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Flying Through the 2013 Draft Picks – Running Back Edition


This is the time of the NFL draft season that is made for digging in your heels, blaming NFL teams for getting things wrong, and generally just refusing to move off of your original evaluation. If it sounds like I’m trying to make the NFL draft pundit class (of which I consider myself to be an F-list level member) sound stupid, I’m not. All manner of pundits refuse to update their beliefs in the face of new information. But while the idea of sticking to your guns and holding out your lone wolf position on a player might seem badass, the reality is that we should probably all take more outside information into account when we form opinions. As this idea relates to running backs and the NFL draft, here are two facts that should inform your expectations going forward:

  1. NFL draft pick number is decently correlated with running back fantasy points per game. The r-squared is over .30 which might seem small for anyone used to creating models that aren’t predicting the future. For anyone familiar with creating models that attempt to predict the future in the NFL, getting that much prediction power out of a single variable is rare.
  2. NFL draft pick doesn’t explain any amount of fantasy points per touch.

Predicting running back success is an opportunity based game. To illustrate this idea, consider the following two similar mystery running backs and their divergent results:

  WT 40 Time G Rushes Yds TD Y/A Rec Yds Y/R TD FP FP/Touch FP/G
Mystery Back #1 187 4.47 16 50 267 0 5.3 59 520 8.8 2 149.7 1.37 9.36
Mystery Back #2 187 4.47 16 87 603 2 6.9 86 710 8.3 7 271.3 1.57 16.96

Ok, fine, there aren’t actually two mystery backs in that table. It’s just one guy. MB #1 is Darren Sproles in his last year in San Diego and MB#2 is Sproles in his first year in New Orleans. The biggest thing that changed was the number of touches he saw per game. Talking about running back production as if it is simply a function of running back skill is typically a total failure. That idea informs a lot of my thinking about running backs. I still generally try to pursue a strategy that focuses on finding guys with good weight/speed combos, but there are so many exceptions to the Speed Score at this point that it really should just be one of a number of things being considered. This post will be my first attempt at updating my thinking on the running backs class, so I’m going to blow through my thoughts on the draft and also provide some links to articles that are weighing in my thinking.

