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Why I Hate Chris Thompson: Small RBs are the Worst

Chris Thompson

Why I Hate Chris Thompson: Small RBs Are the Worst

I’ve always sensed that I don’t want to bet against RotoViz’s Davis Mattek and Shawn Siegele, but when they both (first Davis and then Shawn) lauded Chris Thompson as a legit NFL prospect, I first mocked and then decided I needed to find out for myself if they were right.

Davis started talking about Chris Thompson even before the NFL Draft. The week before the draft, the RotoViz staff released our Composite Rookie RB Rankings (check them out; they’re still very informative), and Davis’ rankings were, to quote him, “about as contrarian as it gets.”

Specifically, Davis tended to rank small runners higher than anyone else on staff did. (And I noted that Davis and I were basically opposites.) He was the highest ranker on Andre Ellington, ranking him #7 overall (I was the only guy not to rank Ellington, because I don’t like small rushers). While four of the five other rankers left Dennis Johnson off their lists entirely (and Shawn gave him the lowest rank possible, #20), Mattek ranked Johnson #10 overall. Davis was the only guy to have Jawan Jamison and Theo Riddick on his list, ranking them #13 and #18.

And, even with all of these contrarian ranks, the guy with whom Davis seemed most outlandishly contrarian was Chris Thompson. As the compiler of the RB Rankings, I said this at the time:

This ranking was 100% Mattek. He was the only guy to rank Thompson—and he ranked him #8! That’s more than going out on a limb—that’s what Tolkien might call an unexpected journey. And it makes sense: Thompson is roughly the size of a halfling. OK, jokes aside, here’s what Davis had to say about the small RB from Florida State: “Easily the most underrated back in this draft. Going to have an NFL impact.” The other rankers apparently disagreed. Either Davis again sees something that the rest of us have failed to see—or his love of the halflings’ leaf has clearly slowed his mind. Maybe both. But if Thompson indeed turns into Darren Sproles, then Davis will be able to say loudly that he was the guy who called it. Bold move.

At the time, I thought Davis was crazy. After the rankings came out, and he saw that I had (gently) mocked him for his contrarian rankings, Davis sent me this email:

Matthew, if you want to link the scouting report that helped me be so high on Thompson, here it is. http://sportswunderkind.com/nfl-draft-player-evaluation-chris-thompson-rb-florida-state/

Check out the link if you wish. The article was written by Coleman Kelly, another RotoViz contributor. It’s solid. It makes a case for why Thompson could turn into Darren Sproles. But after reading the article I had this thought: “OK, but how many short guys with decent weight for their height actually manage to turn into useful fantasy players? I bet not too many.” And I left it at that. I didn’t care enough to do the research to write a piece that I anticipated would have this main takeaway: “Don’t roster this player.” Such a piece would be epistemologically useful but not very aesthetically pleasing.

Shanahan and Siegele Strike:

But then two troublesome events occurred: 1) Mike Shanahan drafted Chris Thompson, and when Shanahan drafts any RB you at least have to pay attention; and 2) Siegele wrote this piece about Thompson, suggesting that the Washington RB might be a better fantasy pick than Gio Bernard. And, dammit!, Siegele makes some good points. When you see 1) the talent that Thompson has (as exhibited by the numbers) and 2) the passing opportunities that he could have in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, you can see how it could happen—Thompson could be the next Sproles.

Now, I have to give Davis some respect: He waited at least one full hour after reading Shawn’s piece to send this email:

2 months ago, you all mocked me for ranking Chris Thompson number 8 overall. Now, Siegele is writing articles saying he might be better than Gio Bernard 😉

Emailing ensued. What follows is the version suitable for radio.

Matthew Freedman:

Yeah, now I think there are 2 crazy people on staff.

Sent from my iPhone

Shawn Siegele:

On Thompson … Davis was right about him from the start. Good call.

Matthew Freedman:

On Thompson . . . I almost care enough about this to write a hate article, except no one wants to read those. Do I really have to point out that a speedy guy weighing less than 200 lbs drafted by a team with an established starting RB after the 4th round (and those guys come around every year)—except this one has an injury history that includes broken vertebrae in his back and a torn ACL from which he is still recovering—do I have to point out that such a guy might not be a sound investment??? You are betting on him turning into Sproles or Danny Woodhead, and that doesn’t happen that often. I could totally be wrong about Thompson—and I admit that he has talent—but lots of other small guys before him have also been talented and gone nowhere. The way Frank feels about small WRs is how I feel about small RBs. Why invest in these guys?

