The 2017 class of running backs is often noted for its depth and star power. But this focus on the stars tends to overlook some possibly valuable assets available later in the draft. This article introduces some of these potential hidden gems at the running back position.
Of course, opportunity is often limited for late-round and undrafted rookies. But any of these players could become fantasy relevant under the right circumstances. Ultimately, one key to winning your dynasty league is hitting on some of these undervalued RB prospects.
Virginia, Senior, 5-10, 195, RSI: N/A
Mizzell finished his career as the only player in ACC history with over 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,500 career receiving yards. His 195 career receptions are the second most for any player at any position in school history. They are the most ever for a running back in the ACC.
Now, we should note that even in his best (and final) season, he failed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. But he only became Virginia’s primary rusher five weeks into the season. From that point on, he accounted for about 83 percent of his team’s non-QB rushing yards.
What makes Mizzell especially intriguing is his receiving ability. He finished 2016 ranked in the top four in receptions per game and the top 12 in receiving yards per game among all FBS running backs. Kevin Cole has found that receiving yards per game are a strong signal of NFL success.
Finding comps for Mizzell is tricky, especially if we exclude games in which he was not his team’s lead back. Few players of his size have equaled that sort of collegiate production. The closest I’ve been able to find so far is 2016 rookie Tyler Ervin. And even he did not quite equal Mizzell’s production at the college level, particularly in the receiving game. Nevertheless, a quick look at Ervin may be fruitful.
Depending on Mizzell’s measurables, it’s possible we could be looking at a productive NFL pass-catching back in the mold of Danny Woodhead, who is Ervin’s closest comparable according to Player Profiler. Mizzell seems unlikely to match Ervin’s athleticism, but he was a more productive receiver in college. So, there are reasons both to temper expectations and to hold out hope for Mizzell.
Brigham Young, Redshirt Senior, 6-0, 220, RSI: 15
Williams is probably the least sleepy sleeper listed here, and the likely reason is his size. Still, prospect evaluators may be sleeping on Williams more than they should. He compiled 1,375 rushing yards in his final season playing alongside a QB who has also rushed for over 1,300 yards before.2
If we factor out QB rushing, Williams’ production is even more impressive. In 2016 he was responsible for 81 percent of his teams’ non-QB rushing yards and 80 percent of its non-QB rushing touchdowns.
To put those numbers in perspective, let’s see how Williams compares with some of 2017’s more highly touted RBs. Here I’ll draw on the excellent work by Matthew Freedman on the non-QB Dominator Rating and Workhorse Score metrics:3
When it comes to non-QB rushing production, Williams is on par with the top RBs in the class. It is also worth noting that although Williams is a redshirt senior, he is only 21 years old. He will turn 22 this April, making him younger than true junior Fournette.
North Carolina A&T, Senior, 5-6, 179, RSI: N/A
Running back prospects the size of Cohen invariably garner lazy comparisons to Darren Sproles. But in this case the comparison is actually sort of apt. Like Sproles, Cohen dominated his team’s rushing attack. Although it’s not technically a true reflection of the metric (because he played all but one of his games against non-FBS opponents), Cohen finished 2016 with an excellent Workhorse Score of 84.
Comparing Cohen’s college career to Sproles’ reveals some amazing similarities, and is even somewhat favorable for Cohen:
Of course, Cohen’s production came against inferior competition. But the recent mild successes of backs like Towson’s Terrance West, Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, and South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner, along with the major success of Northern Iowa’s David Johnson, should give us some hope for super-productive small-school running backs. Do not take these names as a list of comps–none of them were very similar prospects to Cohen (all were probably more impressive coming out of college, depending on Cohen’s measurables). But they should still give us hope for Cohen simply as paradigm cases of FCS backs with various levels of NFL success.
California, Senior, 5-9, 175, RSI: N/A
Running back prospects the size of
Cohen Muhammad invariably garner lazy comparisons to Darren Sproles. But in this case the comparison is actually sort of not apt in the slightest. Muhammad lacks the sort of rushing production you’d like to see from a promising RB prospect. Yet Muhammad is intriguing for two different reasons.
The first is his speed. Kevin Cole has shown that the forty is the most important combine metric for RBs. Muhammad is a former sprinter who’s run the 100-meter dash in 10.22 seconds. For the sake of comparison, Marquise Goodwin‘s personal best is 10.24 seconds. Goodwin’s forty time at the Combine was 4.27 seconds. Tyreek Hill‘s personal best in the 100-meters is 9.98 seconds (with about an 11 MPH tailwind). He posted a forty time of 4.29 at his pro day.
It’s probably not a perfect analogy because running 40 yards and running 100 meters may require slightly different skills.4 Even so, Muhammad should, at the very least, be able to turn in a sub-4.4 forty.
The second reason to like Muhammad is his kick return yardage. Jon Moore has found that special teams yards are a source of hidden value for running back prospects. Muhammed is one of only eight players since 2000 to have a 1,000-kick-return-yard season while also rushing for over 400 yards:
And he is one of only nine college players in that time to have amassed more than 2,000 rushing yards and 1,900 kick return yards over their careers:
Now, we must grant that Muhammad’s numbers are about the weakest of anyone on that list. But it’s still decent company.5
As I said at the top, late-round picks are already at a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the field and getting a chance to produce. None of these prospects are close to guarantees by any means, and they could all bust. But they’ve each shown that, if given the opportunity, the potential for production is there. These are all prospects I will watch closely over the coming months.
- Version 3, as of the date this article was published. (back)
- BYU QB Taysom Hill rushed for 600 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016. In 2013 he rushed for 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns. (back)
- I’ve excluded games against non-FBS opponents, games in which the player in question did not play, and games in which the player’s team won or lost by at least 28 points. I’ve also excluded games in which the player left early due to injury unless including that game improves the player’s Workhorse Score. This is particularly important for a player like Leonard Fournette, who dealt with a chronic ankle injury for most of 2016. For an explanation of these decisions, see Matthew Freedman’s original article on the Workhorse Score metric. (back)
- For instance, the 100 meters may get closer to a true measurement of top speed, while the forty may be better suited to measure something like acceleration. This is mostly speculation on my part. Ben Gretch recently compared forty times with recorded top speeds and found little to suggest they were strongly related–or at least that’s my interpretation of his findings. A more analogous event may be the 60-meter dash, which Hill has run in 6.64, Goodwin has run in 6.67, and Muhammad has run in 6.78, according to All-Athletics.com. (back)
- Also, what ever happened to Brandon West? Over 3,000 yards in both categories! (back)