The NFL Draft is the single biggest reason fantasy football leagues are easy to win on a yearly basis. The running back and receiver positions follow very clear templates for transitioning from college to the NFL and finding success, but the league drafts them as if this is not the case. A couple of weeks I ago I profiled five receiving prospects whose collegiate production is vastly underrated. This past weekend, I introduced RB Profile No. 1: The Workhorse and suggested you target a potential star player who would seem to be obvious but is nonetheless generating minimal buzz. Yesterday, I introduced RB Profile No. 2: The 3-Down PPR Star and suggested the much-maligned 2014 class might hold the best running back prospect since Jamaal Charles.
Does all of that smack of hyperbole? Yes. And some of those players will underperform their comps. It’s important to remember that when college players are compared to current NFL starters, the comparison is flawed simply because in most scenarios the NFL player has outperformed his former comps. The comparisons are unrealistic almost by definition.
On the other hand, many of the guys being lauded by scouts have essentially no current NFL starters as comps. Most of the players who generate buzz during the draft process are the beneficiaries of enthusiasm bubbles or runaway memes. We’re now a year removed from Tavon Austin going No. 8 overall to the St. Louis Rams, and he’s still the same player. He’s still small, still blazing fast, and still owns a superficially impressive collegiate resume with an interesting blend of rushing and receiving stats. I still expect him to help the Rams the same way Dante Hall helped add an element of explosiveness to Dick Vermeil’s Chiefs. Hall was the X-Factor. Austin is an x-factor. But place Austin in the 2014 Draft, and he probably wouldn’t be selected in the first three rounds.
The only way to avoid these bubbles is to take a sober look at the prospects and compare them to players to whom they are, you know, actually comparable.
So today I’m bringing you a handful of interesting prospects who might have been pretty trendy a year ago, but aren’t today because the draft is deeper and because their highest profile comps haven’t exactly excelled. If you spent a high pick on one of the comps for these players in 2012 or 2013, you can get essentially the same player this year . . . for free.
Henry Josey – The Discount Isaiah Pead
The comps are fairly sparse for Josey, which paints him as a relatively rare player. Whether he’s unique in a good way is up for debate. Few backs with his combination of athleticism and on-field explosiveness are as theoretically under-utilized, but Josey’s injury history probably made Missouri careful about overuse. It’s a red flag that Josey lags behind his comparables in both rushing attempts and receptions.
NFL teams seem to be learning their lesson on backs with this profile. Isaiah Pead and LaMichael James were both 2nd round picks in 2012. Neither has even been good enough in practice to earn legitimate game snaps. That’s the definition of failure for guys selected so high. A year later, many scouts pointed to Johnathan Franklin as one of the top two or three backs in the class, but GMs weren’t as sanguine, allowing him to fall into Round 4.
Josey makes for an interesting flier for the same reason those players were overdrafted. He was incredibly explosive at the college level, and there’s some reason to believe a quality NFL offensive coordinator could find a niche for him. Keep in mind that Darren Sproles languished for years in San Diego under supposed guru Norv Turner. The Rams and 49ers are not exactly paragons of offensive creativity or space creation. It’s perhaps not surprising Pead and James have failed.
After introducing a couple of other undervalued players, I’ll unveil another piece of evidence to suggest Josey might be underrated.
James White – The Discount Gio Bernard
White is a pretty intriguing player buried in the enthusiasm for Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon. He doesn’t quite make it into Profile 2, and as a result his comps aren’t quite as strong. You’d prefer him to be a little heavier, faster, quicker, more explosive . . . something. But on the field he was pretty extraordinary. As a freshman he gained more yardage than the sophomore version of Ball and averaged more yards per attempt. He scored 48 touchdowns with the Badgers despite never being the clear starter. He lost the yards per carry battle as a senior to potential superstar Melvin Gordon (7.8 to 6.5) but bested him in receptions 39-1.
Although the overall comp list for White doesn’t scream stealth star, his closest comp is probably Giovani Bernard. Similar in size and speed with slightly worse agility, the former Wisconsin back exploded in the passing game as a senior. More on White in a minute.
Dri Archer – The Discount Darren Sproles
Archer is so rare that you’re kind of required to close one eye and squint to see the likenesses. Archer is much smaller and much faster than his comps. I’ve also used his junior year rushing numbers, which is a kind of cheating, but it’s hard to see the value in using an injury-marred season.
