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The #1 Rookie Pick, the Alabama Backfield, and the Big Productive SEC RB

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Recently RotoViz released its 2013 Composite Rookie RB Rankings, and more composite rankings, such as Jon Moore’s Composite Rookie WR Rankings, will be released throughout the week in anticipation of the NFL Draft.

You may be unsurprised to learn that Eddie Lacy was the RotoViz composite #1 RB. Of the six rankers, four of us ranked him #1. Two didn’t. One of those dissenters, Shawn Siegele (who ranked Lacy #3), wrote two excellent articles here and here about what he perceives to be the RB’s overratedness. At the core of Shawn’s dislike for Lacy is (in addition to what he calls Lacy’s suspect athleticism) Lacy’s inability to dominate the touches and production of the Alabama backfield. As Shawn has pointed out, Lacy’s Rushing Dominator Rating is lower than those belonging to Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram, and even Glen Coffee.

Consequently, just as he did two years ago with Ingram, Shawn recommends avoiding Lacy as a fantasy option. In fact, Shawn goes so far as to say that “the best strategy is to draft Lacy and immediately flip him.” In his own personal Contrarian RB Rankings, Shawn thinks of Lacy as a fourth-round talent and the tenth-best RB of the 2013 Draft.

I understand Shawn’s perspective and also have reservations about Lacy, but I think that he will be drafted within the first two rounds by a team intending to make him its long-term starter—and if that happens, I believe he will produce multiple top-20 seasons within his first five years. Specifically, as I implied here, I think he’s a likely pick for the Rams in the first or second round, but regardless of the team that drafts him Lacy will be (I believe) no worse than Shonn Greene, and that dude’s been a top-20 fantasy rusher the last two seasons. If Greene can do it, I have to think that Lacy can do it too.

Why will Lacy be able to do it when Ingram hasn’t? Because even though they’re both Alabama backs Lacy is not like Ingram—he’s much bigger than Ingram. Rather, Lacy is like all the big SEC RBs who have preceded him, and those guys have done pretty well in the NFL. Here’s a table of the SEC RBs from 1998 to 2011 who 1) weighed at least 220 lbs. when entering the NFL, 2) recorded at least one 1000-yard rushing season in the SEC, and 3) were drafted within the first three rounds. This table shows the positional rankings for the first five NFL seasons of these ten runners, and since I want to know how Lacy is likely to do if made a starter, I provide positional rankings only for those seasons in which players started at least ten games.

Name Weight School Draft Year Round Pick Y1PR Y2PR Y3PR Y4PR Y5PR Avg PR Highest PR T20 Ys Total Ys T20%
Brown, Ronnie 233 Auburn 2005 1 2 23.00 25.00 Inj 16.00 Inj 21.33 16.00 1.00 3.00 0.33
Richardson, Trent 228 Alabama 2012 1 3 9.00 NA NA NA NA 9.00 9.00 1.00 1.00 1.00
Lewis, Jamal 240 Tennessee 2000 1 5 16.00 Inj 12.00 4.00 25.00 14.25 4.00 3.00 4.00 0.75
McAllister, Deuce 222 Miss 2001 1 23 NS 6.00 7.00 17.00 Inj 10.00 6.00 3.00 3.00 1.00
Johnson, J.J. 227 Miss St 1999 2 39 NS NS NS Out Out NA NA NA NA NA
Tate, Ben 220 Auburn 2010 2 58 Inj NS NS NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Henry, Travis 223 Tennessee 2001 2 58 28.00 8.00 11.00 Inj Inj 15.67 8.00 2.00 3.00 0.67
Hardesty, Montario 225 Tennessee 2010 2 59 Inj NS NS NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Ridley, Stevan 225 LSU 2011 3 73 NS 10.00 NA NA NA 10.00 10.00 1.00 2.00 0.50
Smith, Musa 232 Georgia 2003 3 77 NS NS NS NS NS NA NA NA NA NA
Avg 227.5 NA NA 1.8 39.7 19.00 12.25 10.00 12.33 25.00 13.38 8.83 1.83 2.67 0.69
Median 226 NA NA 2 48.5 19.50 9.00 11.00 16.00 25.00 12.13 8.50 1.50 3.00 0.50

The average pick with which these ten players were drafted is 39.7; the median pick, 48.5. Collectively, those numbers represent a likely range for the draft pick that will be used to acquire Lacy. As the table shows, when one of these players is made the workhorse for his team, he on average produces a low-end top-20 season as a rookie, and in years two through four he produces consistent top-15 seasons. His best season features a top-10 positional finish, and for roughly every three seasons he starts two will be top-20 performances. If Lacy is drafted in the top three rounds and earns the starting job, he is likely to be a top-20 performer. And if drafted in the first round, Lacy seems guaranteed to produce at least one top-20 finish. He would have to be historically bad (or injury inflicted) not to do so—and perhaps that is ultimately what Shawn would say, that Lacy will be historically bad.

