Which 2015 Running Back is most likely to be the next Arian Foster?

Two weeks ago I detailed a simple rule for finding the best UDFA running backs for fantasy football. Guys like Arian Foster, C.J. Anderson and Joique Bell.

Today, I’m going to apply the lesssons from that article to the 2015 draft class to create a focused watch list. If you subscribe to Shawn Siegele’s Zero RB philosophy, which I do, you’ll agree that finding low-cost, high-impact running backs is the key to winning in fantasy football.

Towards that goal, if you’re trying to find the “next Arian Foster” from the 2015 draft class, you’re probably going to find him in this article.

Successful UDFA Measurables

Looking at the most successful UDFA running backs since 2009,1 we can see a pattern in the physical attributes of this subset of players. Note that “weight-adjusted 3-cone” is a metric that combines two variables that I’ve found to be significant into one number. The math behind this is just weight z-score minus 3 cone z-score. Higher is better.

NameWt40Speed Score3 coneW.A. 3cone
Arian Foster2264.6993.47.090.751
C.J. Anderson2244.6100.17.150.356
Joique Bell2204.7189.46.841.48
Isaiah Crowell2244.57102.77.28-0.223
LeGarrette Blount2414.7495.56.852.777
Matt Asiata2294.7788.57.090.942

Recent history suggests that successful UDFA running backs will be heavier players, with below-average speed, but outstanding agility for their size. Isaiah Crowell is a bit of an outlier, but generally the pattern seems pretty consistent.

Looking at the 2015 class, here is a snapshot of the undrafted Combine invitees who:

  • weigh within 10 pounds of the median
  • have a speed score under 105
  • have weight-adjusted agility that is about average for their weight, which is how the table is sorted
PLAYERSCHOOLWt40Speed Score3ConeW.A. 3cone
Malcolm BrownTexas2244.6298.36.861.65
Dominique BrownLouisville2344.63101.87.091.26
Zach ZennerSouth Dakota State2234.6099.67.080.60
Jahwan EdwardsBall State2204.8082.97.130.19
Michael DyerLouisville2184.5899.10
Tyler VargaYale2224.6495.87.21-0.03
Gus JohnsonStephen F. Austin2154.7088.17.09-0.04
Thomas RawlsCentral Michigan2154.6592.07.12-0.08
John CrockettNorth Dakota State2174.6295.37.15-0.09

Based on the physical profile of previous success stories, I think Malcolm Brown, Dominique Brown and Zach Zenner most closely fit the profile. However, for the purposes of keeping an open mind about things, I think it’s okay to continue to explore everyone in this group. Despite their slightly-below-average agility, Tyler Varga, Gus Johnson, Thomas Rawls and John Crockett are close enough to warrant further inclusion. Based on his Combine numbers, Jahwan Edwards wouldn’t make the cut, but since his pro day agility numbers were so much better, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and used those.

Successful UDFA Production

Obviously there’s more to the story than just measurables, so here’s a look at what the successful UDFA runners did in college:

NameF AgePeak RuYds/GYears Before DraftPeak AgePeak Workhorse
Arian Foster22.385.2221.364.9
C.J. Anderson21.9152.4319.979.7
Joique Bell23.4187.7420.492.9
Isaiah Crowell21.093.4121.066.2
LeGarrette Blount23.1156.2420.195.4
Matt Asiata23.4135.8519.486.7

For the most part, the UDFA success stories enjoyed their best college season around their 21st birthday, which was typically not their final season. In a way, this kind of makes sense within the context of the draft. If they had been more successful in their final season, they probably would have been selected. In some instances, junior college performances are shown here, which might be tricky, but I think the main point is that these guys were premium producers at some point between high school and the NFL. With regard to Isaiah Crowell, whose “best season” wasn’t in his last year, I think you might be able to say Crowell’s freshman season at Georgia was actually better than anything he did at Alabama State, relative to age and level of competition.

As you can see, these guys all have workhorse scores north of 64 with the average coming in above 80. Basically, at some point in their college careers theses runners shouldered a tremendous running load for their college team.

Now for the 2015 runners, here’s a look at how they fared, sorted by workhorse score:

PLAYERSCHOOLF AgePeak RuYd/GYears before DraftPeak AgePeak Workhorse
Thomas RawlsCentral Michigan21.4122.6121.494.2
Zach ZennerSouth Dakota State23.3157.2321.394.0
Gus JohnsonStephen F. Austin21.4129.5121.492.8
Tyler VargaYale21.3142.3121.384.6
Jahwan EdwardsBall State22.4108.5320.478.1
John CrockettNorth Dakota State22.9128.0122.974.5
Michael DyerLouisville24.2103.5421.271.2
Dominique BrownLouisville23.063.5222.055.3
Malcolm BrownTexas21.674.2418.648.4

What Malcolm Brown and Dominique Brown boast in athleticism, they lack in production. Neither has the workhorse score or raw production to rival the past success stories. For this, I’m tempted to remove them from the list, but I want to look at their situations, just in case.

