Last year I wrote about the hidden value of special teams stats and suggested that guys like DeMarco Murray, Duke Johnson and Karlos Williams would have looked like much better prospects if we appropriately valued their return-game contributions.
The article goes into depth about what special teams variables are predictive of what NFL statistics. If you want the full rundown, I suggest you give the original article a read.
If you just want to jump into the 2016 running back prospects, you’re in the right place. Note that all of the players mentioned in the first two sections were invited to the combine, which absolutely matters.
Punt Return Yardage
Tyler Ervin, San Jose State – When it comes to running back prospects, Tyler Ervin is the best return man in this class, bar none. Following in the footsteps of Ameer Abdullah and Marcus Murphy from last year, Ervin is the only RB prospect in this class to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown in his career. Fantasy Douche called him, potentially, the most exciting running back in this class. Considering he slayed the combine, I’m not sure I can disagree. Even for a small back, the upside here is major.
No other combine-invited runner in this class even had 50 career punt return yards.
Kick Return Yardage
Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia – With 550 career kick return yards, 618 receiving yards and 2,462 rushing yards, Smallwood’s diverse skill set is apparent. More than just flashes, though, he was incredibly consistent, rushing for at least 70 yards in 14 straight games to close his career, a feat that neither Ezekiel Elliott nor Derrick Henry could match. A very similar athlete to Duke Johnson, I don’t think it’s unfair to call Smallwood a poor man’s Duke.
Kenyan Drake, Alabama – Backup or not, Kenyan Drake can ball. Besides Tyler Ervin, Drake is the only combine-invited runner to score a kick return touchdown in his career. The Alabama alumnus is a solid athlete for his size and, even if he never becomes a featured back, has the look of a long-term useful asset for an NFL offense.
Josh Ferguson, Illinois – The most accomplished pass-catching running back in this class, based on career receiving yards, Ferguson was just an okay return man who saw a lot of opportunities. While his 18.8 career yards-per-kick-return is nothing special, he is incredibly strong for a sub-200-pound back and should find plenty of work as a pass-catching back.
Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State – Boasting a spectacular age-production profile, Coprich is an adequate return man. Although he’s reported to be a solid pass-blocker, he is just too unathletic for my liking. You never know, though; the fact that he was the only FCS runner invited to the combine is a big deal.
Johnta Hebert, Prairie View A&M – In 2015, Hebert lead his team in both rushing yards and receiving yards, and has been top dog for a couple years. His special teams contributions are among the most outstanding in the class and he boasts an extensive receiving résumé. While his pro day data is inconclusive, he reportedly ran in the 4.3 range in the forty, and jumped 35 inches in the vertical and 116 inches in the broad. Considering that he’s about 5 feet 9 inches, 185 pounds, that’s passable athleticism. If I had to bet on one guy to be an out-of-the-blue success story a few years down the line, a la Danny Woodhead, it would be Hebert.
Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss – Over the last three years in the Ole Miss offense, Walton proved to be a dynamic player in a niche, 10-touches-per-game role. When you consider that he weighs just 176 pounds, it’s easy to see why. Nonetheless, his special teams contributions make him worth noting.
Perspective on Top Prospects
One reason to be so excited about Tyler Ervin is that, among RotoViz’s top 10 running backs, Ervin is really the only guy with any special teams juju. Derrick Henry, C.J. Prosise, Kenneth Dixon, Jordan Howard and Jonathan Williams have no career special teams experience. Meanwhile, guys like Daniel Lasco, Devontae Booker, Paul Perkins and Ezekiel Elliott have less than five career returns.
An interesting note about Zeke is as a 225-pound running back, on a team with oodles of skill-position talent, he returned two punts in his college career.1 That’s unusual for a big running back, and may speak to an extraordinary amount of trust from the coaching staff and unusually good ball skills for someone his size.
Bottom line here is if you can get Ervin at pick 30 of a rookie draft, which made him the 12th running back selected in our pre-draft mock, I think you absolutely take him there every time.
