Contrarian Running Back Rankings for the 2014 Draft
My running back evaluations tend to diverge sharply from the mainstream, and they do so because of my personal experience and because of research made possible by the Pro Football Focus database. Several years ago I developed a theory of running back value based on the premise that yards before contact were equally valuable and equally skill-related. I call this pre-contact yardage Vision Yards. At about the same time, I discovered a connection between Vision Yards per attempt (VYA) and the Combine agility drills.
This research has informed my theory of running back value and led me to rank Zac Stacy as the No. 2 rookie prospect a year ago. It also led to the prioritization of smaller, shiftier backs in fantasy leagues, especially Jamaal Charles. Recently, I investigated the pre-contact results for the 2013 season. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vision Yards All-Stars finished 1-2-3, and they did so in both PPR and standard formats. I also looked at yards after contact and the way in which breaking tackles doesn’t always lead to reality or fantasy value.
I mention all the research so that you can explore some evidence-based contrarianism on your own. You may find it extremely compelling or you may find that you disagree entirely. Either conclusion has value. I also mention the research so you understand my contrarian running back rankings are based in logic and reality. They may turn out to be completely wrong. There’s almost always another side of the coin, not to mention randomness. But these rankings weren’t put together for shock value or to be contrarian simply for the sake of contrarianism. If you want that sort of thing, I’m sure you know places to find it.
For each runner I’ll provide an argument for, an argument against, and a comp. Unlike most draft-related articles, the comp will be chosen from a group of players with the closest fit on a variety of predictive stats. The comps don’t always seem as optimistic as they should be, but they help to counterbalance the irrational optimism of this time of year.
10. Lache Seastrunk
The argument for: Seastrunk averaged 7.4 yards per carry in 2013 and was probably the most explosive back in college football. He damaged that reputation by turning in a disappointing 4.51 forty, but the ridiculous 134-inch broad jump may speak more accurately to his athleticism.
The argument against: Seastrunk didn’t catch a pass last season, and small backs need to be viable weapons in the passing game. Scouts question his decision-making, but I’ve learned “bounces too many runs to the outside” is generally code for “we’d prefer Eddie Lacy regardless.”
The comp: Kenny Irons
9. Ka’Deem Carey
The argument for: Over the last two seasons Carey went on a scorched earth campaign that resulted in over 4,000 yards from scrimmage. His strong yards per carry average tends to belie the poor timed speed. With 77 career receptions in college he should be a threat in all facets of the pro game.
The argument against: 207-pound NFL running backs don’t run a 4.7 forty or struggle to an 11.46 Agility Score. While he improved slightly at his pro day, there’s plenty of smoke pointing toward a Steve Slaton-like system back.
The Comp: Arian Foster with more collegiate production?
8. Jerick McKinnon
The argument for: McKinnon was the most athletic running back at the Combine. He posted a 4.41 forty, a 40.5-inch vertical, and a 10.95 agility score – all at the prototypical three-down running back size of 209 pounds. He was frequently used as a blocker at Georgia Southern, removing one of the big hurdles to seeing the field early.
The argument against: Until his senior year McKinnon was an option quarterback, and he faced a lower level of competition. With such a lack of touches, it’s hard to know if he’s a running back or merely an athlete.
The Comp: None
7. Terrance West
The argument for: While Andre Williams led the FBS in rushing, West made those numbers seem downright pedestrian. He put up 2,509 yards on the ground and 259 more through the air. His 4.54 forty was solid at 225 pounds, and he outperformed Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde in the leaping drills as well.
The argument against: West’s numbers were piled up at small school Towson, and rumors persist that he ended up at Towson for reasons that will make NFL general managers cringe.
The Comp: DeShaun Foster
6. Tre Mason
The argument for: After finishing with a ridiculous flurry that saw him rack up 549 yards from scrimmage in his last two games, the youngest back in the draft offered further hints of his explosiveness with a 38-inch vertical at the Combine.
The argument against: At his size a 4.5 forty was disappointing. He only caught 12 passes in 2013 and will need to develop in the passing game to be a three-down back and fantasy RB1. He may also need wrist surgery.
The Comp: Ryan Moats
5. Jeremy Hill
The argument for: Hill averaged 6.9 yards per rush but flashed more big play ability than Hyde. He sports the age (22) and size (233 pounds) of an elite prospect.
The argument against: Hill ran a 4.66 forty and struggled in the leaping drills. He may lack the athleticism of an NFL starter.
The Comp: Travis Henry
4. Charles Sims
The argument for: Sims averaged over 50 receptions a season in college and brings 4.48 speed to the table at 214 pounds.
The argument against: Sims is quite a bit older than you’d like and his agility numbers (11.46) are weak for a pass-catching back.
The Comp: DeMarco Murray
3. Tyler Gaffney
The argument in favor: Gaffney flew under the radar in 2013 despite managing 330 carries for 5.2 yards a pop. He splashed down in the end zone 21 different times. The Stanford star then tore up the Combine and showed the speed and agility of an elite prospect.
The argument against: Gaffney sat behind the pedestrian Stepfan Taylor for several seasons and even tried his hand at professional baseball. He didn’t average an eye-popping 7.3 yards per carry like Carlos Hyde.
The Comp: He’s a Doug Martin doppleganger.
2. Andre Williams
The argument in favor: Williams led college football with 2,177 rushing yards and also led in Bill Connelly’s highlight yards per opportunity metric. At 230 pounds with a 38-inch vertical and 11.33 Agility Score, he’s also the best size/speed specimen in the draft and it’s not close.
The argument against: This one is a head-scratcher. As far as I can tell, Williams broke too many long runs. Scouts seem to prefer a guy with a high percentage of runs in the 4-yard area so they can check “falls forward” on the scouting report. It’s fair to say that he’s not a good receiver, and that limits his upside, but the general preference for an older, less explosive bruiser like Carlos Hyde is truly inexplicable.
The Comp: LeGarrette Blount with better burst
1. Bishop Sankey
The argument in favor: Sankey rolled up over 2,000 yards in 2013 and managed 650-plus touches over the last two years combined. He also caught 61 passes. Those are the numbers of an NFL feature back, one who can play on all three downs like Jamaal Charles or Matt Forte. His Agility Score of 10.75 is in the same range as players like Edgerrin James and DeAngelo Williams.
The argument against: Sankey isn’t a big tackle-breaker, and scouts also question his second level vision.
The Comp: LeSean McCoy
Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell
As always, it’s important to get multiple viewpoints. The official PFF Fantasy rookie rankings are available from Jeff Ratcliffe. The PFF Fantasy gang also recently finished a four round rookie mock. Perusing those articles should give you a good sense of value and help you prepare your summer strategy.