12 Sleeper Running Backs for 2015 – Via the Workhorse Metric

With the first waves of NFL free agency washed onto the beaches of money and gently soaking into the sands of regret, I want to look at 12 veteran sleeper running backs. None of these guys changed teams during free agency and all of them have been in the NFL for no more than three years. Nine of these guys I have already profiled in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series, but with all the recent backfield changes we’ve seen I feel a full analysis (and ordering) of all 12 RBs is appropriate. Also, when it comes to talking about guys who could be to 2015 what C.J. Anderson was to 2014, we really can’t talk too much.1

For some background, check out Part 1 of this series, which lays out the general attributes I seek in late-round (LR) and undrafted free agent (UDFA) RBs. Also, to learn more about the Workhorse Metric, which I rely on when considering which long-shot RBs to stash in dynasty leagues, you might want to look at my piece on the metric and breakout undervalued RBs. And for an in-depth profile on stud LR & UDFA RBs in general, see my piece on the subject at RotoWorld.

So let’s get to it! Here are the 12 high-Workhorse Score (WS) RBs who are on my breakout watch list for 2015:

TIER ONE: “Yeah, he must work out”

1) Khiry Robinson, 2013 UDFA, 88.97 WS

I love Mark Ingram as much as the next masochist who used the third overall pick on him in a rookie draft, held onto him for the first three years of mediocrity, and then finally got the sweetest of all payoffs in year four: A borderline RB1 campaign. I swear, I love the guy . . .

But Ingram has never been fully healthy or dominant for a full season in his NFL career. And don’t even talk to me about newly acquired Saints RB C.J. Spiller, who will be 28 when the season starts, suffers more injuries than a crash test dummy, has only one top-10 positional campaign in his five-year career, and is more of a Darren Sproles homage than a workhorse and potential injury fill-in.

Enter third-year and third-string RB Khiry Robinson. Given that Robinson was one of Shawn Siegele’s top-10 dynasty sleepers for 2014—and given that Robinson flashed some ability last season before his injury—I’m not being highly original in declaring Robinson my No. 1 workhorse sleeper for 2015, but why take a jump shot when a layup is available?

In two seasons in the NFL, Robinson has been a solid backup and committee RB, exhibiting the ability to contribute as both a runner and receiver. In other words, he could essentially replace Ingram and Spiller separately or simultaneously if needed—and, given their injury histories, the odds that at least one of those guys will be injured at some point in the 2015 season are pretty high.

Most importantly, listed at 6’0” and 220 lbs., Robinson has the size to carry the load for New Orleans. What Ingram did in 2014 Robinson probably has the ability to do in 2015, when he’ll be 25 years old for all but the last few days of the season. Even though Robinson isn’t exceptionally athletic (he ran a 4.71 40-yard-dash at 206 lbs. at his 2013 pro day), RBs historically haven’t needed to be good athletes to succeed in Head Coach Sean Payton’s offense. Evidence Exhibits A & B: Ingram and Pierre Thomas.

And lest one think that Robinson’s success so far in the NFL is the fluky result of small sample size, peruse Robinson’s college career: As a redshirt senior at West Texas A&M in 2012, Robinson had 247 rushes for 1,621 yards and 15 touchdowns and 38 receptions for 430 yards and four more TDs, good for an 87.2 WS. And just in case you think that Robinson was a one-year wonder who benefitted from being a little older than his competition, here’s what he did in 10 games as a true freshman in 2008 at Mesabi Range Community & Technical College: 160 carries for 893 yards and 13 TDs for an 88.97 WS on top of which he added 15 receptions and a TD as a return man. And if you think that junior college stats are suspect at best and meaningless at worst, take that up with C.J. Anderson, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Jacobs, and Vick Ballard. When a stud JC RB gets to the NFL, it’s not unusual for him to have success. Robinson could be next. And, if not, maybe this next guy . . .

2) Damien Williams, 2014 UDFA, 99.23 WS

I’ve written previously about Damien Williams and his market share prowess, and last summer Frank DuPont called him the longshot RB with Arian Foster upside, so for some of you what follows will be a little bit of old news. Still, I think there are several reasons to be optimistic about Williams, and some of them are new.

For one, Williams made it through the first week of free agency without the Dolphins adding a RB or being seriously linked to any of the notable RBs who were or still are on the market. Even though  the Dolphins are almost certain to bring in more RBs at some point (given their lack of RB depth), it’s nice to know that they don’t seem to be making the addition of RB depth a high priority.

In fact, the Dolphins seem entirely fine with Williams entering the 2015 season as the clear backup to Lamar Miller, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. As a backup to Miller last year (a job he shared with Daniel Thomas) the rookie Williams did well. Dolphins General Manager Dennis Hickey has said this offseason that Williams has three-down ability, which is entirely true, given that in very limited action last year Williams had 21 receptions (on 27 targets) for 189 yards and a TD. According to Pro Football Reference, since 2000 three other (non-fullback) RBs with similar builds have had rookie seasons similar to Williams’ rookie campaign: Deuce McAlister, Rashad Jennings, and Lex Hilliard. And for what it’s worth—and I think it’s worth something—as an athlete Williams is pretty similar to those first two guys and not at all like that last guy.

The guy whom I proclaimed my favorite 2014 rookie RB deep sleeper, Williams is big and fast. Although he wasn’t agile or notably explosive at the combine, he did run the 40-yard dash in a studly 4.45 seconds at a stacked 222 pounds, and at his pro day he weighed 229 pounds. Basically, he’s an athlete very much in the mold of his Oklahoma University predecessors, Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray—except he’s bigger. And as a true junior transfer at Oklahoma (coming from Arizona Western Junior College), Williams in 2012 was productive, accumulating 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage in 13 games even though he didn’t become the team’s lead back till the middle of the season. In particular, Williams was very productive as a receiver in 2012, with 34 receptions for 320 yards. For a big guy, that’s pretty good.