Shawn Siegele:

There are two possibilities with Thompson that are interesting: 1) That Washington plans to use him as their Tavon Austin. Thompson is considerably heavier and just as electric in the open field. Depending on individual philosophy and format, Thompson could then be the more valuable player since he is RB-eligible. 2) That he runs a sub-4.35—which is always unlikely until a guy actually does it—and he’s able to play in the NFL around 195. (I’ve seen his weight listed between 186 and 197. Thompson is very short but not particularly light for his height.) In that case, then you’re not really hoping he’s a Sproles. You’re hoping he’s a Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, Jamaal Charles.

And that’s where we are. Now, before I give you the results of my back test (which I haven’t done yet)—I plan on starting with all the RBs to enter the NFL since 2000 and then working from there—I want to address a couple of points from Shawn’s last email.

Two Field Goals; or My Six-Point Response:

1) I generally agree that, with small RBs, the faster the 40 time the better. And yet Sproles ran only a 4.47 40 time at the 2005 combine. He did, however, produce an Agility Score of 10.92, and given the way Sproles plays his agility more than his straight-line speed may be more important. We don’t know what Thompson’s true 40 time is, but he did (according to NFL Combine Results) produce a 4.42 40 time at his pro day while still recovering from an ACL injury. That’s massively impressive. When he’s healthy, he probably runs the 40 at a time faster than 4.40, but even if he doesn’t Darren Sproles has shown that merely a sub-4.50 40 time is sufficient, and Thompson can certainly run faster than 4.50. I grant that Thompson is athletic enough to have success in the NFL. No one questions his athletic ability.

2) Regardless of what a team says about how it intends to use a particular “smallish and versatile offensive weapon” in the preseason, I want to know historically how these guys have done in their careers. Even if the Washington coaches say now that they intend to use Thompson as a versatile Tavon-esque chess piece, they may not actually do that when the season starts. To me, the preseason chatter about Thompson’s potential uses means nothing.

3) A constitutive component of Thompson as a player is his height, for better or worse. He’s short, and he plays below 200 lbs. As a result, Sproles is precisely the player to whom Thompson ideally compares. At the 2005 combine, Sproles was 5’6” and 187 lbs. and did 23 reps on the bench press. At the 2013 combine, Thompson was 5’7” and 192 lbs. and did 21 reps. They have exactly the same body type. Basically, anybody rooting for Thompson should hope that he turns into a bigger Sproles. That’s the only real option before him, because of what I’m about to say next . . .

4) He can’t turn into Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, or Jamaal Charles. The (unrealistic) best he can do is hope to turn into a shorter (albeit slightly thicker) version of them, but their height (to me) is a constitutive component of who they are. At the combine, all of them were above 5’10”—and they all weighed more than 195 lbs. Additionally, they all ran the 40 at sub-4.40 speeds. (The heaviest and tallest, Jamaal Charles, ran the slowest, with a 4.38 40 time.) Even if we assume that Thompson can run the 40 in 4.35 seconds, he can’t touch Johnson’s 4.24, and—as Shawn knows, since he relies on Height-Adjusted Speed Scores for WRs—Charles’s electronic 4.38 and Spiller’s electronic 4.37 are more impressive than Thompson’s hypothetical 4.35, since they both weigh more and stand at least 3 inches taller.

What am I saying? Even if Thompson has the speed of C.J. Spiller (and we don’t know if he does), he certainly doesn’t have his weight or his height—or, hell, I’ll say it, his draft status—and so he is extremely unlikely to become a workhorse RB (and even Spiller hasn’t actually been a true workhorse RB up to this point). Size for Thompson is the limiting factor. Saying that Thompson could be a shorter version of Spiller is a little like saying a bush could be a shorter version of a tree. The two are similar in lots of ways, but they really are different types of creations. Thompson cannot realistically hope to be a short version of one of these workhorse-caliber RBs (or even Percy Harvin or Randall Cobb). They are players who regularly get the ball precisely because they combine speed or quickness with barely sufficient size. If they were any smaller, they wouldn’t be who they are.

Since Thompson is (extremely) unlikely to grow in height, he will need to grow in girth if he wants to have any chance of becoming a non-Sprolesian RB. He will need to become Maurice Jones-Drew, who at the 2006 combine was 5’7” and 207 lbs. and managed to run the 40 in 4.39 seconds. But to become the next MJD the rookie will need to add about 15 lbs—remember that Jones-Drew added even more weight in the NFL—and the added weight doesn’t even address the issue of running style: MJD can move the pile when he needs to do so, but Thompson’s MO is generally to avoid contact. In other words, Thompson likely is too small and runs too small to be anything more than the next Darren Sproles.

