Coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs? PPR or Standard? These are the age-old debates that define us. Over the coming weeks, our writers will add a few more to this list. That’s right — it’s rap-battle season.
In this Rookie Faceoff, John Lapinski and Neil Dutton go toe-to-toe over two running backs who compete for early picks in dynasty rookie drafts. Be sure to check out Neil’s counterargument.
The field of running backs behind Saquon Barkley in this year’s rookie drafts is more unsettled than any season in recent memory. The order of players picked in the top half of drafts is routinely shuffled depending on which draft you’re in, and there’s no clear-cut order to the picks. Currently, new Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ronald Jones is usually being drafted ahead of Royce Freeman. “Usually” isn’t good enough though, Jones should be the earlier pick 100 percent of the time.
Why Not Freeman?
While Freeman tested well athletically, it was his excellent production from an early age that really put him on the map. So why am I not impressed? It’s possible that part of Freeman’s success comes from a run-friendly system, something Mr. Dutton dinged Rashaad Penny for in our battle over the 1.02 spot between him and Derrius Guice.
So why am I not instantly bowled over by a player with a 2,000 yard rushing season his resume? Well, I am, actually. But my expectations are tempered by the fact that this was the second consecutive season that an Aztec RB managed the feat after Donnel Pumphrey in 2016. Pumphrey is, it goes without saying, a completely different type of back from Penny. But his lack of success during his first NFL preseason does make me think that maybe SDSU has a really good run blocking system.
Though Chip Kelly departed for the NFL, the Oregon Ducks have still been running his unique offense. The last RB to be drafted highly out of there, second-rounder LaMichael James in 2012, did absolutely nothing as a pro despite producing similar stats to Freeman. Nor has Kenjon Barner, whose 2012 with the Ducks was similar to Freeman’s best season with the team.1 It’s hard to find an Oregon RB who hasn’t put up impressive offensive numbers.
Freeman’s size and athleticism make him a better prospect than James and Barner, but he still falls short of Jones in most of the metrics we’ve been tracking here at RotoViz.
The Case For Jones
In fact one of the only spots Freeman bests Jones is in the Prospect Lab scores, but even then there’s a caveat. Jones injured his hamstring while running at the combine and didn’t have a lot of time to recover prior to his pro day. He was the more explosive player in college, with a higher percentage of breakaway runs over his career, particularly runs of 40 and 50 yards or greater, where he beat Freeman handily despite having about 350 fewer career carries. With a strong track background and a propensity for big runs, there’s ample reason to believe he could have run in the 4.40 range, a time that would boost his Lab score up to a robust 70.
Their final year production numbers are virtually identical, but Jones put up his statistics at a much younger age and on a team that hasn’t had an RB approach his level of production since Reggie Bush’s incredible 2005 campaign. More importantly, Jones crushed Freeman in Blair Andrews’ Backfield Dominator Rating, which helps puts the players’ raw production into the context of their respective offenses.
In Anthony Amico’s RB Model, breakout age is one of the key components. Though Freeman did technically break out earlier, Jones still easily bests him overall on the strength of his much younger final age and earlier draft position. We know that RBs who play their first season at age 21 have a much higher likelihood of success in the NFL, and Jones is the youngest RB in the entire class.
We also need to take into account the much higher draft capital that was spent on Jones. Whether it be through increased opportunity or actual talent, NFL draft position is still the biggest predictor of success at the NFL level, and Jones was picked over a full round earlier than Freeman. Jones’ status as a pick early in the second round means he should be given a significant amount of work in his first couple seasons.
Speaking of opportunity, both RBs land in prime situations for rookies. Though Denver technically has a larger number of vacated opportunities with the departure of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, it’s possible that a healthy Devontae Booker will step up to claim a large piece of those. While only Doug Martin has departed Tampa Bay, the players left behind may see their roles actually decrease in the upcoming season as they all gained extra touches in 2017 due to Martin’s suspension and struggle with injuries.
Between his draft capital and the workload up for grabs, Jones should have opportunity that is at least on par with Freeman’s if not greater.
When Jones and Freeman went head to head in the RB Prospect Sweet 16 Tournament, Freeman scored a victory, despite my misgivings that he might simply be a system RB. More than half the votes for Freeman though cited his significantly cheaper cost as part of the reason to advance him, but that’s simply not the case now that the draft is over. When he is going after Jones, it’s often by just one or two picks, and there are plenty of instances of him being picked before Jones straight up.2
Freeman isn’t a bad prospect, but he’s not quite on Jones’ level. With no real meaningful difference in cost at this point,3 the choice should be easy. Draft Jones and let someone else take their chances with Freeman.
- I’ve included both his final Senior season and his Sophomore season, which was his best, in the table below. (back)
- I’ve seen this in a couple of my rookie drafts already, at least the ones where I wasn’t the one picking Jones ahead of Freeman myself. (back)
- Just one pick apart in ADP in FFPC rookie drafts. (back)