After all, two of the RBs on this list of ten never became starters, despite the eight NFL seasons that they (Johnson and Smith) had between them. Additionally, Tate and Hardesty are yet to become starters after three NFL seasons each, even though they were both drafted to be workhorses—but, in their defense, they both missed their rookie seasons because of injuries. Potentially worrisome for Lacy is that, while 100% of the first-round RBs experience top-20 success, only 33% of the other RBs have done so. And yet this statistic does not strike me as particularly troubling, partially because Johnson finished as the #32 RB in his rookie year and Tate as the #28 RB in his second season and partially because the two non-first-round RBs (Henry and Ridley) to have top-20 success are the only two of the non-first-round subgroup to become season-long workhorses. In this entire cohort, being a starter is correlated with top-20 success and vice versa.

Thus, for Lacy, the question is this: Regardless of the exact round in which he is drafted (as long as he is drafted on Thursday or Friday—which he will be), will Lacy become an NFL starter? Barring injury, I think he will, and if he does history says that he will be at worst a low-end RB2 and at best a dependable RB1. I don’t know if that makes him worth the top-overall pick in rookie drafts, but in my mind that makes him better than merely the tenth-best rookie rusher.

And—if we must think about Lacy in the context of his Alabama predecessors—their position as the (presumed) top-overall selections in past rookie drafts (I think) actually speaks well for Lacy. If you drafted Richardson last year, you were rewarded with a season that was sometimes ugly, yes, but that also ended with a top-10 finish. And if you drafted Ingram in 2011, you obviously have not been happy with the return received to date on your investment, but considering the SEC first-round RB cohort of which Ingram is a member, you probably didn’t make a bad bet by selecting Ingram—you’ve just unfortunately gotten cosmically screwed up to this point, even though the odds are on your side. To quite the secretarial nerd in Old School: “It’s quite an anomaly.”

Here’s a table (similar to the last one) that shows the five-year NFL productivity of the SEC RBs from 1998 to 2011 who 1) weighed at least 210 lbs. when entering the NFL and 2) were drafted in the first round. Note that I once again provide positional rankings only for those seasons in which players started at least ten games.

Name Weight School Draft Year Round Pick Y1PR Y2PR Y3PR Y4PR Y5PR Avg PR Highest PR T20 Ys Total Ys T20%
Brown, Ronnie 233 Auburn 2005 1 2 23.00 25.00 Inj 16.00 Inj 21.33 16.00 1.00 3.00 0.33
Richardson, Trent 228 Alabama 2012 1 3 9.00 NA NA NA NA 9.00 9.00 1.00 1.00 1.00
Addai, Joseph 214 LSU 2006 1 3 NS 5.00 37.00 9.00 Inj 17.00 5.00 2.00 3.00 0.67
McFadden, Darren 211 Arkansas 2008 1 4 NS NS 6.00 NS 28.00 17.00 6.00 1.00 2.00 0.50
Lewis, Jamal 240 Tennessee 2000 1 5 16.00 Inj 12.00 4.00 25.00 14.25 4.00 3.00 4.00 0.75
Williams, Carnell 217 Auburn 2005 1 5 19.00 39.00 Inj Inj 27.00 28.33 19.00 1.00 3.00 0.33
Moreno, Knowshon 217 Georgia 2009 1 12 17.00 18.00 Inj Inj NA 17.50 17.00 2.00 2.00 1.00
Alexander, Shaun 218 Alabama 2000 1 19 NS 4.00 5.00 6.00 1.00 4.00 1.00 4.00 4.00 1.00
McAllister, Deuce 222 Miss 2001 1 23 NS 6.00 7.00 17.00 Inj 10.00 6.00 3.00 3.00 1.00
Ingram, Mark 215 Alabama 2011 1 28 NS NS NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Avg 221.5 NA NA 1 10.4 16.80 16.17 13.40 10.40 20.25 15.38 9.22 2.00 2.78 0.72
Median 217.5 NA NA 1 5 17.00 12.00 7.00 9.00 26.00 17.00 6.00 2.00 3.00 0.67

