2014 Pre-Draft Class Evaluation: Running Back Edition
April 20, 2014 | Rich Hribar
Last week I got the prospect train out on the tracks, covering my fantasy evaluation on the tight end position pre-draft. In that piece I shared the methodology behind what sometimes can come off as madness. This week we’re covering the running backs that will be available in the NFL Draft.
Just like the other positions, age, strong college production and athletic profile are important. From a measurable standpoint, agility, explosion and speed in relation to size are the most important features that have high correlation to NFL success. It’s also a position that can be “real estate dependent.” Location is key for median talent to flourish. Volume can turn a lesser talent into a fantasy hero immediately.
2013 Pre Draft Scores
Looking back at a year ago, I had some solid hits and misses. The league was higher on Ball and Lacy than what my model projected their value. Both ended up in extremely favorable destinations and taken early enough to boost their weighted score and they maximized that opportunity as rookies. My evaluation of Ellington was right in the middle of where the league had him and where he produced as a rookie. I don’t ever see him being a RB1, but he was a great value if you were in on him for his rookie cost. Bell and Stacy were (and are) agility ranking super studs, which was a tip off to their initial success. All in all, gutters and strikes with much more of the story to be told.
At first, much like most, I wasn’t too thrilled with this incoming group. As the process has gone on, I like this class as a whole more than 2013, although it doesn’t share the same quality at the top tier. As you move lower though, there are a lot of solid players in here that have strong traits to find the field in certain roles. As a whole, this group is stronger than last year’s in the middle to tail-end area.
Metrics Love And Eyeball Hate
The top back in this class for me is Bishop Sankey. There seems to be a clear divide on what data-centric folks think of him and most film scouts see, similar to Bell a year ago. The facts probably lie somewhere in the middle, but really there’s a lot pointing to him succeeding in the league.
First is that he was highly productive for two consecutive seasons rushing and catching the football. He ran for 3,300 yards, caught 60 passes and scored 37 touchdowns at ages 20 and 21. He has shown he can carry a heavy workload, carrying the football just less than 24 times per game, something that is important for his future.
Secondly, his athletic profile is pretty stellar. He has the top agility score in this class, and a top ten score since 2002. His speed score is above the requisite threshold and his explosion score (vertical plus broad jump) is remarkable. Players that have such a small gap in athletic and production scores have a high hit rate in the NFL, especially if they are early round selections. If Sankey is the first back selected in the draft, it will aid his cause to be the top back in rookie drafts.
Next Men Up
The league has been pretty buckshot on smaller school running back evaluation, but it appears they are going to have it right this year with Terrance West from Towson. Even when docking his production from performing against lower competition, his score is ridiculous. He’s a traditional bellcow runner, carrying an average of 25.8 times per game in 2013, and added 26 receptions. His physical profile (5’9” 225) is durable enough for NFL banging and his 4.54 forty holds good water for his size. He did skip on agility drills in both workouts, but his speed and explosion scores are plenty strong. His closest comp on my end is Michael Turner and I’ll be interested to see what team he ends up on.
Charles Sims has been compared to Matt Forte frequently because of his pass catching ability. He scores closer to DeMarco Murray and Chester Taylor on my end, which were lower prospects, but solid players. Sims grabbed 203 passes in his college career to go along with slightly disappointing overall rushing production. His speed and agility reach both thresholds while having a sensational explosion score. The biggest knock on him is he’s already going to be a 24 year-old rookie when the season starts. While that’s problematic big picture, his receiving ability should add shelf life to his career and get him on the field immediately in that capacity as a rookie. His top comps are DeMarco Murray and Chester Taylor.
Tre Mason is a similar but less version of Sankey, even down to the shade thrown on him. His agility measurements are trailing, but other than that, he’s a clone. He’s also the youngest running back in this class, turning 21 in August. His production is in question on my end from the offense he played in. Gus Malzahn put him in a favorable spot to post big numbers and he still had some real clunkers during the year. He also played behind Greg Robinson, who is going to be the first tackled selected in the draft. Unlike Sankey, who performed without strong surrounding talent, Mason was put in a spot to flourish. You don’t want to knock him for doing what we expected him to do, but I’m a touch pessimistic on him going forward.
Andre Williams’ production score is riding one massive season, which earned him a bid as a Heisman finalist. His production is impressive paired with watching Boston College, who ran an offense similar to Coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans. Everyone knew Williams was getting the ball, most likely on a counter with an unbalanced line, and while getting it in uncreative fashion, he still found success. He blows the doors off of the other big name big backs in this class from an athletic profile, notching top end speed and explosion scores, which tie into the amount of long runs he had. For a big guy, he was rarely caught from behind in the open field. He’s pretty much Larry Johnson reincarnated, but likely won’t get a shot to ever be a full three-down back in the NFL.
Jeremy Hill doesn’t have any real anchoring positives from an athletic standpoint, but is a carbon copy of what Eddie Lacy was coming out a year ago. He was productive against good competition in an NFL style offense. While he’s not amazing by any stretch, he’s likely going to get a shot as an early down back from a team in the first three rounds.
Carlos Hyde is an enigma to me in a way Sankey is to most who watch him. His athletic profile is slightly below that of Hill and his production was the same. When comparing the two, I prefer Hill because not only is he younger, but he performed as a conventional runner where Hyde was an extreme beneficiary of defenses focusing more on Braxton Miller in the zone read. His pass catching ability is a nice plus, but like Hill and Williams, he likely won’t receive those opportunities in the NFL.
