Dynasty Draft Profile: Running Back Roundup
April 28, 2016 | Rich Hribar
Just as we did with the wide receivers that we couldn’t cover individually, we’re going to hit the rest of this season’s running back class with a broad stroke of analysis.
As we touched on in the open for wide receivers, draft capital has a high correlation to success since it’s largely tethered into initial opportunity at the position. At the running back position, things aren’t so detrimental for late round picks, especially over recent history. Since the dynamics and functionality for running backs has changed so much recently with teams using multiple sources for production through personnel packages and committees, we’re narrowing our look at fantasy production in relation to draft investment down to the past 10 years.
First things first, high end draft investment is still tied to the most important producers in fantasy, especially the high end players. Backs that were drafted over the first two rounds account for nearly two thirds of the top-12 PPR finishes over the past decade and over half of the top-36 seasonal marks. Adding the third round picks into that bucket accounts for 80 percent of the top-12 seasons and 66 percent of the top-36 ones.
After that, things get interesting as fourth to seventh round picks have roughly the same amount of contributions as undrafted free agents. There are a lot more undrafted players each year than picks in that arbitrary pocket, but it shows you that you don’t have to throw away your favorite running backs from the class just because they don’t get selected this weekend like you almost certainly have to do with your favorite wide receivers. I’d love to dissect this further, but we have some backs to touch on here….
The Next Best
This is a trio of backs that would’ve been next in line to get individual profiles as all could very well players taken within the first four rounds this weekend.
I really wish we had gotten workout metrics for Devontae Booker to provide further clarity on the underlying prospects for his success. He’s an older producer coming off of a meniscus tear, but has been a workhorse runner and receiver at Utah. Only Jordan Howard had as many games with 30 or more carries over the past two seasons as Booker’s eight and D.J. Foster and Taquan Mizzell are the only backs that have had more games with four or more catches than Booker’s 10 over the same span.
The reason I really wanted to see what was under the hood athletically is I wanted reinforcement that his production wasn’t solely inflated by volume as he was largely inefficient with his touches. Of all backs with 100 or more carries in either season, just 37 percent of his runs went for five or more yards in 2014 (97th) and just 34 percent in 2015 (112th), so if that workload ends up compromised in the NFL, we may see him fall into being more of a receiving back than a rusher like Charles Sims has become.
The fact that we didn’t get those workout numbers still may be a blessing in the end combined with his age and injury as he’s currently an early second rounder in fantasy drafts, which is a fantastic spot to take on all of the plusses he brings to the table. If Booker ends up being the highest fantasy scorer over the next three seasons from this class, I wouldn’t blink, but I also wouldn’t blink if he’s relegated to a cumbersome receiving role only.
Jonathan Williams missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, allowing us to get a good look at Alex Collins. The last time we did see Williams was in 2014 where he matched Collins’ output with a little more of his own and we already know that he’s a markedly better athlete than Collins is, so it’s hard to put Collins ahead of him in terms of priority for rookie drafts. Williams wasn’t much of a pass catcher in college but did have six receiving touchdowns during his time at Arkansas. He can get in trouble at times forgetting he’s a 220-pound back by running laterally to the edge often, but he’s a missed tackle machine, with tremendous balance and vision. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams forced 65 missed tackles on his 211 attempts in 2014. Williams is a potential arbitrage play on Jordan Howard for both the real and fantasy drafts and name to monitor if teams aren’t scared off at all by his foot injury.
Peyton Barber fits a similar archetype of Williams and Howard as a big body, two down player. Despite having subpar speed and explosion, Barber does have great measured agility for his size, which leads to some similar bad habits as Williams shows sometimes in having lapses of playing up his size, especially behind the line of scrimmage and moving laterally. His lack of speed and pop show themselves in his struggles at the second level in generating his own yards as just 24.7 percent of his output were credited to him through Football Study Hall’s Highlight Yards metric. He’s a long play on what Howard and Williams can do, but isn’t someone I’m targeting unless he gets drafted way higher than expected while also carrying a favorable cost in rookie drafts.
