The headline for this article has a little bit of a bait-and-switch aspect to it. I should admit that right up front. It’s never fair to expect anyone to be Priest Holmes. He was one of a kind. But at a certain point, it gets repetitive listing every undervalued group as “sleepers,” even though folks seem to click on those posts a lot. Admitting all that, there’s a reason I chose Priest Holmes, and I think it will become obvious if you read on.
Once the Superstars Are Gone, Nobody Knows Anything
In discussing why you should be very skeptical of Devonta Freeman, Ka’Deem Carey, and Antonio Andrews, I explained that runners lacking elite athleticism simply don’t have any currently successful NFL comps. That’s more or less true, as long as you ignore guys like Arian Foster and Priest Holmes who don’t have official results. Of course, this exposes another problem with the “tape don’t lie” approach. While it may be true that not all future stars are workout wonders, it’s also true that NFL teams are completely and totally incapable of identifying these players. Two of the five best fantasy running backs of this millennium went undrafted.
Let that sink in for a moment. 32 teams passed on Foster and Holmes seven different times.
All of which brings me back to the idea of NFL prospects, unpredictability, and late round value. In looking at the 2014 wide receiver group, I identified five non-first round prospects who aren’t only going to be relatively valuable due to cheaper ADPs, they are simply going to be better.1
This is my RotoViz Reach argument for the running back position. I’ve created two groups of similar runners on a set of objective and roughly predictive criteria. The first group is the scout-favored group. All five of these backs are currently going in the Top 50 backs in DLF startup mocks, which means they’re all being drafted in the Top 150 overall. Only one back from the second group is being drafted at all.
To see where they went in our composite staff rankings, Zach Dietz has you covered.
The Trendy Runners
Our high profile group basically relies on weight and usage to generate interest. Ka’Deem Carey is almost completely bereft of athletic ability, leading to recent reports he could go very late in the reality draft. On the other hand, his combination of age, production, and receiving touches actually gives him the best RotoViz projection.
Charles Sims has weight, speed, and receiving value on his side. As a result, I’ve asked whether he might be the next DeMarco Murray. But age and questionable shiftiness could curtail his upside.
Many believe Carlos Hyde will be the first running back drafted, but some believe the NFL prefers the far superior Jeremy Hill. Very sharp writers like Rumford Johnny and Josh Norris rank Devonta Freeman at No. 1. Meanwhile, Isaiah Crowell is something of an underground draftnik phenomenon. Fantasy Gumshoe looked into his fantasy prospects and came away horrified.
In short, there are very good reasons to select any of those runners in your rookie draft, but there are also reasons to be concerned. Now let’s take a quick peek at the buzz-free contenders.
The No Names
James White is going to get drafted, probably somewhere in the Round 5 range. The other guys will all be cradling their phones with some trepidation on Saturday. Of course, going undrafted might just put them on pace to be the next Arian Foster or Priest Holmes.
This is what the averages for the two groups look like side by side.
- Age: Age plays a huge role in prospect evaluation. (FD’s age-adjusted RB projections are called the Steven Jackson award winners. The ages for all prospects can be found in the Rookie Age Project.) Although Carey and Crowell definitely get a boost from youth, the No Name group is six months younger on average.
- Weight: The trendy group is four pounds heavier on average, and scouts definitely like the size of Hyde and Crowell. On the other hand, the No Name group fits exactly into my favorite weight range for running backs, making them excellent candidates for the undervalued Profile 2.
- Athleticism: Here again we discover that the two groups are exactly identical. They magically averaged the same (albeit slow) forty time of 4.6. The differences in agility and explosion are miniscule. When you’re on the clock in your rookie draft, opportunity will trump athleticism, but you have to ask yourself this question: What premium do I want to pay for essentially equivalent talents? You have to ask yourself if you want to pay for opportunity when Arian Foster and Priest Holmes didn’t appear to have any opportunity and then each went on to finish as the No. 1 running back in fantasy football.
- Highlight Yards per Opportunity: I’ve examined highlight yards at length in generating a list of four explosive players who’ll be available cheaply this summer. Keep in mind that success rate is overrated, while explosive plays tend to be underrated in projecting prospects. In this case, the trendy group looks better in terms of raw efficiency, but the script flips when you strip away the effects of blocking. The No Name group averaged a half yard more per explosive opportunity.
- Production: The groups are just as similar in production as they are in athleticism. The trendy group has the slightest edge in yards, the No Name group in touchdowns. It’s easy to suggest that the No Names benefited from an easier strength of schedule, but if that’s the case, why has Jonathan Bales discovered that prioritizing small school backs leads to fantasy success? The runners in the No Name group are running against weaker defenses, but they’re also running behind less talented offensive lines.
- Receiving value: The No Names actually hold a pretty sizable edge here. If you were to rank the players from each group, the No Name cohort would finish 2-3-4-5-10. The Fantasy Douche has demonstrated that receiving prowess translates to the NFL. With many fantasy leagues using PPR scoring, receptions are at a premium, but that’s just the beginning. The Vision Yards All-Stars also finished 1-2-3 in standard scoring last year.
- RotoViz Projections: At this point, it should be no surprise that the No Name group owns a better average RotoViz projection than the trendy runners. Tim Cornett finishes with the best projection of the 10 players and probably deserves his own column. Rich Hribar previously featured him as an arbitrage play on Storm Johnson. We’ll give him a quick comp set here.
This is almost as gaudy a list as the All-Pro comparables we saw for Tyler Gaffney. If your comps include Cadillac Williams, Gio Bernard, and the man who finished as RB4 last season, that’s a pretty good list. If they also include a Top 10 sleeper candidate and a Top 20 deep sleeper candidate, that’s even better.
The truth is that Cornett will have to be better than any of these guys since he’s going to be drafted much lower. His most likely result is probably as D.J. Harper, but again, the same thing could once have been said about Arian Foster or Priest Holmes.
If you decide to wait on the No-Name All-Stars in your rookie draft, you’ll have to have the confidence of humility and the ability to delay gratification. It probably won’t happen right away. The Zac Stacy phenomenon required the perfect storm. But if you consistently approach your drafts this way, it will happen.