Lorenzo Taliaferro is probably my favorite big back, but he’s not anticipated to be a high draft selection. His adjusted agility score is the second highest I have for a back over 225 pounds and his speed (4.58 forty) was better than that of Hyde and Hill. He also can catch the ball and played split out at wide receiver this past year. Fellow Fake Footballer Chad Scott likes him even more than I do and recently interviewed him if you’re looking to get more info on his background.
It’s no secret that coaches have been favoring using multiple backs in different roles. This class has a lot of backs that fit the mold of being good in a stable, but never feature backs. These are all guys that are better served as 10-15 touches guys in the NFL in a rotation.
The most popular player in this regard is Lache Seastrunk. Seastrunk was disappointing on the field and in Indianapolis. His production was hurt by not only his “home run or strike out” rushing mentality, but also due to injuries and Baylor outscoring most of their opponents by 35 in the first half of games. His multiple injuries go along with his frame and it also played a part in the light workload he had on a per game basis in his career. His 4.51 forty was a letdown for expectations, not meeting the desired speed for a player his size, but his true burst comes from his incredible vert and broad scores. That explosion score is the best in this class and something that shows up when you watch him. His closest comparison is David Wilson and will be much cheaper that Wilson was in the real draft and your fantasy rookie drafts, opening up some value.
Henry Josey, Devonta Freeman, James White and Marion Grice are all in a similar group that will never be workhorses. None have any real positive or detrimental physical or production juice but can be effective in the right situation.
Wild Cards and Favorites
Isaiah Crowell is the flavor of choice for many to be the sleeper pick of this class. He has the size to be a lead back at 5’11”, 224 pounds and although his athletic profile isn’t excellent, there’s nothing detrimental there as well. He’s being inaccurately compared to Christine Michael even though he’s not even in Michael’s stratosphere in terms of athleticism. His closest comparables on my end are Mike James, Brandon Bolden and DeShaun Foster. With those comps paired with his baggage, I’ve cooled on him, but I’m still not out on him. Where and when he’s drafted will be a big factor for the final rankings.
Jerick McKinnon put himself on the map with a ridiculous showing at the combine. He is in the Top-Five in speed, explosion and agility scores. My favorite thing about McKinnon actually isn’t his athleticism or rushing production, it’s more narrative driven. He sacrificed numbers in his move to tailback since the quarterback position handles the ball more in the triple option offense and in doing so he put on 20 pounds of muscle. That work put in shows in the 32 bench reps he posted to go along with his athletic display at the combine. Not only did he move from quarterback to tailback, he also played defensive back when Georgia Southern was short handed as a freshman and had two interceptions (he also did defensive back drills at his pro day for teams). He played the end of 2013 injured with a high ankle sprain which limited him the same way C.J. Spiller was limited this past season. His work ethic isn’t quantifiable, but it’s hard not to see finding the field in some facet with all he brings to the table. He’s a great late round rookie gamble.
The last wild card guy that I am crushing on recently is Damien Williams. Like Crowell, he comes with some off field skeletons, kicked off of the Oklahoma team last season for marijuana and curfew violations. Williams has the build (5’11” 222) and the speed (4.4 forty and the highest speed score of this class) to be a factor. He also is plus in the receiving game, catching 34 balls in his lone full season in a timeshare. If he ends up in a high volume offense with little depth chart resistance, I will be scooping up shares of him by the truckload at the end of rookie drafts.
Montee Ball All-Stars
Ball was completely pedestrian athlete with tons of volume generated production in college. He fell into a peach of a situation in the NFL, so he was able to carry over that production. There are a few backs in this class that are more production than athlete, so their NFL destination is critical to their future endeavors.
The first player is Ka’Deem Carey. He racked up solid numbers in his final two years at Arizona and did so at a young age (he turns 22 this October), so there’s a plus in his column. But if the combine were a test, he went full Blutarsky. At 207 pounds, his 4.7 forty is horrendously poor, a speed score only above six other backs in my entire database. Those guys he bested were John Clay, Khalil Bell, Stepfan Taylor, Theo Riddick, Joe Burns and Ray Graham. Not exactly the kind of company you want to keep. His agility is nonexistent to go along with being slow, but he can catch passes. He’ll need to land in a spot that can really use that ability immediately to have any relevance.
Kapri Bibbs only played one season at Colorado State, but he put up big overall numbers. He scored 31 touchdowns, scoring three or more in eight games. He was extremely reliant on huge yardage games to inflate his totals and was extremely poor versus better competition. Like Carey, his best measurable is only his age (21). He is dead last in agility and explosion scores for this class and his speed score is barely over that of Carey.
One guy I was pretty excited about before the draft process really began was Antonio Andrews. His size and versatile production at Western Kentucky was appealing. That has quickly evaporated because he just doesn’t have the athletic juice to overcome a very likely low draft selection, if he’s drafted at all. His agility and explosion metrics are lower than Bibbs and his speed score stemming from his sun dial like 4.8 forty is the fourth lowest I have recorded.
Final Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings
|5||Andre Williams||Boston College||22.0|
|6||Isaiah Crowell||Alabama St||21.7|
|10||Lorenzo Taliaferro||Coastal Carolina||22.7|
|11||Carlos Hyde||Ohio St||23.0|
|12||Jerick McKinnon||Georgia Southern||22.3|
|19||Devonta Freeman||Florida State||22.5|
|21||Marion Grice||Arizona State||22.4|
|22||Kapri Bibbs||Colorado State||21.7|
Check back in May to see who altered their rookie draft stock by ending up in the best destinations and added value by being top draft choices.