As you can see in the table, all ten of these runners except for Ingram have had at least one top-20 season, and, importantly, all of them except for Ingram had been their teams’ workhorse runners for at least one season. For the most part, what this table implies is not that Mark Ingram utterly sucks—although he could—but that he has not truly received his chance to be the workhorse, maybe because of the Payton’s offensive system, maybe because Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are too good not to receive a large share of touches, and maybe because the coaching staff simply realizes that he is not very good. The last option is certainly possible—but 1) Ingram’s inclusion in this cohort and 2) the cohort’s ability to produce collectively suggest that Ingram perhaps was not a horrible #1 pick in 2011 rookie drafts. Rather, he may just be a pick that, against all odds, hasn’t worked out.

And how does Lacy compare to Ingram and Richardson? If you look at Shawn’s great article on Lacy’s poor dominator rating, you’ll see this table:

Year Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds DR NFL YPC
Eddie Lacy 2012 204 1322 6.5 17 22 189 43.8% ???
Trent Richardson 2011 283 1679 5.9 21 29 338 60.8% 3.6
Mark Ingram 2009 271 1658 6.1 17 32 334 55.0% 3.9
Glen Coffee 2008 233 1383 5.9 10 16 118 44.6% 2.7

What this table will tell you is that Lacy, in his best year, did not dominate the Alabama ground game as thoroughly as Coffee, Ingram, and Richardson did in their best years, and (as Shawn put it in an email) he thinks that “the Alabama coaches favoring Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon is a bad sign.” Perhaps, but maybe it’s also just a sign that those two other RBs are pretty good and deserved lots of carries.

You’ll notice that in Shawn’s table the 2010 season is omitted, since it wasn’t the best year for either Ingram or Richardson. Intriguingly, though, 2010 was the only year in which Ingram (Jr), Richardson (So), and Lacy (Fr) were all at Alabama. Additionally, both Ingram and Richardson missed some games that season due to injury, so Lacy at times received carries and served as the primary backup. As I mention in my piece on Knile Davis, the 2010 SEC season witnessed one of the greatest conference-wide displays of rushing prowess any conference has ever seen, as not only Cam Newton but also Mark Ingran, Trent Richardson, Marcus Lattimore, Knile Davis, Michael Dyer, Stevan Ridley, Vick Ballard, Brandon Bolden, and Tauren Poole all contributed significantly to their teams’ rushing success. Hidden among these performers in 2010 and buried deep on the Alabama bench was the freshman Eddie Lacy. How did he do in 2010?

Although he received touches in only seven of Alabama’s thirteen games, when he touched the ball he did very well. I’m not a tape-grinder, so I don’t know if Lacy was playing entirely against third-string defenses when he entered games. I don’t know if he received the ball in gimmicky ways that made him seem better than he actually was. All I know is that the statistics suggest that he was great—and better than Ingram and Richardson.

During the 2010 season Ingram and Lacy shared carries in five games, two of them with Lacy serving directly as the backup, since Richardson was injured. Here’s a table comparing their relative performances:

Mark Ingram
Opponent Att RuYds RuAvg RuTDs Rec ReYds ReAvg ReTDs
Duke 9.00 151.00 16.80 2.00
Florida 12.00 47.00 3.90 2.00 3.00 19.00 6.30
Mississippi State 18.00 53.00 2.90 2.00 77.00 38.50 1.00
Georgia State 12.00 86.00 7.20 1.00 1.00 16.00 16.00
Michigan State 12.00 59.00 4.90 2.00 1.00 30.00 30.00
Totals 63.00 396.00 6.29 7.00 7.00 142.00 20.29 1.00
Per Game 12.60 79.20 6.29 1.40 1.40 28.40 20.29 0.20
Eddie Lacy
Opponent Att RuYds RuAvg RuTDs Rec ReYds ReAvg ReTDs
Duke 7.00 52.00 7.40 1.00 1.00 15.00 15.00
Florida 4.00 20.00 5.00
Mississippi State 8.00 35.00 4.40
Georgia State 13.00 81.00 6.20 1.00
Michigan State 5.00 86.00 17.20 2.00
Totals 37.00 274.00 7.41 4.00 1.00 15.00 15.00
Per Game 7.40 54.80 7.41 0.80 0.20 3.00 15.00

Averaging more than half of Ingram’s carries, 7.4 carries per game (a number large enough not to be discredited), Lacy rumbled for an average of 7.4 yards per carry (compared to Ingram’s 6.3 ypc) in these shared contests against two teams from the SEC, one from the ACC, one from the Big Ten, and one not in an FBS conference. In other words, for 80% of these games Lacy wasn’t playing against weak competition. In fact, if one removes from consideration the game against Georgia State, Lacy’s rushing average and TD per carry rate (already over 10%) both improve. Granted, Lacy fails to catch the ball with Ingram’s frequency but, in this comparison, as the second back in what roughly looks like a 60-40 timeshare Lacy not only does as well as the lead back, but as a runner he does better.

