that even the least likely candidates can develop into stars. Certainly Gray is worth the speculative add, just on the hopes that he'll contribute, at worst, in the flex-play class going forward.
Go get 'im.
Run, run Texans
Speaking of Foster, the Houston Texans sure didn't seem to have trouble moving the football in his absence Sunday. Getting the start in Foster's place, Alfred Blue amassed a franchise-record 36 carries, helping propel the Texans as a team to the NFL's leading rushing-attempt total: 335.
Bill O'Brien's team runs, runs and runs some more, which is why Foster, recent injury history and all -- he has missed 10 of the team's past 26 games -- is such a compelling candidate for weekly, top-half-RB1 (i.e. a top-five ranking) status in his healthy games. It's also why Blue is such an important handcuff for Foster owners, and a viable RB2-caliber plug-in during Foster's absences.
That's not to hail Blue's Week 11 performance as Foster-esque. In fact, it was an oddity from a historical perspective, a high-volume game that resulted in a modest fantasy point total. In fact, since 1960, only 11 players have carried the football at least 36 times in a game and scored fewer than Blue's 15 fantasy points:
Fewest FPTS by a player with 36+ carries, since 1960
Remarkable rookie receivers
I didn't see it coming.
The NFL's lengthy history -- and specifically, the 54 seasons (1960 forward) for which we have verified data -- has revealed that, far more often than not, rookie wide receivers tend not to be worth their draft price. It was a topic from our Draft Kit, when Sammy Watkins was a popular selection. The point, at the time, was that the odds of freshman success were poorer than you might think.
Sunday, Mike Evans continued a trend of freshman wide receivers bucking the odds and lighting up the fantasy leaderboard, as his 32 fantasy points paced his position. That gave him 74 fantasy points the past three weeks combined, more than anyone in the game except Marshawn Lynch (77). Only six times since 1960 has a rookie wide receiver scored more fantasy points in a game than Evans:
Best games by a rookie wide receiver, using FPTS
To give you a sense of how impactful Evans' seasonal performance has been, let's have some fun with seasonal paces. Let's assume that Evans plays in every remaining Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, scoring at his per-game fantasy points average in each; remember that he missed Week 5 due to a left groin injury. In that event, he'd finish with 193 fantasy points, a total that has been exceeded by only two NFL rookie wide receivers since 1960:
Best seasons by a rookie wide receiver, using FPTS
But Evans isn't the only rookie wideout thriving in 2014, something that came up when discussing (and researching) the matter with Jason McCallum and John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information.
Week 11 represented only the 18th time since 1960 that three NFL rookie wide receivers scored at least 15 fantasy points in the same week, as both Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews scored 16 apiece. Consider the following chart my "mea culpa" on my rookie wide receiver predictions: It lists the top 10 seasonal paces -- again, assuming per-game averages and all remaining games played -- by rookie wide receivers:
In the event those paces hold, they would result in the third- (Evans), seventh- (Benjamin), eighth- (Bryant) and 18th-best (Watkins) fantasy seasons by any rookie wide receiver since 1960. That's a heck of a freshman class.