It’s always interesting to try to develop an explanatory framework for the different positions. In evaluating wide receivers, I use the core components found in the WR Holy Grail and then use metrics like Megatron Index, XSPD, Catch Radius Score, and Phenom Index to help bolster my ratings. Although I’m very high on Brandin Cooks and Paul Richardson in comparison to most small receivers, I’m almost always targeting big receivers with the potential to be true No. 1s. As the Fantasy Douche frequently says, “You’re never going to draft a No. 1 receiver if you don’t try to draft one.” That goes for fantasy and reality. When it comes to drafting the next Wes Welker . . . you might as well not even try. All of the data points to “possession receiver” as a thoroughly unpredictable position.
The running back position is different because one size doesn’t fit all. Fortunately, there are reasons to believe we can predict the types of prospects that will fit the different roles. I outlined the broad categories a season ago, and this is a mildly updated version. I’ll go into the Agility Score in much greater detail in my upcoming piece on Bishop Sankey, but for right now keep in mind that it’s simply the combination of times for the short shuttle and 3-cone drills. Agility Score doesn’t correlate directly with fantasy points, but it does with Vision Yards and receptions, two characteristics which will be very valuable for two of our profiles.
Elite early down and goal line backs
This group tends to have a very high Speed Score, usually over 110. In most cases these backs weight between 215 and 230 pounds. Many of these backs are too big to post elite Agility Scores and this lack of lateral explosiveness shows up in terms of yards before contact and receiving ability. The highest profile members of this group include Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. For a fuller sense of why we may overvalue these players based on an outdated football aesthetic, check out How Much Is a Broken Tackle Worth?
Three-down backs who are occasionally replaced in goal line situations
This group tends to have a solid Speed Score, usually over 100, and strong Agility Scores (sub-11.1). Most of these runners weigh between 200 and 215 pounds. These backs are often considered boom-or-bust backs because their ability to make people miss is occasionally cast as a weakness. The highest profile members of this group are Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Matt Forte. The trends for this group are very encouraging. As I explained in a recent piece for PFF, offensive masterminds are unleashing this type of back on the NFL with ever more positive results.
Passing-down or in-space backs
This group tends to weigh 200 pounds or less and record ridiculous Agility Scores (sub-11.0). Darren Sproles has been carrying the mantle for this group. Jahvid Best would have been the unparalleled superstar of this category if not for having his career destroyed by concussions. Dante Hall was a running back in college who transitioned to wide receiver at the pro level but probably would have had more value in a Sproles-like role. The trends are not as favorable for these backs. Sproles had several good years in New Orleans but was just released. The RotoViz Sim Scores suggest a great deal of difficulty in sustaining fantasy value for this kind of back.
How Should We Use the Profiles?
It’s always possible that players who don’t fit into any of these profiles can emerge as strong NFL starters. Arian Foster has very limited athletic measurables and has been a reality and fantasy star. But in general using an early pick on such players is a big and unnecessary risk. Mark Ingram and Jacquizz Rodgers are two obvious examples of players whose athletic measurables did not match their collegiate resumes. Both sported speed and quickness red flags that should not have been overlooked.
A lot of the pre-draft discussion of running backs tends to ignore how predictive these categories seem to be. Last year many evaluators gave similar grades to players like Le’Veon Bell, Zac Stacy, Stepfan Taylor, and Mike Gillislee even though the specific profiles of the first two were very strong and the second two very weak. Steve Keim is getting some credit for ignoring Andre Ellington’s poor pre-draft workouts and selecting him in last year’s 6th round, but that also ignores his decision to select Taylor over Stacy. Some will call it hindsight, but all of the numbers pointed to this as a brutally bad decision at the time. Taylor accomplished the rare double of finishing dead last in the class on both the Agility Index and the Explosion Index. (In general, I think you can give Keim a lot of credit for simply taking multiple shots at the position late in the draft. That’s a tremendous use of draft capital considering the expected value of those picks.)
Andre Williams – Vastly Underrated?
Over the next several weeks, I plan to look at the 2014 RB prospects. It’s a tremendously interesting class, as many of my favorites are buried in the evaluations of other writers I respect. We’ll go ahead and start with Andre Williams, the man who led the NCAA in rushing last season. Despite that accomplishment, I’ve seen him left off of multiple dynasty Top 10 lists for the running back position alone.