5) Since I mentioned draft status earlier, I’ll just say a couple of things. In general, draft status means a lot. It’s a strong predictor of RB success, in part because it factors into the opportunities that RBs receive. But because of who drafted Thompson, I won’t hold his low draft position against him. With Mike Shanahan, the draft position of RBs means nothing. In fact, an inverse correlation might even exist. Regarding his actual 2013 draft position, I’ll give Thompson the benefit of the doubt. He could see success, despite being a 5th round pick.

After all, Ahmad Bradshaw was a 7th round pick in 2007, and he eventually became a starter, so it can happen—late-round RBs can have NFL success. But why did it happen with Bradshaw? Because (like CJ2K, Spiller, and JC Superstar) Bradshaw combines athleticism with adequate size. Bradshaw was 198 lbs. at just under 5’10” at the combine, and although he ran only a 4.55 40 time he did produce an elite Agility Score of 10.79. For the athleticism he possesses, Bradshaw (barely) has the size to be a lead back (who constantly battles injuries). If Thompson doesn’t become a lead back, that fact will result more from his small size and less from his low draft position. In this exercise, I won’t hold Thompson’s actual draft position against him.

What I won’t do, though, is privilege the hypothetical draft status that some people want to give him. Some hypothesize that Thompson could have been drafted in a higher round if not for his ACL injury in the 2012 season. Maybe he could’ve been selected in the top three rounds, but NFL teams don’t generally invest high draft picks in guys who can’t be lead RBs. And, just to play devil’s advocate, I’ll say this: Lots of fast, productive, short, and non-injured RBs come along who go undrafted. Just think of Noel Devine and Derrick Locke in 2011. Maybe Thompson was over-drafted. That’s a possibility too.

6) Finally, in his piece on how to lose a fantasy league in 10 picks, Shawn lists Gio Bernard as a player to avoid, saying that at best he may emerge as a slower version of Darren Sproles, and he jokingly says that people should instead draft Chris Thompson in the sixth round. In an email Shawn had this to say: “A lot of your points about Thompson are equally valid about Bernard.” Shawn is correct (they have similarities), but I think that they also are dissimilar in crucial ways.

Gio was the first RB selected; Thompson was a fifth-round selection. Gio is a little over 5’8” and weighed 202 lbs. at the combine; Thompson is about an inch shorter and weighs 192 lbs. (in other words, Gio is even thicker than Thompson is). Gio is years removed from his ACL injury; Thompson is still recovering from his. Gio is 21 years old; Thompson is 22. Gio played only two college seasons, both of which were highly productive; Thompson played portions of four seasons, none of which were especially productive. Gio has handled a starter’s load; Thompson hasn’t.

Even before I saw the list of comparable players for Gio in Shawn’s article, Gio struck me as a potential (shorter) Shady McCoy, in part because of his receiving prowess and his ability to withstand a substantial number of carries. With all respect to Shawn, I don’t think that Gio and Thompson are overly similar. I see Gio’s upside as that of a short McCoy or thinner MJD. Why? Because he’s over 200 lbs. This guy is not only a receiving RB. He’s a runner. That’s the difference between him and Thompson. Just as the latter cannot be CJ?K, CJ Spiller, or JC Superstar, he’s also extremely unlikely to be another Shady or MJD—but Gio can be. In a way, Gio is the 2013 rookie RB who highlights Thompson’s limitations. Gio has a legitimate chance of being the next good midsized RB in the league; I don’t think that Thompson has a chance of being anything other than the next Sproles.

Introducing Chris Thompson, 2000-2012:

So now that I’ve bored you with words, let me bore you with some tables. In thinking about how to determine whether Thompson is worth rostering in a dynasty league, I have determined to look only at RBs who fit these criteria: 1) entered the NFL no earlier than 2000; 2) weighed no more than 200 lbs. at the combine or comparable pro day; 3) stood no taller than 5’10” at the combine or pro day; 4) drafted (not an undrafted free agent). That’s it. On this first pass, I’m casting the nets wide. I thought about including undrafted free agents, but then I scanned the list and saw that since 2000 the only smallish UDFA RB to make an actual pseudo-significant NFL impact is Danny Woodhead, and I’d just rather not find information for 30 other guys who played in the NFL as fill-ins and kick and punt returners. And let the record show that, after having a remarkable college career, Woodhead ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds at 197 lbs. and a little under 5’8”—yes, he’s bigger than Thompson.