And how does Lacy compare to Richardson? In 2010 they shared carries in five games, two of them with Lacy serving directly as the backup to Richardson, since Ingram was injured. Here’s a table comparing their relative performances:

Trent Richardson
Opponent Att RuYds RuAvg RuTDs Rec ReYds ReAvg ReTDs
San Jose State 10.00 66.00 6.60 2.00 3.00 46.00 15.30
Penn State 22.00 144.00 6.50 1.00 4.00 46.00 11.50
Duke 7.00 61.00 8.70 1.00 1.00 9.00 9.00
Florida 10.00 63.00 6.30
Michigan State 10.00 42.00 4.20 1.00 1.00 12.00 12.00
Totals 59.00 376.00 6.37 5.00 9.00 113.00 12.56
Per Game 11.80 75.20 6.37 1.00 1.80 22.60 12.56
Eddie Lacy
Opponent Att RuYds RuAvg RuTDs Rec ReYds ReAvg ReTDs
San Jose State 13.00 111.00 8.50 2.00 1.00 3.00 3.00
Penn State 6.00 21.00 3.50
Duke 7.00 52.00 7.40 1.00 1.00 15.00 15.00
Florida 4.00 20.00 5.00
Michigan State 5.00 86.00 17.20 2.00
Totals 35.00 290.00 8.29 5.00 2.00 18.00 9.00
Per Game 7.00 58.00 8.29 1.00 0.40 3.60 9.00

Again, Lacy looks good compared to the guy ahead of him on the depth chart. With an average of 7 carries per game, Lacy marched all over San Jose State, Penn State, Duke, Florida, and Michigan State to the tune of 8.3 yards per carry (compared to Richardson’s 6.4). Again, Lacy played 80% of these shared games against teams from AQ conferences. And with almost 5 fewer carries per game, Lacy still managed to put up the same number of rushing scores (5 TDs), turning every carry into a TD an outrageous 14.29% of the time. Once again, Lacy doesn’t catch the ball often, but in this comparison of two backs who seem to be in a 60-40 timeshare Lacy is the more efficient back per carry.

The results of these comparisons do not mean that Lacy was actually the best RB on the Alabama roster in 2010—and he wasn’t truly in a 60-40 timeshare with either Ingram or Richardson, since all three backs received carries in three of Lacy’s seven sample games—but these comparisons do suggest that, as a mere freshman, Lacy was similar to the guy who won the Heisman the year before and the guy who would place third in Heisman voting the following year.

Lacy may not be fast, but he is big, productive, from the SEC, likely to be chosen within the first three rounds, and likely to become his future team’s workhorse back within his first two years—and all of that means that, at worst, he should be a useful player. Additionally, he compares favorably to (or is at least in the same league as) Ingram and Richardson, and even with Ingram’s failure to produce so far in the NFL those are two guys to whom lots of RBs would want to be compared.

Does all of this mean that he should be the top overall pick in 2013 rookie drafts, even if he isn’t the top RB chosen in the NFL Draft? That depends on what you value. If you value a guy with (I believe) the highest likelihood of top-20 positional success out of all the rookie RBs, then, yeah, he’s the pick. If, however, you want to roll dem bones with the #1 pick and draft for upside, then Christine Michael, as Shawn has suggested here and here, is probably your guy—but, depending on his draft position, he has a lower probability of achieving top-20 positional success. In other words, despite his higher upside, Michael could easily fail in the NFL due to his Titus-Youngian “uncoachability” (remember, confrontational second-round players are expendable), and in that scenario a #1 pick spent on Michael will seem imprudent—especially when Lacy’s college production translates to NFL success.

And, besides, I’m not even sure that Michael actually has the higher upside. He is certainly more athletic, but, even as Shawn would admit, athleticism is not equivalent to NFL upside. What is Lacy’s upside? Here’s a five-year productivity table (similar to the first two) that gestures toward what Lacy can accomplish in the NFL. The players in this cohort are SEC RBs from 1998 to 2011 who 1) weighed at least 220 lbs. when entering the NFL and 2) recorded at least one collegiate season in the SEC of 1500 scrimmage yards (of which at least 1175 are rushing yards). That’s it. No stipulations on the rounds in which the players were taken. All I want to see is how big and very productive SEC RBs have done in the NFL as starters. Note that, for the calculations, I consider Arian Foster to have been drafted in “Round 8” with “Pick 254,” the hypothetical pick after the last pick of his draft.

