For nearly 20 years Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak have been churning out productive fantasy running backs like cars off of an auto assembly line: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Steve Slaton, Arian Foster and Alfred Morris. Many of these success stories have been unheralded late round picks and even undrafted free agents. Regardless of make or model, the success continues to come. Below is a snap shot of average production in the S2K (Shanahan, Shanahan & Kubiak) system for RBs with at least 10 starts between 1995 and 2013.
Figure 1: S2K – 10 Plus Start Averages from 1995 to 2013:
The average PPR output from S2K RBs is extraordinary at 271 points. Based on averages from 2007 to 2013, this is well above the cut-off for top 10 (T10) runners (237 points). In 12 out of 18 cases (67%) where an S2K runner started 10 or more games they reached that mark. With Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan migrating to Baltimore and Cleveland this offseason, fantasy owners are faced with deciphering which RBs on these teams are most likely to capitalize. Are there clues from the past that we can use to help us pull the pieces of this puzzle together?
To attempt to solve this puzzle, first we will take a deeper look at previously successful S2K backs to see if any useful patterns or profiles exist. In order to qualify they needed 1 or more top 30 (T30) finish. Below is data from the combine, pro days and college total yards per game for this group. I have also included an index called MAP, but more on that later. The list is sorted by number of top T30 finishes.
Figure 2: S2K T10 & T30 Finishers:
*For Combine, ProDay and College Total Yards Per Game: Green = Good; Yellow = Average; Red = Bad (based on drafts from 2006 to 2013)
**For MAP: Good to Bad = Orange to Green
***Italics represent pro day or other source
****Round 8 = UDFA
Immediately we can see two profiles start to emerge. One is in line with the typical NFL profile we are used to seeing. These running backs have elite speed and explosion traits. Typically, they are drafted in the first couple of rounds like Clinton Portis, Tatum Bell and Ben Tate. We will touch on this this profile in a bit. But the first and primary goal is to explore this more unheralded group that has me completely intrigued and has posted more T10 and T30 finishes in the S2K scheme.
Profile #1 Breakdown:
The typical profile for this ho-hum group of runners is 215 plus pounds, slow, good to average agility, minimal explosiveness, and average to bad collegiate production compared to peers. Say what? Yeah, the rest of the NFL thinks the same thing as evidenced by how late they were available in drafts. Foster wasn’t even drafted. Droughns was the highest pick, taken by Detroit in the 3rd round and later acquired by Denver. To provide a little context, the chart below illustrates the percentage of instances where an NFL team has acquired a T10 or T30 runner by NFL draft round from 2006 to 2013.
Figure 3: RB Success Rate by NFL Draft Round:
*One T10 or T30 season necessary to qualify
Drafting a RB that will perform well enough to become a top performer becomes progressively harder the later the round, as we would expect. In fact, the percentages of finding a quality RB (by fantasy standards) in round 6, 7 or in the UDFA market indicate NFL execs might want to consider investing in different positions all together in those situations. If you take away the S2K picks the NFL has only hit on one (.008%) T10 caliber running back (Ahmad Bradshaw) in those rounds. Sheesh.
Lets take a look at this from a different angle. If we take NFL draft round out of the equation and just focus on the key traits that have demonstrated a correlation to RB success over the past 8 years what would we find out? This is where the MAP Index comes in. It is designed to help predict probability of success through a weighted algorithm that takes multiple drivers into account like the combine, college production and other factors. Take a look at this similar illustration to Figure 3 above but pivoted against the runner’s MAP Index score instead.
Figure 4: RB Success Rate by MAP Index Score:
*One T10 or T30 season necessary to qualify
I am actually not sure if I should keep writing or stop everything I am doing and create an S2K alter and kneel before it. Of 102 candidates scoring below a 0.40 on the MAP, only 4 (4%) have delivered a top T10 season. Three of those are S2K draftees (the other is Eddie Lacy). Either these guys are the only three people in the world smart enough to figure this out or they have a flux capacitor and have stolen a sports almanac from the future.
