Recently, the writers for RotoViz have focused their attentions on RBs in the 2013 draft class they believe to be undervalued. For instance, here’s one article on the guy I consider to be the most undervalued RB in the 2013 draft and another article on Zac Stacy, in which I consider him in the context of his SEC forerunners.
Additionally, Jon Moore delivered an excellent analysis of Jordan Roberts, and Shawn Siegele wrote this piece on Le’Veon Bell, another piece on Zac Stacy, and yet another piece on Christine Michael, all while introducing readers to the utility of Agility Scores. All great reads on rookie RBs.
In my two previous pieces on rookie RBs, I described a system of finding undervalued rushers who have a higher than perceived likelihood of producing a top-30 season.
Although the system is flexible, it basically seeks to find big-bodied and proven FBS RBs who have fallen into disfavor. What is wagered is little, the reward is very high, and the rate of success is higher than one would imagine. Specifically, I attempt to find FBS RBs who 1) weigh at least 215 lbs, 2) had at least one college season of good production, with 1000 scrimmage yards as the absolute minimum, and 3) were under-drafted or undrafted, with an RB taken in the 4th round being the absolute highest I like—otherwise, the discount I receive relative to a player’s intrinsic value is diminished. Additionally, I really prefer for the RBs 1) to be at least 225 lbs, 2) to have had at least one FBS season of 1500 scrimmage yards or more, of which at least 1175 are rushing yards, and 3) to be undrafted. Sometimes, in exchange for one 1500-1175 season, I will accept two 1000-yard seasons. And I prefer RBs from BCS conferences (especially the SEC), but Alfred Morris is a reminder that not all stud RBs come from big-name schools.
Last year, this system would have highlighted these players: Alfred Morris, Vick Ballard, Terrance Ganaway, and Chris Polk. Batting .500 (with a massive grand slam and a double) on four guys available late in rookie drafts or on waivers is pretty good. Other RBs this system would have identified coming out of college are Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Michael Turner, and Marion Barber III, among others, most (if not all) of whom were widely available at a discount relative to their eventual production.
Today, I want to look at an RB who might be drafted after the fourth round—one of the most debated RBs in the draft, Arkansas’s Knile Davis. NFL Draft Scout has Davis ranked as the #20 RB in the 2013 Draft, expected to be chosen perhaps in the seventh round, if at all. Russ Lande, however, suggested in this pre-combine piece that Davis “could be drafted significantly higher, possibly in the second or third round, than many expect.” And after Davis destroyed the combine with his 4.37 40-yard dash, Rotoworld’s Evan Silva reported Mike Mayock’s assessment of Davis’ draft stock: “I think he’s getting pushed up some charts and looking more like a 2nd- or 3rd-round pick.” Ultimately, no one has a strong idea as to when (or if) Davis will be drafted.
At present, a great deal of vituperation is getting dealt toward Davis from “fans” who in 2012 were disappointed generally with his return from a 2011 ankle injury and particularly with his fumbling problems and lackluster performances in big games. Nevertheless, the system of finding big-bodied FBS-producing devalued RBs suggests that Knile Davis, if not taken in the first four rounds, will be a discounted player to target in drafts.
Having said that, I actually think that at least one team will be willing to use a second-day pick on a big-and-fast SEC RB who produced one truly great season—and Davis’ 2010 performance was first-round in-your-face great. And if Davis is selected early—depending marginally on the team that selects him—at that time I will be oh-so-tempted (and almost ashamed) to make this declaration: After Eddie Lacy, Davis is a legitimate option to be the second RB chosen in 2013 rookie drafts.
This statement may seem to say more about the lack of elite RBs in the 2013 Draft than it says about Davis. Still, if an NFL team drafts Davis within the first three rounds, it will likely expect him to compete for a starting job immediately and, at a minimum, to serve as a large goal-line, change-of-pace, and possibly third-down option in his first year—and highly-drafted big-and-fast SEC RBs tend to get starting jobs, unless they get injured. (Ben Tate still can’t believe his Arian F-ing luck.)
After Davis’ subpar 2012 campaign, what evidence exists to suggest that he has the skill to warrant a high pick in rookie drafts? For one, his athletic performance at the combine. Rare is the man who runs 40 yards in 4.37 seconds at 227 lbs, especially under intense professional pressure. Perhaps his big-game performances in 2012 were suspect, but at the combine Davis delivered the clutchest of performances at the most necessary of moments. He was utterly big-time Knile.
More important, though, is his 2010 season, especially the string of performances against SEC opponents. Of all the SEC RBs to log significant carries in 2010 against SEC defenses—a prolific list including Mark Ingran, Trent Richardson, Marcus Lattimore, Michael Dyer, Stevan Ridley, Vick Ballard, Brandon Bolden, and Tauren Poole—of all these SEC rushers, Davis submitted the best season—especially when one considers that he did not receive double-digit carries in a game until the season’s fifth contest. As the backup, Davis carried the ball only 9 times total in his first two SEC games, and, if not for those diminished performances, the sophomore surprise likely would have stood out as the premier performer not named Cam Newton in what was one of the greatest overall SEC seasons in decades for teams and runners alike. Really, I kid you not.