So who are these drafted small guys from 2000 to the present? Here they are, all 23 of them (plus Thompson), arranged in chronological order.

Player Draft Year Age Round Pick College Tm Ht Wt 40 Time 40 Status Agility Score Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR
Brian Westbrook 2002 23 3 91 Villanova PHI 68 200 4.57 Combine NA 66 20 10 18 6
Travis Stephens 2002 24 4 119 Tennessee TAM 68 194 4.6 Combine NA 134 Out Out Out Out
Quentin Griffin 2003 22 4 108 Oklahoma DEN 67 195 4.48 Combine NA 70 56 Out Out Out
Darren Sproles 2005 22 4 130 Kansas St. SDG 66 187 4.47 Combine 10.92 124 Inj 74 42 33
Bruce Perry 2005 24 7 242 Maryland PHI 68 196 4.46 Pro Day 11 114 153 Out Out Out
DeAndra Cobb 2005 24 6 201 Michigan St. ATL 70 196 4.49 Combine 11.39 167 Out Out Out Out
Garrett Wolfe 2007 23 3 93 N. Illinois CHI 68 186 4.39 Pro Day 10.77 85 115 85 138 Out
Ahmad Bradshaw 2007 21 7 250 Marshall NYG 70 198 4.55 Combine 10.79 79 61 28 13 20
Lorenzo Booker 2007 23 3 71 Florida St. MIA 70 191 4.46 Combine 11.41 72 119 Out 118 107
Steve Slaton 2008 22 3 89 West Virginia HOU 69 197 4.45 Combine 11.01 6 26 99 102 Out
Ray Rice 2008 21 2 55 Rutgers BAL 68 199 4.42 Combine 10.85 52 4 11 1 6
Justin Forsett 2008 23 7 233 California SEA 68 194 4.62 Pro Day 11.61 169 33 41 80 64
LaRod Stephens-Howling 2009 22 7 240 Pittsburgh ARI 67 180 4.48 ??? NA 96 70 59 45 NA
Bernard Scott 2009 25 6 209 Abilene Christian CIN 70 200 4.56 Combine 10.9 69 63 53 137 NA
Jahvid Best 2010 21 1 30 California DET 70 199 4.35 Combine 10.92 23 41 Inj NA NA
Jacquizz Rodgers 2011 21 5 145 Oregon St. ATL 66 196 4.64 Combine 11.57 66 36 NA NA NA
Dion Lewis 2011 21 5 149 Pittsburgh PHI 67 193 4.57 Combine 11.08 97 109 NA NA NA
Kendall Hunter 2011 23 4 115 Oklahoma St. SFO 67 199 4.53 Combine 10.95 46 60 NA NA NA
Daryl Richardson 2012 22 7 252 Abilene Christian STL 70 192 4.46 Pro Day 11.43 52 NA NA NA NA
Chris Rainey 2012 24 5 159 Florida PIT 68 180 4.45 Combine 10.43 91 NA NA NA NA
Isaiah Pead 2012 23 2 50 Cincinnati STL 70 197 4.47 Combine 11.27 132 NA NA NA NA
LaMichael James 2012 23 2 61 Oregon SFO 68 194 4.45 Combine 11 107 NA NA NA NA
Ronnie Hillman 2012 21 3 67 San Diego St. DEN 69 200 4.45 Combine NA 65 NA NA NA NA
Average 2008.2 22.52 4.348 137.3 NA NA 68.35 194 4.494 NA 11.07 86.17 64.4 51.11 69.4 39.33
Median 2008 23 4 119 NA NA 68 196 4.47 NA 11 79 60 53 62.5 26.5
Chris Thompson 2013 22.5 5 154 Florida St. WSH 67 192 4.42 Pro Day NA NA NA NA NA NA

 

On average, this list of comparable players comes quite close to matching Thompson. The composite player is a guy who 1) is drafted about a round higher, 2) stands about an inch taller, 3) weighs a couple of pounds more, and 4) runs a little bit slower than Thompson—although a 4.49 at the combine (with a 95.47 Speed Score) is pretty close to a 4.42 at a pro day (with a 100.6 Speed Score). Still, I’ll grant that Thompson is faster than the composite player, as he produced his 40 time while recovering from his ACL injury. Nevertheless, the composite player and Thompson are similar. Collectively, these guys give an idea as to what Chris Thompson’s fate would have been in the NFL since 2000.

