A Short Digression
I’d been planning to write this article trying to figure out why De’Anthony Thomas isn’t getting more attention. My thought was to compare him to Tavon Austin, but then a pretty awesome Randall Cobb discussion broke out on Twitter yesterday, the genesis of which was my ranking of Cobb at 29 in our Composite WR Dynasty rankings.
— Eye of the Gator (@EyeoftheGator) June 5, 2014
And it went on from there with great stuff from @Dexters_Library, @Harahduh2, @BraudeM, @SAF4SAFF, @DavisMattek, and more. At one point I received a temporary and whimsical follow from @TallWRTho, which I would like to think wasn’t so much a parody account as Stephen Hill joining the fray.
Just as a general point about rankings: you probably shouldn’t take mine too seriously. Winning fantasy football leagues is about maintaining discipline, having a dominant strategy, and coming up with a handful of player-specific home runs in any given year.
I generated a decent amount of controversy last year when I suggested Adrian Peterson shouldn’t be a Top 5 pick. That turned out to be true, but my point wasn’t that Peterson wouldn’t finish in the Top 5. It was that you should use your top five pick on someone capable of posting a Ladainian Tomlinson-type season.
The Cobb ranking wasn’t like that. It didn’t occur to me anyone would notice and be offended. To my mind, Cobb is a short, slow, oft-injured possession receiver whose value is entirely tied to Aaron Rodgers. In some ways No. 29 seems pretty enthusiastic.
I don’t really consider myself to have much of a dog in the fight on Cobb’s value. I don’t think he’s going to single-handedly win your league, which is something I look for in wide receivers at that ADP. But I also think the only way he really hurts you is if he gets hurt. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see Cobb show up as a cog on a lot of championship teams at the end of 2014. (Almost every team I was competing with for the NFFC Primetime title last year had Antonio Brown and DeSean Jackson, and those are obviously smaller receivers.)
What the twitter conversation did do, however, was remind me that Cobb is also superficially pretty similar to De’Anthony Thomas. It also seems like Thomas is fairly similar to Percy Harvin, you know, the guy who saw more handoffs than receptions in the Super Bowl but also stuck in the dagger with a kick return touchdown. Last year I compared Austin to Dexter McCluster coming out of college, so let’s take a look at the career college numbers for that quintet.
How Does De’Anthony Thomas Compare to Other RB/WR Hybrids on the Field?Esteban Vihaio: If I had met you 40 years ago, you would have been my Number One lady.
The Bride: Well, I’m flattered.
Esteban Vihaio: You goddamn better well be.
Career Receiving Numbers
Thomas had the lowest number of receptions but was in the same range as Cobb, Harvin, and McCluster. He scored on the highest percentage of touches. He would appear to have enough receiving ability to be used in the same possession/gadget/niche1 role as the others.
Career Rushing Numbers
Thomas looks pretty good in this area, especially when you consider the total number of attempts is going to hurt his efficiency numbers the same way it does for Cobb and McCluster. His scoring efficiency remains very good. It’s easy to give Chip Kelly credit for these scores – and that probably plays a role – but keep in mind that Harvin was playing with Tim Tebow in an offense run by mastermind Urban Meyer.
Thomas did struggle more in 2013 when Kelly left, but nagging injuries might have been the true culprit. (Much as is the case for Marqise Lee, injuries are probably significantly deflating his fair price.) Can we get any other external verification that Thomas possesses the kind of game-breaking ability we’d want in a gadget player?
Kick and Punt Return Explosiveness
I added Devin Hester here to try to get some more context. Kick return stats are necessarily going to be really noisy, but there’s nothing here that would make you question his purported explosive athleticism. The contrast between Thomas and McCluster seems especially relevant in what it might tell us about the “burst” of the two players. If you believe Black Momba2 is the most electric of the group, you won’t get any argument from his performance as a returner.
How does Thomas look in terms of age/size/speed?Bill: Now… When it comes to you, and us, I have a few unanswered questions. . . and I want you to tell me the truth. However, therein lies a dilemma. Because, when it comes to the subject of me, I believe you are truly and utterly incapable of telling the truth, especially to me, and least of all, to yourself. And, when it comes to the subject of me, I am truly and utterly incapable of believing anything you say.
The Bride: How do you suppose we solve this dilemma?
As I’m struggling with the lack of enthusiasm – or even mentions – surrounding Thomas, it seems like there must be some sense that he’s an inferior athlete. After all, Austin and Harvin were drafted in the first round, while Cobb and McCluster were drafted in the second. Their teams clearly anticipated them playing a big role.
