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The Rookie RB You Should Stop Ignoring and Start Drafting

Charles Sims

Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford have (more or less) tried their best to convince you to draft Charles Sims in your redraft PPR league.

You haven’t listened to them.

In May, Lovie said that the Bucs drafted Sims in the third round because

“We have an excellent running back coach who liked Matt Forte when no one else did.”

That’s right. Tim Spencer, the running back coach for Chicago for almost a decade, is credited with discovering Matt Forte and now thinks Sims is a Forte clone. Lovie added,

“We just felt like Charles would bring something else (to our backfield). I’m talking about as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He has excellent hands, great quickness. He gives us a little more in the passing game than we’ve had.”

In June, Tedford dropped a bomb on the fantasy universe.

“I think you have to alternate,”

Tedford said, as Doug Martin dynasty owners shed a single tear.

“I don’t believe that one back can carry the load . . . I think you probably need to have two or three guys to bring different things to the table.”

Well, Jeff, that’s great, but I’m talking about Charles Sims specifically. Will he be one of those two or three guys?

Charles Sims has done an excellent job. He’s a bigger back who can run between the tackles. He runs with a low pad level and catches the ball really, really well.”

Oh, that sounds promising. But can he block?

“You can’t really tell right now in terms of pass protection, but it looks on tape like he can pass-protect.”

Touché, Jeff. Good talk.

I understand why you may be reluctant to catapult Sims up your draft list based on what a couple of coaches said before July. If coachspeak were gospel, then C.J. Spiller would still be dehydrated from all his 2013 vomiting episodes. Actions speak louder than words. Let’s see what they tell us.

Is Charles Sims good at football?

On this site, Sims has been compared to a poor man’s DeMarco Murray and even a dynamic sixth man in basketball. On the other hand, Mock Draftable’s comparables don’t exactly jump off the page:

Nonetheless, Sims certainly seems good enough to produce if given the opportunity. He was an incredibly prolific pass catcher in college, amassing 2000 career receiving yards. He also wasn’t too bad at running the football either:

Year Team G Rush Yds Yd/Rush TDs Rec Yds Yd/Rec TDs
2009 Hou 14 132 698 5.3 9 70 759 10.8 1
2011 Hou 13 110 821 7.5 9 51 575 11.3 4
2012 Hou 9 142 851 6 11 37 373 10.1 3
2013 WVU 12 208 1095 5.3 11 45 401 8.9 3
Career 48 592 3465 5.9 40 203 2108 10.4 11

We can dig deeper using the Highlight Yard numbers from Bill Connelly at Football Study Hall. Namely, Sims had a much better senior year than meets the eye. Here are Sims’s numbers compared to some of the members of his rookie cohort:

Player YPC Hlt Opps Hlt Yds Hlt/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Andre Williams 6.13 133 1063.7 8 37.5% 38.1%
Henry Josey 6.7 72 573.2 7.96 41.4% 45.5%
James White 6.53 95 700.5 7.37 43.0% 48.8%
Lache Seastrunk 7.41 80 577.2 7.22 50.6% 43.0%
Jeremy Hill 6.9 92 627.9 6.83 45.3% 42.6%
Kapri Bibbs 6.2 113 770.7 6.82 40.2% 40.9%
Charles Sims 5.26 72 470.6 6.54 34.6% 34.9%
Storm Johnson 5.35 75 476.8 6.36 35.2% 37.9%
David Fluellen 6.71 77 452.1 5.87 46.4% 46.0%
Devonta Freeman 5.87 73 426.3 5.84 42.2% 47.5%
Bishop Sankey 5.71 138 751.2 5.44 42.2% 41.9%
Carlos Hyde 7.31 119 598.2 5.03 57.2% 55.7%
Tim Cornett 4.86 90 452.5 5.03 34.1% 35.3%
Tyler Gaffney 5.17 123 597.5 4.86 37.4% 39.4%
Marion Grice 5.21 81 365.4 4.51 42.4% 41.5%
Ka’Deem Carey 5.4 143 636.2 4.45 40.9% 42.7%
Tre Mason 5.73 140 600.3 4.29 44.2% 48.4%

As you can see, Sims endured one of the worst offensive lines in college football; he only had an opportunity to break off a big run a third of the time. By this metric, no other running back selected in the 2014 NFL draft ran behind a more porous line. Though Sims managed a respectable 5.3 YPC overall, he rushed for 6.5 highlight yards per carry (essentially a measure of yards on successfully blocked plays).

