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The Most Undervalued RB in the 2013 Draft

From a certain perspective, the odds are greater than not that the subject of this article will never be a startable fantasy RB. Players like this guy are hardly ever usable in fantasy lineups. From another perspective, though, the odds are about even that he will be a fantasy contributor—and if he does become usable, his value will be immense, since he will go unselected in all leagues, dynasty and redraft alike. He may even go unselected in the NFL draft, and (for the selfish sake of my fantasy endeavors) I kind of hope he does. [Dude, I’m really sorry I said that. But I kind of meant it. It worked for Arian. It could work for you.] Nevertheless, this player is without question one of the incoming rookies about whom I am most excited, especially since his market value is just below where Mike Alstott’s would be if he staged a 2013 comeback at the age of 39.

I pseudo-promise, you have no idea who this guy is, and yet he was among the most productive RBs over the last three years—no, it’s not Monte Ball. And, no, it’s not late-round hopeful Miguel Maysonet—my guy got his production playing FBS college football, competing against teams from the Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. No, it’s not Joseph Randle, Johnathan Franklin, or Knile Davis. And although he didn’t score as many TDs as some players, he still scored a lot, and he certainly has the build to be an NFL goal-line back. No, it’s not Christine Michael, Stepfan Taylor, or Le’Veon Bell. And he’s not just a short-yardage back. His team depended on him to carry the load, almost the entire load, for three seasons, and he delivered with over 1175 rushing yards each year. No, it’s not Denard Robinson—but that was a sneaky guess.

In fact, if you go to this list of draft-eligible RBs, provided by CBSSports and NFL Draft Scout, the name of my guy will not be present. Yep, out of all the RBs on the list, most of whom will not be drafted, my guy is absent. But here’s the thing—my guy probably will get drafted in the final rounds, and he has a strong chance of sticking on an NFL roster, due to his versatility. Are you interested yet?

Last year, the methodology that led me to find this guy highlighted four other guys: Alfred Morris, Vick Ballard, Terrance Ganaway, and Chris Polk. Batting .500 (with a massive grand slam and a double) on four guys who could be acquired late in rookie drafts or on waivers is pretty good, and would anyone really be surprised if Ganaway grabbed control of the St. Louis backfield in 2013?—just as Arian Foster did with Houston, LeGarrette Blount did with Tampa Bay, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis did with New England in 2010. By the way, this system also would have suggested grabbing all of those guys out of college, as well as Michael Turner and Marion Barber III (if he slipped far enough in a rookie draft).

This current guy, if he has success, will not be a top-5 guy at his peak, unlike Foster, Morris, and Turner. But he could easily produce a few rock-solid BJGE-esque RB2 seasons, and finding production like that on the waiver wire is just as valuable as selecting the right stud RB in the first round of a dynasty draft. Then again, he (like Peyton Hillis) maybe could have that one brilliant top-5 season that wins a championship. After all, my guy has done stuff in college that Hillis never did.

As far as I can find, the last time a D-I RB like this guy entered the NFL under similar circumstances, Bill Clinton was president. That player was undervalued by many fantasy players (despite being drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round). And how did he do as a rookie? He finished with a positional ranking of 23. And how did he do for the 5 years after that? He produced 4 top-30 seasons. That guy? Mike Alstott. He entered the NFL as a FB; he retired as a cult figure.

My guy is Zach Line from Southern Methodist University. He lacks Alstott’s massive size, but as a white 232 lb. RB who runs a 4.77 40-time, he is entering the NFL ostensibly as a FB. He is not a blocking back. He is a big back. Just because he has a slow 40 time does not mean he cannot play RB in the NFL. Foster and Morris ran slowly at the combine (albeit faster than Line), but their style of play is not predicated on speed, and neither is Line’s. His game is all about power, and he has plenty of it. And in college he did not use it to block—he used it to run over defenders.zline

Here is the system I use: find FBS RBs who 1) weigh at least 215 lbs, 2) had at least one college season of good production, with 1000 yards rushing as the baseline, 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. The system is flexible, but 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.

Zach Line fits the bill, and he is the first potential NFL FB since Alstott to do so. (Note: I do not count Jacob Hester, since I considered him too light for a prospect who had only one 1000-yard season. If a guy has only one 1000-yard college season, I want him to be built like LeGarrette Blount.)

Here is a table of Mike Alstott and Zach Line’s final three collegiate seasons, when they were both fulltime starters. (Statistics from any bowl games are not included in Alstott’s totals.) These two are the only players with such FBS production to enter the NFL as FBs in the last twenty years.