But maybe even more impressive than his production at OU—especially since he tailed off as a senior before being dismissed from the team near the end of the 2013 season—was his JC production. After a true freshman season in which he totaled 906 scrimmage yards and 13 all-purpose TDs in 12 games while playing in a committee, in 2011 as a sophomore Williams was the best JC player in the country—good enough in fact to get an offer from OU. In that season, Williams across 12 games had 259 rushes for 1,931 yards and 26 TDs on top of which he added a kick return TD and 20 receptions for 317 yards and four more TDs. With his team blowing out almost every opponent, Williams managed a 99.23 WS as a sophomore. If you want to, you can belittle that number because it was produced on the JC level, but, again, the history of stud JC RBs who actually get the NFL is encouraging.

Williams isn’t a slam dunk, but he’s a high-upside young runner backing up a guy with an injury history and the ability to leave via free agency in a year. If his situation were any better than that, he wouldn’t be a sleeper.

TIER TWO: “It’s OK, I’m a limo driver”

3) Bobby Rainey, 2012 UDFA, 93.99 WS

I’ve written about Bobby Rainey before, you’ve heard about him before, and each of the last two seasons he has been at times a smidgen useful and at other times almost but not quite flexible, so why are we talking about him?

For one, he’s always cheap in comparison to the production he has provided and especially to the production he’s capable of providing if given the true opportunity to be a lead back, which leads to my second point: The guys ahead of him on Tampa Bay’s depth chart, Doug Martin and Charles Sims, have both been injury-plagued throughout portions of their NFL and college careers, and if either or both of them were to suffer injuries in 2015 (as has happened the last two years) then Rainey would once again be in a position to contribute.

Also, I think the possibility exists that the Buccaneers offense could be better in the 2015 than it was the last two years. Wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be second-year players and more familiar with their NFL environment, WR Vincent Jackson (though regressing) will still be a capable secondary receiver, and whoever is the Bucs quarterback will have to be better than the combination of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. If Rainey has the opportunity to play, he should at least be in an offense better than the one of the last two seasons.

I believe that in his brief starting stints Rainey has shown enough to suggest that, if given the lead RB role in a better-than-horrible offense, he could be a functional workhorse. I mean, wouldn’t you say that he was the Bucs’ best RB last year?

Name Age G GS Att Yds TD Tgt Rec Yds TD
Doug Martin 25 11 11 134 494 2 20 13 64 0
Bobby Rainey 27 15 5 94 406 1 45 33 315 1
Charles Sims 24 8 0 66 185 1 27 19 190 0

In 2014, Rainey was better than Martin as a runner and Sims as receiver, and that’s not a coincidence. In Rainey’s final three college seasons, he accumulated over 1,000 scrimmage yards each year:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2011 rSR 24 12 369 1695 13 36 361 4 71.87
2010 rJR 23 12 340 1649 15 29 230 0 93.99
2009 rSO 22 12 144 939 6 13 83 1 56.32

A workhorse as both a rusher and a receiver, Rainey admittedly dominated at an old age in a non-Automatic Qualifying conference . . . but Martin and Sims also made names for themselves while competing in non-AQ conferences, and neither of them were young as NFL rookies. You can hold the circumstances of Rainey’s college production against him, but then you’d also have to do the same for Martin and Sims. And regardless of what these three guys did in college and how old they were when they did it, the fact is that last year in the NFL Rainey was the best of the group.

Now, I grant that Rainey is on the smaller side, but for a small RB he’s actually pretty thick, strong, and athletic. Here’s the pre-draft workout data for Rainey and a comparable player whom many consider to be a great athlete:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Bobby Rainey 67 205 4.53 97.36 10.74 155.5 17
Giovani Bernard 68 202 4.53 95.94 11.03 155.5 11

I think it’s likely that Bernard is overrated as an athlete, but for the past two seasons he has been a top-20 producer at the RB position. If Rainey were to earn a role similar to Bernard’s, he probably has the capability and athleticism to have similar production.

Even if he somehow becomes a starter, Rainey’s not likely to be a RB1, but RB2 production is possible—and there’s nothing wrong with RB2s, especially if you can find them on waivers.

4) Zach Line, 2013 UDFA, 97.92 WS

I’ve said this before, but this time I actually mean it: This will be the last Zach Line bullet my gun ever fires.

Adrian Peterson looks increasingly likely to leave the Vikings, Jerick McKinnon‘s rookie campaign ended because of a back injury that required a surgery from which he is still recovering, Matt Asiata is [offensive comment, has been censored], and Joe “Barnyard” Banyard is the Nick Andopolis of RBs.2

When he departs, Peterson will leave a gaping hole in this backfield large enough to make the average female porn star blush. In other words, Line (the most undervalued RB of the 2013 draft) has some 2015 sleeper potential, even though he has spent the last two seasons bouncing between the practice squad and active roster as a backup fullback.

Yes, I am pimping a backup FB. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s less crazy than what Asiata accomplished in 2014 as a lead back. On the one hand, I grant that Asiata himself had one good workhorse season in (junior) college, and so one shouldn’t be surprised that he had some decent (albeit uninspiring) production when given a chance to be a NFL lead back. On the other hand, Asiata’s actually smaller, slower, less explosive, weaker, and barely more agile than Line.