So, Sims has talent. He can run. He can catch. And if he had transferred to a team with a better offensive line, he may have been able to show it off even more.

Will Charles Sims get enough opportunity?

To answer this (thoughtful!) question, I looked back at Jeff Tedford’s Cal teams from 2005-2012. Cal was a running back factory with Tedford at the helm. He sent several backs to the NFL, including Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best, and Shane Vereen.

The first lesson is that Tedford loves RBBCs. In all but one outlier season, Cal’s primary running back received between 39 and 54 percent of the carries. More interestingly, despite his stated interest in spreading the wealth between three backs, Tedford preferred a two-headed RBBC at Cal.

Year (RB1/RB2) RB1 Carry % RB2 Carry % RB3 Carry %
2005 (Lynch/Forsett) 40.6 27.3 4.6
2006 (Lynch/Forsett) 52.2 27.9 5.2
2007 (Forsett/Best) 69.1 6.6 2
2008 (Best/Vereen) 44.6 32.6 5
2009 (Vereen/Best) 38.9 29.9 6.6
2010 (Vereen/Sofele) 53.9 16.1 4.9
2011 (Sofele/Anderson) 52.1 14.9 2.3
2012 (Anderson/Sofele) 32.4 27.9 9.8
Average 48 22.9 5.1

This is certainly bad news for Doug Martin, who benefitted from 76.7% of Tampa Bay’s total carries in 2012. In his five full games in 2013, Martin secured a whopping 87.9% of the carries. That kind of volume can go nowhere but down.

It doesn’t seem outlandish to project that—if he secures the RB2 role in Tedford’s offense—Sims could claim a quarter of the team’s rush attempts. Based on the Bucs’ average carries over the last two years, that would be about 105 carries for Sims.

The second takeaway from Tedford’s years in Berkeley is that when he has pass-catching RBs, he uses them. Here are Tedford’s top two running backs and the percentage of the team’s receptions they hauled in.

Year (RB1/RB2) RB1 Catch % RB2 Catch % RB1 + RB2 Catch % All RB Catch %
2005 (Lynch/Forsett) 9 4.2 13.2 22.8
2006 (Lynch/Forsett) 13.9 4.9 18.8 23.7
2007 (Forsett/Best) 8.4 5 13.4 15.3
2008 (Best/Vereen) 12.9 12.9 25.8 30.1
2009 (Vereen/Best) 11.7 10.3 22 26.6
2010 (Vereen/Sofele 11.9 2.7 14.6 16.8
2011 (Sofele/Anderson) 2.4 2.8 5.2 8.1
2012 (Anderson/Sofele) 7 3.3 10.3 17.9
Average 9.7 5.8 15.5 20.2

Tedford is a smart guy. When his teams had lackluster pass catchers like Forsett, Isi Sofele, and C.J. Anderson, the offense did not involve them in the passing game. But, when both of Cal’s RBs could catch passes, they collectively represented more than a quarter of the team’s total receptions. It is important to note that Jahvid Best missed the final four games of the 2009 season after he suffered a concussion. It’s likely that Cal’s 2009 RB catch percentage would’ve outpaced 2008 if Best had remained healthy.

Asher Molk at Apex looked at similar data in April and found that Tedford’s RB1s typically didn’t account for as much of the team’s receptions as PPR darlings like Danny Woodhead and Pierre Thomas do in the NFL. He concluded that Martin might not get the reception volume to be a RB1 in PPR leagues, which seems right.

Let’s look at the players who managed 10 or more targets for Tampa Bay in 2013. The italicized players no longer play with the Bucs. (Notably, Brian Leonard—Tampa’s primary third-down back for most of the season—is now a free agent.)

Player (Position) Receptions Targets Reception % Target %
Vincent Jackson (WR) 78 159 26.8 30.9
Tim Wright (TE) 54 76 18.6 14.8
Tiquan Underwood (WR) 24 45 8.2 8.8
Mike Williams (WR) 22 40 7.6 7.8
Brian Leonard (RB) 29 39 10 7.6
Doug Martin (RB) – in 6 games 12 24 4.1 4.7
Kevin Ogletree (WR) 8 21 2.7 4.1
Chris Owusu (WR) 13 20 4.5 3.9
Bobby Rainey (RB) 11 15 3.8 2.9
Erik Lorig (FB) 11 14 3.8 2.7
Mike James (RB) 10 11 3.4 2.1

So, how will this change in 2014? First, RotoViz’s #1 rookie receiver Mike Evans is likely to cut into Jackson and Williams’s targets. Second, highly touted rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins will likely compete with Tim Wright for playing time.