As you can see at a glance, that fate is not good. Within their first five possible NFL years, these 23 players have had 82 seasons of NFL potential playing time—and 19 of those seasons (23.2%) were missed either due to injury or the inability to stick to a roster. An additional 35 seasons (42.7%) were those in which the RBs produced useless (non-top-60) seasonal performances, which means that, out of the possible 82 seasons, 54 of them (65.9%) are non-productive.

So let me put it to you this way: if you bothered to roster the Thompson-composite player for any three seasons from 2000 to 2012, you wasted a spot on your bench for about two of them.

Furthermore, only 14 of the 82 possible seasons (17.1%) were top-30 years. Yes, in any given season, the composite player is more likely to miss the year due to injury or the inability to stay in the NFL than he is to be a top-30 RB. I don’t know about you, and I don’t know what the NFL averages are—but I think those odds of success suck. I sure wouldn’t want the composite player on my roster.

What particularly strikes me is that of the 12 guys to enter the league from 2000 to 2008, 6 of them (50%) failed to last till their fifth seasons, and an additional 2 players (16.7%) missed an entire season before returning to NFL action. In sum, 8 of these 12 players (66.7%) missed at least one NFL season due to injury or “forced and prolonged free agency” before their fifth seasons. In other words, these guys don’t have long NFL careers . . . I wonder if their size has anything to do with it???

The Top-30 Thompson, 2000-2012:

Now let’s look at these 23 players in more detail. Specifically, let’s look at the five small RBs who have actually had top-30 success within their first five years. [Note that this timeframe eliminates the “top-30 Sproles” from consideration, which I think is appropriate, since no one drafts a RB and thinks, “I can’t wait till this guy starts to pay off in his 7th season when he turns 28.”] Here are the five Thompson-esque top-30 RBs, arranged by draft position.

Player Draft Year Age Round Pick College Tm Ht Wt 40 Time 40 Status Agility Score Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR
Jahvid Best 2010 21 1 30 California DET 70 199 4.35 Combine 10.92 23 41 Inj NA NA
Ray Rice 2008 21 2 55 Rutgers BAL 68 199 4.42 Combine 10.85 52 4 11 1 6
Steve Slaton 2008 22 3 89 West Virginia HOU 69 197 4.45 Combine 11.01 6 26 99 102 Out
Brian Westbrook 2002 23 3 91 Villanova PHI 68 200 4.57 Combine NA 66 20 10 18 6
Ahmad Bradshaw 2007 21 7 250 Marshall NYG 70 198 4.55 Combine 10.79 79 61 28 13 20
Average 2007 21.6 3.2 103 NA NA 69 198.6 4.468 NA 10.89 45.2 30.4 37 33.5 10.67
Median 2008 21 3 89 NA NA 69 199 4.45 NA 10.885 52 26 19.5 15.5 6
Chris Thompson 2013 22.5 5 154 Florida St. WSH 67 192 4.42 Pro Day NA NA NA NA NA NA

Oh my, that’s a deliciously instructive group of players. All of these guys are taller than Thompson by at least 2 inches . Not only that, but when entering the NFL, this averaged composite top-30 player weighed almost 200 lbs. But what happened when these five guys got to the NFL? If you look at the separate RotoWorld profiles for each of these players, you’ll see that the three players who record top-30 seasons more often than they don’t within their first five years—Bradshaw (214 lbs.), Rice (212 lbs.), and Westbrook (203 lbs.)—all play at greater than 200 lbs. What’s more, their average playing weight is 209.7 lbs. In other words, the highly successful smallish RBs don’t stay small for long once they enter the NFL. They become mid-sized backs—and, remember, when they enter the NFL they’re already substantially bigger than Thompson is.

And what about the moderately (but not highly) successful small top-30 RBs, Best and Slaton? If you look at their RotoWorld player profiles you’ll notice that Best (199 lbs.) and Slaton (199 lbs.) not only stayed close to their entrance weights, but they both played below 200 lbs. I know that the sample size is small, but it’s also suggestive: Not many small guys become starters (because teams don’t trust them to be workhorses), and then those who do and stay below 200 lbs. fail to play for long (because they’re not built to be workhorses). I know that injuries can happen to all NFL players—but they don’t. The two sub-200 lb. guys are the only two of the group to see their careers go shorter than five years, in Best’s case because of injury and in Slaton’s case primarily because of inefficacy (but his neck injury probably didn’t help either). My pointing this fact out might strike some as problematic, but isn’t this still a piece of knowledge worth considering?

