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Top 15 Zero RB Candidates: No. 1 to 5

We began with the candidates ranked No. 15 through No. 11. In that article I presented an evidence-based methodology for finding RB gems in the middle and late rounds. We then continued our countdown with No. 10 through No. 6 and found three rookies with a chance to pay immediate dividends.

As we finish today with the final five, we’ll end up with three teams being represented twice. You can play this several ways: draft both with the expectation one will break out, spread your selections of the two runners out across different teams, or relentlessly target the player you prefer.1 Selecting players with a wide range of potential outcomes is a key to the Zero RB strategy, and committees with two intriguing candidates often fit that template.

No. 5 Doug Martin

In trying to project Doug Martin, you have to come up with an explanation that fits both his tremendous rookie season and his disappointing 2013 and 2014 campaigns. When looking at the former Tampa bell cow, my research took me beyond the limits of this piece, so I spun part of it into a separate article. The conclusion: Martin should be part of your 2015 plans.

In looking at all of the rookie runners since 1990, only Edgerrin James managed a season with more yards from scrimmage than Martin. Martin was so good in 2012 that he was a legitimate choice as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 startups. He posted 1,926 yards on good efficiency and a well-rounded game that included 49 receptions. The receiving totals put him in a group with James, Marshall Faulk, Matt Forte, Steve Slaton, and LaDainian Tomlinson.

The most recent two seasons haven’t been nearly as kind. Tampa Bay melted down as an organization, resulting in a coaching staff in disarray. Martin missed 15 out of 32 games, averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and caught only 24 passes. The new brain trust in Tampa selected Charles Sims and appears committed to him as a potential starting back. Martin’s career looks to be on the ropes.

Previously I explained that the RotoViz staff gives Sims a slight edge in the Projection Machine, but if we assume that Martin retains the starting position, he will outperform his draft slot with ease.2

Martin, Doug182.8804.46.435.6291.41.13716190
Sims, Charles93.2387.72.5248.3373.21.63924149

Of course, Martin may not win the job, a scenario we’ll investigate in a moment.

No. 4 Bishop Sankey

David Cobb registered as the No. 8 Zero RB candidate, so I’m definitely recommending FD’s Titans double dip if both players remain at their current ADP levels. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect Tennessee to be a trainwreck again in 2015 and for neither back to have value. I’m going the other direction and anticipate the winner of this RB battle seeing the same type of boost that Marshawn Lynch received with Russell Wilson and Alfred Morris has seen with Robert Griffin. Marcus Mariota is that good.

Right now the anti-Sankey narrative is almost deafening. If you could fast forward to the end of 2015 and confirm the skeptics’ position, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. But the narrative had also swung solidly against C.J. Spiller in 2012, Darren McFadden in 2010, and even Lamar Miller last year. Those three players perfectly fit the Zero RB breakout formula and ended up averaging 1,580 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns during the seasons in question.3

Here’s the pro-Sankey argument in a nutshell.

  • Sankey was a college workhorse. This is a very positive indicator for future NFL value, especially when the production was well-rounded and also came in the passing game.
  • Sankey is extremely athletic. His closest comps include players like LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, and Matt Forte.
  • Sankey averaged 2.5 yards after contact per carry last season, a better number than Eddie Lacy or Le’Veon Bell managed in their rookie years.
  • Sankey was better than the NFL average at avoiding negative plays and creating short gains, despite encountering first contact very early on the majority of his runs.

It’s generally accepted that Sankey’s rookie season was a disaster, and it was from a usage perspective. It was also poor from an overall yards per carry perspective. We know that yards per carry vacillates wildly year-to-year, but this doesn’t, in itself, excuse Sankey’s performance.

One of the scouting claims against the former Washington star was poor vision at the second level. This may or may not help explain why the big play was completely absent from his game as a rookie. Of course, this can work both ways. As FD pointed out in the David Cobb thread, Sankey’s complete lack of long runs makes his after-contact numbers look better because they were extremely consistent as opposed to the result of a couple of big plays.

Because Sankey was such a tremendous prospect and because Charles, McCoy, and Rice all blew up in their second seasons, I think the second year pro is a tremendous value at his current ADP. But also don’t think it’s anything close to a no-brainer. The other three backs I mentioned earlier – Spiller, McFadden, and Miller – all waited until Year 3 to return value. It may be more likely that Sankey returns value in 2016 (or not at all) than that he becomes a league-winner this year.

No. 3 Charles Sims

Sims was awful last year. He averaged -0.01 ruFPOEPA,4 and only a handful of relevant names finished with worse numbers (although trendy receiving back Shane Vereen was one of them). He did average 1.64 yards per route in limited work, a number which would have put him in the same range as Darren Sproles and Gio Bernard if it had come on higher volume.

I took a close look at Sims before last year’s draft and found quite a mix of positives and negatives. He ends up with an intriguing Speed Score of 106 and pSPARQ of 129, which would put him around the 74th percentile. His profile is a little odd because early down backs usually excel in the Profile 1 categories (speed and explosion), whereas receiving backs usually look like Profile 2 candidates (agility). Sims speed is good, his jumping numbers are excellent, and his agility (11.46) is poor.5

The most similar player I found in my original study is also the most similar player if you use the Box Score Scout: DeMarco Murray. This comparison both overstates and understates his possibilities. Not factored into that set of comparisons is the fact that Sims caught 158 passes at Houston before he even made it to West Virginia. It’s very unlikely that Sims ever has a season like the one Murray just authored, but he could be a receiving back with size.