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Zach Line 72 232 4.77 89.63 11.52 141.5 26
Matt Asiata 71 229 4.81 85.56 11.46 134 22

Asiata was physically capable of being a top-20 fantasy RB last year. Why not Line this year?

And unlike Asiata, who did very little at Utah after transferring from JC, Line was a rushing machine in his three years as a starter at Southern Methodist, and even as a redshirt freshman he was a capable goal-line back in a part-time role:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2012 rSR 22 13 277 1278 13 33 229 0 96.08
2011 rJR 21 10 208 1224 17 15 139 0 97.92
2010 rSO 20 14 244 1494 10 17 163 0 93.87
2009 rFR 19 13 49 189 7 10 68 0 25.20

For three straight years in college, Line was the entirety of SMU’s non-QB rushing offense. He was basically his own backup. And for a big guy he actually showed some decent receiving chops in his final college season. He’s not Le’Veon Bell, but he’s probably just as good at receiving as Asiata, who had 44 receptions last year. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that his first NFL touch was a reception . . . which he turned into a long TD.

Fine, it was a preseason game, but if we ignored all preseason performances then Arian Foster wouldn’t exist, know what I mean?

I’m not saying that Line is actually a starting-caliber NFL RB. I’m just saying that, with FB Jerome Felton’s departure from Minnesota, Line is going to get more playing time in 2015 anyway, and he could capitalize on that opportunity. On a team with a very unsettled RB situation, Line could very well become the team’s most dependable mid-season runner, and like other recent FBs-turned-RBs before him, such as Peyton Hillis, Mike Tolbert, and Le’Ron McClain, Line could be at best a one-season force who excites everybody or more likely merely an Asiata-esque producer whom we all tolerate because he scores TDs.

Line’s not great, but he might be just good enough if his team’s 2015 RB situation resembles its situation last year.

5) Storm Johnson, 2014 Seventh-Round Selection, 93.71 WS

Have you looked at the Jaguars’ depth chart at RB? Right now, the only guys ahead of Storm Johnson are the exciting-yet-limited-and-injured Denard Robinson and the never-exciting-but-always-limited-and-should-be-retired Toby Gerhart. And behind Johnson is . . . no one. Not even Austin Powers would mistake this shit for coffee.3

Although Robinson was a solid fantasy option in his injury-shortened tenure as a starter—and he was also a workhorse in college (he had an 88.37 WS in his brief senior stint as a RB)—he is a liability as a receiver. Even with 23 receptions in 2014, Robinson managed only 124 yards receiving for a 5.4 yd/rec average. Plus, he’s a small RB (199 lbs.) who has had injury issues periodically for the last few years. Meanwhile, there’s not much to say about Gerhart. It will be minor miracle if he’s even on the Jags next season, as his 2014 campaign made the Hillis of the last few years look downright competent.

So part of the investment thesis for Johnson is “he’s not the two other guys and the Jags have no one else except the two other guys.” But that’s not all.

Despite Johnson’s lackluster rookie season, he was actually pretty decent in college. A reserve RB as a true freshman at Miami (FL) in 2010, Johnson transferred to Central Florida in 2011, sat out the season per NCAA transfer rules, backed up and served as an injury fill-in for Latavius Murray in 2012, and was UCF’s lead back in 2013 as a redshirt junior.

Let’s compare Johnson and Murray’s final college seasons, as both were selected late in their respective drafts and both played at the same school with the same starting QB (Blake Bortles) in the same offensive system with the same longtime head coach (George O’Leary).

Player Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
Storm Johnson 2013 rJR 21 13 213 1139 14 30 260 3 93.71
Latavius Murray 2012 rSR 21 11 198 1106 15 27 231 4 65.56

I like Murray as a 2015 breakout candidate, and doubtlessly a big part of his potential is his athleticism, but he was also a good producer in his final season. Doesn’t it speak well for Johnson that, even though Murray slightly outproduced him on a statistical per-game basis, he drastically outproduced Murray on a market-share basis? In his final season, Murray wasn’t the entirety of his team’s RB-rushing offense (partially because he had to split carries with Johnson), but Johnson was the only RB on his team in his final season to score a TD in a game that wasn’t a blowout. Johnson was his team’s rushing offense. And he was also a good receiver. From a production standpoint, Johnson was a complete college player.

Johnson isn’t a great athlete (at the combine he ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash at 209 lbs., but he’s got good size. He’s now listed at 216 lbs., and at his pro day he was 218 lbs. On top of that, at his pro day, he at least displayed the type of athleticism that has been sufficient for others:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time
Storm Johnson 72 218 4.57
Alfred Morris 70 219 4.63

I’m not saying that, simply because they exhibited similar athleticism at their pro days, Johnson is the next Alfred Morris. Then again, both were drafted with late-round picks, and there’s also this . . .

Player Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
Storm Johnson 2013 rJR 21 13 213 1139 14 30 260 3 93.71
Alfred Morris 2011 rSR 23 12 236 1186 9 15 139 1 92.00

In their final college seasons, Johnson and Morris had comparable production, except Johnson scored more TDs and had more receptions.

Johnson will likely never have a season that comes close to any season Morris has had so far in his three-year career, but Morris looks a lot like Johnson, and few people would’ve predicted for ALF the success that he has had.

If Johnson were to have a RB2-caliber 2015 season, that would be a surprise  . . . but not really.

TIER THREE: “Samsonite! I was way off!”

6) Chris Polk, 2012 UDFA, 89.90 WS

When LeSean McCoy was traded to the Bills, Chris Polk‘s value in dynasty leagues shot up . . . and then it crashed back down when the Eagles signed both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. While Polk currently seems like he has little chance of contributing in 2015, let me ask you a question:

When was the last year that both Murray and Mathews played an entire slate of regular season games?