Name Weight School Draft Year Round Pick Y1PR Y2PR Y3PR Y4PR Y5PR Avg PR Highest PR T20 Ys Total Ys T20%
Richardson, Trent 228 Alabama 2012 1.00 3.00 9.00 NA NA NA NA 9.00 9.00 1.00 1.00 1.00
Lewis, Jamal 240 Tennessee 2000 1.00 5.00 16.00 Inj 12.00 4.00 25.00 14.25 4.00 3.00 4.00 0.75
Hardesty, Montario 225 Tennessee 2010 2.00 59.00 Inj NS NS NA NA NA NA NA
Pinner, Artose 229 Kentucky 2003 4.00 99.00 NS NS NS NS NS NA NA NA NA NA
Johnson, Rudi 227 Auburn 2001 4.00 100.00 NS NS NS 8.00 7.00 7.50 7.00 2.00 2.00 1.00
Dixon, Anthony 233 Miss St 2010 6.00 173.00 NS NS NS NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Foster, Arian 226 Tennessee 2009 8.00 257.00 NS 1.00 4.00 3.00 NA 2.67 1.00 3.00 3.00 1.00
Avg 229.7143 NA NA 3.71 99.43 12.50 1.00 8.00 5.00 16.00 8.35 5.25 1.80 2.00 0.90
Median 228 NA NA 4.00 99.00 12.50 1.00 8.00 4.00 16.00 8.25 5.50 2.00 2.00 1.00

In this diverse assemblage of runners, spanning the spectrum from the third overall pick to the undrafted dregs, the average (and median) pick with which these seven players were drafted is 99. And of the four players in the cohort to achieve success, two were drafted before #99, and two were drafted below. In other words, the pick with which one of these players was drafted, while still a factor, was not a primary determinant of success. And what exactly does this table say? When one of these players is made the workhorse for his team, he on average produces a low-end RB1 season as a rookie, and in years two through four he produces consistent high-end RB1 seasons. His best season features a top-6 positional finish, and for roughly every five seasons he starts four-and-a-half will be top-20 performances. In fact, every guy in this cohort who becomes a workhorse experiences at least one top-10 season, and upon entering the NFL with his 1511 scrimmage yards, 1322 rushing yards, and 231-lb body Eddie Lacy will be in this cohort.

And so, once again, the question regarding Lacy is this: Will he become an NFL starter? Barring a Hardestyian injury, I think so, and if he does he’s likely to become much more than just a starter. At some point, he’ll likely be a top-ten rusher—and, to me, a likely top-ten rusher is worth a top overall pick.

If you think that Lacy is basically the Alabama, first-round over-drafted version of Anthony Dixon, then you would be smart not to draft him with the #1 pick. If, however, you think that he’s the first-round version of Rudi Johnson, who ran only a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine and had an Agility Score of only 11.54—or if you think he’s a version of Arian Foster, who ran an ugly 4.69 40-yard dash at his pro day and had a meager Agility Score of 11.62 (not far from Ingram’s 11.75)—then you’ll probably want to use the #1 pick on him if you have it.

Yes, Lacy’s “pro day” was horrible. At best, he ran a 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, but some reports have him at 4.64. Additionally, his NFL Draft Scout profile says that he ran his 3-cone drill in 7.33 seconds, which, when combined with the 4.58 short shuttle attributed to him on his Rotoworld profile, yields a horrible Agility Score of 11.91. These numbers are bad, but let’s remember that 1) Lacy was nursing an injury throughout most of the draft process and so he (apparently) did not have sufficient time to train, 2) all the big, productive, and unathletic SEC runners to earn starting jobs have experienced NFL success, and 3) Lacy’s expected draft position and size suggest that he will earn a starting job. Even if you don’t buy the first point, the second and third points still apply.

In sum, Eddie Lacy is a big productive SEC RB—an Alabama one at that—and those guys have consistently enjoyed top-10 success when they are made NFL workhorses. I think Eddie Lacy will be an NFL workhorse and consequently have top-10 success. As a result, I think he deserves the #1 overall pick. Shawn thinks differently. In the end, the people who hold the #1 picks will be the arbiters.

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