Williams just finished his senior campaign and only has one year of real production. This is where Jon Moore’s Rookie Age Project can come in handy. A quick perusal reveals that Williams is the youngest senior in the class and is also younger than early declares like Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr., Lache Seastrunk, and Storm Johnson. Age isn’t a positive for Williams, but it’s not a negative either.
I have to admit a little surprise at the lack of momentum Williams seems to be generating after the Combine. While similar players like Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill put up what could be kindly characterized as disappointing results, Williams acquitted himself nicely. His Speed Score of 106 falls short of the soft threshold I suggested for fitting into Profile 1, but his numbers don’t remove him from the conversation, especially when you consider impressive marks in the agility and leaping drills for a player of his size. (It’s important to keep in mind that the thresholds offer a shorthand for thinking about prospects, not hard barriers.)
As always, the most valuable measure of a prospect is to examine his comparable players. In creating the comps, I 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.
As you can see from his comp list, Williams doesn’t need to hit the sweet spot for our draftable profile in order to offer compelling upside. Williams is a relatively rare player. None of the individual comps is an exact twin, but the group as a whole paints a fairly accurate portrait. Peterson features in the headline for the article both because he’s the poster child for Profile 1 and because he would count as the most optimistic comp for Williams.
You would probably be happy to add most of these players to your fantasy roster. Alfred Morris and Ryan Matthews are solidly in the RB2 category. LeGarrette Blount has twice averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry – the same number of seasons Peterson has at or above that level. Murray, Pierce, and Turbin are all excellent 2014 sleepers.
Williams is also not that far away from the most enthusiastic comps. Peterson and Ryan Mathews are lighter and faster, but very similar in terms of agility and explosiveness. (Williams comes in slightly behind Peterson and ahead of the rest of his comps in Weight-adjusted Explosion.) The least favorable comps are arguably the least similar. Terrance Ganaway and Shonn Greene are closer to Williams in size but are slower with weaker agility/explosion profiles.
You’ll also notice that none of the comps matches Williams for pure production. Even when you add receiving value to the equation, Williams crushes the group in terms of final season yardage. Williams wasn’t just a volume runner either. His 6.1 yards per carry stands in sharp contrast to players like Adrian Peterson and Latavius Murray.
Should We Buy Williams as an Explosive Runner – Perhaps a Very Poor Man’s Version of Peterson?
Running back evaluation often does something strange where explosiveness is de-emphasized in favor of efficiency. This occurs even though explosiveness translates better to the NFL. Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly provides a wealth of statistical information on college football, and one of my favorites is the “highlight yards” measure for running backs. Highlight yards basically measure a running back’s prowess on explosive plays. Highlight yards per opportunity can act as a proxy for physical explosiveness plus running skill. When the run is blocked correctly, how many yards does the runner generate?
Among runners with at least 150 carries, Williams led the 2014 class in this measure. He leads a group that includes mostly smaller speed backs – Henry Josey and Lache Seastrunk – and theoretical superstars like Melvin Gordon. This can be thrown into even starker relief when you compare him to the top backs in the class. Williams averaged 8.0 highlight yards per opportunity. Carlos Hyde (5.03), Ka’Deem Carey (4.45), and Tre Mason (4.29) weren’t particularly close.
Carlos Hyde averaged 7.3 yards per carry in 2013, more than a yard better than Williams, but the difference in their “block success rates” was gigantic. Williams’ runs were only blocked successfully to offer highlight opportunities on 38% of his carries compared to 57% for Hyde, but he still averaged 3.0 highlight yards per carry to 2.88 for Hyde.
Just to add a little final context, Williams is a year younger than Hyde.
Conclusion and Fantasy Spin
Despite being hit with the “straight line plodder” label by scouts, Zac Stacy’s timed agility combined with shocking highlight yard numbers at Vanderbilt to offer the picture of an incredibly undervalued back. Those measures gave me the confidence to label him my No. 2 back a year ago. That could be a lucky hit, but the success of these profiles doesn’t appear fluky in the aggregate.
I don’t really know where Williams will be selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. His lack of receiving prowess and status as a one-year-wonder both amount to big red flags. On the other hand, I imagine there are four or five NFL teams that share my feelings about his positive qualities. If Williams is drafted into a situation without an established star in front of him, he could quickly emerge as a 250-carry, 8-touchdown runner. I wouldn’t necessarily prioritize him in rookie drafts, but he’s one of a group of players to emphasize in a “let the draft come to you” approach.
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.