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
All of these RBs have been in the league no more than three years, and all of them do significantly well in the Workhorse Metric, which measures the extent to which any college runner has dominated the representative non-quarterback rushing production on his team. Basically, this market share metric for RBs adjusts for the QB position, missed contests, injuries, and game flow. It’s not a perfect metric, but I’ve had success with it.
All of these RBs entered the league at best as best late-round (LR) selections, and most of them were undrafted free agents (UDFA). While most tend not to have NFL success, LR & UDFA RBs with high Workhorse Scores (WS) have elevated chances of becoming fantasy contributors in comparison to their peers.
Also, most of these RBs are big. For one, I simply believe that bigger runners are generally better equipped to be workhorse RBs. I like big backs: Call it the Sir Mix-A-Lot Bias. Secondly, in the RB database I’ve built going back to the 2008 draft class2, the LR & UDFA RBs who have at least one top-36 positional campaign form the cohort with the largest RBs, with an average per-player weight of over 218 lbs., which is significantly greater than that of any other subgroup. Not all LR & UDFA RBs need to look like Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, Joique Bell, Isaiah Crowell, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis to become successful NFL runners—Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Woodhead have had solid careers despite entering the NFL weighing less than 200 lbs.—but as rare as successful LR & UDFA RBs are small successful LR & UDFA RBs are even rarer. If you’re going to find LR & UDFA RBs who contribute the odds are that they’ll look more like Rashad Jennings and even Mike Tolbert than Andre Ellington and Denard Robinson.
Finally, why look at LR & UDFA RBs? Why not LR & UDFA quarterbacks or wide receivers? While you’re not likely to find the next Tom Brady and Antonio Brown, you do have a decent chance of finding the next Alfred Morris, especially with the Workhorse Metric. In 2014, exactly 15 LR&UDFA RBs had top-36 seasonal performances, good for 41.7 percent. That’s insanely high. Over 40 percent of this last season’s top-36 runners were guys valued at almost nothing when they entered the NFL. Zero RB, indeed.
What’s more is that on average the LR & UDFA RB to have a top-36 season in 2014 had an 80.91 WS. The subgroup’s median WS was 82.63. That’s also insanely high. As a point of comparison, since the 2008 draft first- and second-round RBs have had an average WS of 75.95. In 2014, 10 of the 15 top-36 LR & UDFA RBs beat that number. If you want to use the Zero RB strategy, you could do a lot worse than simply targeting each season the big high-WS RBs yet to break out on teams with unsettled backfield situations.
So here they are—the first three of the 12 high-WS RBs who as of now are on my breakout watch list entering the 2015 season. The final nine will be profiled in Parts 2-4 of this series:
1) Khiry Robinson, 2013 UDFA, 88.97 WS
Given that Robinson was one of Shawn Siegele’s top-10 dynasty sleepers for 2014—and given that Robinson flashed some ability last season before his injury and is now projected to be on a team lacking Mark Ingram and thus an established starter next season—I’m not being highly original in declaring Robinson my No. 1 workhorse sleeper for 2015, but why take a jump shot when a layup is available?
In two seasons in the NFL, Robinson has been a solid backup and committee RB, exhibiting the ability to contribute as both a runner and receiver. In other words, he could essentially replace Ingram and Pierre Thomas simultaneously. Most importantly, listed at 6’0” and 220 lbs., Robinson has the size to carry the load for New Orleans. What Ingram did in 2014 Robinson probably has the ability to do in 2015, when he’ll be 25 years old for all but the last few days of the season. Even though Robinson isn’t exceptionally athletic (he ran a 4.71 40-yard-dash at 206 lbs. at his 2013 pro day), RBs historically haven’t needed to be good athletes to succeed in Head Coach Sean Payton’s offense. Evidence Exhibits A & B: Ingram and Thomas.
And lest one think that Robinson’s success so far in the NFL is the fluky result of small sample size, peruse Robinson’s college career: As a redshirt senior at West Texas A&M in 2012, Robinson had 247 rushes for 1,621 yards and 15 touchdowns and 38 receptions for 430 yards and four more TDs, good for an 87.2 WS. And just in case you think that Robinson was a one-year wonder who benefitted from being a little older than his competition, here’s what he did in 10 games as a true freshman in 2008 at Mesabi Range Community & Technical College: 160 carries for 893 yards and 13 TDs for an 88.97 WS on top of which he added 15 receptions and a TD as a return man. And if you think that junior college stats are suspect at best and meaningless at worst, take that up with C.J. Anderson, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Jacobs, and Vick Ballard. When a stud JC RB gets to the NFL, it’s not unusual for him to have success. Robinson could be next.
2) Zach Line, 2013 UDFA, 97.92 WS
I swear, this will be the last Zach Line bullet my gun ever fires. The most undervalued RB of the 2013 draft (according to me), Line has some 2015 sleeper potential, even though he has spent the last two seasons bouncing between the practice squad and active roster as a backup fullback. Yes, I am pimping a backup FB. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s less crazy than what Matt Asiata accomplished in 2014 as a lead back. On the one hand, I grant that Asiata himself had one good workhorse season in (junior) college, and so one shouldn’t be surprised that he had some decent (albeit uninspiring) production when given a chance to be a NFL lead back. On the other hand, Asiata is a 2015 restricted free agent who might not be tendered—and he’s actually smaller, slower, less explosive, weaker, and barely more agile than Line.
|Player||Ht||Wt||40 Time||Speed Score||Agility Score||Explosion Score||BP Rep|
If Asiata was physically capable of being a top-20 fantasy RB last year, why not Line this year?