Sorry, bad sequel reference. My head is hurting. Data is my medication – let’s dig deeper and see if we can make some sense out of this madness. So, let’s step away from the traditional way of thinking (at least my traditional way) that may be limiting our vision here. What are the positives of the group above? They are big and have average to good agility. If we are looking for a defining theme to hang our hat on with this profile it has to be this pairing. Of the seven RBs that ran a 4.6 forty, (Figure 1) five of them participated in at least one of the 3 Cone and Shuttle drills. All 5 of those either registered a sub 7.16 in the 3 cone and/or a sub 4.20 in the shuttle. Below is the list of comps for this group that have posted a T30 finish across the NFL from 2006 to 2013.
Figure 5: Big, Slow, but Agile T30 RBs:
*Joique Bell Total Yards Per Game reduced to account for lower competition level
OK, now we are making some progress and we have a name for our first profile – Big, Slow, but Agile. I know it’s not flashy, but neither is this group by NFL GM standards. Five of the eight T30 finishers acquired from round 6 through 8 (Figure 3) reside on this list. Eddie Lacy and Michael Bush were also candidates but were ruled out due to lack of combine data. Twenty-five total players qualified, meaning 12% garnered a T10 finish (all S2K guys) and 28% managed a T30 finish. This isn’t a great success rate, but when we hone in on S2K players that have exhibited these same traits (Figure 2) the success rate goes up to 80% (not including Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson due to lack of data). On the flip side, other S2K profile candidates that didn’t meet the criteria have not shared the same success. Below is a list of Big, Slow, but Agile candidates that didn’t pan out in the S2K scheme since 1995.
Figure 6: Big, Slow but Agile S2K Misfires:
When analyzing this list we don’t know what we don’t know about some of the players that didn’t participate in drills. However, we can see that Maurice Clarett, Michael Bell and Jawan Jamison all missed the mark in multiple buckets. Evan Royster actually did well in both agility drills and was close enough to the 215 pound mark to think he had solid chance, making him the only real miss using this methodology (he had a nice finish to 2011 that made Alfred Morris a sleeper in 2012).
When we think about the zone-blocking scheme involved in the S2K system this profile appeals to our logical senses. The ability of the RB to hit the backside cutback lane is essential to breaking off long gains and making the defense pay for over pursuit on the stretch play. Lateral agility and quickness are necessary traits to enable this from an ability perspective. Perhaps the slower backs have also developed a patient approach in their running style that also provides an edge in this scheme by allowing lanes to develop. Where as faster backs may be tempted to press the issue too soon relying on their natural abilities. Highly explosive Darren McFadden may be a good example of this. His two best seasons were in 2010 and 2011 behind Hugh Jackson’s power blocking scheme, but every year he has ran in a zone scheme he has looked out of sorts. This is a hypothesis worth monitoring in the future – scheme certainly can accentuate or diminish a runner’s production based on skill set.
Big, Slow, but Agile profile recap:
- Typically greater than 215 pounds
- Typically over a 4.60 in the 40
- Typically under a 7.15 in the 3 Cone and / or under a 4.20 in the shuttle
- Typically an average to below average performer by total yards per game standards in college
- Meets all 4 criteria = Olandis Gary, Peyton Hillis, Arian Foster, Evan Royster, Alfred Morris
- T30 success rate = 80% (All but Royster)
- T10 success rate = 60% (All but Gary & Royster)
- Outliers = Rueben Droughns (7.34 Three Cone & 4.41 Shuttle)
- Not Enough Info = Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Ahmad Galloway, Brandon Miree, Selvin Young, Ryan Torain, Keiland Williams (all qualify from 40 time and weight perspective but missing other criteria)
Profile # 2 Breakdown
The second profile didn’t emerge until 2002 when Denver broke the mold by selecting the blazing fast and explosive Clinton Portis. Taken in the 2nd round, Portis represented the highest pick spent on a RB in Shanahan and Kubiak’s tenure in Denver. Interestingly the team was torn on who to take, but were wisely influenced by their first year GM Ted Sundquist to draft the Hurricane runner who he had graded as a first round talent. Portis went on to tally five T10 seasons (2 in Denver and 3 in Washington) and posted the best points-per-touch season ever for an S2K runner as a rookie in 2002 – a record that still stands today. Ever since this homerun it appears the S2K brain trust has been trying to find the next Portis. Now about every two years they take another swing for the fences in rounds 2 through 4. Below is a recap of all of the S2K runners drafted from 2002 to 2013 who fall into our new fast and flashy profile.
