Josh Ferguson landed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent. I’m a big fan of his potential going forward because of his landing spot and because he fits the mold of a popular new trend on NFL rosters.
The Rise of the Pass-Catching Back
I’ve written a bit this offseason about a changing dynamic in the NFL of an increase in passing completions, a coinciding decrease in depth of target, and what that means for pass-catching backs.
In a piece about whether Danny Woodhead’s age is a bad sign for his future, I noted how few comps Woodhead has in our Sim Scores App. Since the Sim Scores take into account age, and given the recency of the increased popularity of pass-catching backs, my hypothesis was there just aren’t many backs like Woodhead and Darren Sproles to actually reach their 30s.
“Study the past if you would define the future.” – Confucius
Back in 2014, Shawn Siegele coined terms for three types of successful backs. At the time, he noted Profile 3 backs were passing-down or in-space backs for whom historical trends were not as favorable. But while Profile 2 backs may still be the ideal, changing NFL trends (even just in the past two years) suggest we should target Profile 3 backs (at least at the expense of bigger, less versatile Profile 1 options). It doesn’t hurt that Profile 3 backs are nearly always undervalued because they are labeled as undersized to handle the necessary workload to succeed at the NFL level.
One thing Siegele notes about Profile 3 backs is they are generally sub-200 pounds with elite agility scores, usually under 11-flat. Ferguson comes in at 198 pounds, but unfortunately we don’t have an agility score for him.
I’m not sure that matters, however. In the last two years, players like Theo Riddick have emerged. Riddick is a poor athlete overall1 but gets by on his agility. While his speed score, burst score, and bench press all don’t surpass even the 20th percentile among RBs, his 50th percentile agility score of 11.31 is his best physical attribute.
But Riddick also had an impressive collegiate receiving profile, and as a 201-pound back he turned in the RB18 season in 2015 largely on the strength of 80 receptions. Woodhead and Shane Vereen are two more examples of backs who have succeeded as NFL pass-catchers despite smaller frames2 and less-than-elite agility scores.3
For all we know, Ferguson could have elite agility. Since we can’t assume that, the question becomes whether it’s a requirement for him to find success. Riddick, Vereen, Woodhead… some of the best receiving backs in the league didn’t break even 11.2 agility. I’m not trying to argue we should redefine a Profile 3 back, but I do think we’re capable of projecting success if Ferguson has the receiving chops and he’s in the right fit.
If you watch him, he certainly seems to fit the bill of a space back with shiftiness. I’m not going to go all amateur film analyst4 but I did notice in some of his tape on Draft Breakdown that Illinois lined him up in the slot sometimes, and he’d actually run some downfield routes. At the very least he looks comfortable as a pass-catcher, as evidenced by his collegiate lines.
One of the interesting things about Ferguson is he was better in 2013 and 2014 than last season. In fact 2013 was undeniably his best statistical season. Overall, those numbers equate to a 16-game pace of 60 receptions. It’s no wonder he finished among the top receiving backs in each of the three evaluation methodologies Jon Moore used.
And keep in mind, Ferguson was invited to the combine, which is a good thing for UDFA RB success.
Ferguson’s Landing Spot
The Colts are heading into 2016 with a running back depth chart that is extremely thin behind Frank Gore, who turns 33 years old this month. According to Ourlads, Robert Turbin, Jordan Todman, Trey Williams, and Tyler Varga make up the rest of that list.
Of those backs, only Williams profiles as anything close to a Profile 3 back. The 5-foot-7-inch former Aggie weighs in at 195 pounds and clocked a 10.96 agility score. That said, Williams caught just 38 balls in his collegiate career, and spent last season bouncing around four different rosters. It wouldn’t be fair to simply cast him aside, but Ferguson does have a massive production advantage in terms of collegiate receiving chops.
If Ferguson can beat out the 5-foot-7-inch Williams and earn a slot alongside Frank Gore as his career winds down, there probably couldn’t be a more perfect fit. I called Indy “the money spot” for a rookie RB pre-draft based on both the depth chart and the fact that Gore was so inefficient last season.5
But don’t take my word for it. Kevin Cole’s updated opportunity scores had Indy at number four in terms of available RB opportunity going into the draft.
With a healthy Andrew Luck, this is expected to be an improved offense where defenses have to respect the 4.4-or-better deep speed of T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett. The team also spent four of eight draft picks on offensive linemen, including first-round center Ryan Kelly and third-round tackle Le’Raven Clark.
And while he was a UDFA, Ferguson was the only rookie back the Colts added.
Statistical Comps and Final Thoughts
Since we don’t have Ferguson’s agility score, one thing we can do is look at some statistical comps. I focused on receiving categories — and mostly career numbers, to wit — because that’s where we get the best picture of what Ferguson has accomplished.
Guy has some pretty solid comps when draft position is ignored. Of course, draft position should be considered, and Riddick and Lance Dunbar are the only two who make the list once it is.
But what I’ve tried to argue here is being the new-age Riddick or Dunbar6 is a great fit for today’s NFL, and it’s the type of role that can rack up fantasy points via receptions. And while he may never win you a fantasy title, grabbing a potential weekly starter in the late rounds of your rookie draft is hardly a poor investment.
Josh Ferguson is a strong receiving back going into a situation with an elite QB, speedy WRs, a potentially pass-heavy offensive scheme, and a backfield with a very old incumbent and no other rookies to compete with. Things probably couldn’t have shaken out any better.