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Eliminate the Noise and Find the Best UDFA Fantasy Football Running Backs

Sometimes I look at guys like C.J. Anderson, LeGarrette Blount and Arian Foster and think to myself “what could I have done differently to identify these talents sooner?”

Put another way, what piece of information did I overlook that, if considered, would have put me on their trail before my league mates? As simple as it sounds, if I could have just had them on my watch list before anyone else, maybe I could have taken action before the breakthrough, instead of after.

Would a piece of information like that be of interest to you? Well then, I’d like to share with you one surprising trick for finding successful UDFA running backs.

It’s The Combine!

The NFL Combine is a weird event. In some ways, what goes on there is scrutinized and discussed to vomit-inducing levels. In other ways, there are key pieces of information from that event that get totally overlooked, like “who got invited to participate?” (spoiler alert: CJ, Arian and LeGarrette all did). For instance, we all know that draft position is an incredibly important element of predicting future success for a player. However, do we ever think about what a Combine invite actually means in terms of getting drafted? Consider this table, which shows the number of invitees and draftees for the past six years.

Year# RB at Combine# RB DraftedDrafted AND at CombineDrafted NO combine
20093219163
20102913121
20113424222
20122819163
20132824222
20143620191
Summary18711910712

Basically, 90 percent of the running backs who get drafted will have also earned a Combine invite. If a running back isn’t at the Combine, he has only a 10 percent chance of getting drafted, which presumably means he will face an uphill battle to ever get an opportunity at the NFL level. The key takeaway here is that the Combine is a tremendous indicator of how NFL teams source their roster.

Running Backs By Round

So, while it’s incredibly important to get drafted, the key to this article is figuring out what happens to running backs who don’t get drafted. Basically, we want to know what distinguishes successful UDFA running backs from the unsuccessful ones. The following table shows the expected contributions from running backs drafted in each round, along with two subsets of undrafted runners: Combine invitees and non-invitees. For the non-invitees category, I’ve assumed there are 50 viable prospects each year who aren’t at the Combine and don’t get drafted. Maybe that number is high, but it feels about right to me when accounting for backups from major programs and lead dogs from tiny schools.

RBs by RoundCountSum of Fant PtsSum of GPGP/RBFP/G
1104267500508.5
219462264033.77.2
314272941529.66.6
419196151627.23.8
51192927324.83.4
627*225667224.93.4
718*117033618.73.5
UDFA & Combine9035698389.34.3
UDFA without Combine300258210253.42.5

* RD6 included three non-Combine draftees. RD7 includes nine non-Combine draftees.

As you might expect, running backs drafted earlier get more playing time and tend to score more fantasy points. One thing you might not have expected, however, is that on a per-game basis, the UDFA-Combine cohort produces the fourth most fantasy points, trailing only the RD1, RD2 and RD3 cohorts. Yes, they’re much less likely to appear in games, which is half the battle, but when they do appear, they produce at a relatively high level. If the UDFA cohort can look this good (relatively) with a lot of dead weight in it, maybe there will be even more to see if we look at the success stories.

Before going any further, I also want to point out how the UDFA-Combine and UDFA-No Combine cohorts differ. Basically, the average UDFA-Combine runner will play in three times more games than his No Combine counterpart and will score twice as many fantasy points in the games he does play. Also, the size of the pool is much smaller, so they should be easier to monitor. This is a massive takeaway! For as much fun as it is to search for deep sleepers like Terrell Watson, it is a tremendously more efficient use of your time to focus on the roughly 30 running backs who get invited to the Combine every year. If there is a non-Combine running back we should know about, the NFL will let us know if and when they draft them.

If we zoom in on these cohorts to find the top-three performers from each sub-group, we get the following table (min 10 NFL games played for inclusion).