Figure 7: Fast & Flashy S2K Draftees:
In studying this group it is apparent that the MAP Index is more relevant in helping predict success. All five of the T30 finishers posted a score over .45 or better. Portis and Bell’s scores are most likely being pulled down due to their DNP status on the agility drills. Their actual scores are probably closer to the 0.60 mark based on agility numbers posted by similar 40 time players drafted in the first 2 rounds. Runners with a MAP Index score over .60 have a T30 success rate of 70% and T30 success rate T10 of 55% (Figure 4). If we used the logic that Portis and Bell would have reached the .60 threshold those numbers would compare similarly to the S2K results here with 4 of 4 (Portis, Bell, Slaton, Helu) garnering at least one T30 finish and 2 of 4 (Portis & Slaton) earning a T10 finish. Of course, this is all speculative because we don’t know their real times. The real take-away here is that the higher MAP Index scorers went on to produce while the lower (orange and red) did not.
Fast & Flashy Profile Recap:
- Typically have a MAP Index of .45 or greater (maybe greater than .60 if we had DNP data)
- Typically pair another elite trait with the 40 time (Vertical or 3 Cone)
- T30 success rate = 100%
- T10 success rate = 50% (Portis, Slaton)
- Sub 200 pounds = 13% T10 & T30 success rate
Back to the Future
Now that we have our two S2K profiles in hand along with some handy success rates it is time to turn our attention to the future. Which backs in Baltimore and Cleveland best fit the profiles?
Baltimore – RB Ranking by Profile
Figure 8: Baltimore RB Depth Chart & Data
*Red text indicates lower college competition level
- Lorenzo Taliaferro – This is the player screaming “pick me” out of this group. His comps are Alfred Morris and Arian Foster (Figure 2). He is a little faster than those two and pairs his 229 pound frame with a very strong 3 Cone of 6.88. Most likely he will start the year behind Pierce who will get the first shot, but based on what we know now on the Big, Slow, but agile profile can Pierce hold on? This is Kubiak’s guy – an ideal fit for the S2K system. Remember, in Denver the S2K brain trust went with 6th round pick Terrell Davis in their first season and Kubiak was starting his 6th round pick Wali Lundy by week 4 in 2006. Considering Rice and Pierce’s ineffectiveness last year, the coming suspension for Rice, and the 4th round pick spent on this Taliaferro, it isn’t far fetched to think he will get an opportunity. Currently he is undrafted in redrafts and the last RB being taken in dynasty rookie drafts. This isn’t an ordinary backup or handcuff, this is high percentage play that can win your league if he gets on the field. I will be drafting him in all dynasty formats and deep redraft leagues (late). In shallower leagues I recommend monitoring the situation and being ready to spend a large percentage of your free agent bankroll if he gets in the line up.
- Bernard Pierce – The 40 time puts Pierce in the Fast & Flashy group, but everything else grades out in the Big, Slow, but Agile group. His closest comps are Wali Lundy and Ben Tate (Figure 7). He gets the nod over Rice from a profile perspective because he has better explosion numbers paired with his speed like a Portis. He should get the first shot at the starting job, but he faces the return of Ray Rice at some point and the stronger S2K profile of Taliaferro breathing down his neck. He is currently RB37 off of the board with an ADP of 8.07 – that historically equates to 167 touches and around 140 points. This is not an unreasonable expectation, but the typical upside that comes along with the S2K system is already priced into the round you have to take him. This is a borderline player that I won’t be actively targeting except in RB poor situations – then I will be sure to pair Taliaferro with him.