Player College Year Class Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Mike Alstott Purdue 1993 So 153 816 5.3 12 30 407 13.6 2
1994 Jr 202 1188 5.9 14 12 298 13.0 0
1995 Sr 243 1436 5.9 11 25 162 6.5 0
Total 598 3440 5.75 37 67 867 12.94 2
Zach Line SMU 2010 So 244 1494 6.1 10 17 163 9.6 0
2011 Jr 208 1224 5.9 17 15 139 9.3 0
2012 Sr 277 1278 4.6 13 33 229 6.9 0
Total 729 3996 5.48 40 65 531 8.17 0

While Alstott is in a class of his own, which is why, in part, he was a FB drafted in the second round, Line holds his own in a comparison: the SMU product has two 1500-1175 seasons and three 1000-yard seasons total. And take a look at their junior years; they are almost identical. If Alstott could have repeat top-30 success as a running FB in the NFL, then Line can, too.

While the FB designation may seem like a disadvantage to Line, since few FBs actually become consistent fantasy options (in leagues that don’t have a specific spot in the starting lineup for them), Line’s status as a FB actually helps fantasy players in three key ways: 1) He will be easier (cheaper) to acquire, 2) the versatility implied by the status (he can run and block) will improve his chances of sticking to a roster, and 3) once on a roster he will see playing time. As a FB, Line will get on the field faster than if he were merely the big-bodied fourth-string RB—Terrance Ganaway agrees with me. If Line were labeled an RB, the system of finding productive undervalued big backs would suggest that I look at him anyway, so as long as he makes an NFL roster what do I care how he is labeled? He is a big FBS-producing devalued rusher on an NFL roster—that’s good enough for me.

You know how Isaac Redman was thought of by most fantasy players as a FB for his first year or two in the NFL?—now take that mentality and merge it with 1) Jonathan Dwyer’s FBS productivity and 2) a slightly thinner Peyton Hillis. That composite guy is Zach Line in 2013. As long as he makes an NFL roster, he should be on your roster—at the right price, which is “free agent pickup.”

Does Line have a chance of seeing the field as a rookie FB? Without knowing his future team, I say yes. He has the potential. And, specifically, Line may see the field because he is able to do what many rookie RBs can’t: pass block. As a big back, he can pick up the blitz. Check out these highlights of SMU v. Texas A&M in 2011. Not only does he usually stick his blocks, but he runs pretty well against a Big 12 defense. Is it always pretty for the north-south runner? No. But he can handle a large number of carries, he doesn’t dance behind the line of scrimmage, he breaks tackles, and he tends to finish by falling forward. And when he gets near the goal line, he scores. Those are skills likely to endear him to an NFL coaching staff.

How does he compare to other 2013 RB prospects likely to be drafted much higher? Here is a comparison between Zach Line and Player B. This table features statistics from the last three college seasons, when both players were fulltime starters.

Player Ht Wt 40 Time Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line 6-1 232 4.77 729 3996 5.48 40 65 531 8.17 0
Player B 5-9 214 4.76 787 3997 5.08 38 96 735 7.66 5

All else being equal, who would you draft first for your dynasty league? Player B is Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor, and many analysts think of him as a solid mid-round prospect. In this piece Matt Waldman praises Taylor as “one of the safer bets for a team seeking a contributor.” Who presents better value: Taylor as a mid-round pick in a rookie draft?—or Line off of waivers?

Yes, this comparison might say more about Taylor than about Line, and I grant that the competition in the Pac-12 is greater than in CUSA, but productive RBs from non-major FBS conferences have still recorded top-30 NFL seasons in the last decade: Alfred Morris (Sun Belt), Doug Martin (WAC/MWC), Chris Johnson (CUSA), Matt Forte (CUSA), Kevin Smith (CUSA), Ahmad Bradshaw (CUSA), DeAngelo Williams (CUSA), LaDainian Tomlinson (WAC), and even Mewelde Moore (CUSA). Conference USA in particular has a knack for producing RBs who did well in college and in turn do well in the NFL. Zach Line could be next.

In their three years as starters, Line and Taylor shared only one common opponent in the same season: Washington State in 2010. Their performances against that single common opponent may not mean much, but it still is a direct point of comparison.

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Wash State 2010 8 82 10.25 0 1 10 10 0
Stepfan Taylor Wash State 2010 27 142 5.3 2 1 11 11 0

Since I know that Line is big enough to carry the ball 20 times per game and score TDs, I don’t care that Taylor substantially outcarried him. All I care about in this comparison is the rushing average. I admit that Line’s small number of carries skews his average, but in comparison to Taylor did Line perform well against Washington State? Yes.

