I’m going through an update to my RB model this week and while I’m doing that I’m paying special attention to the impact that a player’s college production might have on PPR scoring. Several of this year’s prospects essentially caught no passes in their final year of college. Even more troubling is that several of those players are prospects that I would be otherwise inclined to like. All of Andre Williams, Tre Mason and Jerick McKinnon are guys that I would be inclined to like simply for their physical upside, and all are extremely light on receptions coming out of college.
But to see the reason that I like all of these guys for their physical upside, check out the following table which compares some of this year’s prospects based on Combine measurements and also some stats from their final seasons of college.
|Jerick McKinnon||Georgia Southern||21.70||16.00||105.00||0.30||6.56||68.88||132.00||10.95||4.12||6.83||4.41||209.00||40.50|
|ANDRE WILLIAMS||Boston College||21.36||27.31||167.46||–||6.13||71.38||129.00||11.33||4.06||7.27||4.56||230.00||38.00|
|CHARLES SIMS||West Virginia||23.21||17.33||91.25||3.75||5.26||72.00||126.00||11.46||4.30||7.16||4.48||214.00||37.50|
|CARLOS HYDE||Ohio State||22.30||18.91||138.27||1.45||7.31||71.88||114.00||NA||NA||NA||4.66||230.00||34.50|
|JEREMY HILL||Louisiana State||21.21||16.92||116.75||1.50||6.90||72.63||113.00||NA||NA||NA||4.66||233.00||29.00|
|ANTONIO ANDREWS||Western Kentucky||22.14||22.25||144.17||3.42||6.48||70.13||96.00||11.73||4.49||7.24||4.82||225.00||29.50|
You can see that McKinnon, Williams and Mason all come in at over 205 pounds (with Williams being a lot bigger), they all have an explosive athletic profiles, and they all ran up decent production before turning 22 years old. McKinnon’s production is probably the most borderline out of the group. You can make a decent draft agnostic model to predict first three years fantasy scoring (PPR) with just four variables that are: weight, 40 time, age, and last year of rushing yards/game.
But the problem is that while I’m identifying high explosion guys – so that if they ever catch on as a team’s starting back the upside will be really high – there’s going to be a cap to that upside if they can’t catch passes. Actually for that reason Bishop Sankey probably is this class’ clear top RB. His mix of size, age, receiving resume, forty time and agility profile puts him in the sweet spot. He’s probably big enough to be a feature back, but he’s small enough to be a team’s primary pass catcher out of the backfield (RB profiles go in different directions on these two components of RB production). Sankey also has 10 inch hands, which makes him something of an anomaly among RBs. But I’m always on the lookout for bargains, so instead of doing the easy thing and just selecting Sankey, I’ll probably try to figure out if some cheaper RBs might be able to provide some of Sankey’s upside for a fraction of the cost (Sankey would have been cheap just a few weeks ago but now it looks like the tape grinders are starting to come around on him).
So that leaves me looking at Mason, McKinnon and Williams… and their troubling lack of receiving ability. Or maybe I should say seeming lack of receiving ability. A common mistake people make is to assume that if something hasn’t already happened, that means it can’t happen. LaDanian Tomlinson caught fewer than 1 pass per game in his last season in college and he’s probably the best pass catching feature back of the last 15 years. Ryan Mathews also caught less than a pass per game in his last year in college and he has a 50 catch season and a 39 catch season under his belt (those would actually scale to 57 and 52 catches if he had played 16 games either year). DeAngelo Williams came out of college having caught about 1 pass per game and then his rookie year he was on a 40 catch pace on a per game basis. Or, to look at things another way, Frank Gore was once a 60 catch player in the NFL. Last year he caught 16 balls. If the 16 receptions had happened before the 60, we would have judged him a player incapable of catching the 60. But the only difference was offensive design. Also, the same offensive design that has seen RB receptions plummet in SF, WAS and CAR is also the same scheme being used in a lot of college programs.
Having said all of that, there is a correlation between college receiving numbers and NFL receptions in a player’s first three years. But like a lot of college-to-NFL stats, the fit is poor enough to leave a lot of room for a lot of players that will break the trend by either catching a lot of passes in college and then few in the NFL, or catching no passes in college and then suddenly begin catching passes in the NFL.
But if I want to draft Mason, McKinnon or Williams how will I know whether their lack of pass catching is offensive design or because they’re incapable of catching passes? There’s not a great way to figure this out but there is one way to collect some evidence: the Combine drills. It’s not perfect and it’s a tiny sample, but let’s take a look.
Jerick McKinnon Combine Workout
Andre Williams Combine Workout
Tre Mason Combine Workout
You might think it’s ridiculous to look at about 20 seconds of video and draw any conclusions. And you might be right. But prospect evaluation is about collecting evidence. Some of that evidence comes in neat packages like stats from online providers that are impossible to screw up. But some other part is messy and involves determining what conclusions you can draw from very little information. For instance, we have almost no visibility into player medical situations. And yet we have to determine how much we’re going to weight things like stress fractures. Trying to draw conclusions from 20 seconds of pass catching video is no different. I’m not planning on taking what I’ve seen and drawing absolute conclusions like “Andre Williams could never be a 3 down back in the NFL.” But I am willing to incorporate this information into what I know of these prospects. Despite his small hand size, McKinnon actually does seem to be able to catch the ball away from his body in stride. Andre Williams was a disaster trying to catch the ball. Every time that he didn’t catch it with his body he also bobbled it. Mason looked decent as far as I could tell. I’m much more willing to believe that McKinnon and Mason didn’t catch the ball in college because that’s not how their offensive schemes worked. In fact Auburn backs haven’t caught very many passes over a few years.
So my takeaway from this exercise is that at this point we really don’t have any reason to expect that Andre Williams could be a better pass catcher than other two down backs like Michael Turner or Alfred Morris. That’s not to say it’s impossible, only that we don’t have any reason to expect him to be better. But McKinnon and Mason have a wider range of outcomes because of the offenses they played in. They both seem like they can catch the ball so I’m looking at them with a more open mind. Like I said, the fit when trying to predict RB receptions is poor enough that there’s a lot of room for outliers, but that doesn’t mean we stop collecting evidence or refuse to make guesses when we think the odds favor us. I’m not opposed to any of these three backs although I would give Mason and McKinnon slightly better odds to eventually become three down players.