A lot folks want to see Archer moved to receiver, but that would probably eliminate him as a fantasy player. It certainly didn’t do Dexter McCluster any favors. Running real NFL routes isn’t a simple matter. Used similarly to Darren Sproles, the former Golden Flash could be a weapon. Catching 70 dump-offs out of the backfield would be a lot easier than trying to fill a Wes Welker role. Archer is a supercharged Austin/Hall/McCluster, and, if utilized properly, could be a ppr RB2.
Jerick McKinnon – The Discount Shane Vereen
McKinnon is a player for whom the comps are necessarily a little bit fanciful. Even with lighter runners like Jamaal Charles and Jahvid Best included, McKinnon is more athletic than his comp group but also less accomplished as a running back. It’s almost impossible to tell how a small school option quarterback will transition to a different position at the NFL level. Of course, being a tremendous athlete should help. It’s not a stretch to consider the Georgia Southern project as the top athlete from the class and by a decent margin.
Yesterday I explained the value of being an explosive pre-contact runner and referenced the excellent results of the 2013 Vision Yards All-Stars. Some of this depends on situation, of course. If you’re a running back plying your trade for Chip Kelly, Andy Reid, or Marc Trestman, your in-space opportunities are going to be considerably greater than if you play for St. Louis, San Francisco, or Carolina. It can still be tremendously helpful to know exactly what players have accomplished on a previous level. Scouts widely criticize fans for “highlight reel scouting,” but what are we to make of scouting reports that don’t mesh with the actual, verifiable results?
In trying to decide how electric a runner can be, I like to look at a Bill Connelly metric from Football Study Hall. He provides Highlight Yards per Opportunity, which basically tells you how many second level yards a running back generates when a play is blocked correctly. Check out the leaderboard for 2014. I included the top five players and then a few of the runners with bigger hype as a contrast.
|Player||Yards||Yds/Carry||Hlt/Opp||Block Success Rate|
As you can see, Andre Williams was much more explosive in 2013 than anyone wants to give him credit for. He then put together a very impressive Combine, helping to confirm Adrian Peterson among his list of comparables. Outside of Williams, Henry Josey was last year’s most explosive player. He’s not going to go nearly as early in the reality draft – and there are very real reasons why that’s perfectly justifiable – but consider how much more dynamic he was in the SEC than Tre Mason.
Here’s a look at notables on the leaderboard from the past two seasons.
|Year||Player||Yards||Hl/Opp||Block Success Rate|
Dri Archer is on a completely different planet. That’s almost a given after looking at his comps. Kent State’s schedule ranked 119 out of 124 teams. Against that caliber opponent, Archer should be shredding defenses. We also see two appearances by Charles Sims. He will be featured in the next Agility Score article.
What do we make of James White being even more explosive in 2012? Or of Henry Josey lighting the world on fire in 2011 before suffering his devastating injury? Are these guys more LaMichael James or more Andre Ellington?
It’s pretty obvious that players like Seastrunk and James can be successful when given space. It’s less obvious if they are the reason behind the numbers or simply the beneficiaries of elite schemes. Although they have yet to make good on the potential, it’s encouraging that David Wilson and Lamar Miller appear. Zac Stacy was widely panned by scouts, but his highlight yard numbers were well above his similarly sized peers. Many felt Stacy’s excellent timed agility was a joke, but he appears to be getting the last laugh. These plays are all on tape somewhere. Unfortunately, they were simply ignored by evaluators.
Pead and Franklin both have good numbers as well, and this could be a good or bad sign for Josey. NFL players in that weight range probably need to be faster than Pead and Franklin. Regardless, the former UCLA back finds himself on my 2014 sleeper list, and Pead could also be interesting if released by the Rams.
Josey, White, Archer, and McKinnon will be available cheaply in rookie drafts or as free agents after your draft concludes. Situation could be everything with these players. If they end up on teams led by offensive innovators, I would definitely add them to your squad. If not, keep them on your watch list anyway. You never know when a Darren Sproles will move from a Norv Turner level coordinator to a Sean Payton level coordinator. Acquiring RB2 caliber players for free is the recipe for fantasy success.
For more information on White, check out why he’s one of five players who could be the Next Priest Holmes.