What about other Pac RBs? In 2010, Line shared two common opponents with Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers (selected in Round 5 of the 2011 Draft). How does Line compare?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Wash State 2010 8 82 10.25 0 1 10 10 0
TCU 2010 17 139 8.2 1 1 15 15 0
Total 25 221 8.84 1 2 25 12.5 0
Jacquizz Rodgers Wash State 2010 15 93 6.2 0 4 32 8 0
TCU 2010 18 75 4.2 1 0 0 0 0
Total 33 168 5.09 1 4 43 10.75 0

Yes, Rodgers is a diminutive guy who was drafted in only Round 5, but he tore up the Pac with great college production for three years. And in a direct comparison, Line just dominated him.

Alright, what about the best Pac RB in the 2013 Draft, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (NFL Draft Scout’s #3 RB prospect for the 2013 Draft)? How does Line compare to this heralded runner?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Wash State 2010 8 82 10.25 0 1 10 10 0
Houston 2010 19 106 5.6 0 1 5 5 0
Total 27 188 6.96 0 2 15 7.5 0
Johnathan Franklin Wash State 2010 30 216 7.2 1 0 0 0 0
Houston 2010 26 158 6.1 3 1 9 0 0
Total 56 374 6.68 4 1 9 9 0

Yes, Franklin’s two performances were impressive; he proved himself to be quite a workhorse and TD-maker—but I don’t care that Franklin outcarried or outscored Line, since I know the SMU player can handle lots of carries and score TDs. On a per carry basis, did Line perform comparably to a guy likely to be selected in the second day of the draft? Yes.

Since Line plays in CUSA, finding draftable RBs with whom Line shares multiple common opponents is hard, but can we find any more players?

In 2010, Line and San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman (selected in Round 3 of the 2012 Draft) both played TCU and Navy. How does Line compare to Hillman?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line TCU 2010 17 139 8.2 1 1 15 15 0
Navy 2010 15 83 5.5 0 0 11 0 0
Total 32 222 6.94 1 1 26 26 0
Ronnie Hillman TCU 2010 13 54 4.2 0 0 0 0 0
Navy 2010 28 228 8.1 3 2 16 1 0
Total 41 282 6.88 3 2 16 8 1

Wow. As average as Hillman was against a stout TCU defense, he was great against Navy, scoring 4 TDs and rushing for over 200 yards. On a yardage per touch basis, though, Line did just a little bit better.

Who else can we find? How about the big-bodied Terrance Ganaway from Baylor? Across 2010 and 2011, he and Line shared 5 common opponents (although Ganaway was a backup in 2010). How does Line compare?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line TCU 2010 17 139 8.2 1 1 15 15 0
Texas Tech 2010 12 72 6.0 1 4 24 6.0 0
Rice 2010 11 45 4.1 1 0 0 0 0
Texas A&M 2011 22 128 5.8 1 2 23 11.5 0
TCU 2011 21 120 5.7 0 1 20 20 0
Total 83 504 6.07 4 8 82 10.25 0
Terrance Ganaway TCU 2010 1 17 17 0 0 0 0 0
Texas Tech 2010 4 13 3.3 0 1 18 18 0
Rice 2010 8 79 9.9 0 1 2 2 0
Texas A&M 2011 16 34 2.1 1 1 11 11 0
TCU 2011 24 120 5.0 1 0 0 0 0
Total 53 263 4.96 2 3 31 10.3 0

Ganaway was great as a senior, but throughout their careers Line was comparatively better on a per touch basis. If there is anyone out there “crazy” enough to think that Ganaway can become a contributor to the St. Louis backfield, that same person should also think Line has a legit chance, if given the opportunity, to be a top-30 NFL RB—and I do.

Three more player comparisons, while I have you here.

Over the last three years, Line and Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle (NFL Draft Scout’s #4 RB for the 2013 Draft) have shared 7 opponents in common. How does Line compare?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Wash State 2010 8 82 10.25 0 1 10 10 0
Texas Tech 2010 12 72 6.0 1 4 24 6.0 0
Tulsa 2010 17 92 5.4 0 1 15 15 0
Texas A&M 2011 22 128 5.8 1 2 23 11.5 0
Tulsa 2011 22 118 5.4 1 3 51 17 0
Baylor 2012 25 135 5.4 0 5 21 4.2 0
TCU 2012 15 44 2.9 1 1 7 7 0
Total 121 671 5.55 4 17 151 8.88 0
Joseph Randle Wash State 2010 11 35 3.2 0 1 7 7 0
Texas Tech 2010 17 95 5.6 1 3 44 14.7 0
Tulsa 2010 12 72 6.0 0 3 49 16.3 0
Texas A&M 2011 21 83 4.0 0 4 4 1.0 0
Tulsa 2011 25 128 5.1 3 1 9 9 0
Baylor 2012 23 139 6.0 0 4 23 5.8 0
TCU 2012 32 126 3.9 1 5 37 7.4 0
Total 141 678 4.81 5 21 173 8.23 0

