With the 2015 NFL Combine starting and everyone looking eagerly at the incoming rookies, I want to take a slightly different approach and instead focus on the 12 veteran fantasy running back sleepers whom I believe have a chance of becoming solid contributors this upcoming season. Some of these players I and others at RotoViz have written about previously, but when it comes to talking about guys who could be to 2015 what C.J. Anderson was to 2014 we really can’t talk too much.1
The Workhorse Metric and Late-Round & Undrafted Free Agent RBs
Part 1 of this series, in addition to laying out the general attributes I seek in late-round (LR) and undrafted free agent (UDFA) RBs, looks at Khiry Robinson and two of my other favorite sleeper workhorse RBs for 2015. For some background, it’s worth a read.
Also, to learn more about the Workhorse Metric, which I rely on when considering which long-shot RBs to stash in dynasty leagues, you might want to look at my piece on the metric and breakout undervalued RBs. And for an in-depth profile on stud LR & UDFA RBs in general, see my piece on the subject at RotoWorld.
So let’s get to it! Here is the second set of three high-Workhorse Score (WS) RBs who are on my breakout list for 2015:
4) Damien Williams, 2014 UDFA, 99.23 WS
I’ve written previously about Williams and his market share prowess, and last summer Frank DuPont called him the longshot RB with Arian Foster upside, so for some of you what follows will be a little bit of old news. Still, I think there are several reasons to be optimistic about Williams, and some of them are new.
The guy whom I proclaimed my favorite 2014 rookie RB deep sleeper, Williams is big and fast. Although he wasn’t agile or notably explosive at the combine, he did run the 40-yard dash in a studly 4.45 seconds at a stacked 222 pounds, and at his pro day he weighed 229 pounds. Basically, he’s an athlete very much in the mold of his Oklahoma University predecessors, Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray—except he’s bigger. And as a true junior transfer at Oklahoma (coming from Arizona Western Junior College), Williams in 2012 was productive, accumulating 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage in 13 games even though he didn’t become the lead back till the middle of the season. In particular, Williams was very productive as a receiver in 2012, with 34 receptions for 320 yards. For a big guy, that’s pretty good.
But maybe even more impressive than his production at OU—especially since he tailed off as a senior before being dismissed from the team near the end of the 2013 season—was his JC production. After a true freshman season in which he totaled 906 scrimmage yards and 13 all-purpose TDs in 12 games while playing in a committee, in 2011 as a sophomore Williams was the best JC player in the country—good enough in fact to get an offer from OU. In that season, Williams across 12 games had 259 rushes for 1,931 yards and 26 TDs on top of which he added a kick return TD and 20 receptions for 317 yards and four more TDs. With his team blowing out almost every opponent, Williams managed a 99.23 WS as a sophomore. If you want to, you can belittle that number because it was produced on the JC level—but LeGarrette Blount wants me to tell you that Williams wouldn’t be the first former JC superstar to make it to the NFL as an UDFA and have success—and who am I to argue with Blount?
But what I really like about Williams is his situation. Right now, he is the clear backup to Lamar Miller, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, and in sharing the backup duties last year with Daniel Thomas the rookie Williams did well. Dolphins General Manager Dennis Hickey has recently said that Williams has three-down ability, which is entirely true, given that in very limited action last year Williams had 21 receptions (on 27 targets) for 189 yards and a TD. According to Pro Football Reference, since 2000 three other (non-fullback) RBs with similar builds have had rookie seasons similar to Williams’ rookie campaign: Deuce McAlister, Rashad Jennings, and Lex Hilliard. And for what it’s worth—and I think it’s worth something—as an athlete Williams is pretty similar to those first two guys and not at all like that last guy.
Williams isn’t a slam dunk, but he’s a high-upside young runner backing up a guy with an injury history and the ability to leave via free agency in a year. If his situation were any better than that, he wouldn’t be a sleeper.
5) Zurlon Tipton, 2014 UDFA, 94.19 WS
I’ve also written before about Tipton’s opportunity with the Colts, and, besides not being Trent Richardson, what Tipton has going for him most right now is that all separating him from a starting gig next to Andrew Luck is pseudo-starter Dan Herron. Although Herron was a serviceable lead back last year and in college was a workhorse in his own right (he had an 84.27 WS as a redshirt junior), Herron is an exclusive rights free agent in 2015. And even if he is with the Colts this upcoming season, which he probably will be, Herron could conceivably be overtaken.
Herron was pretty decent in the playoffs, especially as a receiver, but as a runner in three games he had 45 attempts for 170 yards and two TDs for a 3.8 yd/carry average—exactly the same rushing average in the playoffs that Tipton had, when he scored a TD on 18 carries. From an efficiency perspective, Tipton was actually a better rusher in the playoffs than Herron. And Tipton’s abilities as a receiver shouldn’t be ignored either. Although he didn’t do much in the playoffs as a pass catcher, during the regular season Tipton caught all six of his targets and turned them into 68 yards and a TD. It’s a small sample size—but it’s enough to suggest that Herron isn’t a total lock to hold off Tipton, especially given Herron’s proclivity for fumbling.
And here’s something else—as good as Herron was as a receiver in the playoffs, in his best college season he caught only 19 passes for 180 yards and no TD in 13 games. In Tipton’s best receiving season, in the same number of games he caught 24 passes for 287 yards and one TD—and in the season before that he had, in only seven games, 17 receptions for 124 yards. Maybe Herron is the better receiver now, but based on what they did in college I think it’s very possible that Tipton is just as talented as a receiver.