Rnd Pick Player Tm College/Univ Article Links Comments
2 37 Giovani Bernard CIN North Carolina Comparing Bernard to Kerwynn WilliamsAgility Scores, Gio Bernard and Kendall Hunter The Bengals have made a massive number of upgrades to their offense in recent years starting with drafting AJ Green and Dalton, and then continuing last year with Sanu and Marvin Jones. They kept at it this year by taking Tyler Eifert in the first round and following that up with Bernard in the 2nd round. Given that Bernard is probably one of the more accomplished receivers among RBs in recent drafts, I like what CIN is doing in general. Bernard isn’t the most impressive physical specimen, but the good news is that the other guys competing for touches in CIN aren’t either. I’m not a huge fan of the real draft pick, while I think that Bernard could be a decent fantasy option.
2 48 Le’Veon Bell PIT Michigan St. Updated Agility Index RankingsComparing Le’Veon Bell to Doug Martin This was probably the pick that made people sit up in their chair and move Bell up in their dynasty rankings. Shawn Siegele had been pointing out Bell’s upside for some time, but it took the Steelers’ selection of Bell for the rest of the world to come around. I think maybe the negative case for Bell would be that the Steelers already have some bigger RBs that run similar 40 times to Bell (Dwyer for instance). But I think the other side of the coin, and frankly the one I would favor at this point, is that the Steelers drafted an every down back and that’s worth quite a bit in fantasy football. Bell is a much more accomplished receiver than Dwyer was coming out of college and Dwyer hasn’t really improved on his receiving resume in the time he’s been in the NFL.
2 58 Montee Ball DEN Wisconsin Comparing Montee Ball to Evan Royster This seemed like a wasted draft pick to me. I sort of doubt that Ball will become a trendy pick in either dynasty or re-draft formats, which may mean that he will accrue some contrarian value… but it’s just really tough to get excited about Ball at all due to his underwhelming lack of athleticism. If I felt like he was a clear cut starter in Denver, then I might feel differently, but to me it seems like Denver just drafted another body.. and used a valuable draft pick to do it. He seems about as talented as the other not-super-talented guys they already have.
2 61 Eddie Lacy GNB Alabama Eddie Lacy and the Big SEC Running BackExplosion Index RankingsEddie Lacy, Mark Ingram and InsanityEddie Lacy Comparables This is a really interesting one to me because Christine Michael came off the board one pick later and Michael is light years ahead of Lacy on physical talent. But I also don’t think that Lacy’s physical talents preclude him from being a decent running back. I do, however, think it’s tough to say “all aboard” the Lacy bandwagon given that the Packers drafted another RB in the 4th round that many considered one of the top guys in this class. Also, just the strategy of taking two RBs in the same class implies that the Packers aren’t 100% sure that they necessarily got the right guy in Lacy (see the Patriots draft in which they took both Vereen and Ridley). Perhaps the value move in dynasty formats would be to let someone else take Lacy and then get Franklin for a fraction of the cost. I’m sure as a writing staff, the RotoViz guys will be sure to explore this possibility.
2 62 Christine Michael SEA Texas A&M Agility Scores, Christine Michael and Matt Forte I hated this pick not so much because I thought it was a bad pick for SEA (even though I kind of did think it was a bad pick). I hated it because it essentially killed the value for two guys I really like in Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. SEA seems to be intent on loading up on big/fast—ish RBs which is a good strategy I think, except that at a certain point it seems like you can have almost too many of them. People might say that they don’t have any other needs, but I would respectfully offer that they could use more WRs that are true red-zone threats.
3 96 Knile Davis KAN Arkansas The #2 RB in this Draft ClassKnile Davis Comparables Davis might actually be a sneakier pick in dynasty formats. It’s not like the Chiefs have a bunch of talent at RB after Jamaal Charles and Charles is going to be 27 this year. From a real draft standpoint, the Chiefs could have gotten Latavius Murray a few rounds later, but I guess that comment is starting to be universal for me as it relates to drafting NFL running backs. The odd thing to me about the Chiefs selection of Davis is that he doesn’t fit the same mold of RB that Andy Reid has traditionally pursued. I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that this seems like a strategy shift away from LeSean McCoy/Brian Westbrook-type RBs. When a person establishes a pattern of behavior over a long time frame like Reid has, you have to be a little skeptical when they deviate from it because they could always return to what they were doing before. That’s another way of saying that there’s a decent chance that Reid eventually remembers why he likes to draft McCoy/Westbrook types.
4 125 Johnathan Franklin GNB UCLA Draftable RB Profiles, Johnathan Franklin and Shane Vereen One interesting thing about projecting college running backs to the NFL is that career college rushing yards has a higher correlation with NFL yards/carry than does college yards/carry. Guess which Packers rookie RB has more career rushing yards between Franklin and Lacy?  Franklin does. He has almost double the career rushing yards of Lacy and a good number of more receptions as well. I think people that draft Lacy as if Franklin doesn’t exist will be disappointed.