- Ray Rice – The best S2K runner comparison is Slaton – a runner with nice speed that is more dependent on quickness than burst (Figure 7). Of course, we can throw that out the window in this case. We know Rice is a superior talent compared to guys like Slaton and Helu. The problem here is the toll that his body has taken due to the massive amount of touches. The chances that he is still playing with the same speed and agility after this pounding is probably fairly low. We also have the suspension that is looming. There is a chance that Baltimore runs him into the ground this season when he returns, but there may not be much left in the tank. If Pierce or Taliaferro have shown anything he could find himself in a committee situation or 3rd down role. With an ADP of 6.07 at RB29 the price is just too high unless great news breaks around the suspension – there are better investments.
- Cierre Wood – Another Fast & Flashy profile, this is a name to monitor if he makes the team. He actually compares to Ben Tate, pairing the combination of speed and explosion (Figure 7). He is more of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type player if a rash of injuries hit.
Cleveland – RB Ranking by Profile
Figure 10: S2K 2014 Candidates: Cleveland RBs
*Red text indicates lower college competition level
- Ben Tate – The speed and explosion combination land Tate in the Fast & Flashy bucket. He is the closest S2K comparable to Portis in several years (Figure 2). He has experienced some success in the S2K system but hasn’t overwhelmed. Watching Tate run on film he just doesn’t have that same patience and forward lean that the great S2K runners have exhibited. He may be more athlete than running back. The word out of Cleveland is a committee situation with Terrance West getting in on the action along with Dion Lewis in a pass catching role. As RB26 off the board at 6.05 he has minimal upside from his ADP, which averages out to 200 touches, 960 yards and 5 TDs. Tate is probably a safe bet to hit these marks, but with two other backs in the mix I just don’t see room for substantially more. West is a threat to take the goal line work since the S2K scheme favors the larger backs there and Kyle Shanahan has already demonstrated the willingness to use a 3rd down back in Washington.
- Terrance West – This is a Big, Slow, but ________ candidate. I leave the blank because West’s 3 Cone and Shuttle times are flat out bad. His closest S2K comp is Rueben Droughns, who is the only outlier to register a T30 finish with these issues. His other S2K comps are Maurice Clarett (also a 3rd round pick) and Michael Bell (Figure 6). A more recent comparison is Eddie Lacy, but Lacy plays in a scheme that faces far less 7 and 8 man fronts than what West can expect to see. With an ADP of 8.04 at RB36 he would need 750 total yards and 4 TDs. That seems more like a ceiling unless Tate is injured for an extended period of time. Pulling the trigger on West at 2.01 in dynasty format is a little more appealing because you are getting a few years to see if he can develop into an S2K star, but I have seen him go as high as 1.05 which probably overpaying. The profile sample may not be huge but the directional data says the percentages are against West.
- Isaiah Crowell – Crowell grades out very similarly to West in the Big, Slow, but _________ candidate. He comps out similarly as well and will most likely need some injury help to have any impact this season. He is a player to monitor in the preseason to see if he makes any depth chart noise. This is a player that is conflicting for me because he looks really good on film, which is the other half of this equation.
- Chris Ogbonnaya – “Silent G” actually grades out better than West or Crowell in this exercise as a Big, Slow but Agile back. His closest comp is Evan Royster (Figure 6). He lands here because he is currently listed as fullback, but remember that Mike Anderson and Rueben Droughns both spent time at fullback in the S2K system. Each also had their time in the sun so Ogbonnaya’s stock gets a solid boost if multiple injuries hit the Browns RB corps this season.
- Dion Lewis – This is a runner I love on film and would love to see land somewhere else. He just doesn’t seem to fit this profile and has already been penciled in as the 3rd down guy. His best comps are Roy Helu and Steve Slaton (Figure &7).
In closing it is important to note that film work should really be paired with this type of research to go to the next level. I have watched most of these players, but tried to keep that separate as much as possible with the goal of seeing what the data said. There isn’t one magic formula that gives us all the answers. The data and analytics are one piece, and the film is another. Thanks for reading and may your S2K runner’s cut back lanes be wide and plentiful this season!