And in college he was also a better rusher. Both guys were plagued by injuries in college, but Tipton’s final two seasons were quite impressive. As a redshirt junior in 2012, he had 252 rushes for 1,497 yards and 19 TDs in 13 games, good for a very solid 80.86 WS. Then, in 2013, in a season that saw him play in portions of only five games because of injury, Tipton was even more impressive, rushing 74 times for 398 yards, eight TDs, and an elite 94.19 WS.
The big knock on Tipton is that he is relatively un-athletic. He has great size, but that’s about it. On the one hand, that’s true. On the other hand, there’s this table:
|Player||Ht||Wt||40 Time||Speed Score||Agility Score||Explosion Score||BP Rep|
Tipton is pretty similar to the cohort of Alfred Morris, Joique Bell, and Arian Foster, all of whom entered the league as big-bodied UDFAs with relatively uninspiring athleticism. I doubt that Tipton will ever achieve half of what these guys have, but if Tipton fails in the NFL I think that it will have more to do with a lack of opportunity and football ability, not his athleticism—he’s athletic enough to be a productive NFL RB.
6) Dominique Williams, 2014 UDFA, 96.17 WS
Who?—no, I’m serious, I need to dig through my spreadsheet to remind myself who he is . . . still looking . . . there we go!
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Williams isn’t actually my No. 6 sleeper workhorse RB for 2015. He’s way down the list, but I’ve realized that if I were to go in a strict order then Part 4 of this series would just be guys you’ve never heard of—and who would went to read three straight profiles of unknown RBs whose chances of NFL success are worse than Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy’s chances of being sorted into Gryffindor?2 Williams is the sixth sleeper workhorse RB I’m telling you about—but that’s it.
So, with that said, let’s get to Dominique Williams, who entered the NFL from Wagner College in the Football Championship Subdivision as an older rookie fresh off his super-redshirt senior campaign. Set to turn 25 at the beginning of his second year, Williams barely had a first year in the NFL. A preseason player with the Vikings, Williams was a predictable part of final roster cuts after the Vikings’ last preseason game. Quickly signed by the Cardinals to their practice squad, Williams practiced with the team for a week before being waived with an injury settlement because of a non-serious knee injury—and that was his rookie year.
Immediately after the season ended, the Vikings signed Williams to a reserve/future contract, so here he is—on a roster that includes Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Henry Josey (who is probably a more intriguing runner), Zach Line (another of my fantasy crushes), and (maybe?) Adrian Peterson. I’m crazy even to talk about Williams. I know that.
But in the event that the stars align and the Vikings cut Peterson because he won’t renegotiate his contract; McKinnon suffers from complications stemming from his back surgery; Asiata leaves the team via free agency; Banyard is cut because he sucks; and the Vikings insist on leaving Line at fullback—in the event of all of those separate events happening—then Williams, as a runner in Norv Turner’s offense, would be someone theoretically worth knowing about, right?
What makes Williams almost worth talking about right now is his record of collegiate production. After graduating from high school, Williams prepped for a year at Milford Academy and then enrolled at Wagner in 2009, and in his first season there he immediately led his backfield with an 83.49 WS at the age of 19. Unfortunately, an ACL injury caused him to miss all of the 2010 campaign and take a medical redshirt for the season—but in 2011 he had the first of three straight strong statistical seasons, and it was also a monster season by market share:
That is fantastic production. Basically, Williams is an uber-(never-going-to-pay-off-)arbitrage version of another 2014 rookie, Ka’Deem Carey. Here’s what I mean:
In their age-21 seasons, in their third years at their respective colleges, Williams and Carey had seasons that, according to the Workhorse Metric, were comparable—and I would contend that, although Williams is markedly older now, he is basically the FCS Carey who wasn’t run into the ground.
And Williams is also similar to Carey in another crucial way:
|Player||Ht||Wt||40 Time||Speed Score||Agility Score||Explosion Score||BP Rep|
On the one hand, you might look at Williams’ average size and (lack of) speed and wonder why you’re still reading this post. On the other hand, you’re still reading this post. On the third hand, if Carey’s athleticism isn’t bad enough for most people to write him off entirely why should Williams’ athleticism be such a detriment? And on the fourth hand—and we have four hands in this, because it’s you and me, baby, and I assume that you have two hands—Williams is significantly more explosive than Carey and rather agile in comparison to most RBs, and I think that, if he somehow saw carries in a regular season NFL game, that agility might count for something.
In calling your attention to this utter unknown, I guess that I’m trying to say this: If Williams somehow ever finds himself in the position that Carey is in now—that of a backup with a path to the starter’s job if one key event occurs—then you should probably assign a value to Williams similar to the one you assign to Carey. That is, if you presently assign any value to Carey.
It’s not likely that Williams ever finds himself in that position—but Branden Oliver wasn’t likely to find himself in that position either.
Who are the last six of my 12 workhorse breakout RBs for 2015? Keep an eye out for Parts 3 & 4.
Matthew Freedman is a writer for RotoViz and is (not) the inspiration for the character in The League who shares his name. He serves as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman in the series The Dissenting Costanzan and cohosts the RotoViz Radio Football Podcast. He is the creator of the Workhorse Metric.