Yep, that was a trick question. It’s never happened. Going all the way back to their first seasons in college, these two RBs have never both played a full season at the same time. Here’s a table showing the number of games each has missed in the last eight years:

Year DeMarco Murray Ryan Mathews Total Missed Gms
2014 0 8 8
2013 2 0 2
2012 6 4 10
2011 3 2 5
2010 0 4 4
2009 1 1 2
2008 1 5 6
2007 3 2 5
Mean 2 3.25 5.25
Median 1.5 3 5

Murray has played an entire season only twice in the last eight years; Mathews, only once. Murray had almost 500 touches last year; Mathews, at least five touches. For both guys, that large workload likely took a toll.

If you were the type of person who placed bets on the bodily misfortunes of others, wouldn’t you say that, even with Head Coach Chip Kelly‘s focus on sports science, the odds are high that both Murray and Mathews will miss playing time in 2015? And isn’t it a mortal lock that at least one of them will?

In other words, while his value is still cheap, now is the time to acquire Polk, who currently sits on the depth chart as the fourth string RB behind Murray, Mathews, and Sproles.

Polk, whom Kelly has liked since their days of Pac-10 competition, hasn’t had much opportunity in the NFL, but what he has done as an undrafted free agent is noteworthy. He’s not Arian Foster (yet), but in 2013 as a second-year player he held his own against athletic and once-promising backup Bryce Brown, performing well enough for the Eagles eventually to trade Brown—coincidentally, also to the Bills. And then in 2014, as Sproles assumed his standard role as a receiving and change-of-pace back, Polk emerged as the big-bodied occasional goal-line vulture and direct backup to McCoy. He hasn’t accumulated a lot of stats, but with the 63 touches from scrimmage he has gotten in his NFL career he has a 4.7 yd/car average and a 12.8 yd/rec average to go along with his eight all-purpose touchdowns, one of which was a kick return score. For a guy who hasn’t done much in the NFL, Polk has done quite a bit.

As an athlete, Polk isn’t special, but if people last year thought that Montee Ball was athletic enough to be productive next to Peyton Manning then why wouldn’t people think this year that Polk is athletic enough to be productive in a system that is possibly just as advantageous for RBs?

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Montee Ball 71 214 4.66 90.76 11.28 150 15
Chris Polk 71 215 4.57 98.58 11.34 142.5 16

In his pre-draft workouts, Polk was comparable to Ball—not as explosive or agile, but faster and a smidgen bigger. On top of that, Polk is now listed at 222 lbs., and given that Kelly is his coach and the Eagles monitor their players’ bodies like nobody’s business I will venture to say that, since entering the NFL three years ago, Polk has probably lost some fat, gained a good deal of muscle, and maybe even become a better athlete. At his size, despite the uninspiring athleticism he displayed years ago as a prospect, Polk probably has the capability to be a lead NFL back.

After all, Polk was a total workhorse in college who—on the basis of his production—never should’ve gone undrafted in the first place. A wide receiver in high school who converted to RB at the University of Washington, Polk played in only two games as a true freshman, injuring his shoulder early in the season and sitting out the rest of the year. In the three seasons that followed, though, Polk was a beast:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2011 rJR 22 13 293 1488 12 31 332 4 84.78
2010 rSO 21 13 260 1415 9 22 180 0 89.90
2009 rFR 20 12 226 1113 5 25 171 0 80.78

Despite his undrafted pedigree, Polk had first-round-caliber rushing production in college, and in his final season in particular he was a significant producer as a receiver—but since he played WR in HS his receiving abilities really shouldn’t be a surprise.

He’s not an obvious player to roster, but if (or when) Murray, Mathews, and/or Sproles suffer(s) an injury, Polk has the capability to step in and take some snaps. He’s a player I’d love to get as a cheap add-on in a larger dynasty trade.

7) Zurlon Tipton, 2014 UDFA, 94.19 WS

Frank Gore is bringing his cane game to Indianapolis. Excuse me if I am underwhelmed. Even if he stays healthy for the whole season, I think it’s likely that Gore will be partnered with a younger runner. I don’t see Gore being the only RB of value in Indy. And as much as I love 2012 breakout Vick Ballard and 2014 pseudo-starter Dan Herron, I think that they both can be overtaken on the depth chart by 2014 rookie Zurlon Tipton.

I’ve written before about Tipton’s opportunity with the Colts. Although Ballard and Herron both were solid college RBs and have been serviceable in short stints as lead NFL backs, Ballard has played only one game in the last two years and probably can’t be counted on as a healthy option moving forward, and Herron fumbles more than Tony Romo serving as the holder on field goals.

I admit that Herron was pretty decent in the playoffs, especially as a receiver, but as a runner in three games he had 45 attempts for 170 yards and two TDs for a 3.8 yd/carry average—exactly the same rushing average in the playoffs that Tipton had, when he scored a TD on 18 carries. From an efficiency perspective, Tipton was actually a better rusher in the playoffs than Herron. And Tipton’s abilities as a receiver shouldn’t be ignored either. Although he didn’t do much in the playoffs as a pass catcher, during the regular season Tipton caught all six of his targets and turned them into 68 yards and a TD. It’s a small sample—but it’s enough to suggest that Herron isn’t a total lock to hold off Tipton.

