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Tyler Ervin and the Hidden Value of Special Teams Stats (2016 RB edition)

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, AlabamaBackup 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.

Non-Combine studs

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.

Johnta HebertPrairie View A&M301121.7200031241300
Tyler ErvinSan Jose State237423.5318613.322803783
Jaylen WaltonOle Miss203621.210001957749
Pokey HarrisMurray State194424.93000690316
Geremy Alridge-MitchellWest Texas A&M94825.610003381549
J.C. ColemanVirginia Tech71721.100001519231
D.J. AbnarLiberty69422.400002059276
Jacobi GreenRichmond63720.50192.402969704
Ricardo McCrayBryant61221.902110.502878691
Wendell SmallwoodWest Virginia55017.700002462618
Kenyan DrakeAlabama50526.61191901495570
Darrian MillerNorthern Iowa484220655.901510416
Gary UnderwoodVillanova47823.90000819662
Taylor CoxKansas39020.5000073972
Troymaine PopeJacksonville State38619.300003381353
Josh FergusonIllinois38118.1000025861507
Marshaun CoprichIllinois State37220.700005196233
Kelsey YoungBoise State34720.403919.501112207
Elijhaa PennyIdaho27818.500001748346
Jordan CanzeriIowa25818.400002073420
*William StanbackUCF21819.800001151244
Remound WrightStanford2102100001023151
Brandon BurksTroy20715.900002253673
Broderick SnoddyGeorgia Tech20222.40000664126
Shaun WickWyoming19117.400002191324
Alex CollinsArkansas18731.200003703167
Michael GordonArkansas State14620.900002967485
DeAndre WashingtonTexas Tech13118.7000034111091
Shaquille PowellDuke13118.700001593460
Kenneth FarrowHouston12842.700002980546
Darius JacksonEastern Michigan12220.300001596375
Andy Janovich (FB)Nebraska7712.8010027187
Daniel LascoCal701400001872458
Brandon RossMaryland602000002543401
Devontae BookerUtah571900002773622
Russell HansbroughMissouri565600002344128
Dy'Shawn MobleyEastern Kentucky5518.300004842
Xavier FinneyIdaho State381900003542635
Mikal Abdul-SaboorWilliam & Mary3411.300003108485
Christian PowellColorado281400002040229
Quayvon Hicks (FB)Georgia268.70000166132
Tra CarsonTexas A&M242400002329305
Brandon WildsSouth Carolina242400001844540
Justice HayesSouthern Mississippi2311.50000506154
Dwayne WashingtonWashington221100001311411
Anthony JordanBethune-Cookman191900001918347
Johnathan GrayTexas18900002610418
Keith MarshallGeorgia181800001379225
Ezekiel ElliottOhio State16160136.503961449
Dan Vitale (FB)Northwestern16160000291427
Brandon WilliamsTexas A&M168000087085
Shad ThorntonNC State5500002572504
Paul PerkinsUCLA0006603488739
Kenneth DixonLouisiana Tech0000004483969
Keenan ReynoldsNavy000000455947
Travis GreeneBowling Green0000003851567
Jordan HowardIndiana0000003681261
Derrick HenryAlabama0000003591285
Storm Barrs-WoodsOregon State00000026741094
Marteze WallerFresno State0000003108455
Robert LoweTexas State0000003027525
Leon AllenWestern Kentucky0000002353746
Jhurell PressleyNew Mexico0000002725220
Jordan ParkerMiddle Tennessee0000002611313
Aaron GreenTCU0000002531332
Anthon SamuelFlorida International0000002528310
Devon JohnsonMarshall0000002373423
Jonathan WilliamsArkansas0000002321345
Don JacksonNevada0000002368269
Kelvin TaylorFlorida0000002108179
Paul JamesRutgers0000001810267
C.J. ProsiseNotre Dame0000001155896
Chris HairstonEast Carolina0000001468284
Tre MaddenUSC0000001155334
Peyton BarberAuburn0000001070112
Daniel SamsMcNeese State00000010420
Savon HugginsNorthern Iowa00000084296
Rodrick Williams Jr.Minnesota000000815113
Zac BrooksClemson000000607197
Tom SmithTennessee State000000681112
Glenn Gronkowski (FB)Kansas State00000051369
Soma Vainuku (FB)USC-8-801680148124

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

  1. Nevermind that he fumbled one of them.  (back)

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