Here is a table of the statistics recorded in conference play by the SEC RBs who recorded at least 700 rushing yards in 2010. The table, ordered by rushing yards, highlights how dominant Davis was that season in comparison to his productive peers. (This information is provided by http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb.)
|Marcus Lattimore||So. Car.||Fr||185||897||4.85||11||18||296||16.44||2|
|Vick Ballard||Miss St||Jr||137||579||4.22||8||8||95||11.88||1|
As his team’s starter for 8 conference matchups, Lattimore outrushed Davis, the workhorse in only 6 SEC games, by a mere 64 yards on 39 more carries. On a per carry basis, Davis significantly outplayed Lattimore, and on a per touch basis (including receptions) Davis averaged 5.96 yards while Lattimore averaged 5.88. As they both finished tied for first in total scrimmage TDs with 13 apiece, Davis’ conversion rate per touch of 8.18% outshines Lattimore’s 6.40%—and Lattimore was the consensus #1 RB in the 2013 Draft before his knee injury in 2011. Out of all rushers to carry the ball at least 100 times against SEC defenses, Davis sports the second-best rushing average, trailing only the TD-deficient Michael Dyer by less than 0.1 yards per carry. In sum, Davis’ 2010 performance was the most complete. Davis ran over not only SEC defenders but also most of the other SEC rushers. If Lattimore, after two massive knee injuries, can still be thought of as a first-round pick in 2013 rookie drafts, merely because he was a first-round NFL talent in 2011, then surely the same can be said of Davis, whose injury was much less severe.
I grant that Davis was, at best, close to horrible in 2012. For several reasons, I don’t care. First, this draft class, though deep, is weak near the top, especially at the RB position. If I have to select a rookie RB after Lacy, I might as well select the one who exhibited the highest upside in college.
Secondly, when analyzing RBs, I don’t care about when an RB exhibited upside—I care only that he exhibited it and that it was sizable. [Insert “that’s what she said” joke here.] RBs are not like WRs—“development,” as a concept, is not as important. In college, and certainly by the time an RB reaches the NFL, either he can run or he can’t. Adjustments, of course, can be made depending on scheme, but basically an RB is what he is by the time he is done with college.
For a WR, the college season that matters most is the last one, since scouts, in addition to gauging that player’s skills, attempt to project how he will grow as a player, mature as a route runner, etc. In general, a WR is afforded more time in the NFL to hone his craft. For an RB, however, the college season that matters most is the best one, as scouts generally expect that player already to be developed as a runner—they want to know if he can perform immediately in an NFL system and what kind of production they can expect from him. An RB is generally not afforded time in the NFL to hone his craft; he is expected to be close to a master craftsman immediately. Due to most RBs hitting their productive peaks within their first three years in the league (check out this great RotoViz article on the subject) NFL teams cannot afford to give RBs time to develop. As a result what an RB did in his final year of college means almost nothing. All things being equal, take the guy who finished strong, but all things are hardly equal, and, besides, due to recency bias, the guy who finished strong will likely be more expensive to acquire—and so the guy whose draft stock has dropped may be the more desirable fantasy prospect anyway. With Davis, this is the case.
Granted, he never had the massive decline that Davis experienced in 2012, but Peterson submitted his best FBS performance in his first year, not his last. Arian Foster was at his best as a junior—and his “senior regression” was partially responsible for his going undrafted, but, clearly, the guy called “Fumbles Foster” by Tennessee fans in his senior year could still play. And Alfred Morris did his best work as a sophomore, two years before he was drafted in the sixth round. Davis fits into this group. His last year of FBS football was not his best, but he still belongs in the NFL, and he has the skill and size to be a workhorse if given the opportunity. If an NFL team selects him on the second day of the draft, it will give him that opportunity, and, in that case, what RB, besides Lacy, is worthy of a higher pick in rookie drafts?
Please imagine this scenario: Davis has an outstanding 2010 season, and then breaks his ankle before the 2011 season and misses every game. Despite now being draft eligible, Davis decides to return to Arkansas for the 2012 season. So far we are in reality. After the Bobby Petrino firing, however, Davis leaves Arkansas, hires an agent, and makes himself eligible for the 2012 supplemental draft. Now we are in the realm of the hypothetical. Imagine he holds a public workout for scouts and does there what he did at the combine. Now imagine that he is drafted with a supplemental pick in the second round—a fair draft position for a guy whose last college season is fantastic and whose workout highlights both his athleticism and the extent to which he has recovered from his injury. Now, imagine that Davis as an NFL rookie sees only limited action in his 2012 season and largely disappoints. He doesn’t look good—but, in his defense, he was a member of a dysfunctional and underperforming offensive unit that, despite featuring a talented WR on the outside, self-destructed entirely. That is a description of his senior year in college—and isn’t that pretty similar to what happened to Ryan Williams and Mikel LeShoure last year? If in 2012 Davis had been in the NFL, not the SEC, but had still experienced the exact same season, wouldn’t we really just think of Davis as a bigger, faster, and younger version of Williams and LeShoure? At 21 years of age, wouldn’t he still be a second-year player that you wanted on your dynasty roster?