And here’s something else—as good as Herron was as a receiver in the playoffs, in his best college season he caught only 19 passes for 180 yards and no TDs in 13 games. In Tipton’s best receiving season, in the same number of games he caught 24 passes for 287 yards and one TD—and in the season before that he had, in only seven games, 17 receptions for 124 yards. Maybe Herron is the better receiver now, but based on what they did in college I think it’s very possible that Tipton is just as talented as a receiver.

And in college he was also a better rusher. Both guys were plagued by injuries in college, but Tipton’s final two seasons were quite impressive. As a redshirt junior in 2012, he had 252 rushes for 1,497 yards and 19 TDs in 13 games, good for a very solid 80.86 WS. Then, in 2013, in a season that saw him play in portions of only five games because of injury, Tipton was even more impressive, rushing 74 times for 398 yards, eight TDs, and an elite 94.19 WS.

The big knock on Tipton is that he is relatively un-athletic. He has great size, but that’s about it. On the one hand, that’s true. On the other hand, there’s this table:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Zurlon Tipton 72 223 4.70 91.40 11.37 151 17
Cohort Avg 71.3 221.7 4.69 91.89 11.28 152 16
Cohort Median 71 220 4.68 91.84 11.20 152.5 16
Alfred Morris 70 219 4.67 92.09 11.20 152.5 16
Joique Bell 71 220 4.68 91.72 11.01 156.4 16
Arian Foster 73 226 4.71 91.84 11.62 147 NA

Tipton is pretty similar to the cohort of ALF, Foster, and Joique Bell, all of whom entered the league as big-bodied undervalued RBs with relatively uninspiring athleticism. I doubt that Tipton will ever achieve half of what these guys have, but if Tipton fails in the NFL I think that it will have more to do with a lack of opportunity and football ability, not his athleticism—he’s athletic enough to be a productive NFL RB.

It’s just a matter of how much Gore’s cane game will keep other Indy RBs from getting on the field.

8) Lance Dunbar, 2012 UDFA, 89.43 WS

Typically I don’t like small RBs, but this is really a “right now only Darren “McFragile” McFadden and Joseph Randle are ahead of him on the depth chart and Dunbar is actually pretty athletic and productive” type of speculative call. I doubt that Dunbar will actually be the lead back for the Cowboys in 2015, but I do think that, in the absence of a total workhorse like Murray, the production in the Cowboys backfield is likely to be spread around more than it was in 2014.

Each year since 2002, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has been either a head coach or an offensive play-caller. Here’s a table showing how his notable RBs have performed, especially as receivers:

Player Team Year Rec ReYd ReTD Gm Positional Rank
DeMarco Murray Cowboys 2014 57 416 0 16 1
Reggie Bush Lions 2013 54 506 3 14 11
Joique Bell Lions 2013 53 547 0 16 17
Mikel LeShoure Lions 2012 34 214 0 14 20
Joique Bell Lions 2012 52 485 0 16 29
Jahvid Best Lions 2011 27 287 1 16 22
Jahvid Best Lions 2010 58 487 2 6 40
Kevin Smith Lions 2009 41 415 1 13 25
Steven Jackson Rams 2008 40 379 1 12 14
Steven Jackson Rams 2007 38 271 1 12 14
Steven Jackson Rams 2006 90 806 3 16 3
Ronnie Brown Dolphins 2005 32 232 1 15 23
Onterrio Smith Vikings 2004 36 394 2 11 31
Moe Williams Vikings 2003 65 644 3 16 14
Michael Bennett Vikings 2002 37 351 1 16 17
Moe Williams Vikings 2002 27 251 0 16 27
RB Avg NA NA 46.3 417.8 1.2 14.1 19.3
RB Per-Game Avg NA NA 3.3 29.7 0.1 NA NA

One, you can see that, when Linehan hasn’t had a clear workhorse RB, it hasn’t been uncommon for him to have two RBs with significant production. And, two, Linehan’s RBs have historically gotten the ball a lot as receivers, and that plays to Dunbar’s strengths. Last year, despite playing behind both Murray and Randle, the Sproles-esque Dunbar was targeted 22 times and caught 18 passes for 217 yards, and with Murray departed one can see how Dunbar could see a bump in pass-catching production in 2015.

Ever since college Dunbar has been an excellent receiver—and at North Texas he was also a pretty studly rusher too:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2011 SR 21 12 269 1115 10 29 350 2 89.43
2010 JR 20 12 274 1553 13 28 332 3 78.10
2009 SO 19 12 200 1378 17 28 300 2 81.24

For three straight seasons, Dunbar led UNT in rushing, and his worst receiving campaign as a lead back—28 receptions for 300 yards and two TDs in 12 games—is probably one of the best worst receiving seasons by a college lead back ever.4 At a minimum, Dunbar probably has the ability to function in a Jahvid Best-esque capacity as a receiver if Linehan wants to use him that way.

Of course, Dunbar isn’t the athlete that Best was—few RBs are—but judging by their pre-draft workouts I believe that Dunbar could do a passable Best impersonation:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Jahvid Best 70 199 4.35 111.15 10.92 148.5 18
Lance Dunbar 68 197 4.47 98.69 10.94 155 11

Dunbar’s not as fast as Best was, but he’s more explosive and almost as agile. I’m not saying that Dunbar has top-20 RB potential. I’m just saying that, if he finds himself in a significant receiving role, he could become an underappreciated producer in 2015.

And, if that happens, I bet that a couple of weeks next season Dunbar will be daily fantasy tournament gold against teams that struggle to defend pass-catching RBs.

TIER FOUR: “We’ve landed on the moon!”