|Wendell Smallwood||West Virginia||21.9||68||208||4.47||33.5||120||4.28||6.83||18.3||116.8||0.7||2.0|
|DeAndre Washington||Texas Tech||22.9||68||204||4.49||34.5||118||4.2||7.03||17.9||114.8||1.1||3.2|
|Marshaun Coprich||Illinois State||21.4||68||207||4.47||34||112||4.58||7.26||24.7||151.3||1.8||1.4|
|Tryomaine Pope||Jacksonville St.||22.1||67||205||4.55||37||120||4.21||6.87||14.5||119.2||1.3||0.7|
This group has a number of intriguing players that profile to be middle of the road committee types. All are mild to lower end athletes, but have the potential to fill multiple roles in an offense that should get them on the field early on or elevate them if that committee breaks down in season. This is a group I would like to bulk draft with multiple third and fourth round rookie picks instead of nailing who excels here in the event I went wide receiver early on or am looking to run into running back production with low investment.
My favorite players here are Wendell Smallwood and DeAndre Washington. Smallwood really shows up as a player that doesn’t really have any damaging marks to his physical or production profile other than the fact that he’s a little undersized for full-time duty. Physically, he’s in the top-10 measurables in this class for speed and agility scores while hitting the average threshold for explosion. Production wise, only Ezekiel Elliott (130) and Derrick Henry (163) had more carries go for five or more yards than Smallwood’s 122 on the season, and he did that on just 239 carries as no player in this class had a higher percentage of his runs go for five or more yards (51.3 percent). He caught 57 passes over the past two seasons and was a sound blocker, only allowing one pressure all of last season.
Washington gets dinged for the offense he played in, and there’s no doubt it elevated his counting stats, but he can contribute in every way on the field. Only Josh Ferguson caught more passes in college than Washington’s 124 receptions, he’s a really good interior runner, good in pass protection and he has some special teams experience to help him make a roster as a later round selection. I’d like to grab both of these guys late if possible.
Marshaun Coprich has conductors, but I’m hesitant to jump on that train. His production profile is stacked, rushing for over 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns over the past two seasons, but that production also came in the Missouri Valley Conference. As a positive, both David Johnson and Zach Zenner came from this conference a year ago and I liked them, so I can’t cast too much shade, but unlike both of those players, Coprich didn’t do any damage when forced to play Power Five school opponents and when factoring that Coprich isn’t nearly the type of athlete as both Johnson and Zenner were (he ranks below the 20th percentile in both agility drills and broad jump while in the 40th percentile in the vertical for all running backs entering the league since 2003) nor does he have the requisite size, it’s hard for me to completely stock his counting stats entering the league as carrying him as a prime target of mine.
University of Olympus
|Darius Jackson||Eastern Michigan||22.1||72||220||4.40||41||133||4.29||6.87||17.3||89.8||1.2||1.8|
If you’re looking for pure athletic specimens at the position, this is your target group and I’m willing to take a cut on all of these players as longer plays in the third round and beyond.
Darius Jackson and Dwayne Washington weren’t invited to the combine, which is relevant in hopes of being drafted, picked up post draft and given opportunity. Washington is concerning because although he’s a stellar athlete, he had a ton of trouble finding and staying on the field at Washington and was completely outperformed by freshman Myles Gaskin this past season. The good news is that he is a solid receiver to go along with that athleticism and having the build of being a wide receiver at running back.
Jackson is the only player here with substantial 2015 production, accounting for 28 percent of the Eastern Michigan offensive yardage this past season, but was also a very late bloomer at smaller program, tallying just 113 carries for his career before this season. His athletic profile does show up in his Highlight Yard production, as 44 percent of his rushing yardage came beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage.
I worry slightly about Keith Marshall in the same way that I’m cautious on Washington because it’s a little concerning he just couldn’t find the field, but Marshall at least some solid excuses in his corner that could mask once was a great prospect. Marshall was a high level recruit and immediate performer as a freshman before tearing his ACL five games into his sophomore season and then losing all but three games of the following the season because that surgery didn’t heal properly. By the time he could return, Georgia had Todd Gurley and then Nick Chubb, but both of those players were also lost to injuries and Marshall still didn’t see significant playing time, which is why he entered the draft as opposed to asking for a medical hardship. As a onetime major recruit and getting buried by other major talent, I’m leaving the lights on for Marshall as a target in the later portion of the rookie drafts.
