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The Rams Backfield (Part 4): Isaiah Pead, the Next Tatum Bell?

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In Part 1 of this (lengthy) analysis of the Rams backfield, I suggested that Terrance Ganaway can become the most valuable member of the Rams backfield in 2013 and beyond . . . if he manages to stick on a roster in his second year.

In Part 2, I looked at Daryl Richardson’s prospects through an analysis of prior non-FBS RBs to enjoy top-30 seasons in the NFL, and I noted that Richardson did not have the collegiate production or physical attributes generally associated with the top-30 non-FBS cohort.

In Part 3, I looked at Richardson’s prospects through a consideration of the careers of prior rookies who either shared some of his physical attributes or produced first-year seasons similar to his, and I noted that Richardson’s status as a seventh-round selection, especially when combined with his small size, does not speak well for his future.

Specifically, I said this: “If one thinks that Richardson will be a top-30 RB in 2013, one basically believes that an RB who weighed less than 200 lbs. as a rookie will receive about 200 carries or more in his second year. A search turns up only two such RBs since 2000—and you know who they are: Chris Johnson and Ray Rice, both of whom were selected on the first day of the 2008 Draft. [. . .] Since 2000, NFL teams have not trusted a ‘small’ second-year RB to log 200 carries unless they were ready to make him a fulltime workhorse and trust him with 300 carries. In effect, small RBs have not recently become bona fide lead backs unless they possessed not top-30 potential but top-3 potential.” Here is where I would like to begin Part 4, a consideration of Pead’s prospects vis-à-vis his draft position, his performance as a rookie, and Jeff Fisher’s RB-usage patterns as a head coach.

Like Richardson, Pead is faced with the question of his size. At 197 lbs, can Pead carry a full workload? If made the starter, Pead would be following in Johnson and Rice’s exceptional footsteps as a smaller back to log more than 200 carries in his second season. Although he received brief comparisons to both Johnson and Rice before he was drafted, Pead is neither. Slower than Johnson, lighter than Rice, and lacking the tenacity of both, Pead is talented, but not exceptional. He had fantastic production at the University of Cincinatti, gaining 1000 yards from scrimmage in his three final years and rushing for over a 1000 yards in his last two. Still, Pead is not as athletically gifted as he should be if he wants to join the 200-200 club. For instance, here is a comparison between Pead and two other RBs taken in the 2012 Draft.

Name Year Ht Wt 40T Bench Explosion Agility Speed Score
Isaiah Pead 2012 5-10 197 4.47 DNP 149 11.27 98.69
Doug Martin 2012 5-9 223 4.51 28 156 10.97 107.80
LaMichael

James

2012 5-8 194 4.35 15 158 11.0 108.36

For as slow as he is, Pead should be significantly bigger; for as small as he is, faster. Lacking the speed and agility necessary to function as a starter at his size, Pead will need to add weight to become a viable starting option. And, as with Richardson, even that may not be enough.

In this article in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jeff Fisher is quoted as saying this about Pead: “He just didn’t get a chance because of the other two.” Well, that’s not exactly true. Last year, he did get a chance, in training camp, to keep his backup job, which his draft position alone should have all but secured, and Pead failed. Additionally, one “of the other two,” the seventh-rounder who stole his job, is still in St. Louis. What has changed this year in the dynamic between Pead and Richardson that would make one think that now Pead is ready to outperform the guy who last year outplayed him? Fisher says that Pead will “get his opportunity this year.” Yes, this year, Pead will once again have the opportunity to follow Richardson on the depth chart—this time, as the backup.

In his 16 years as the head coach of the Oilers and Titans, Fisher had 14 rookie RBs on his roster. This is a guy who invests actively in RBs through the draft and turns the position over, especially when he is 1) searching for his next long-term stud back or 2) maintaining the depth chart behind the starter. The result of Fisher’s constant drafting of RBs is the devaluation of rushers already on his roster. As more RBs inevitably come in, Pead’s value will diminish. He is the worst kind of asset—an aging, non-producing one with a short shelf-life.