9) Zach Bauman, 2014 UDFA, 90.90 WS

If you haven’t heard of Zach Bauman . . . then I’m not really sure how you found this website in the first place.  Of course, it would make sense for you not to know who Bauman is. He’s a small school 2014 UDFA who, despite strong college production, didn’t play a regular-season snap as a rookie and after spending time on a practice squad last season is now on an offseason roster via a reserve/future contract. Bauman has almost no chance of making a NFL impact—but Harry wasn’t supposed to survive the Killing Curse, know what I mean? Sometimes the improbable is more than possible.

You should know who Bauman is for a few reasons, but here’s the main reason—and excuse me if it sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth: He’s on an Arizona Cardinals team that features a lead back whom I’m not convinced can be a long-term fulltime back . . . and that back looks a lot like Bauman . . . as does the back who most effectively filled in for the lead back when he was injured last year. So, on the one hand, Bauman could have an opportunity because Andre Ellington doesn’t really have the physical profile of most lead NFL backs. And, on the other hand, Bauman could appeal to Head Coach Bruce Arians because he is very similar to Ellington and last year’s injury fill-in Kerwynn Williams.

And, as a side note, I should say this: I easily could’ve written this profile on the Cardinals backup Williams, who also was a workhorse RB in college (he had an 87.95 WS as a senior), but I thought that, because he had some exposure at the end of last season readers might already have an idea about him. Also, I figured that this profile on Bauman could be a two-for-the-price-of-one gift to the people who made it this far into the post . . . sort of like Dumbledore finding a horcrux and one of the Deathly Hallows in the same object . . . so, you’re welcome.

Anyway, here’s how Ellington, Williams, and Bauman all compared to each other as NFL draft prospects:5

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Andre Ellington 69 194 4.52 92.96 NA 156 NA
Kerwynn Williams 68 195 4.48 96.82 11.30 153 17
Zach Bauman 67 194 4.50 94.62 11.04 142 11

Bauman really is just another version of the two RBs currently at the top of the depth chart. With similar weight and speed, Bauman is admittedly weaker and less explosive than Ellington and Williams, but he is more agile than Williams and maybe even Ellington. As an athlete, Bauman could likely be inserted into the Cardinals offense and do what Ellington and Williams are expected to do.

And even though Bauman played at Northern Arizona in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), I believe that he holds his own as a producer. Here are the college seasons in which Ellington, Williams, and Bauman served as their teams’ workhorse RBs:

Player Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
Andre Ellington rSR 23 13 212 1081 8 14 232 1 57.91
Andre Ellington rJR 22 13 223 1178 11 22 109 0 65.14
Andre Ellington rSO 21 9 118 686 10 12 109 1 70.27
Kerwynn Williams SR 21 13 218 1512 15 45 697 5 87.95
Zach Bauman SR 21 12 270 1456 9 44 305 1 88.81
Zach Bauman JR 20 11 225 1182 8 34 216 1 64.00
Zach Bauman SO 19 11 271 1435 15 29 352 1 90.90
Zach Bauman FR 18 11 237 1059 14 28 308 2 80.02

As an 18-year-old true freshman, Bauman was more productive than Ellington was at any point during his tenure at Clemson. At 21, Bauman finished his productive college career with a stellar campaign at the same age at which Ellington and Williams were finally breaking out. Bauman played at a small school, but I don’t think that we can hold that against him since he dominated his backfield (and his opponents) from the moment that he stepped on campus. Despite being his team’s workhorse for four straight years, he didn’t miss one game. Not in any season did he have fewer than 225 rushes, 1,050 yards rushing, 1,300 yards from scrimmage, or nine all-purpose TDs. From 2010 to 2013, Bauman truly might’ve been the most consistent good player at the FCS level.

What Bauman really has going for him is his ability as a receiver. While he wasn’t ever as dynamic as Williams was at Utah State as a pass-catcher, Bauman certainly can do the job. Over his college career, he averaged exactly three receptions and 26.2 yards receiving per game—on top of his 22.3 rushes, 114 yards rushing, and one TD rushing per game. In 2014, Arians used Ellington and Williams a lot as receivers, and if he needed to do the same with Bauman in 2015 he probably could.

I don’t want to overstate the case for Bauman. He’s unlikely ever to develop into a franchise RB, but, like Branden Oliver in 2014, Bauman has the potential to be a contributor if given the opportunity—and at the moment he has better opportunity than most people realize.

And, most importantly, he is free. He’s available in almost every dynasty league. Given the low cost to acquire Bauman, I don’t see the downside in seeing his potential upside.

10) Dominique Williams, 2014 UDFA, 96.17 WS

Who?—no, I’m serious, I need to dig through my spreadsheet to remind myself who he is . . . still looking . . . there we go!

Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Dominique Williams‘ chances of achieving NFL success are worse than Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy’s chances of being sorted into Gryffindor. Still, you should know who he is. He’s basically the Vikings’ version of Zach Bauman.

Williams entered the NFL from Wagner College in the FCS as an older rookie fresh off his super-redshirt senior campaign. Set to turn 25 at the beginning of his second year, Williams barely had a first year in the NFL. A preseason player with the Vikings, Williams was a predictable part of final roster cuts after the Vikings’ last preseason game. Quickly signed by the Cardinals to their practice squad, Williams practiced with the team for a week before being waived with an injury settlement because of a non-serious knee injury—and that was his rookie year.

Immediately after the season ended, the Vikings signed Williams to a reserve/future contract, so here he is—on a roster that includes Peterson, McKinnon, Asiata, Banyard, and Line. I’m crazy even to talk about Williams. I know that.