What else can really be said about Zach Line’s college career? Over a sizable statistical sample spanning 3 college seasons Line noticeably outperformed on a yardage per touch basis a RB most analysts 1) believe is the better player of the two and 2) expect to be selected on the second day of the 2013 Draft. Randle is thought of as a good receiver out of the backfield, and Line also outperformed him on yardage per catch basis. As all of these player comparisons suggest, the extent to which Zach Line’s college production is being ignored is drastic, and, in the NFL, big runners with big college production have a way of turning into top-30 RBs—and I think that holds true even if the runner in question is called a FB.

But how does Line compare to someone who is already tearing up the NFL? In 2011, SMU and Boise State both played Tulsa and TCU. Boise State’s Doug Martin (the #2 fantasy RB in 2012) was featured against Tulsa, but he missed the TCU game due to injury. His backup, D.J. Harper, played well against TCU—a 24-125-2 performance that would have been lauded as spectacular by draft pundits if it had been submitted by Martin. How does Line compare to Martin and the Martin-esque Harper?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Tulsa 2011 22 118 5.4 1 3 51 17 0
TCU 2011 21 120 5.7 0 1 20 20 0
Total 43 238 5.53 1 4 71 17.75 0
Doug Martin Tulsa 2011 21 75 3.6 1 2 7 3.5 0
D.J. Harper TCU 2011 24 125 5.2 2 2 10 5 0
Total 45 200 4.44 3 4 17 4.25 0

Who knows how Martin would have done against TCU, but since the two best rushing games against TCU in 2011 were actually submitted by Line and Harper themselves (with Terrance Ganaway’s season-opener a close third), I think it is fair to say that Harper’s performance is representative of what Martin could have done. Regardless, Harper’s game on its own was quite impressive. And how did Line do against the RB to submit the best rookie performance since the days of LT and AD and against that guy’s awesome backup? You know the answer.

Line is not going to be a better NFL runner than Doug Martin. But does his comparative performance against Martin and every other top RB he’s run into suggest he could do well if given the chance? Yesch.

One more player comparison—this time to show that I have some objectivity and that I know what the SMU runner is not. In 2012, Line and Oklahoma’s Damien Williams had 4 opponents in common. NFL Draft Scout currently has Damien Williams, who is returning to OU for one last year, as the #2 RB prospect for the 2014 Draft. How does Line compare?

Player Opp Year Car RuYd RuAvg RuTD Rec ReYd ReAvg ReTD
Zach Line Baylor 2012 25 135 5.4 0 5 21 4.2 0
TCU 2012 15 44 2.9 1 1 7 7 0
Texas A&M 2012 16 104 6.5 0 5 35 7 0
Texas-El Paso 2012 25 84 3.4 0 2 12 6 0
Total 81 367 4.53 1 13 75 5.77 0
Damien Williams Baylor 2012 23 99 4.3 2 2 23 11.5 0
TCU 2012 18 115 6.4 1 4 39 9.8 1
Texas A&M 2012 16 41 2.6 0 5 19 3.8 0
Texas-El Paso 2012 10 103 10/3 1 0 0 0 0
Total 67 358 5.34 4 11 81 7.36 1

Against these shared opponents Line handled himself adequately, but not as well as Williams. Line is not a top-2 RB prospect for any draft class. He is a speculative RB, but the cost to speculate in him is almost nothing, the upside is sizable, and the odds of him producing usable fantasy seasons (based on how other devalued FBS-producing big RBs have done) are higher than almost anyone thinks. If he lands on an NFL roster, remember him, and don’t let the FB next to his name fool you. If he can do well as an undergrad compared to other top RBs, he can do well as a pro if put into a system that plays to his strengths, just as his college system did.

And here’s one more (non-statistical) reason to roster Line. Rooting for big RBs, especially undervalued ones like Line, is fun. Imagine how much fun the 2010 season would have been if Foster, Blount, and the Law Firm had all been on your fantasy roster. And rooting for FBs is even better—how great was Peyton Hillis’ breakout season?—or Le’Ron McClain’s?—or even Mike Tolbert’s? Zach Line did in college what those three never did. He’s the next big RB you want to root for. He is the next Mike Alstott.

He’s the real Tim Riggins, only if Riggins had actual NFL potential and size, never dropped out of college, went to SMU instead of the fictional San Antonio State, and wasn’t played by an actor from Canada. Don’t you want to have a fantasy reason to root for Tim Riggins? Texas Forever.

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