12 Apr Fantasy Contrarian – 2018 NFL Draft Class: RB’s
By: Michael Roban (@FFContrarian)
- 1. a person who opposes or rejects popular opinion.
A Contrarian Look at the Top RBs in the 2018 NFL Draft
Congratulations! You have the 1.02 or 1.03 in the draft which means you are about to draft a franchise changing RB in what is shaping up to be a great RB class right? Well…Yes…But…
In the first article I wrote about using a contrarian analysis to make good decisions as to which QBs to take at various points in your Dynasty Rookie Drafts this year. This article will analyze making choices between the top fantasy RBs in a very talented fantasy class. Like the QB class, this is a deep class with great talent although unlike the QB group the RBs have a clear undisputed “cant miss” talent in the sublime Saquon Barkley. There is no Barkley equivalent in the QB group this year. There is no Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to salivate over. But there are 4-5 unique talents that all will likely merit early NFL draft consideration and we uncovered draft data from almost 20 years of NFL talent evaluator decisions in order to better predict success on the NFL level. Can we do that with RBs? Not so fast! This RB class is deep and with so many choices what do you do with the 1.02 or the 1.03 pick? I am seeing so many drafts (based on ADP) that are just going according to prevailing wisdom of Barkley, then Guice then Nick Chubb or Sony Michel. No controversy with Barkley. But this draft has my contrarian radar up. Am I just going to take Guice or Chubb with the 1.02? Is that the right move? Look, this isn’t about picking a good player. Guice, Michel and Chubb are all good backs. But this is about making winning moves that allow your dynasty team to become a champion. So do you make the pick or move down? And to where?
Now lets stop for a minute and be honest with ourselves. How many of these RBs have you watched tape on? Okay…I am waiting. Right. You saw Sony Michel have a damn good game against Alabama in the national championship (we all did). That Bama defense is no slouch. It isn’t. Sony is a really really good back. How much of Guice have you seen? Right. Not much. Have you watched any Rashaad Penny? Maybe a little bit of the Senior Bowl? How about Ronald Jones II? Oh he pulled up lame at the combine and suddenly he is a bum. This is the belief system many will lock themselves into and draft accordingly.
Its okay. We are safe here. Fellow contrarians it is time to clear our heads and make good decisions. Go for a run. Take your dog for a walk. Listen to some rockin’ tunes. Pop open a cold one. Then come back and read the rest of this. That’s right. Leave whatever belief system you have had about whatever pick you planned to make if you had 1.02 at the door. SPOILER: I am going to change your mind.
I’ll be here waiting.
Okay good, you are back. Now let’s first find a methodology here to make a good decision. Right now we don’t have actual landing spots and NFL draft capital to consider. We are going to use a combination of talent evaluation from “guys who know things” and then find a baseline to break ties. The RBs that are all considered first round rookie draft worthy are in order of ADP: Barkley 1.01, Guice 1.02, Chubb 1.03, Michel 1.04, Ronald Jones 1.07, Rashaad Penny 1.08 and Royce Freeman 1.11. Kerryon Johnson rounds out the field at 2.01. That’s 8 RBs on average in the first 13 picks. Let’s assume for the moment that: a) this is NOT a superflex (because there will likely be 3-4 QBs in between 1.03 and 2.01 thus pushing back Jones, Penny, Freeman and Johnson) and b) we do not have to take into account other roster needs. We are looking to draft a RB for the purposes of this exercise. Quite frankly the prevailing wisdom is that the RB class is much stronger and less risky than the deep but somewhat flawed WR class so these assumptions are fairly realistic in terms of how your draft is likely to play out. We also have to weigh where we are drafting and what our objectives are. You might be able to trade an early first rounder for a mid to late first and a mid round 2nd pick right? So the game here is deciding between Door Number 1 (cue Monty Hall): Derrick Guice, Nick Chubb or Sony Michel (the public’s top 3 after Barkley) OR Door Number 2 (what do we win Monty?): Possibly getting Ronald Jones or Rashaad Penny AND a choice of a Kerryon Johnson, Royce Freeman or John Kelly in the 2nd round (not to mention one of several promising WRs or a guy like Dallas Goedert who went in the 3rd round of a recent dynasty rookie draft I participated in) and even getting a third rounder tossed in for good measure that could yield a bumper crop that now could include guys like Kallen Ballage and Bo Scarborough.