So what does this group of five players say about Thompson and his weight? It’s an admittedly small sample size (which on its own is significant), but it leads me to believe that if Thompson doesn’t put on weight in the NFL he’ll be likely to endure a career that ends before his fifth season.

What else is notable about this group? All of the guys are good athletes. They average to run slightly better than a 4.47 combine 40 time at just under 199 lbs. (for a Speed Score of 99.5), and perhaps more importantly (as agility is important for small RBs) the averaged Agility Score is a stellar 10.89. While Thompson is a great athlete, he’s not substantially (if at all) better than the larger composite top-30 RB. Additionally, this composite player sports a draft position in Round 3, and outside of Bradshaw these players are all top-100 picks. To me, this information means this: for the most part, these top-30 RBs were undersized change-of-pace runners who managed to seize starting jobs after they were drafted at a premium. All of these players became top-30 runners not because they were specifically drafted to be workhorses but because they took advantage of weak depth charts or injuries to other RBs to become starters. What this means for Thompson—I believe—is that not only will he have to be treated like a change-of-pace back who was drafted in a higher round (which is possible with the Shanahans) but he will also have to see the RB(s) in front of him get injured. All of that is possible, but I don’t think it’s particularly likely. Even if Thompson is a premium change-of-pace RB who managed to fall in the draft due to injuries, that doesn’t mean he’s likely to be a starter.

As we can see from these five RBs, generally a good deal of fortuity is involved in a small RB becoming a top-30 player. Why is this so? Well, even though respectable draft picks are generally spent on these players, outside of Best (who hasn’t been what the Lions hoped he would be) none of these players is a top-50 pick. In other words, they’re not drafted to be top-30 players. Against the original intentions of their teams, they become starting RBs. For Thompson, this statement is particularly salient. He was not drafted to be a starter (Washington has three RBs on the depth chart ahead of him who have starting RB physiques), and so if Thompson is not a starter, his only hope to make an impact is via the passing game, as Woodhead and Sproles have done.

And, to give you some perspective, Woodhead is the only guy out of 29 small UDFAs since 2000 to have fantasy relevance—and Sproles took more than half a decade to become a legitimate fantasy asset. I know that the NFL is becoming more of a passing league and that receiving RBs are becoming more important, but being a top-30 RB is incredibly hard to do if one does not accrue substantial carries. If Thompson doesn’t become a starter, he’s extremely unlikely to become a top-30 RB. And, with the way I look at these five players, I think that Thompson’s unlikely to become a starter. If he’s to be a relevant fantasy player, Thompson will need to be the next Darny Sproleshead.

Steve Slaton 2.0:

Then again, in Thompson’s favor is that 1) Washington views him as a third-down asset and that 2) all five of the top-30 RBs (plus Sproles and Woodhead) excel in the passing game. That Washington wants to use him in the passing game doesn’t guarantee that he’ll become the next Sproleshead, but it at least puts him on the right track.

As Shawn insightfully noted in his piece on Thompson, RBs in Kyle Shanahan’s offenses have historically received at least 65 passes per season—except in 2012. In the future, either the RG3-centric offense will continue to deemphasize the RB in the passing game or an RB will need to emerge as a receiver, be it Alfred Morris, Roy Helu, or (gulp) Chris Thompson.

Could that receiving RB in Washington actually be Thompson? I suggest that we look closer at the example of Steve Slaton—the first workhorse RB of any of Kyle Shanahan’s offenses. In 2008, Kyle Shanahan was promoted to offensive coordinator of the Texans, and the Thompson-esque Slaton was drafted in Round 3 of the NFL Draft. As a rookie, Slaton came out of nowhere—primarily because Houston’s backfield had few options—and a substantial part of his value was his ability to contribute as a receiver, catching 50 balls that year. Racking up over 100 scrimmage yards per game and 10 TDs on the year, Slaton finished as the #6 RB, an incredible feat for a small rookie rusher drafted after the 2nd round.

In 2009, however, Slaton was a disappointment. Despite his continued receiving prowess, Slaton not only averaged a pitiful 3.3 yards per carry and fumbled 7 times on 175 touches but also could not withstand the pounding of the long season. He missed the last five games of the season due to injury, the big-bodied Arian Foster emerged as a rusher built to handle a starter’s load, the team drafted another big-bodied SEC runner in Ben Tate during the 2010 offseason, and just like that Steve Slaton was what he had almost been destined to be from the beginning: a kick returner.