Of the remaining bunch, Zenner, Edwards and Dyer all fit the mold in that their final season wasn’t their best. That said, Rawls, Johnson and Varga all peaked around age 21, which is on par with the historical success stories. Crockett is the one outlier who was older and peaked in his final season.

Synthesizing this into a final list, here is a synopsis of my top candidates to be the next Arian Foster-type UDFA success story, ranked in order. The attached commentary will relate to their path to making the roster, which is the critical first step in their potential emergence. Add these guys to your dynasty watch list now.

The 2015 Watch List

Zach Zenner, Lions

Team depth chart: Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, George Winn
UDFA Competition: Rasheed Williams (Alfred State)
Bell and Abdullah seem like the two locks to make the team. Riddick’s future is somewhat in doubt based on the draft capital spent on Abdullah, who possesses a comparable skill set. George Winn is interesting, but far from a sure thing. I sincerely believe that if Zenner can overcome the challenge from Rasheed Williams, he will make the roster. Read why Max Mulitz is high on Zach Zenner.

Tyler Varga, Colts

Team depth chart: Frank Gore, Dan Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, Josh Robinson
UDFA Competition: None
Gore and Herron seem likely to make the opening day roster, but beyond them this situation feels wide open. Ballard has suffered season-ending leg injuries in consecutive years, while Tipton has been serviceable if unspectacular. Although the Colts spent some draft capital on fellow rookie Josh Robinson, I personally prefer Varga.

Gus Johnson, Raiders

Team depth chart: Latavius Murray, Trent Richardson, Roy Helu, George Atkinson, Terrance Cobb
UDFA Competition: None
Murray and Helu seem like the two most viable options to serve in the Raiders’ 2015 backfield. On his third team in four years, Trent Richardson’s minimal guaranteed contract makes him a coin flip depending on how he shows in the summer. George Atkinson has the athleticism to play in the NFL, but I think Johnson is the more accomplished prospect and is tremendously overlooked.

Thomas Rawls, Seahawks

Team depth chart: Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, Demitrius Bronson
UDFA Competition: Rod Smith (Ohio State)
Lynch, Turbin and Michael are entrenched as the top three, but I’ll point out that Turbin is in the final year of his rookie contract. Honestly, I had never heard of Demitrius Bronson before researching this article and, while intriguing, I don’t see why Rawls couldn’t beat him out for a roster spot.

John Crockett, Packers

Team depth chart: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Rajion Neal
UDFA Competition: Malcolm Agnew (Southern Illinois), Raymond Maples (Army), Alonzo Harris (UL-Lafayette)
Considering that they brought in four UDFA running backs, it’s pretty clear that Green Bay is trying to develop depth behind Lacy and Starks. An undrafted runner from the 2014 draft, Neal has never touched the ball on offense for the Packers. While he’ll face stiff competition from an intriguing crop of 2015 free agents, Crockett looks like a strong candidate to make the team.

Dominique Brown, Buccaneers

Team depth chart: Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Charles Sims
UDFA Competition: None
Brown’s athleticism is solid but his production was just never there at Louisville. That said, the Bucs’ depth chart is pretty shaky with Martin and Rainey in the final year of their contracts and Mike James seeming like an afterthought. It seems plausible Brown could make the roster.

Jahwan Edwards, Chargers

Team depth chart: Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver, Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown
UDFA Competition: Dreamius Smith (West Virginia)
I like Jahwan Edwards more than this slotting would indicate, but the competition is pretty tough in San Diego. I see Gordon, Oliver and Woodhead all making the team, which leaves Edwards to fight with Brown and dream weaver Dreamius Smith.

Malcolm Brown, Rams

Team depth chart: Todd Gurley, Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham, Chase Reynolds, Trey Watts, Isaiah Pead
UDFA Competition: Zach Laskey (Georgia Tech), Terrance Franks (Texas State)
Once upon a time, Malcolm Brown was one of the most coveted high school running backs in America. While there’s a lot to like about his profile, the depth chart in St. Louis is pretty loaded, as evidence of their willingness to trade the once-promising Zac Stacy.

Michael Dyer, unsigned

Honestly, I have no idea why Michael Dyer wasn’t signed after the draft, but it’s certainly a little alarming, especially after he was uninvited to the Louisville pro day for academic reasons.

The 2013 and 2014 Watch List

Looking back at the 2013 and 2014 drafts, here are a few names that fit the profile of a successful UDFA runner. Again, you probably don’t need to add these guys now, but these names should be added to your watch list.

Antonio Andrews, Titans

Team depth chart: Bishop Sankey, Shonn Greene, Andrews, Dexter McCluster, David Cobb, Lache Seastrunk

George Winn, Lions

Team depth chart: Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Winn, Zach Zenner

Zach Line, Vikings

Team depth chart: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, DuJuan Harris, Joe Banyard, Henry Josey, Dominique Williams

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.

  1. defined as at least one season as a top 30 fantasy RB.  (back)
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