In a Fisher backfield, if a rookie does not come in and produce an RB1-caliber season immediately, he does not become the long-term lead RB. Additionally only (and all of) those non-starting rookies who received more than 50 carries went on to start in subsequent seasons. Here is a table of all the rookie RBs Fisher drafted or rostered into the regular season with the Oilers and Titans. The table is ordered according to rookie rushing attempts. (This information is from www.pro-football-reference.com.)

Name Rookie Year Draft Status Att RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD Y1 Rank Y2 Rank Y3 Rank
Eddie George 1996 1.14 335 1368 8 7 44 1 8 12 11
Rodney Thomas 1995 3.89 251 947 5 39 204 2 18 71 51
Chris Johnson 2008 1.24 251 1228 9 43 260 1 11 1 5
LenDale White 2006 2.45 61 244 0 14 60 0 66 15 19
Chris Brown 2003 3.93 56 221 0 8 61 0 76 24 20
Jarrett Payton 2005 Undr 33 105 2 6 30 0 83
Chris J. Henry 2007 2.50 31 119 2 6 53 0 76 154
Javon Ringer 2009 5.173 8 48 0 0 0 0 123 65 68
Troy Fleming 2004 6.191 7 40 0 19 164 2 75 96
Damien Nash 2005 5.142 6 32 0 3 14 0 124 98
Mike Archie 1996 7.218
Mike Green 2000 7.213 82 86
Dan Alexander 2000 6.192
Quinton Ganther 2006 7.246 103

In this table some clear patterns emerge. For Fisher, two kinds of RBs exist: first-rounders and then everyone else. He likes rookie RBs who make an immediate impact in their given roles, either as starters or as backups. Third-rounder Rodney Thomas was given the starting job in 1995 and did not produce an RB1 season. He was thus replaced in 1996 by first-rounder Eddie George, who finished as a top-ten rusher. For years, the starting job was his. The same happened with Chris Johnson—he came in as a rookie and produced an RB1 season, and the starting gig was permanently his. Historically, if a Fisher rookie RB does not perform as an RB1 right away—and the only guys to do that are first-rounders—then the best he can realistically hope to achieve is “stop-gap status” as a starter while Fisher continues to look for his future long-term RB.

And to become a stop-gap, a non-starting rookie historically has to finish year one with at least 50 carries—and all Fisher rookies to finish with 50 carries have becomes starters in year two. Finally, those who don’t reach the requisite 50 rookie carries never have a top-30 season at all.

What does all of this mean for the stable of second-year Rams runners and for Pead in particular? Here is a table of the 2012 St. Louis rookie RBs, also ordered by first-year rushing attempts.

Name Rookie Year Draft Status Att RuYd RuTD Rec ReYd ReTD Y1 Rank Y2 Rank Y3 Rank
Daryl Richardson 2012 7.252 98 475 0 24 163 0 52
Isaiah Pead 2012 2.50 10 54 0 3 16 0 132
Terrance Ganaway 2012 6.202

In comparison to the Oilers-Titans table, the relative positions of these RBs are clear. Richardson, like LenDale White and Chris Brown before him, is in line to become the future starter. He received well over 50 carries—in fact, he received the most carries ever for a non-starting Fisher rookie. Ganaway (although I think he has potential) is in line to accomplish little. And Pead is like Chris J. Henry, who was also was selected with pick 2.50—a highly-drafted rookie for whom Fisher found little use. In general, Henry’s career does speak well for Pead’s prospects. In other words, Pead is not the first second-round RB to fail Fisher as a rookie, and the head coach has shown that he has no problem simply drafting another RB and continuing the search for the next starter.

While Fisher’s second-day selections typically don’t receive many carries, Pead wasn’t treated even as a typical second- or third-rounder. Rather, Pead was treated most like Javon Ringer, the fifth-round third-string rookie drafted in 2009. Like Pead, Ringer had a stellar college career and on less than one carry per game featured a high rushing average as a rookie. Like Ringer, Pead will likely be rewarded for his limited first-year work with a second-year promotion—to backup.

