Put another way, if there’s a very specific type of running back who is undervalued in the fantasy community every year, and then surprises us with their strong on-field results, maybe it’s time we adjust our process to acquire these players before their stock soars?
It started with Arian Foster from the 2009 draft and has continued since with the following players:
- 2011 – Stevan Ridley
- 2012 – Vick Ballard
- 2013 – Zac Stacy, who I tried to warn you about.
- 2015 – Matt Jones, who I also warned you about.
The first four of those players have posted at least one top-25 fantasy season, while the last, Matt Jones, was the RB40 in his rookie season and seems like a good bet to post a top-25 season in 2016 with Alfred Morris presumably out of the way.
There’s a formula. A very simple formula. And everybody’s a suspect!!!
Well, maybe not everybody, but from the 2016 NFL Draft, the prime suspects are Auburn’s Peyton Barber and South Carolina’s Brandon Wilds; here’s why…
When I talk about there being a “formula” for these sleeper running backs, it boils down to a handful of factors for a player:
- get invited to the combine
- be a large human being
- have good agility for their size
- have passable speed for their size
- have at least one highly productive college season
- be from the Southeastern Conference (SEC)
In the wake of this year’s Combine, something caught my eye about the results, especially for SEC alumni Peyton Barber and Brandon Wilds and their 220-plus pound bodies. While I tend to think that most combine data ends up getting baked into draft position, the two factors that might be under-appreciated are weight and 3-cone time (aka agility). To get a sense for how those variables interact, I like to look at “weight-adjusted 3-cone” which uses z-scores to combine the two elements into one number, so I can gauge how agile a guy is for their size. Here are the results for every back who participated in the 3-cone at the Combine. You can imagine my disappointment that so many dodged the drill. Note that zero is considered average agility-for-their-size for any player.
Although Derrick Henry gets knocked for being stiff, he’s actually extremely agile for his 247 pound frame. After him, we have a couple fullbacks and then, voila, Peyton Barber, who is the second-most agile runner for his size! Brandon Wilds isn’t quite on Barber’s level, but is still well above what would be expected from such a big back.
As far as their speed, Barber ran a 4.64 forty at 228 pounds, which gives him a 98.4 speed score, which is just below the “average” score of 100. Wilds ran a 4.54 forty at 220 pounds, which gives him a 103.6 speed score, which is slightly above average. Neither are track stars, but they are fast enough and have the agility to maximize their speed as they move through a defense.
But what about their production? Barber peaked in his final season at Auburn and ran for a very respectable 1,016 yards. Where things start to break down for Wilds is with his production; he has three seasons between 480 and 570 rush yards, but never produced more than that. He lead the 2015 Gamecocks in carries, but their offense was such a dumpster fire that he didn’t accumulate much yardage.
To get a sense for comparable players, several of whom I mentioned above, I found SEC running backs with:
- A speed score between 90 and 105
- A weight-adjusted cone score above 0.4
- At least 400 rush yards in their final season
|RB||School||Wt||Spd Scr||Cone||F RuYds|
|Anthony Dixon||Miss St||233||98.0||7.09||1391|
|Vick Ballard||Miss St||219||98.7||7.03||1189|
|Gerald Riggs Jr.||Tenn||232||100.1||7.15||530|
Obviously not every one of these guys is a success story, but in perusing this list, there comes to mind a type of player who is good enough across the board and could succeed if given a chance. We’ll discuss specific success stories in a minute.
Re-shuffling the deck to look at these players through a different paradigm, I’ve added “peak college rush yards” and “peak fantasy production.” Also, I’ve brought in draft position to get a sense of how these players were valued in their respective draft classes. As far as age, the entire cohort was between 21.4 and 22.4 in their final season, so I omitted that column for the sake of space.
|RB||School||Draft||F NCAA RuYds||Peak NCAA RuYds||Peak FF Season|
|Vick Ballard||Miss St||170||1189||1189||25|
|Anthony Dixon||Miss St||173||1391||1391||55|
|Gerald Riggs Jr.||Tenn||UDFA||530||1107||NA|
At some point in their college careers, everyone on this list had 800-plus rushing yards in a season, except Wilds, indicating an ability to be a lead back. In terms of NFL success, four have posted top 25 fantasy seasons, only two have been total duds, and the rest have existed somewhere in between. Considering that only Christine Michael was drafted as a top-six runner in his respective draft class, I would say that the group has performed better than what might have been expected of them on draft day.
I think my ultimate advice with a guy like Barber is to give strong consideration to selecting him in rookie drafts once the top 10 backs are off the board, which should be about the middle of the third round. He’s currently the RB20 in the latest RotoViz Scouting Index and I would rather take a chance on him than players going in front of him like Kelvin Taylor, DeAndre Washington and Josh Ferguson. Sure, those guys might find consistent third-down work, but Barber has the look of a legitimate early-down back who could get into the end zone. That’s the kind of upside you need to be pursuing, even the likelihood of a payoff is slightly lower.
For Wilds, I’m a little less optimistic based on his limited college production, but if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt for getting stuck behind Marcus Lattimore and Mike Davis, I could understand that. At the least, he’s worth keeping on your watch list.
Have a look at Barber against National Champion Alabama in 2015. Although he only accounts for 60 yards from scrimmage, I think he shows a lot of interesting things in this contest. And further down you can see Brandon Wilds in action.