Using player comparisons and scores from the RB Prospect Lab, we locate the stars, sleepers, red flags, and long shots from the lauded 2018 running back class.
Part 1 looked at the potential stars. Part 2 examined the sleepers and undervalued runners. Today we peruse the red flags, RBs with scores and comps that do not fit with their expected draft slots. The No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 backs in the final RotoViz Scouting Index all fit this category.
In the opening salvo I detailed why I like to look at RBs from a variety of evidence-based angles to find value and avoid traps. Specifically, it’s helpful to employ scores and comps to fully understand the intersection of age, size, athleticism, and production.
- Use the models. Anthony Amico’s 2018 work includes several new breakthroughs and the RB Prospect Lab scores can be even be tweaked in the app if you believe a tested 40 undersells a player’s true speed.
- Athleticism is a big key at the RB position. RBs with plus speed or agility have better comps.
- Bigger is generally better. Size helps up to a point – this is much of the idea behind the RB Speed Scores – but there appears to be a Goldilocks zone for size. Backs in the 200- to 215-pound range can also have excellent comps if they possess plus speed and agility.1
- Age plays a huge role. RBs who begin their careers at age 21 average 150 PPR points per season compared to only 90 points for those who start at age 22, and breakout age is even more important. While these comps emphasize final season performance, we have several excellent measures of early career production.
Part 3 – The Red Flags
Keep in mind that a red flag doesn’t automatically mean a player will be a bust. The idea is to understand the potential concerns and make sure you’re comfortable with the scouting- or opportunity-based reasons for selecting these players early.
While the RB Prospect Lab rankings have been an excellent tool for finding values and avoiding overvalued players, exceptions will always exist. Last season Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara sported multiple red flags and went on to finish as the No. 3 and No. 4 fantasy RBs.
Ronald Jones 59
The closest comps for Jones have slightly higher Prospect Lab scores. This is in part due to questions about Jones’ health when he ran – his previously recorded athletic marks would suggest better times – and in part due to the way USC’s offense limits RB receptions. Jones finished No. 1 among elite prospects in Backfield Dominator Rating, edging the prolific Rashaad Penny for this distinction.
On the other hand, these comps are still underwhelming, demonstrating the risks for players in the this weight/speed range. Tevin Coleman is a good optimistic comparison.2 Elite RBs of Jones’ size tend to be undervalued in fantasy, but draft season has provided more questions than answers for the USC star.
Nick Chubb 43
Chubb doesn’t have a lot of close comps. Runners who can manage a 4.52 forty at 228 pounds are almost always more involved in their offenses and usually declare at a younger age. This is the dilemma for those trying to evaluate Chubb and Sony Michel through this type of system. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean this system is clearly wrong. Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, and Derrick Henry were all given varying degrees of free pass due to sharing the backfield, and all have disappointed their fantasy owners.3
For Chubb, we have some good news. His score would have been much, much higher after his freshman season.
|Nick Chubb FR||19||228||4.52||7.09||16.8||119||1.2||1.4||79|
Chubb performed extremely well in our RB tournament with most writers noting that his combine performance confirmed the return of explosive abilities on display during a freshman season where he accumulated 1,760 yards from scrimmage and posted a 0.49 first-year Workhorse Score. Unfortunately, many scouts do not agree as Chubb enters the draft a tier below Derrius Guice, Michel, and Jones in the RotoViz Scouting Index. Regardless, Chubb chose to stay for his fourth year in order to finish on a high note, and much like Royce Freeman he appears to have largely rehabbed his perceived value.
Sony Michel 17
With Michel, I’ve included some players who aren’t as similar in order to illustrate the way in which players with extremely low scores can still eventually emerge in the NFL.
The numbers for Michel are crazy. We’ve never seen a Prospect Lab score like this for a back with the potential to sneak into the back of the first round in the reality draft.
When you’re old, medium-sized, moderately athletic (by physical testing), played in the lesser half of a committee, and ceded receptions to a third runner . . . your Prospect Lab score ends up at almost the literal bottom. On first examination, Michel looks like the 2018 version of T.J. Yeldon, a committee back with mediocre athleticism who was drafted No. 36 overall in 2015, 50 spots ahead of David Johnson. Backs like Freeman (sleepers) and Kerryon Johnson (potential stars) sport some Johnson similarities, furthering the analogy.
Of course, a frequently mentioned scouting comp is none other than Alvin Kamara, last year’s breakout star. As was the case with Chubb, we discover that this argument looks more interesting if we assume a hypothetical where Michel declared after the 2015 season.4
|Sony Michel SO||20.8||214||4.54||7.1||16.7||87.4||0.85||2||49|
Michel’s final season receiving decline — in favor of standout freshman D’Andre Swift — torpedoes his score, but he hauled in 48 passes between 2015 and 2016. Kamara and Michel disappointed in their combine times, but Kamara was able to balance with explosiveness in the jumps (39.5 vertical, 131 broad). Michel’s lack of measured athleticism is a concern, as backs who fail to break 4.5 at this weight aren’t positioned well for success.
If you assume that Michel’s on-field explosiveness is more indicative of his athleticism, then Kenyan Drake is also a close comp for Michel as a senior. Despite a three-down profile, Drake became a glorified special teams player behind Henry at Alabama but has emerged as the better pro. Michel could have similar success and earlier in his career if we take his No.3 RSI score seriously.
How to Play It
All three backs land in the top six of Amico’s model in the final pre-draft update. In many leagues the demand for these RBs will allow you to trade down for Penny, Freeman, or Johnson and pick up a lot of value in the process. In other leagues you may be forced to select one of these players or “reach” for a personal favorite. While I’ve been burned a time or two by selecting the player with more trade value,5 emphasizing trade value puts you in a strong position from a roster-building perspective and helps to fight the natural tendency toward overconfidence.
Despite the red flags, I traded for Michel in a league last week and think he makes an excellent target for Brian Malone’s Free Money rookie strategy.6 Keep in mind that busts like Yeldon and Richardson both eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage as rookies. If Michel is drafted as early as expected, his rookie volume should increase his value going into next offseason. (This could change if Michel drops on injury concerns.) Early round RBs are the perfect dynasty assets. You tend to win on them either way as long as you’re willing to continue to churn them.
- This group includes players like Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, DeAngelo Williams, and Christian McCaffrey. (back)
- If you assume Jones is significantly faster when fully healthy, then Jamaal Charles comes into play as an impressive comp. (back)
- It might be unfair to include Richardson and Henry in this category as both earned extremely high Prospect Lab scores. Of course, this casts the relative scores of Chubb and Michel into even starker relief. Ingram posted a 33 in the Lab, and while he’s been a fantasy force the last several seasons, the 1.01 in 2011 needed his draft position to carry him through three poor seasons before he emerged. (back)
- Michel was not eligible to declare at that point and voluntarily returned after the 2016 season. (back)
- The one draft selection I really regret over the years was a pick of Cody Latimer over Allen Robinson even though I expected Robinson to be a star and Latimer a risk. The leaguemate known to covet Latimer declined to deal, and a trade out of Latimer didn’t materialize until after he’d lost most of his value. I’ve had plenty of other misses, of course — you’re going to be wrong occasionally, even with a strong evidenced-based approach — but that’s the only one I really regret, as it was the obviously wrong decision even as I made it. (back)
- Michel is not necessarily the best target, but all 2018 first-rounders are good targets. You have to go after whoever is available in your league. (back)