Even for the stop-gap starters, the most they can reasonably hope for are one or two seasons of top-30 productivity before being replaced by either the next stud RB or the next stop-gap. Based on his rookie production, Pead is likely to become, at best, a stop-gap starter—and, as the tables above indicate—not even that is likely.

Effectively, the Pead-Richardson scenario is similar to the White-Ganther situation in 2006. Both were picked in the same draft despite having overlapping skillsets, one in the second round and the other in the seventh, separated by over 200 selections. As rookies, one became the backup and the other became bench depth. The main difference with Pead and Richardson is that, this time, the seventh-rounder came out on top. In year two, White became the starter and Ganther once again was bench depth. Pead is unlikely to be mere depth—but he is equally unlikely to be the starter. Based on how Jeff Fisher has historically used his RBs, Pead will produce a top-30 season only if either 1) Richardson suffers an injury or a massive slippage in production and is replaced or 2) Pead finds a spot with another team. On the Rams, Pead is unlikely to produce as a significant starter.

If, however, Pead somehow does get the chance to start, top-30 success is highly likely. From 2000 to 2012, 30 RBs have been selected in the second round, and (if one were to look at this screener and then at the player profiles for those RBs who became starters, then one would see that) out of the 14 who started the majority of the games in at least one season, all of them produced at least one top-30 season. Being a second-rounder does not mean Pead will become a starter or have a usable fantasy season—but becoming a second-round starter sure would place Pead in some promising company.

Additionally, Joey Cartolano for Pro Football Focus highlights Pead in this article as a player to watch for 2013, noting that “Pead forced four missed tackles on just 10 rookie carries.” Although he touched the ball little, when he did carry the rock Pead made people miss. If he carries the ball 100 times in 2013 he won’t force 40 missed tackles, but his Elusive Rating of 101.5 as a rookie indicates the talent he has.

 

If Pead wins the starting gig, he could be one of the most undervalued fantasy players of 2013. And, yet, with Fisher as his coach, that “if” is a fraught hypothetical. In all probability, Fisher will not make Pead the starter. He didn’t trust him last year—and not enough has changed from last year to this year.

In the end, for Pead the question comes back to his size. He is not built like a starter. Since 2000, only two RBs entering the NFL under 200 lbs. have been selected in the second round as RBs (sorry, Dexter McCluster—and Chiefs fans). According to this screener, they are Ray Rice and Tatum Bell. Unless he puts on 15 lbs of muscle in the offseason, Pead should not be compared to Rice. No, he is much more like Bell, and his realistic best outcome is to be to Fisher what Bell was to Mike Shanahan in Denver—a highly-drafted small RB capable of producing a couple of barely usable seasons while his coach looks for better talent.

The third-string RB as a rookie, Bell delivered a top-30 season in his second year as the backup and oft-used change-of-pace option to Mike Andersoon, finishing with 921 rushing yards and 8 TDs on 173 carries for a 5.3 average. In his third year, he was the starter and barely missed another top-30 season as he rushed for 1025 yards but only 2 TDs. And in his fourth year—he was out of Denver, never to hit the top 30 again, and after his fifth year he was out of the league. Yes, with a reasonable amount of luck, this guy is who Pead will become—his fantasy teams hope. Remember, at least Bell had one top-30 year—but does that production really excite you?

If anything, the comparison between Pead and Bell suggests something I’ve been dancing around and will explore thoroughly in a later article—in his usage of RBs, Jeff Fisher is very much like Mike Shanahan, except his Terrell Davis never got injured and he never traded away his Clinton Portis. In 2012, after years of searching, Shanahan ostensibly found his next stud RB.

Fisher still needs to find his.

The aforementioned article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch closes with Fisher addressing the St. Louis RB position in general: “We’ll fill the position [. . .] when and how I don’t know.” In the next article in this series, I’ll explain why Fisher will likely continue the search for his future starter by selecting another RB in the 2013 Draft.

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