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A Deep Sleeper is Waking Once Again in Tennessee

Two years ago RotoViz was very excited about a rookie RB out of Boise State, and we had very good reason to be. In fact, he finished second overall in the RB Prospect Lab in a truly loaded class, besting Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Marlon Mack, Kareem Hunt, Aaron Jones, James Conner, and Alvin Kamara.1

As a 21-year-old converted WR with over 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in college to go with NFL athleticism and size, he seemed like the perfect fantasy RB for the modern NFL. Instead he turned out to be one of the only ways to miss at RB in a class bursting with future starters. I am, of course, talking about Jeremy McNichols.

Despite McNichols’ excellent prospect profile, he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round by Tampa Bay. But McNichols was cut before the season, and — in what appears to have been a foolish decision — spurned TB’s offer to join their practice squad, opting instead to join San Francisco’s. He did briefly make the 49ers’ active roster but never recorded a touch, and was then cut in September 2018. McNichols then bounced around to the Colts (recording 2 rushing attempts for 4 yards), to the Broncos practice squad, and finally to the Titans. By this point he was virtually un-owned even in deep dynasty formats.

But this story isn’t done yet. As the RotoViz slack channel is well aware (I’ve been spamming them with McNichols’ training camp snap counts all month), McNichols has latched on in Tennessee. With Derrick Henry nursing a strained calf, McNichols has been able to earn quite a bit of time with the Titans first-string offense. Per Travis May, McNichols is the second RB in the rotation at the moment behind Dion Lewis. David Fluellen, who was assumed to be the RB3 on the depth chart seems to have been converted to FB. That means, assuming the Titans keep three RBs along with Fluellen at FB, that McNichols just has to beat out Dayln Dawkins, Akeem Hunt and Alex Barnes to make the team. If these snap counts2 are any indication, McNichols is well on his way.

Second Preseason Game

I’ve been sitting on this article for about a week, because there are still beat reporters who are leaving McNichols off their projected 53. But with what McNichols just did in the preseason, I can’t wait any longer to make sure he’s on your radar.

McNichols saw his first touch on the third series of the game with Marcus Mariota still at QB. Additionally Dion Lewis saw two touches, further indicating that McNichols was mixing in with the first team offense, rather than coming on as a pure second stringer. On his drive with the first team, McNichols saw two targets and had two carries, including a 33 yard TD run that was nullified by penalty. McNichols then stayed in when Tannehill entered the game on the next drive, which was capped by an explosive 15-yard McNichols TD reception.

McNichols stayed in the game for the rest of the half, but critically, did not play in the 2nd half. This is not how players who are going to be cut are treated.

McNichols was also targeted five times, and received seven carries (including his called back TD). So not only does McNichols appear likely to make the team, the team is using him as both a runner and a receiver.

What’s the Point?

If it strikes you as ridiculous that I’m still holding out hope for McNichols (when he was already an unlikely breakout candidate last year), that I’m working to convince you that he’ll make the the Titans as the third string RB as if the Titans RB3 has been a fantasy goldmine, or that I’m simply refusing to give up on a RB simply because I was far to high on him as a rookie, please turn your attention to the RB that McNichols is currently working behind: Dion Lewis.

As Justin Winn pointed out in 2016, Dion Lewis was a fantastic prospect who excelled in college at a young age. Posting over 138 rushing yards per game at 19 years old.

RBSeasonSchoolDraft PickAgeRush Yards/GAge-Adj Rush Score
Adrian Peterson2004Oklahoma719.8148.12.46
Dion Lewis2009Pitt14919.3138.42.27
Ray Rice2006Rutgers5519.9138.02.19
James Conner2014Pitt19.7135.82.16
Anthony Davis2001Wisconsin24319.6133.32.10
Samaje Perine2014Oklahoma19.3131.82.10
Steven Jackson2002Oregon St2419.4130.02.03
Jahvid Best2008Cal3019.9131.72.03
Ryan Williams2009Virginia Tech3819.7127.31.94
Ezekiel Elliott2014Ohio St19.4125.21.91
Tyrell Sutton2005Northwestern27019.0122.81.90
Chris Wells2007Ohio State3119.4123.81.88
Marshawn Lynch2005Cal1219.7124.61.87
TJ Duckett2000Michigan St1819.9123.01.81
Terry Caulley2003Connecticut27019.5121.41.81
Nick Chubb2014Georgia19.0119.01.80

Yet, despite Lewis’ excellent prospect profile, he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. And he logged only 39 touches in two seasons before being traded to Cleveland in April 2013. Lewis then fractured his fibula in the 2013 preseason, spent the season on IR, and was cut the following August. He was signed by the Colts, then cut a week later, and spent the rest of 2014 out of the league until the Patriots signed him to a futures/reserve contract on the last day of the year.

In 2015 Lewis made the Patriots roster. And, in his fifth year since being drafted, Lewis finally got an opportunity. He was an immediate fantasy force. Though he only played seven games, Lewis was 2015’s RB5 in PPR points per game with 17.5. And his 36 receptions that season were tied for 21st in the league — again, despite only playing seven games.

Since tearing his ACL that November, Lewis’ hasn’t quite recaptured the magic of his 2015 run. But nevertheless he’s averaged a fairly respectable 10.6 points in the 39 games since, and remains an interesting, if unexciting, Zero-RB target.

More importantly, Lewis serves as a reminder that when a great prospect is repeatedly denied opportunity, we shouldn’t write him off.

McNichols’ Breakout Opportunity

McNichols, perhaps in part due to his own choices, has yet to really get a shot with an NFL team. But his current team seems aware that he should be used as an all purpose weapon and has a clear role for for that exact type of player: the role currently held by Dion Lewis. As detailed above, Lewis has an extensive injury history, and McNichols is his younger doppelganger. Therefore, McNichols’ simplest path to relevance is a Lewis injury, allowing McNichols to become an explosive version of the now 29-year-old space back.

But McNichols also has upside with a Derrick Henry injury or setback. McNichols is still just 23 with a profile suggesting elite potential. With Lewis coming off a 3.3 YPC season and, again, playing the season at 29, Henry’s absence would allow McNichols the opportunity to simply outplay Lewis — something I fully expect him to do if given the opportunity.

At this point, you should be taking the same approach to McNichols that Shawn Siegele recommends with Brian Hill. In other words, assuming that Henry remains on track to play Week 1, McNichols is still a tough add in shallow leagues. But he is a must add to your watch list, and already a priority add in leagues with at least 20 roster spots.

Image Credit: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Jeremy McNichols.

  1. Side note: we should probably be talking about the 2017 RB class the way we talk about the 2014 WR class.  (back)
  2. logged by Travis May  (back)

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