RBs by RoundSum of Fant PtsSum of GPFP/GNames
11742.216010.9D Martin, K Moreno, R Mathews
22111.915014.1L Bell, E Lacy, L McCoy
31263.811710.8D Murray, T Mason, S Ridley
4616.5837.4A Williams, A Brown, L Miller
5605.31075.7Z Stacy, V Ballard, J Rodgers
61110.11268.8A Morris, A Ellington, J Starks
7694.21275.5R Jennings, B Brown, D Richardson
UDFA1828.114712.4A Foster, CJ Anderson, J Bell
No Combine & Undrafted1160.51378.5F Jackson, B Oliver, C Ivory

When looking at the success stories from each cohort, we see that the high-end of the UDFA-Combine cohort is the second most productive group, after only the second round backs. In case you skipped over the chart, I’ll use this as an opportunity to point out that Arian Foster, C.J. Anderson and Joique Bell were all “outta nowhere” success stories who were actually right under our noses the entire time. They all got Combine invites, as did their undrafted counterparts LeGarrette Blount, Isaiah Crowell, Jonas Gray, Matt Asiata, Javarris James and Brandon Bolden, who have enjoyed varying degrees of fantasy success in the past six years.

Conclusion

In summary, if there’s one surprising trick for finding successful UDFA running backs, it’s to keep a close watch on the runners who were invited to the Combine. Combine invitees are more likely to get drafted, which means a better chance for playing time, and even when they aren’t, they’re still among the highest-priority free agents. Also, focusing in on the Combine pool dramatically reduces the number of prospects to pay attention to with one easy filter. Might you miss out on the next Fred Jackson? Yes. But at the end of the day, you’ll have saved yourself countless hours by looking at dozens of No Combine prospects per year who will never amount to anything. Focusing on Combine runners is a much more efficient use of time and more likely to yield results. Here’s a complete list of 2015 invitees along with UDFA-invitees from the past two years. Which invitees from the 2015 class do you think is dangerously underappreciated at this point?

Stay tuned for my post-draft follow up which will focus on the commonalities of these undrafted success stories and identify the top candidates to be this draft class’ Arian Foster or C.J. Anderson.

RBYEAR
Ameer Abdullah2015
Jay Ajayi2015
Buck Allen2015
Cameron Artis-Payne2015
Dominique Brown2015
Malcolm Brown2015
Mike Burton (FB)2015
B.J. Catalon2015
David Cobb2015
Tevin Coleman2015
John Crockett2015
Mike Davis2015
Michael Dyer2015
Jahwan Edwards2015
Jalston Fowler (FB)2015
Melvin Gordon2015
Todd Gurley2015
Dee Hart2015
Braylon Heard2015
Kenny Hilliard2015
Joey Iosefa2015
David Johnson2015
Duke Johnson2015
Gus Johnson2015
Matt Jones2015
Jeremy Langford2015
Terrence Magee2015
Marcus Murphy2015
Thomas Rawls2015
Josh Robinson2015
Ross Scheuerman2015
Tyler Varga2015
Karlos Williams2015
Trey Williams2015
T.J. Yeldon2015
Zach Zenner2015
George Atkinson2014
Trey Millard (FB)2014
Kapri Bibbs2014
Jerome Smith2014
James Wilder Jr.2014
Antonio Andrews2014
J.C. Copeland (FB)2014
Isaiah Crowell2014
LaDarius Perkins2014
Tim Flanders2014
Henry Josey2014
Tim Cornett2014
Damien Williams2014
David Fluellen2014
Silas Redd2014
Ryan Hewitt (FB)2014
Adam Muema2014
Zach Line2013
Robbie Rouse2013
Ray Graham2013
Stefphon Jefferson2013
Onterio McCalebb2013
Montel Harris2013
D.J. Harper2013
Cierre Wood2013
George Winn2013
Lonnie Pryor2013
C.J. Anderson2013
Tommy Bohanon2013
Michael Ford2013
Braden Wilson2013
Matthew Tucker2013
Zach Boren2013
Miguel Maysonet2013


Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

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