Daniel Lasco couldn’t get healthy this past season, dealing with ankle and hip injuries that forced him to only appear in six games, but he has a highly tangible 2014 season to latch onto. That year, Lasco was the Team MVP, accounting for 1,471 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. I have concerns about him being a contributor in the rushing game like I do with Dwayne Washington in that he’s not a very instinctive or creative runner and will be more of a passing game contributor when and if he carves out a true role in an NFL offense. Looking back at his 2014 production, 45 percent of his runs went for five or more yards, but only 33 percent of his rushing yardage came afterwards yards, suggesting the environment he was in was better than he was, which is troubling for a player with his sound athletic profile. But he also has a leg up in being a sound pass protector due to his collegiate system and size. That combined with his athletic pedigree and pass catching ability should get him drafted over the field here.
|Tyler Ervin||San Jose State||22.2||70||192||4.41||39||130||4.34||7.03||22.6||123.2||1.0||3.5|
This triumvirate is the pass catching upside group. Kenyan Drake could’ve also made the tweener section, but nearly everything suggests that he best fits the pass catching role in a timeshare while also being a special teams contributor with potential to be a change of pace slasher in the run game. With his added size over these two smaller options, he’s definitely my favorite here, but also the most expensive as a potential second round rookie pick while the others are going to be available in the lower portion of drafts and their best attributes as contributors to an offense aren’t compromised by be lower end investments by a real team or our fake ones.
Josh Ferguson still hasn’t gotten a ton of run, but he’s an outstanding receiver. He caught 168 passes over his time at Illinois, the highest number of catches for a back in this class and he averaged four receptions per game over the past three years. He can come in and immediately play a role effectively while being very cheap to acquire for a team, but his size doesn’t leave a lot of potential for making a splash as an all-around player.
Just like his speed and explosion suggest, Tyler Ervin is electric when he has opportunity as a runner, receiver and in the return game. Ervin tallied 1,935 yards from scrimmage as a senior with another 700 on kickoff and punt returns. Like Ferguson, his size hinders him on the next level despite being a back that 339 offensive touches last year. Darren Sproles was also a heavy college workhorse that didn’t see that usage in the run game carry over and that’s the type of player I see Ervin as in the NFL, despite him being bigger than Sproles entering the league. That’s not a discredit to Ervin, either as his archetype of running back is becoming more and more of factor in fantasy due to the way teams are utilizing the position. Ervin is also by far the worst pass protector in this class, which may or may not play into a potential size deficiency. Per Pro Football Focus, Ervin allowed 10 pressures over just 82 snaps in pass protection, the worst rate in this class.
Still, I’m targeting Ervin as a late round pick regardless because I believe he fits a mold of successful back for where the NFL is heading and if he can land in already functional offense with multi-faceted appeal (like Indianapolis) then I’ll be really excited.
|Tra Carson||Texas A&M||23.2||71||227||4.64||37||115||4.27||7.10||18.6||89.6||0.5||2.2|
|Brandon Wilds||South Carolina||22.4||73||220||4.54||36.5||118||4.33||7.08||13.7||63.0||0.3||1.9|
|Tre Madden||Southern California||22.4||72||223||4.61||33.5||120||4.27||7.09||9.4||50.2||0.6||1.9|
In the same way that I discussed the slot receiver pool when covering the receivers, this is a profile of player that doesn’t necessarily need to have a strong athletic profile to be effective in the NFL. Unfortunately, it’s also a profile of running back that I’m not looking to chase down fantasy production from in the late rounds since most of the fantasy production from this group is going to be completely situation and scoring touchdown reliant without having the requisite draft capital necessary to be thrust into immediate opportunity for that usage. All of Tra Carson, Kenneth Farrow, Brandon Wilds and Tre Madden could be intriguing in the right spot, but all will likely be selected in the portion of the real NFL draft where my favorite undrafted running backs that do multiple things well could run into equal opportunities for success.