Of everything I’ve ever written on football, my column on Zero RB, Antifragility, and The Myth of Value-Based Drafting has created the most buzz in the fantasy community. I’m glad it generated enthusiasm and caused people to look at draft strategy in a new way. On the other hand, making Zero RB work requires the ability to produce breakout running backs like clockwork.
That may be why my 2013 pre-draft profile on Le’Veon Bell is my personal favorite. More than any other, that article demonstrated why NFL Draft analysis is the key to winning fantasy titles. In that piece I introduced Agility Scores in the following fashion:
About this time last year, I wrote an article for Pro Football Focus that examined the correlation between the yards that running backs gain before contact and Combine results in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill. Fortunately for you as a dynasty owner that discovery hasn’t changed ideas on NFL running backs. Here’s the idea in a nutshell. If you combine the times for the short shuttle and 3-cone drill, you’ve got a metric with a meaningful level of predictiveness in a runner’s ability to generate yards before contact.
Conventional wisdom suggests a back has little control over his performance before being contacted, which is why so much scouting ink is spilled discussing what happens at the point of contact. However, the stats say something different. Even when you adjust for offensive line strength, the ability to gain yards before encountering the first defender is a running back skill, not a product of random variance. Runners with good Agility Scores tend to thrive in space and in the passing game. The passing game production takes on a special importance with the proliferation of PPR leagues and is doubly helpful in dynasty leagues since runners who catch a lot of passes tend to have a more gradual decline phase.
Rookies tend to struggle before contact – a point I covered in the 2013 PFF Draft Guide – and Bell was no different. But he finished 12th among all runners in receiving yardage despite missing three games. One of the frequent complaints about Bell focuses on his low yards per carry average and the way he seems to compare to Trent Richardson. Based on my research, it’s actually far more likely that Bell sees a sharp rise in his overall yards per carry due to a boost in his pre-contact yardage.
What Are the Trends Since the Original Study?
Recently, I examined the 2013 Vision Yards results for PFF and discovered that, if anything, the value of these types of players appears to be accelerating. Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Matt Forte are three high-profile stars in the Vision Yards/Agility Score category, and they just happened to finish 1-2-3 in fantasy scoring.
I’m about to publish some information on PFF that suggests Vision Yards are not just also important, but that they are more important than yards after contact. They tend to correlate better with fantasy points in a given year and have more predictive value in subsequent years. I don’t expect the greater football world to ever even consider that possibility, and that’s why I think it has value for you as a RotoViz subscriber. Inefficiencies that never close are exactly the types of gaps we can exploit.
So if we believe Agility Scores, Vision Yards, and receptions are a kind of holy trinity, how do we use that information? The first step is to stay open-minded to other prospects. I looked at what I consider to be the Three Draftable Profiles in my piece on Andre Williams. The Boston College runner was an example of Profile 1 – a back with a good speed/weight combination. Such players tend to receive first crack for NFL touches and frequently emerge as early down bell cows. If I think a two-down runner is substantially undervalued, I won’t cross him off the list simply because I prioritize pass catchers. Williams is just such a player. He’s not generating a lot of buzz currently, but his comps are spectacular.
Frequently, however, these guys end up being fully valued or even overvalued. Consider the case of Eddie Lacy. The Packers workhorse finished with fewer Expected Points than Le’Veon Bell despite playing in two more games, but he’s rated far higher on most lists for 2014. If you want guys who look like big time backs, you’re going to have to pay full price.
Can We Beat the System By Targeting Profile 2?
The backs in Profile 2 tend to have solid Speed Scores, usually over 100, and strong Agility Scores (sub-11.1). Most of these runners weigh between 200 and 215 pounds. Although these runners tend to earn more yardage before contact and excel in the passing game, they’re often considered boom-or-bust backs. Their ability to run to daylight is frequently cast as a weakness, and that’s exactly the meme we want to use to our advantage.
One of the negatives I found in my original study of Agility Scores two years ago was that these types of backs were not always used around the goal line as frequently as backs from Profile 1. That’s a fairly intuitive result, but this paucity of goal line touches may be mitigated by the shifting nature of the game. Charles, McCoy, and Forte all finished with double digit total touchdowns in 2013. As a result, Charles averaged 3.7 more points per game in PPR leagues than Purple Jesus did in his historic 2012 season.
The Bishop Sankey Comparables
In creating the comps, I also used Ryan Rouillard’s rushing Dominator Rating to tighten the list. I am, however, leaving that out of the chart to allow for his future column on the 2014 RB class. The stats represent final season numbers.
It’s somewhat difficult to soft pedal the most obvious takeaway. Sankey’s comp list is astonishing. While Agility Score may not be the key in isolation – Chris Rainey has the fastest time on record – when paired with solid size, speed, and collegiate production, you end up with a Who’s Who of superstars.
How close are the comps?
The average for the group is almost identical in size, speed, and vertical leap. Considering how much emphasis we’ve put on the leaping numbers in recent wide receiver articles, I would much rather have lateral agility than leaping ability for my running back. Strikingly, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Ray Rice all come in with very low numbers in the vertical leap. That obviously hasn’t hurt them on the field.
Sankey is also above the average in touches, rushing yards, and receiving yards. Efficiency numbers for college backs are notoriously unreliable, but it’s worth noting that Washington faced the 11th hardest schedule in the country according to SR/CFB.
Perhaps most importantly, Sankey’s Agility Score was better than every single player in the comp list. The reason is simple. Running backs just don’t turn in times that fast. The only three backs with similar size and similar times are Edgerrin James (10.75), Christine Michael (10.71), and Roy Helu (10.68). James wasn’t included in the comp list because he’s a much better overall athlete, while Michael and Helu weren’t included due to a lack of commensurate production.
How seriously should we take such a strong comp list?
Sankey’s comps are likely to be selected No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4 overall in 2014 fantasy drafts. In addition, Doug Martin and Zac Stacy will go late in Round 2. Ray Rice is probably the closest comp, and he scored 23 more ppr points in 2011 than Adrian Peterson scored in 2012.
On the other hand, If I expanded the comp list to include the next tier of players – the next most similar group – it would include Antonio Pittman, J.J. Arrington, Felix Jones, and Frank Gore. When you consider Pittman, Brown, Hunter, Arrington, and Jones, I think you get a sense of the uncertainty with Sankey. A lot of scouts don’t really care for his tape, and while I personally believe those are exactly the types of players you should target, I also don’t have any problem with draftniks who believe Sankey is a less athletic Donald Brown.
Sankey’s immediate fantasy value will obviously depend on where he lands. If he ends up as a clear starter on a team like Jacksonville, then he enters the conversation around 1.03 in rookie drafts. If he lands on a more crowded depth chart, he becomes a much riskier pick. I projected him at No. 74 to the New York Giants in my RotoViz Mock, which wouldn’t be ideal if Andre Brown and David Wilson also stick on the roster. Right now many believe Carlos Hyde will go as early as No. 26 to Cleveland. If that happens, you might be better off selecting Hyde with the goal of flipping him later, trading down, or simply taking a wide receiver instead.
The current Sankey hype is likely to flag as the prominence of his impressive Combine fades and attempts to debunk his timed athleticism become more prevalent. Use any blip in his ADP to aggressively add him in all formats this summer and fall.
If you’re looking for under the radar runners to add to your dynasty squad before rookie drafts take place, you might like my Top 10 sleeper article. It correctly anticipated the current Khiry Robinson phenomenon and has been a reader favorite.