First, I am going to recommend you watch some tape. I also highly recommend reading Nick Whalen’s “The Graduates” or Matt Waldman’s outstanding Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Landing spots will also be instructive. The problem though is that many of the top talent evaluators disagree on how these players should be ranked. Some have RoJo (NOTE: he gets a bump up because he has a cool acronym based nickname). But if you don’t have time to wait for the NFL draft and don’t like to read or spend more money on your hobby (hey I am not going to shame you) here is a methodology that will allow us to break ties and make a good decision. Although we could use potential for cool nicknames as a baseline (in which case RoJo should go 1.01 over SayBark) I prefer data:
Luckily for us, such data exists. Pro Football Focus published an excellent article a few years ago called the “Post-Combine Running Back Success Model” and I find the data to be compelling. It takes 4 Factors into consideration – 40 time, weight, final season rushing yards per game and final season receiving yards per game. This allows us to take the measurables from the combine – which are instructive but sometimes illusory (see Cook, Dalvin last year) and mix it up with actual college productivity. While you will find players that don’t rate well that do have success in the NFL, the players who scored well tended to have earlier success in the NFL. In fact, the model accuracy rate for predicting early NFL success or failure was roughly 92%. I like those odds when trying to make a rookie draft decision. Heck, if you had a 92% chance of success with every decision you made in life my guess is that you probably would be independently wealthy, married to a great woman and at the pinnacle of your chosen career field. Heck the only bad choices you likely made were the occasional mediocre beer selection or restaurant reservation. So lets take a look.
First a snapshot of the prospects measured from 2000-2013. The study only went to 2013 so we can have some perspective on long term NFL performance. Chris Johnson had the highest score with a predictive score of .74. I am not exactly sure how the predictive score was calculated to be honest (perhaps a smarter guy can back into the precise formula) but looking at past compass, the players scoring at least a .4 range from Matt Forte at .61 down to Ben Tate at .41. Incidentally, there are several backs that have become productive NFL players that scored poorly like Dion Lewis (a 0.02), Arian Foster (0.02), Rex Burkhead (0.01), Mark Ingram (0.04) and Theo Riddick (0.01). But this is also where highly touted guys like Montee Ball, Trent Richardson and, Christine Michael graded out as well. Remember, Lewis, Foster and Burkhead were not that highly touted coming into the league and were not high draft picks. Foster wasn’t even drafted and to this day is the poster child for UDFA success. So this isn’t a definitive predictor of NFL success. But the players at the top end of the scale had a far higher degree of success than the players toward the bottom, on the average. Of the top 15 here, 12 of them had immediate success in the NFL
So what does this tell us? Barkley measures up just fine – his combination of size, speed and productivity will rank him toward the higher end of the scale. In fact, he grades out like a pass catching combination of Adrian Petersen (.52) and LaDainian Tomlinson (.45). I suspect Barkley’s grade will be around .65 which would place him the 2nd highest ever through 2013. Given the hype and collective agreement in his talent this gives me some confidence in this model. But how about Guice, Michel and Chubb relative to the others? Lets eliminate a few first –Nyheim Hines is not a comp to Chris Johnson. They both weighted in at 197 and that is all. Hines is clearly fast but Chris Johnson ran a 4.24 (which is blazing) and had much higher productivity in college. Hines ran a 4.38 which is fast but not super human CJ fast. He grades out closer to a Steve Slaton (0.09). Ballage has poor college productivity so despite freakish athletic ability grades out like Mike Goodson (.13). Plus I cannot think of any kind of cool nickname for either of these guys. KayBall? NyHi? Mark Walton doesn’t grade particularly well either – his size speed combination seems poor for the NFL. He might deserve a pass due to his still recovering from injury so perhaps 4.6 isnt indicative of his speed but he grades out close to Bilall Powell at .08. Hey, Billal won me a championship a few years ago so perhaps Walton deserves a longer look.