But, of course, we’re more interested in the RBs. As a unit, Tampa’s backs (including Lorig) accounted for 26% of the team’s receptions and 20% of the team’s targets in 2013.

First, we should expect the 2014 Bucs to approximate Tedford’s 2008 and 2009 teams—when he benefited from two pass-catching RBs like Martin and Sims—more than his 2011 squad. Therefore, it’s reasonable to project that Tampa’s RBs manage something like 25% of the team’s targets and 30% of the receptions in 2014. Assuming the Bucs match their two-year average of 540 pass attempts and 300 receptions, Tampa’s RBs should be targeted about 135 times in 2014, netting 90 receptions.

Second, we should expect those receptions to be mostly dispersed to Tampa’s two primary ball carriers. In years where Tedford had two competent pass-catching RBs, they hauled in about 85% of the team’s total receptions out of the backfield. That would mean that Tampa’s top two RBs can be expected to catch around 80 total passes this season. Without Leonard and Lorig on the roster, that percentage could be even higher.

So how will those 80 catches be split? It’s unclear. But, we do know that when Tedford has a pass-catching RB2 like Shane Vereen, Jahvid Best, or Charles Sims, that RB2 secures about as many receptions as the RB1.

To sum up: Jeff Tedford has a history of both alternating running backs and leaning on pass-catching receivers when he has them. If Charles Sims secures the RB2 spot on the roster, he’s a good bet for 40 receptions this season.

Besides Sims and Martin, are there any other running backs on the Buccaneers?

Nominally. With all due respect to Mike James and Bobby Rainey, neither should be much competition for Sims in 2014. In fact, due to Jeff Demps’s special teams ability, James and Rainey are probably competing for one roster spot. 

James was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. Suffice it to say that RotoViz was not high on him. To be fair, James played admirably in 2013 before breaking his ankle. However, he missed time during OTAs and still has not fully recovered from the injury.

Bobby Rainey is seen as more a threat to Sims’s touches. Though he went undrafted in 2012, Rainey (as I can personally attest) delivered some big games for fantasy owners down the stretch last season. He finished with 150 carries for 566 yards, a 3.8 YPC average. Upon further inspection, however, his mediocre numbers become even less impressive. Here are his game splits versus bottom half defenses and versus everyone else:

raineysplit

Most importantly, neither James nor Rainey is a competent pass catcher or a pass protection maven. Brian Leonard often replaced both of them on third downs in 2013. If Tedford finds a role for James or Rainey in 2014, it will likely be to spell Martin on early downs, not Sims in passing situations.

Are you going to say anything about Josh McCown?

Okay, fine.

We know that McCown was one of the most accurate passers in the league last season. Of course, we also know that—much like Bobby Rainey—he excelled against terrible defenses and struggled against average defenses.

However, it’s a good sign for Sims that McCown was more efficient than Cutler when targeting Matt Forte in 2014:

Passer Receiver ATTS RECS YDS TDS INTS AYA
Josh McCown Matt Forte 37 28 258 2 0 8.05
Jay Cutler Matt Forte 58 47 334 1 0 6.1

Moreover, as Mike Braude at Apex pointed out a few days ago, McCown targeted Matt Forte 1.25 more times per game than Jay Cutler did in 2014.

fortesplit

McCown’s proclivity for targeting RBs and prowess when doing so bodes well for Charles Sims.

Bottom Line

If his words and his track record at Cal are any indication, Jeff Tedford is going to employ a two-headed RBBC in Tampa Bay this season. When Tedford has quality pass-catching running backs at his disposal, those backs haul in plenty of receptions.

Charles Sims can catch the football. With lackluster competition and high praise from the coaches, he’s the heavy favorite to be Doug Martin’s backup. Based on Tedford’s track record, Sims is a solid bet for 100 carries and 40 receptions. That kind of volume should be good enough for RB3-type production in PPR leagues.

Sims has RB2 upside if Doug Martin either can’t stay healthy or plays like it’s 2013 (3.6 YPC) instead of 2012 (4.6).

Best of all, Sims is free. Go get him.

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