Combine/Pro Day Times
This is complicated slightly by the poor Combine performance turned in by Thomas. He chose to run again at his Pro Day, and he turned in times as low as 4.34. There’s reason to be skeptical of these times, but the Fantasy Douche has convincingly argued that pro day times tend to be faster because only those players who know their times weren’t reflective choose to re-run. This would possibly also explain the decision of Dexter McCluster to run at his pro day – and turn in a much faster time – while Harvin, Cobb, and Austin stayed with their Combine performances.
A few things jump out. 1) The weight for all five players is a big negative, but Thomas, McCluster, and Austin are at another level of concern. 2) Cobb and McCluster are slow enough that there’s very little chance they’re special players in their own right. 3) All five players entered the NFL at very reasonable ages, but age-related adjustments strongly favor Cobb and Harvin. Of course, De’Anthony Thomas was the only one to post a 1,000-yard-from-scrimmage season as a freshman, and we know breakout age is the skeleton key.
Based on all of the statistical information available to us, this would be my ranking of the five players entering the NFL (assuming I had no idea what they would do in their first several seasons).
1) Percy Harvin
2) De’Anthony Thomas
3) Randall Cobb
4) Tavon Austin
5) Dexter McCluster
What We Know Now – Subtitle: Who Has the Best Situation?Copperhead: Look, if I could go back in a machine, I would. But I can’t. All can tell you is that I’m a different person now.
The Bride: Oh great. I don’t care.
Randall Cobb landed with the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. As a second year player he finished as WR16. Justin Winn has suggested there’s a real risk they won’t re-sign him at the end of his rookie deal, but I think that would require continued injury difficulty combined with an immediate breakout by the underwhelming Jared Abbrederis. Cobb seems like the player to own from this group.
Percy Harvin finished as WR8 in 2011 and was up to 18.1 points per game in ppr settings when he went down in 2012. His fit with Seattle may not be as favorable for fantasy scoring, but Russell Wilson might be the best young QB in the game. (Consider the ridiculous AYA splits I uncovered in looking at Golden Tate.) He’s competing with the undervalued Doug Baldwin and explosive rookie breakout candidate Paul Richardson, but he’s conspicuously not competing with a big receiver or true red zone threat. We don’t have to evaluate Cobb and Harvin purely as prospects because we’ve got a pretty good idea of what they can do at the NFL level (and what they can’t, which is stay on the field).
Tavon Austin versus De’Anthony Thomas
It’s a slightly different story for Tavon Austin who offered glimpses in 2013 but would have to become something entirely different to have fantasy value. The Intersect has examined what rookie seasons can tell us about the careers of wide receivers, and the results aren’t particularly favorable for Austin.
You could be forgiven if you believe the next best situation belongs to Thomas. He probably inherits the McCluster role in Kansas City’s offense. McCluster scored 7.8 ppr points per game in 2013. The big key here – and the second reason I think Thomas is dramatically undervalued – is that Thomas is RB eligible. If you plug McCluster in at RB, he suddenly finds himself in the RB36-40 range.
If you’re employing RB Zero, there are certainly times you’ll take 7 points from your RB2 slot. And keep in mind that Thomas probably offers superior TD potential. Andy Reid excels in creating space for his players, but McCluster was very poor at taking advantage. (I just got done watching six minutes worth of McCluster “career” highlights, and even on his best plays he’s getting chased down from behind by defensive linemen. And I say that with affection because I’ve always been a McCluster fan.)
While it probably qualifies as rookie derangement to expect those types of numbers from Thomas in 2014, there is at least circumstantial evidence to expect a substantial role. Reid is one of the most pass-heavy minds in the NFL, and his receiving corps consists of sell-low candidate Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, perma-sleeper/asleep A.J. Jenkins, and super sleeper Travis Kelce. In such an offense you could see Jamaal Charles catch 75 passes and still have Thomas catch another 60 or so.
How to Play Thomas in FantasyO-Ren Ishii: [in Japanse; subtitled] For ridiculing you earlier, I apologize.
The Bride: [in Japanse; subtitled] Accepted.
There’s just not a lot of margin in selecting Harvin or Cobb in startups. All of their upside is priced in and very little of the risk. Even with Austin’s ADP plummeting, he seems like a sell-low. Without RB eligibility, he would need to take a huge leap to be startable. That’s unlikely to happen while mired in a run-heavy offense in a great defensive division.
If you want to play the small/fast/hybrid-RB market, De’Anthony Thomas represents a way that is cheap and yet retains more upside than most believe. I selected Thomas at 7.01 in the recent PFF rookie draft. And I think he’s a steal starting in Round 5.
During the first round of the 2013 Draft, John Schneider remarked that he would content himself with watching Percy Harvin highlights.3 Even if Thomas never amounts to anything in the NFL, at a Round 7 cost, I can also fire up the highlight machine and dream.