4 131 Marcus Lattimore SFO South Carolina A Theory on Marcus Lattimore’s Rookie Season I really have no comments here as I don’t have any unique knowledge about Lattimore’s situation. The relevant info is all medical and I don’t have any access to his medical records.
5 140 Stepfan Taylor ARI Stanford Taylor is DFL When it Comes to Physical Measures in this Class I love that Arizona somehow managed to draft both a bigger back with a bad Speed Score and a small running back with a bad Speed Score. That’s called diversity.
5 151 Joseph Randle DAL Oklahoma St. Randle is Super-Average on the Explosion Index Dallas has a hard enough time providing fantasy value to RBs when the RB actually has decent physical measurables. I can’t imagine what the situation would be with an underwhelming physical profile and underwhelming college production. Dallas should have traded this pick for a guy who could clean Jerry Jones’ glasses. That seems like an infinitely more valuable use of resources. By the way, the selection of Randle has me firmly committed to go back and look at draft reaches to see if there’s a geographic bias involved.
5 154 Chris Thompson WAS Florida St.   Any value that Thompson might have in WAS has to be marginal. It just seems like they have enough guys in front of him that you have to really stretch to assign fantasy value to him at any point in the semi-near future.
5 160 Zac Stacy STL Vanderbilt See Matthew Freedman’s Rams Backfield Series This seems like a pretty screaming bargain for STL here. They don’t really have an incumbent RB on the team that fits the mold of an NFL starter. As Matthew Freedman has argued, Terrance Ganaway might be the closest thing and he’s not a perfect fit. If you offered me the combo of Ganaway and Stacy or Richardson/Pead, I think I would rather have Ganaway and Stacy. Potential arbitrage opportunity there.
5 164 Mike Gillislee MIA Florida Mike Gillislee and Scouting Error The Dolphins already have an underwhelming athlete on the roster in Daniel Thomas. Move along, nothing to see here.
6 181 Latavius Murray OAK Central Florida The Can’t Go Wrong Running Back Prospect We’ve officially reached the “Don’t listen to anything I say about Latavius Murray” portion of draft season. I’m just impossibly biased in his favor and that makes every additional piece of information only more likely to confirm my original stance.. but.. I kind of like this landing spot for him. Who else do the Raiders have behind McFadden now? If fantasy points come from a mix of talent and opportunity, Murray has more of each than your typical 6th round pick.
6 182 Kenjon Barner CAR Oregon Agility Scores, Kenjon Barner and Darren Sproles Barner’s upside isn’t probably in the RB1 range and he doesn’t have immediate opportunity either.
6 187 Andre Ellington ARI Clemson The Problem with Andre Ellington See above comment on Arizona. I will say that I have some room to be wrong on Ellington given that he was recovering from injury when he ran his 40. As a 6th round pick you wouldn’t expect very much out of Ellington either. Of course.. as an RB playing behind Rashard Mendenhall and Stepfan Taylor, you actually would expect something out of Ellington.
6 189 Mike James TAM Miami (FL)    
6 190 Rex Burkhead CIN Nebraska Rex Burkhead’s Head Scratching Workout Numbers It’s not that I think that Burkhead couldn’t have had value in fantasy if he had gone to a different team for instance, it’s just that in this specific situation he doesn’t seem likely to have value. The Bengals drafted the 1st RB off the board in this draft and also have a few guys on the roster that are either incumbents (BJGE) or have experience as NFL backups (Cedric Peerman and Bernard Scott). So Burkhead’s value for now seems like it’s beyond “flier” level.
6 194 Spencer Ware SEA LSU The Pre-draft Composite RB Rankings Seattle continued their quest to corner the market on oversized running backs. I hope this works out better for them than cornering the frozen orange juice futures market worked out for the Dukes. What else is there to say about Ware? You can’t predict usage for him, so it’s basically just a wait and see type of thing.
6 199 Theo Riddick DET Notre Dame    
7 228 Jawan Jamison WAS Rutgers Montel Harris, Jawan Jamison and Big East Running Backs Dear Mike Shanahan: Just because you can make productive running backs out of slow-ish prospects doesn’t mean you should be using draft picks to acquire them.
7 230 Kerwynn Williams IND Utah St. Running Back Arbitrage – Kerwynn Williams and Giovani Bernard I’ve argued that Williams is probably a cheaper version of Gio Bernard. How much cheaper? One of them was the first RB off the board while the other almost made it to UDFA-land. The interesting thing is that they might actually be in similar usage situations. IND doesn’t really have an incumbent RB that is good in the pass game (Ballard and Donald Brown combined for fewer than 30 receptions). I’m not saying that Williams will have value for sure, but I’ll probably take a harder look and see if I can talk myself into believing that there’s an opportunity there.
7 253 Michael Cox NYG Massachusetts    

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