But in the event that the stars align and the Vikings cut or trade Peterson because he won’t renegotiate his contract; McKinnon suffers from complications stemming from his back surgery; Asiata underwhelms; Banyard is cut because he sucks; and the Vikings insist on leaving Line at fullback—in the event of all of those separate events happening—then Williams, as a runner in Norv Turner’s offense, would be someone theoretically worth knowing about, right?

What makes Williams almost worth talking about right now is his record of collegiate production. After graduating from high school, Williams prepped for a year at Milford Academy and then enrolled at Wagner in 2009, and in his first season there he immediately led his backfield with an 83.49 WS at the age of 19. Unfortunately, an ACL injury caused him to miss all of the 2010 campaign and take a medical redshirt for the season—but in 2011 he had the first of three straight strong statistical seasons, and it was also a monster season by market share:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2013 rSR 23 11 258 1127 6 15 96 1 70.55
2012 rJR 22 13 263 1328 13 26 277 2 80.88
2011 rSO 21 11 274 1338 14 15 176 1 96.17

That is fantastic production. Basically, Williams is an uber-(never-going-to-pay-off-)arbitrage version of another 2014 rookie, Ka’Deem Carey. Here’s what I mean:

Player Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
Dominique Williams rSO 21 11 274 1338 14 15 176 1 96.17
Ka’Deem Carey JR 21 12 349 1885 19 26 173 1 93.52

In their age-21 seasons, in their third years at their respective colleges, Williams and Carey had seasons that, according to the Workhorse Metric, were comparable—and I would contend that, although Williams is markedly older now, he is basically the FCS Carey who wasn’t run into the ground.

And Williams is also similar to Carey in another crucial way:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Dominique Williams 69 205 4.65 87.69 10.98 154.5 19
Ka’Deem Carey 69 207 4.70 84.84 11.46 147.5 19

On the one hand, you might look at Williams’ average size and (lack of) speed and wonder why you’re still reading this post. On the other hand, you’re still reading this post. On the third hand, if Carey’s athleticism isn’t bad enough for most people to write him off entirely why should Williams’ athleticism be such a detriment? And on the fourth hand—and we have four hands in this, because it’s you and me, baby, and I assume that you have two hands—Williams is significantly more explosive than Carey and rather agile in comparison to most RBs. If Williams somehow saw carries in a regular season NFL game, that agility might count for something.

In calling your attention to this utter unknown, I guess that I’m trying to say this: If Williams somehow ever finds himself in the position that Carey is in now—that of a backup with a path to the starter’s job if one key event occurs—then you should probably assign a value to Williams similar to the one you assign to Carey. That is, if you presently assign any value to Carey.

11) Michael Cox, 2013 Seventh-Round Selection, 90.26 WS

I liked Michael Cox a lot better a month ago. That was before the New York Giants signed Shane Vereen, re-signed Chris Ogbonnaya, stated publicly that they intend not to cut Rashad Jennings, and bought Cox a small coffin in which he can bury his career.

Still, if it should happen one night that the five RBs ahead of him on the depth chart all go to a New York City club, and they invite Peyton Hillis instead of him, and the six of them all end up Plaxico-ing themselves with unlicensed handguns, then the following information could prove useful.

It wouldn’t be the first time that an undervalued RB became a top rusher for the Giants. Here are all the campaigns by the top two Giants RBs each season since 2007, the year that Jerry Reese became General Manager.

Player Year Positional Rank Draft Year Round Pick
Andre Williams 2014 28 2014 4 113
Rashad Jennings 2014 29 2009 7 250
Andre Brown 2013 51 2009 4 129
Brandon Jacobs 2013 65 2005 4 110
Ahmad Bradshaw 2012 18 2007 7 250
Andre Brown 2012 31 2009 4 129
Ahmad Bradshaw 2011 20 2007 7 250
Brandon Jacobs 2011 32 2005 4 110
Ahmad Bradshaw 2010 11 2007 7 250
Brandon Jacobs 2010 21 2005 4 110
Ahmad Bradshaw 2009 27 2007 7 250
Brandon Jacobs 2009 29 2005 4 110
Brandon Jacobs 2008 12 2005 4 110
Derrick Ward 2008 23 2004 7 235
Brandon Jacobs 2007 21 2005 4 110
Derrick Ward 2007 36 2004 7 235
RB1 Average NA 23.5 NA 5.5 182.8
RB2 Average NA 33.3 NA 5.1 161.1

As you can see, each year the Giants’ top RBs have been guys who entered the league as no better than fourth-round selections—and each year except for 2013 the Giants have had two top-36 performers at the position. This is a backfield that has historically produced useful fantasy RBs, and these aren’t guys who have entered the league as high-profile players. These guys aren’t typically full-on studs—but a RB doesn’t have to be Le’Veon Bell to be useful.

I’ve written glowingly about Cox before, so maybe my credibility is shot when it comes to him, but I simply can’t ignore Cox’s mixture of production and athleticism, even if he now is in highly unfavorable backfield situation.

A reserve RB for years at Michigan, Cox transferred to the University of Massachusetts in 2012 as a graduated redshirt senior and led a horrible 1-11 team in rushing in its first season of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) competition. While Cox’s raw rushing stats don’t look great (198 carries for 710 yards and six TDs)—and I attribute his paltry stats primarily to the fact that his offensive line sucked, his QBs provided no support, throwing only nine TDs (and 19 interceptions), which meant that, when he ran he did so frequently against eight-man fronts, and the Minutemen had a per-game point differential of -27.5, so they frequently abandoned the running game anyway—Cox’s 90.26 WS shows the extent to which he dominated his team’s rushing production. Playing in the lowest-scoring offense in all of the FBS, Cox wasn’t highly productive, but he was about just as productive as anyone could be under those conditions.