And unlike Asiata, who did very little at Utah after transferring from JC, Line was a rushing machine in his three years as a starter at Southern Methodist, and even as a redshirt freshman he was a capable goal-line back in a part-time role:
For three straight years in college, Line was the entirety of SMU’s non-QB rushing offense. He was basically his own backup. And for a big guy he actually showed some decent receiving chops in his final college season. He’s not Le’Veon Bell, but he’s probably just as good at receiving as Asiata, who had 44 receptions last year. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that his first NFL touch was a reception . . . which he turned into a 61-yard TD.
Fine, it was a preseason game, but if we ignored all preseason performances then Arian Foster wouldn’t exist, know what I mean?
I’m not saying that Line is actually a starting-caliber NFL RB. I’m just saying that, with FB Jerome Felton’s departure from Minnesota, Line is likely to get more playing time in 2015 anyway, and he could capitalize on that opportunity. On a team with a very unsettled RB situation, Line could very well become the team’s most dependable mid-season runner, and like other recent FBs-turned-RBs before him, such as Peyton Hillis and Le’Ron McClain, Line could be at best a one-season force who excites everybody or more likely merely an Asiata-esque producer whom we all tolerate because he score TDs.
Line’s not great, but he might be just good enough if his team’s 2015 RB situation resembles its situation last year.
3) Michael Cox, 2013 Seventh-Round Selection, 90.26 WS
Here are all the campaigns by the top two Giants RBs each season since 2007, the year that Jerry Reese became General Manager.
|Player||Year||Positional Rank||Draft Year||Round||Pick|
As you can see, each year the Giants’ top RBs have been guys who entered the league as no better than fourth-round selections—and each year except for 2013 the Giants have had two top-36 performers at the position. This is a backfield that has historically produced useful fantasy RBs, and these aren’t guys who have entered the league as high-profile players. These guys aren’t typically full-on studs—but a RB doesn’t have to be Adrian Peterson to be useful.
Enter Michael Cox. I’ve glowingly written about him before, so maybe my credibility is shot when it comes to him, but I think that, more than his talent, the mutual uncertainty and potential of the Giants backfield are why I keep on mentioning him—and as long as this backfield remains uncertain and promising the under-the-radar Giants RBs should get at least some cursory attention.
But I also think that Cox is more than a guy who is just in a good situation. A reserve RB for years at Michigan, Cox transferred to the University of Massachusetts in 2012 as a graduated redshirt senior and led a horrible 1-11 team in rushing in its first season of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) competition. While Cox’s raw rushing stats don’t look great (198 carries for 710 yards and six TDs)—and I attribute his paltry stats primarily to the fact that his offensive line sucked, his QBs provided no support, throwing only nine TDs (and 19 interceptions), which meant that, when he ran he did so frequently against eight-man fronts, and the Minutemen had a per-game point differential of -27.5, so they frequently abandoned the running game anyway—and yet Cox’s 90.26 WS shows the extent to which he dominated his team’s rushing production. Playing in the lowest-scoring offense in all of the FBS, Cox wasn’t highly productive, but he was about just as productive as anyone could be under those conditions.
And he is a great athlete. Although he wasn’t invited to the combine, at a variety of pre-draft workouts Cox exhibited the potential to be a physical beast in the backfield. Here’s a comparison of Cox’s pro day performance with Christine Michael’s combine exhibition:
|Player||Ht||Wt||40 Time||Speed Score||Agility Score||Explosion Score||BP Rep|
Cox is basically a slightly less athletic version of Michael, and if Michael had been slightly less athletic at the combine I bet that people still would be intrigued by his athleticism and potential. And you know who else is big and athletic and whom Cox resembles a little? Andre Williams. And Rashad Jennings. And Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs, and Derrick Ward.
In 2014, Williams was somewhat productive but rather inefficient, and in 2015 Jennings will be 30 years old. Neither one of them is necessarily destined to have a stranglehold on this backfield’s production in 2015. True, Cox will be 27 this season, and he finished last season on the Injured Reserve because of a broken leg—but Ahmad Bradshaw and Jacobs both were productive for years with the Giants will being perpetually injured and Jennings, Brown, and Ward were an average age of 27 when they had their first top-36 seasons.
I’ve painted as flattering an image of Cox as possible. I admit it. In truth, Cox is highly unlikely to be a productive NFL RB. But he is free. Even in the deepest of dynasty leagues he is likely to be available on waivers. Given the low cost to acquire him, I really don’t see the downside in seeing his potential upside.
Who are the other nine of my 12 high-WS breakout RBs for 2015? Keep an eye out for Parts 2-4.
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 he also co-hosts the RotoViz Radio Football Podcast and writes The Backfield Report and The Wideout Report. He is the creator of the Workhorse Metric and the No. 1 fan of John Brown, the Desert Lilliputian.