Look at this another way: When ALF emerged in 2012, he basically became Foster 2.0 (the next big undervalued RB to succeed in a zone-blocking scheme). Helu and Royster can be (roughly) thought of as Tate 2.0—capable back-up RBs who stand in Thompson’s way to a starting job. And Thompson is Slaton 2.0 (or, more specifically, Slaton 2010). In the Washington backfield, Slaton 2.0 arrived last instead of first, but the general dynamic within the backfield is the same. Once all of those players are on the same team, the smallish pass-catching RB is not the best RB, and maybe not the second-best RB, and so he does what lots of other small third- or fourth-string RBs do: whatever he has to do to stay on the roster—return kicks and punts. With Morris, Royster, and Helu on the Washington roster, Thompson is Slaton 2010—an excellent receiving RB who could be a top-30 guy if made a starter, but someone who shouldn’t be a starter in the first place. I’m not saying that Slaton’s fate determines Thompson’s, but via Slaton we can see what happens to a small receiving back in Kyle Shanahan’s offense when he’s placed on a team with other and bigger RBs. In Kyle Shanahan’s offense, receiving ability alone is unlikely to make Thompson fantasy relevant for any more than a season or two—if that long.

And although Mike Shanahan drafted Chris Thompson and glowingly said (per Mike Jones of the Washington Post) that he believes that the RB would have been a first- or second-round pick had it not been for his injury history [and two quick points: 1) judging by the list of comparable players, I think Shanahan is wrong, 2) Shanahan might as well have said that Thompson would’ve been a first- or second-round pick if not for his small size]—despite these seemingly positive facts, if Thompson is to be a significant offensive weapon for Washington then Mike Shanahan will have to do things differently this time around. . . wait, you don’t know what I’m talking about? Didn’t I mention that Shanahan drafted Chris Thompson ten years ago?

Introducing Chris Thompson, 2003-2004:

It’s true. In 2003, Mike Shanahan drafted from Oklahoma University a dynamic but small (5’7” and 195 lbs.) 22-year-old RB with great collegiate rushing numbers and solid third-down skills—only his name was Quentin Griffin. As a senior he finished 10th in the Heisman voting, third in rushing yards (behind Larry Johnson and Michael Turner) and second in yards from scrimmage (behind Johnson). Over his career, he accumulated over 5000 scrimmage yards and 50 TDs. He was basically a version of Chris Thompson who didn’t suffer a broken back and torn ACL in college. And what did Shanny do with him? As a rookie, Thompson was the third-string RB behind Clinton Portis and FB/RB Mike Anderson, receiving over 102 touches for 406 scrimmage yards—and no TDs. Not great, but not bad for a first-year change-of-pace back. And as a second-year player in 2004, with Clinton Portis traded to Washington, and with Mike Anderson out for the year with a preseason groin injury, Griffin got his Slaton-esque chance to shine, right?

Not even close. The larger Reuben Droughns (the previous year’s bottom-of-the-bench sub who served primarily as a part-time kick returner and who had only 40 carries in 3 years of NFL service) leapfrogged Griffin and was made the starter, finishing as the #14 RB on the year. But at least Griffin was the primary change-of-pace option, right? Nope. That role was given to rookie Tatum Bell, who (though thought of as a small guy) weighed 212 lbs. when he ran a 4.37 40 time at 5’11” during the 2004 combine and who was drafted early in Round 2. Once again, Griffin was the third-string change-of-pace guy behind two guys with bodies built to carry a starter’s load.

But at least in 2005, with Droughns moving on to Cleveland, Griffin would get a chance to see more playing time, right? Nope. While Droughns once again finished as the #14 RB, Mike Anderson returned from his injury to be the #10 RB, Tatum Bell saw the field enough to finish as the #22 RB (alas, the Shanahanian RBBC was born, unbeknownst to us), and Griffin’s third-string roster spot was given to Ron Dayne, yet another big guy. And Griffin? After two years, he was out of the league for good, placed behind and replaced by Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, Tatum Bell, and even Ron Dayne—all of whom were larger than he was, all of whom could do what he couldn’t: be a legitimate NFL starter.