And he is a great athlete. Although he wasn’t invited to the combine, at a variety of pre-draft workouts Cox exhibited the potential to be a physical beast in the backfield. Here’s a comparison of Cox’s pro day performance with Christine Michael’s combine exhibition:

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score Agility Score Explosion Score BP Rep
Michael Cox 72 220 4.58 100.00 10.96 165 25
Christine Michael 70 220 4.54 103.57 10.71 168 27

Cox is basically a slightly less athletic version of Michael, and if Michael had been slightly less athletic at the combine I bet that people still would be intrigued by his athleticism and potential. And you know who else is big and athletic and whom Cox resembles a little? Andre Williams. And Rashad Jennings. And Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs, and Derrick Ward.

In 2014, Williams was somewhat productive but rather inefficient, and in 2015 Jennings will be 30 years old. Neither one of them is necessarily destined to have a stranglehold on this backfield’s production in 2015. Additionally, Vereen is more of a change-of-pace player and not likely to compete with Cox for the same role, and Ogbanana possess little besides a name that’s easily misspelled. And I guess the same could be said about Orleans Darkwa. All I’m saying is that none of the guys on the depth chart ahead of him are going to be mistaken for Tiki Barber.

True, Cox will be 27 this season, and he finished last season on the Injured Reserve because of a broken leg—but Ahmad Bradshaw and Jacobs both were productive for years with the Giants while being perpetually injured and Jennings, Brown, and Ward were an average age of 27 when they had their first top-36 seasons.

I readily admit that Cox has almost no chance of becoming a NFL contributor. I guess all I’m saying is that, whereas most people would put his chances at zero percent, I would put them at one percent and if he hits then he has the athleticism to turn that one percent into a flex-worthy RB.

12) David Fluellen, 2014 UDFA, 84.1 WS

Yes, I am talking about a guy who was undrafted, signed as a priority free agent, unable to practice because of injury, traded for a kicker during the preseason, cut at the end of the preseason by the team that traded for him, and then never signed to a practice squad. And as far as I can find, David Fluellen was not signed to a reserve/future contract at the end of the 2014 season, and so he’s still out of the NFL and has been for about the last six months. In fact, I don’t even know if this guy is still trying to be a NFL player.

But I believe that, if he somehow gets in the league and sticks to a roster, he has the ability to be a NFL player. I’ve thought that for a while.

For one, Fluellen was one of the most productive RBs in collect football during his last two seasons at Toledo:

Year Season Age Gm Car RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD WS
2013 SR 21 9 166 1114 10 27 222 0 65.38
2012 JR 20 12 259 1498 13 32 246 0 84.10

Not only did he average well over 100 yards rushing per game, but he was a strong receiver out of the backfield. In fact, he won the 2014 Giovani Bernard Award for Excellence in Receiving Potential. Yes, that’s an award that is given out only by RotoViz, but the award still might mean something, no? From a production standpoint, Fluellen has the goods.

Additionally, even though Fluellen is likely not in the NFL because of his apparent lack of athleticism (at the combine he ran a 4.72-second 40-yard dash at 224 lbs.), I don’t think that he’s actually all that un-athletic. Or, phrased differently, even if he isn’t a physical specimen, he’s probably still athletic enough to produce in the NFL.

Take a look at this list of physically comparable players, courtesy of the awesome site MockDraftable:

I grant that, if you look at the spider graph, it doesn’t look pretty, but one would be hard-pressed to find a realistic set of comparable players better than those assembled here, and I’m not saying “especially for a guy who is un-athletic”—I’m saying “for anyone.” I’ve spent hours digging through MockDraftable throughout the last couple of years, so I have an idea of what I’m talking about when I say this: It’s incredibly rare for a player to have a list of physically comparable players who all actually made it to the NFL and spent time on a regular-season roster.6 Seriously, how horrible of an athlete can a guy be when the four players most comparable to him are two second-round picks, a third-round pick, and an undrafted RB with two top-20 positional campaigns to his name?

In fact, I think that Joique Bell is the guy to keep in mind when thinking about David Fluellen. In 2010, Bell went undrafted despite having a strong college career, great size, and good agility.  Basically, he went undrafted because he was slow and didn’t play football at an elite institution. Sound familiar?

For two years, Bell bounced around the league and finally caught on with the Lions. It wasn’t until 2012, his third year in the league, that he finally took his first handoff. And from then on he’s been a top-30 player at his position and one of the best receiving RBs in the league.

Fluellen probably will never achieve NFL success similar to Bell’s, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the potential. If Fluellen is ever picked up by some team in desperate need of RB help, he’ll be a player you’ll strongly want to consider adding.

Till then, just continue to store him in the “RotoViz sure talks about a lot of players who never do anything” mental file.

———

Matthew Freedman is a writer for RotoViz and is (not) the inspiration for the character in The League who shares his name. He serves as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman in the series The Dissenting Costanzan, and he also co-hosts the RotoViz Radio Football Podcast. He is the creator of the Workhorse Metric.

  1. Of course, this comment comes from the guy who ([in]famously) overwrites, so . . .  (back)
  2. See what I mean?

      (back)

  3. “It’s a bit nutty”:

      (back)

  4. Except for receiving deities like Danny Woodhead and Brian Westbrook.  (back)
  5. Note that I am using the Ellington’s weight and 40 time from his pro day because he pulled his hamstring while running the 40-yard dash at the combine.  (back)
  6. Of course, I’m not counting the incoming rookie David Cobb in this statement, even though he is projected to be drafted and easily make a team’s active roster.  (back)