The Workhorse Metric, Chris Polk, and 11 Other Sleeper Workhorse RBs for 2015 (Part 3)

With NFL free agency not far away and a whirlwind of cuts and trades in progress, I want to focus on the 12 veteran fantasy running back sleepers whom I believe have a chance of becoming solid contributors this upcoming season. Some of these players I and others at RotoViz have written about previously, but 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

The Workhorse Metric and Late-Round & Undrafted Free Agent RBs

Part 1 of this series, in addition to laying out the general attributes I seek in late-round (LR) and undrafted free agent (UDFA) RBs, looks at Khiry Robinson and two of my other favorite sleeper workhorse RBs for 2015. For some background, it’s worth a read. Part 2 looks at Damien Williams and a couple other 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 undervalued breakout 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 is the third set of three high-Workhorse Score (WS) RBs who are on my breakout list for 2015:

7) Chris Polk, 2012 UDFA, 89.90 WS

With the news yesterday that LeSean McCoy has been traded to the Buffalo Bills, my saying now that Polk is a breakout candidate might strike you as highly unoriginal—but I swear that he was already on this list!

Aside from the clear opportunity that he now has—and maybe the Philadelphia Eagles will draft another RB, but Head Coach Chip Kelly for years has been vocal about how much he has liked Polk since their days of competing against each other in the Pac-10—Polk has a few factors in his favor.

For one, what he has accomplished in the NFL 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 Darren 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’s 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.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to take Polk in the last round of an expert MFL10. I almost did—but then I talked myself into drafting someone who has absolutely no upside.

But at least now I have a great “regret story” with which I can bore my future grandchildren.

8) Lance Dunbar, 2012 UDFA, 89.43 WS

Typically I don’t like small RBs, but this is really a “no one knows what will happen with DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle this offseason 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. If Murray isn’t a Cowboy next year and if whoever replaces him as the lead rusher isn’t the receiver that Murray is—and, really, few RBs have Murray’s skill as a receiver—one can see how Dunbar could see a bump in pass-catching production.

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.2 At a minimum, Dunbar probably has the ability to function in a Jahvid Bestian 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.

9) Zach Bauman, 2014 UDFA, 90.90 WS

What Dominique Williams was to Part 2, Bauman is to Part 3: 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. Like Williams, 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:3

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, 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 he has better opportunity than most people realize.

And, most importantly—as I said of Michael Cox in Part 1— 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.

Who are the last three of my 12 workhorse breakout RBs for 2015? Keep an eye out for Part 4.

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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 cohosts 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. Except for receiving deities like Danny Woodhead and Brian Westbrook.  (back)
  3. 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)