In a startup dynasty draft that took place today, where would Williams and LeShoure be selected relative to the 2013 rookie RBs?—after Lacy, but perhaps before almost all of the other runners? If Williams and LeShoure can be selected there, why not Davis? He is Williams and LeShoure, except just entering the NFL and from the SEC.
In fact, Davis is better than Williams and LeShoure. After the combine, RotoViz put out this article on Knile Davis, comparing his 2010 season (I think quite correctly) to collegiate years produced by Roy Helu Jr., Rashard Mendenhall, and Ben Tate. While Davis indeed is comparable to that group (and perhaps I like that group more than many others do), I think a more precise way of producing Knile Davis comparables is to consider 1) only the best collegiate season for any given runner, 2) only the games following the RB’s establishment as the workhorse, and 3) only the games against teams from BCS conferences (or Notre Dame). Such a system endeavors to compare RBs at the peaks of their upside against comparable and substantial competition. Effectively, we compare RBs at their best when they are competing against the best. Who are the comparables, and how does Davis compare?
|Beanie Wells||Ohio St.||6-1||235||4.38 (Pro Day)||2007||23.4||140.3||6.00||5.56%||0.5||2.1|
|Avg. sans Davis||—||6-0||222.4||4.43||—||21.8||117.4||5.34||5.20%||1.61||14.41|
This cohort of comparable players comprises some of the best big-and/or-fast BCS-conference RBs of the last decade. Because of Davis’ measurables, any direct comparison from Davis to any given player in this group is problematic, but as a whole this group closely approximates Davis’ measurables, college statistics, and perhaps his future’s range of possibilities. With the exception of Murray and Ridley, who were third-round selections, all of these players were first-round picks, most of them chosen in the top ten. Davis belongs in this group. Compared to the cohort’s average, Davis weighs more, runs faster, sports a higher rushing average and TD conversation rate, and catches more passes. Davis is not just a big non-productive SEC rusher who happened to run fast at the combine. He is not Mario Fannin, Lord of the Speed Scores—he is a shorter, faster Arian Foster. He is the McFadden who got injured in college. He is the Peterson and Beanie who played in the SEC. He is the Ronnie Brown who didn’t bounce back from injury to have a good final college season.
Murray and Ridley have been the best rushers from the 2011 class so far, and if made a day-two selection Davis will compare instructively with them. He will be an amalgam of the two, something between a Murray with Ridley’s body and a Ridley with Murray’s speed. If 2011 rookie drafts were conducted today, where would Murray and Ridley be taken? Much higher than they were two years ago—they would probably be the top two RBs. And if any of the runners in this cohort were 2013 rookies, they would all be—at the absolute worst—top-3 picks in rookie drafts. In all probability, any of them would be the top pick. Crazily enough, in arguing that Davis should be the #2 RB chosen in rookie drafts (if he is a day-two pick), I may be selling him short—at least that’s what this cohort suggests.
And if Davis happens to be drafted in Round 4 or lower? All the better. Fantasy players will be able to acquire at a steep discount a player who compares favorably to former top overall rookie prospects. He will be the Arian Foster that you see coming.
You have to be wondering, so I’ll give it to you. Here is how Davis, at his best, compares to both Lacy and Lattimore at theirs.
|Marcus Lattimore||So. Car.||5-11||221||??||2010||20.9||94.4||4.52||5.26%||2.6||38.5|
I’m not saying Davis should be chosen higher than Lacy. The Alabama runner is quite impressive. But, regardless of when (or if) they are both selected, can’t we agree that—if you want to roster one of the 2010 SEC injury darlings—Davis is a better fantasy prospect than Lattimore? He’s bigger, faster, not recovering from a massive injury, certainly able to contribute in 2013, and, most importantly, when both players were healthy, at their best, and playing against the best, Davis was better.
A possible objection to this over-the-top Davis “love fest” is his mediocre Agility Score, a metric created by RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele. The combination of a player’s 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill times, the Agility Score has predictive capacities regarding a player’s Vision Yards (the yards he picks up before contact), and clearly the more Vision Yards the better. Despite, however, Davis’ score of 11.34 (anything under 11.10 is elite), hope does exist for Davis’ prospects. As Siegele notes in this piece, other RBs with mediocre and poor Agility Scores have experienced great success, including Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian L. Peterson, Brandon Jacobs, Joseph Addai, Michael Turner, and Marshawn Lynch—notably, all thickly-built straight-ahead runners who are fast for their weight. In Siegele’s words, “all of them had very good Speed Scores and most of them excel after contact.” Given Davis’ monstrously elite Speed Score of 124.49 and his running style, his non-elite Agility Score isn’t really a question.
In fact, with Davis, only two questions matter: In the NFL, will Davis be the stud from 2010 or the hack from 2012? If you believe he’s the guy from 2010, then the second question applies: What is your highest draft pick?