The next group is where things get a bit more interesting. John Kelly is kind of tough to evaluate as he really doesn’t have a perfect comp. He ran a 4.50 at his pro day which was faster than some people thought. He had decent but not eye popping production in college – clearly showing he can catch the ball (second highest pass catching averages next to Saquon). He grades out like a poor man’s Marshawn Lynch (.26) or slower Ronnie Brown (also .26). Not too shabby. Next in this group is Kerryon Johnson who is generating sleeper buzz atop the 1-2 turn in rookie drafts. Kerryon is intriguing but his numbers aren’t eye popping. His size speed ratio is somewhat pedestrian and his production in college was solid but not extraordinary. He grades out like Knowshon Moreno (.26). The last member of the 2nd tier is unfortunately a guy that is being touted as a possible top 3 pick. Sony Michel (a darling of the dynasty community) grades out a bit worse than Kerryon and John Lynch at around .24 which places him as a comp to Kevin Smith and Quentin Ganther (who?). Interestingly he has also drawn comparison’s to Ray Rice who also grades out at .24. Ray obviously fared a bit better than Smith and Ganther (who never made it all really). Smith was a productive if underachieving player for a few years. Obviously Ray Rice was an All Pro until he went Conor McGregor on his GF in an Atlantic City elevator but only weighed 199 pounds coming into the NFL. Here is the thing though – Sony’s grade might be a bit low because he was in a time share with Chubb. If we project his stats by adding in Chubb’s (which is somewhat hyperbolic) it spits out….Deangelo Williams. Not too shabby – but increasing only to .26. So I suspect the 214/4.54 just isn’t that athletically impressive. Lets put a pin in that.
So who does jump off the page? Guice is polarizing but there is no debating his size/speed combination and his productivity will give him a solid grade. He grades out around .41 which is where Ben Tate graded out – just below Larry Johnson and Ladainian. So Guice definitely has the “NFL Ready RB” look you want in a first rounder (the Ben Tate comp notwithstanding).
How about Nick Chubb? Chubb grades out very similarly to Larry Johnson which is encouraging. Royce Freeman ironically grades out nearly identical to another Oregon Duck (Jonathan Stewart). But the two guys that really stand out are Rashaad Penny and RoJo. Now I was holding this article until Jones ran the 40 at his pro day. The 4.48 he ran was good enough for him to measure up to Darren McFadden at .52. But it is Rashaad Penny that really stands out here. Penny’s numbers are comparable to none other than Matt Forte who clocked in at .61 here (the 2nd best ever during this sample size).
So what does this all tell us? Guice and Chubb look like safe picks at 1.02 and 1.03 particularly if they get good landing spots. But neither have remarkable pass catching resumes which could limit their value in a PPR scoring system. Penny, Jones and Freeman grade out higher than both of them though which doesn’t in itself mean they should be drafted higher – Chubb and Guice (not unlike Fournette last year) might turn out to be more productive in the passing game than their stats indicate. But it does make the case for trading down from the 1.02 or 1.03 (particularly in a PPR scoring league) and picking up more value while still being able to draft one of these other guys. Obviously if Sony Michel is the next coming of Ray Rice who graded similarly you would feel great having taken him at 1.03 (or 1.04). But combine that with his fumbling issues and you might not have a player who stays on the field his first year as much as you would like from a high rookie pick.
In a PPR league I am going to look to trade out of 1.02 or 1.03 and acquire more value and take my chances with Penny and Rojo. Look calling Penny “the next Matt Forte” might be hyperbole but remember that Forte was the 6th RB off the board in the 2008 NFL draft (after McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson and just ahead of Ray Rice, Kevin Smith, Jamaal Charles and Steve Slaton). Of the 10 players listed above, the 6th pick (Forte) and 9th (Charles) ended up being fantasy studs while the rest had their moments but mostly underwhelmed as dynasty assets. This class of RBs looks to be closer to 2008 than say 2016 (which might end up being a vintage year for RBs). I would rather roll with the upside of Penny and perhaps John “Mini Beast Mode” Kelly in the 2nd round than the downside of the next coming of Ben Tate at 1.02. As for guys like Freeman and Kerryon Johnson, they grade out pretty well but just remember you are likely getting a player closer to Jonathan Stewart and Knowshon Moreno than Ladainian. No shame in that but try to keep it all in perspective.
Speaking of LT (another cool nickname) what about that 1.01? Yeah, I am going to roll with SayBark or whatever cool name bestowed on him if he is a freakishly good as advertised. Maybe he will be given something awesome like…SayGone? Lets get to work on that.
Back next week with a pre-NFL draft analysis of this years WR class.