If Chris Thompson is to have any hope of escaping Quentin Griffin’s fate, not only will he need to be immensely talented, but Mike Shanahan will have to alter the way he uses and thinks about RBs. With Morris, Royster, Helu, and Jawan Jamison all on the roster (all of whom are bigger than Thompson), I don’t find a Shanahanian change of heart very likely. Granted, Shanahan might like Thompson (he liked him enough to spend a mid-round pick on him), but saying that Shanahan likes a particular runner is like saying that Charlie Sheen likes a particular set of boobs. No, Charlie Sheen likes all boobs. That’s just what he does. But if those boobs don’t belong to a young starlet, he’s not marrying them.

And based on the RBs that Shanahan has used in the past, I don’t think Thompson’s the type of runner he’d marry. To Shanahan a draft pick spent on a RB is like a drink bought for a girl at a bar. You pay to get a closer look. Shanahan has bought drinks for LOTS of RBs, and often he likes what he sees, but that doesn’t mean he’s ridden all of them to the Promised Land. I could be wrong—Thompson could be the next Sproles—but he doesn’t strike me as the type of runner whom Shanahan wants to ride. He could be the next Sproles, but I’m not willing to bet a draft pick or a roster spot on it.

A Smaller Version of Jahvid Best:

I don’t want to make light of Best’s problems with concussions, but if you look at the five top-30 small RBs since 2000, the one to whom Thompson is most similar is Best. He can’t really compare to Rice, Bradshaw, and Westbrook, since they have more girth, and he’s faster than Slaton. No, at his core, Thompson is either a bigger Sproles (a receiving back who gets some carries) or a smaller Jahvid Best (a running back who gets some receptions) or some combination thereof. Needless to say, I don’t think it’s good to be a smaller version of Best. I don’t think even Best is big enough to be Best. Being a smaller version of that guy would just be too hard. But Thompson is big enough to be a supped-up Sproles. If you draft him, that’s who you should have in mind. And hopefully when Washington uses him, that’s who they have in mind, because if they don’t then Thompson’s NFL career could be sadly brief.

Haven’t We Had This Conversation Before?

Now that I’ve stepped over the dead horse, I should say this: I’ve basically given you all of this information before, and I’ve bothered to write about Chris Thompson in such detail because he represents the small RB whom I believe should be largely avoided by fantasy players. Writing previously about the St. Louis backfield, I suggested that Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, and other similar small RBs do not as a group have the NFL productivity of larger and under-the-radar RBs, such as Terrance Ganaway, Zac Stacy, and Knile Davis—or even UDFAs like this guy.

For Thompson, these scenarios are those available to him:

  • Scenario A: Thompson transforms his body into that of Ray Rice’s stunt double and becomes a lead back.
  • Scenario B: Thompson doesn’t transform his body but (somehow) has a Slaton-esque run in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, enjoying a limited period of great productivity.
  • Scenario C: Thompson becomes a receiving fixture in Washington’s offense and experiences a nice career as the next Sproles.
  • Scenario D: Thompson serves as a marginal (and occasionally exciting) third-string receiving RB and primarily returns kicks and punts for 2-4 years before leaving the NFL.

I think Scenarios C and D are the most likely. If you think Scenario C is the likeliest, I won’t think you’re totally crazy for drafting him late in a rookie draft (you do have to use the pick somehow) and rostering him for a couple of years—although you might be able to use that roster spot on a better (larger) RB who at least has the body to be a lead back or a WR with perhaps a 50% chance of having a top-30 season in the future But if you think Scenario D is the likeliest . . . then I don’t even know why you’re still reading this article. Avoid Thompson like the plague.

For your convenience, here’s the list of all the drafted 2013 rookie RBs who stood no taller than 5’10” and weighed no more than 200 lbs. at their pre-draft workouts.

Player Draft Year Age Round Pick College Tm Ht Wt 40 Time 40 Status Agility Score
Chris Thompson 2013 22.5 5 154 Florida St. WSH 67 192 4.42 Pro Day NA
Kenjon Barner 2013 24 6 182 Oregon CAR 69 196 4.52 Combine 11.07
Andre Ellington 2013 24 6 187 Clemson ARI 69 199 4.61 Combine (Inj) NA
Kerwynn Williams 2013 22 7 230 Utah St. IND 68 195 4.48 Combine 11.3

From 2000 to 2012, twenty-three such players entered the league, and five so far have produced top-30 seasons within their first five years. So let’s say that, roughly, 1 of these 4 guys is likely to have at least one top-30 season in the future. Do you have any idea which guy he’ll be???

All I know is he’ll be the one who’s not on my team—wait, that’s all of them.

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