In an optimistic scenario, Jameis Winston seems capable of a season not unlike many of Jay Cutler’s. He’ll get his team in trouble but then possess the arm talent to at least partially dig them back out. The 2015 Bucs do not seem built to run the ball and play defense, which means Sims could easily catch 50-plus passes and be a very viable RB2.

No. 2 Devonta Freeman

Freeman is not a player who shines on the evidence-based standard. His 32 in the RB Prospect Lab was one of the worst scores among relevant backs from the 2014 class. As always, I like to go to Max Mulitz when I have the option:

Let’s start with a recap of what we already know about Freeman. He wasn’t a workhorse in college, and he’s small, slow, and has mediocre agility, so, not an inspiring start. It’s actually pretty unbelievable that an NFL team looked at someone with his athleticism and production profile and decided he was worth a fourth round pick. I also am not above speculating that, if he hadn’t played for the BCS National Champions his final collegiate season, Freeman wouldn’t even be on an NFL roster.

That’s the bad news. The good news comes in the form of Kyle Shanahan. Max then goes on to explain why the stretch zone scheme could really help Freeman.

The other piece of good news is that Freeman was already an excellent receiving back last year, finishing No. 4 overall in yards per route (behind only Theo Riddick, Roy Helu, and Pierre Thomas). This is also one of the reasons Freeman ran ahead of Tevin Coleman in offseason workouts. FD points out that Coleman looks overvalued in our rankings while Freeman is probably undervalued.

Many scouts and fantasy enthusiasts are skeptical about Coleman’s running style in general and his fit with Atlanta in particular. If you’re among the skeptics, you should own Freeman on almost every one of your teams.

No. 1 Duke Johnson

Johnson looks overvalued based on Kevin Cole’s analysis of projected touches relative to ADP.


He also suggests avoiding both Crowell and Johnson because the Browns might not be able to support one viable RB, much less two. This is a real concern. Last year Kansas City managed to defeat both Super Bowl contestants and yet not throw a touchdown to a wide receiver all season.6 If you told me Cleveland was going to take it several steps further by not picking up a first down in 2015, I’d be surprised but not stunned.

I’ve been going back and forth on Johnson because his fit in Cleveland is questionable, and, after a mediocre Combine, his RB Prospect Lab score was poor. On the other hand, Johnson looks like a carbon copy of LeSean McCoy, or, optimistically, a slow version of Jamaal Charles. The former Miami star re-wrote the Hurricanes record book, in part by averaging a gaudy 3.43 yards after contact against Power 5 competition last year. He also managed 1.69 yards per route, second only to Javorius Allen.

Although the Browns are publicly comparing him to Gio Bernard, Johnson profiles as one of the smaller three-down backs in the NFL. Crowell’s fleeting 2014 success was built almost entirely on touchdowns and big plays, exactly the types of results that are most difficult to replicate. If they want to stay competitive, Cleveland will need to use Johnson a lot more than they currently intend.

Still not convinced? Try Mike Braude’s look at the Browns backfield where he explains why Johnson will quickly overtake Crowell and be a league-winner as a rookie.

Draft Cost

For this exercise, I selected only RBs going outside the first five rounds according to draft-only ADP. They were ordered from least expensive to most expensive,7 which also gives a fair approximation of likely worth. A handful of interesting RBs currently sit in the Round 3 through 5 range, but I generally think of those players as good picks for RBx4 or Upside-Down as opposed to Zero RB. (Of course, that doesn’t mean a drafter intent on going WR-heavy should leave early RB bargains off of his or her board. Just like I wouldn’t ignore a crazy WR value while implementing a RBx4 best ball strategy, I wouldn’t ignore a screaming bargain at RB in the first four or five rounds of a redraft league either.)8

A quick glance at our ADP data reveals that Freeman and Martin are gaining steam again after early summer incursions by Coleman and Sims.

ZRB 1 to 5

If you liked this piece, readers have also enjoyed Top 10 Sleepers for 2015, RotoViz Rookie Draft: Round 1, and Dynasty Deep Sleepers: Top 15

  1. Last season I selected both Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw, while targeting Lamar Miller at the expense of Knowshon Moreno. Both moves worked, although injury luck was obviously involved in the latter scenario.  (back)
  2. In setting the team dials, I used the point expectation based on Vegas lines and the playcalling from recent Dirk Koetter seasons. This creates a very pass-heavy environment and helps explain the low carry total for Martin and Sims combined. There are even much more favorable scenarios you could craft.  (back)
  3. The narrative had also turned against Richardson, and it was right.  (back)
  4. rushing fantasy points over expectation per attempt  (back)
  5. This is a good time to remind that I use the RB profiles as guidelines and signposts as opposed to hard and fast rules. The idea is to have a general understanding of what usually works. I’m not going to ignore a receiving back with Sims’ track record just because his athletic attributes are unusual, although it might be a red flag.  (back)
  6. They did throw a touchdown to De’Anthony Thomas, although DAT was designated a RB and the pass in question was labeled a lateral.  (back)
  7. at the time I began work on the piece  (back)
  8. It’s also important to note that we may see RBs fall and WRs rise as we move from a summer emphasis on draft-only to a fall emphasis on redraft.  (back)

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