For a full, sortable list of all the career special teams stats for this running back class, please feel free to peruse the following table. It’s currently sorted by kick return yardage. I’ve included career rushing yards and receiving yards for your reference.
|PLAYER||SCHOOL||KiRt Yds||KiRt Avg||KiRt TD||PuRt Yds||PuRt Avg||PuRt TD||Ru Yds||Rec Yds|
|Johnta Hebert||Prairie View A&M||3011||21.7||2||0||0||0||3124||1300|
|Tyler Ervin||San Jose State||2374||23.5||3||186||13.3||2||2803||783|
|Jaylen Walton||Ole Miss||2036||21.2||1||0||0||0||1957||749|
|Pokey Harris||Murray State||1944||24.9||3||0||0||0||690||316|
|Geremy Alridge-Mitchell||West Texas A&M||948||25.6||1||0||0||0||3381||549|
|J.C. Coleman||Virginia Tech||717||21.1||0||0||0||0||1519||231|
|Wendell Smallwood||West Virginia||550||17.7||0||0||0||0||2462||618|
|Darrian Miller||Northern Iowa||484||22||0||65||5.9||0||1510||416|
|Troymaine Pope||Jacksonville State||386||19.3||0||0||0||0||3381||353|
|Marshaun Coprich||Illinois State||372||20.7||0||0||0||0||5196||233|
|Kelsey Young||Boise State||347||20.4||0||39||19.5||0||1112||207|
|Broderick Snoddy||Georgia Tech||202||22.4||0||0||0||0||664||126|
|Michael Gordon||Arkansas State||146||20.9||0||0||0||0||2967||485|
|DeAndre Washington||Texas Tech||131||18.7||0||0||0||0||3411||1091|
|Darius Jackson||Eastern Michigan||122||20.3||0||0||0||0||1596||375|
|Andy Janovich (FB)||Nebraska||77||12.8||0||1||0||0||271||87|
|Dy'Shawn Mobley||Eastern Kentucky||55||18.3||0||0||0||0||484||2|
|Xavier Finney||Idaho State||38||19||0||0||0||0||3542||635|
|Mikal Abdul-Saboor||William & Mary||34||11.3||0||0||0||0||3108||485|
|Quayvon Hicks (FB)||Georgia||26||8.7||0||0||0||0||166||132|
|Tra Carson||Texas A&M||24||24||0||0||0||0||2329||305|
|Brandon Wilds||South Carolina||24||24||0||0||0||0||1844||540|
|Justice Hayes||Southern Mississippi||23||11.5||0||0||0||0||506||154|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||16||16||0||13||6.5||0||3961||449|
|Dan Vitale (FB)||Northwestern||16||16||0||0||0||0||29||1427|
|Brandon Williams||Texas A&M||16||8||0||0||0||0||870||85|
|Shad Thornton||NC State||5||5||0||0||0||0||2572||504|
|Kenneth Dixon||Louisiana Tech||0||0||0||0||0||0||4483||969|
|Travis Greene||Bowling Green||0||0||0||0||0||0||3851||567|
|Storm Barrs-Woods||Oregon State||0||0||0||0||0||0||2674||1094|
|Marteze Waller||Fresno State||0||0||0||0||0||0||3108||455|
|Robert Lowe||Texas State||0||0||0||0||0||0||3027||525|
|Leon Allen||Western Kentucky||0||0||0||0||0||0||2353||746|
|Jhurell Pressley||New Mexico||0||0||0||0||0||0||2725||220|
|Jordan Parker||Middle Tennessee||0||0||0||0||0||0||2611||313|
|Anthon Samuel||Florida International||0||0||0||0||0||0||2528||310|
|C.J. Prosise||Notre Dame||0||0||0||0||0||0||1155||896|
|Chris Hairston||East Carolina||0||0||0||0||0||0||1468||284|
|Daniel Sams||McNeese State||0||0||0||0||0||0||1042||0|
|Savon Huggins||Northern Iowa||0||0||0||0||0||0||842||96|
|Rodrick Williams Jr.||Minnesota||0||0||0||0||0||0||815||113|
|Tom Smith||Tennessee State||0||0||0||0||0||0||681||112|
|Glenn Gronkowski (FB)||Kansas State||0||0||0||0||0||0||51||369|
|Soma Vainuku (FB)||USC||-8||-8||0||16||8||0||148||124|
- Nevermind that he fumbled one of them. (back)