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Pro similarities for some of the draft's top fantasy RB names based on the combine

By Scott Spratt
Mar 9, 2018

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Mar 2, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Sony Michel goes through workout drills during the 2018 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Along with the draft and free agency, the combine is one of the three pillar events of the NFL offseason. But while the player transactions of the former two events lend themselves to clear analysis of the changes teams can expect, it’s much more difficult to pin down what the combine results will mean for the players involved, the teams that will eventually draft them, and for fantasy players. In an attempt to demystify the proceedings, I’ve developed a similarity scoring system for fantasy prospects based on both their combine results and their college production. As an example from last year, here are the players the system identifies as the most similar to Christian McCaffrey. Note that a smaller similarity score means a player is more similar in this system.

Running Backs Most Similar to Christian McCaffrey
Player Sim Score Sim Confidence
Jamaal Charles 1.61 High
Wendell Smallwood 1.63 High
Marlon Mack 1.64 High
D.J. Foster 1.72 High
Lamar Miller 1.72 Med
Duke Johnson 1.73 Med
Bilal Powell 1.74 Med
Raheem Mostert 1.75 Low
Chris Johnson 1.78 Med
Tyler Ervin 1.79 Med
Theo Riddick 1.83 Med
Andre Ellington 1.84 Med
C.J. Spiller 1.85 Low

The Panthers are no doubt hoping McCaffrey develops into a dangerous-in-open-field feature back similar to Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson, but really, the list of his similar players runs the full spectrum from third-down specialist to the best back in football. A prospect’s weight and bench reps can only tell you so much about the player he will become, but they do provide the means to put him in a realistic category of players, which can clarify fantasy potential in ways the draft alone cannot.

Time will tell whether McCaffrey develops into a three-down back or just a receiving back. In the 2018 draft class, there are a few players with a similar outlook, not to mention a handful of players with profiles that suggest possible early-down and more specialized roles. I’ll start there and build my way to the likely three-down backs at the end of the article.

For more discussion of the running back prospects, listen to the latest episode of the Dynasty Slant podcast.

Looks like a specialized player

Player Optimistic Comps
Jaylen Samuels, NC State Kenneth Dixon (2.30), Ryan Mathews (2.49), Jay Ajayi (2.50)
Demario Richard, Arizona St. C.J. Anderson (1.54), Devonta Freeman (1.66), Mark Ingram (1.72)
John Kelly, Tennessee Thomas Rawls (1.21), Kareem Hunt (1.34), Elijah McGuire (1.38)
Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan Peyton Barber (1.48), Carlos Hyde (1.50), Stevan Ridley (1.51)
Kamryn Pettway, Auburn Matt Asiata (1.27), Stevan Ridley (1.46), Peyton Barber (1.54)

Jaylen Samuels could be in a category all on his own, and you’ll notice that the similarity scores of his comps are much worse (higher) than everyone else in this article. He just isn’t like other running back prospects. He’s built like one at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, but 52.7 percent of his college touches were receptions, and no other “running back” in this class had even half that ratio. He may end up with a different kind of usage than his comps, but if he plays, he’ll likely catch passes.

Demario Richard and John Kelly had similarly mediocre combine performances. Both are a bit undersized below 220 pounds but didn’t show either uncharacteristic strength in the bench press or top-tier speed or agility in the dash or shuttle drills. Because of those results and sub-5.0 yard-per-carry averages in school, I question whether either player will reach the efficiency he’ll need to earn much of a workload at the next level.

Jarvion Franklin is the biggest back in the class at 239 pounds, and so his poor 4.63-second 40 and 4.31-second shuttle times are understandable. But without any signs of elite athleticism, he may end up in a role as a short-yardage specialist without much fantasy value apart from an occasional two-touchdown day.

Kamryn Pettway showcased a pretty extreme profile with a top-end 22 bench reps and a bottom-end 4.70-second 40 time. Maybe there is potential for him to be an early-down back, but with a stop-and-start college career that featured a marijuana suspension and shoulder injury, I would have been more confident if he had wowed at the combine. He does not merit a rookie draft pick in typical dynasty formats.

Looks like a third-down back

Player Optimistic Comps
Justin Jackson, Northwestern Christian McCaffrey (1.68), Bilal Powell (1.72), Andre Ellington (1.83)
Nyheim Hines, NC State Ronnie Hillman (1.68), DeAndre Washington (1.80), Shane Vereen (1.93)
Akrum Wadley, Iowa Ronnie Hillman (1.66), Theo Riddick (1.71), Jamaal Charles (1.72)
Mark Walton, Miami Andre Ellington (1.29), Kenjon Barner (1.36), Ka’Deem Carey (1.38)
Roc Thomas, Jacksonville St. Andre Ellington (1.25), Aaron Jones (1.40), Fozzy Whittaker (1.43)

Justin Jackson had underwhelming averages of 4.8 yards per carry and 7.0 yards per reception at Northwestern and measured at just 199 pounds with 13 bench reps. None of that looks like an NFL back, but he turned my head with a best-in-the-class 4.07-second shuttle time, within a tenth of second of all-time performers like Darren Sproles and Ameer Abdullah. He’s small, but maybe he has the quickness to become a PPR asset as a receiving back.

Nyheim Hines fits the bill as a third-down back at 5-8 and 198 pounds and with more than a quarter of his college touches coming as receptions, and he dusted the field with a 4.38-second 40-time. I’m still pessimistic because his 4.35-second shuttle time was among the slowest at the position, and so I worry his raw speed won’t translate into game speed at the next level.

Likewise, Akrum Wadley, Mark Walton, and Roc Thomas are all probably too small to handle 200-plus touches in the NFL. Wadley in particular is 3-13 pounds lighter than all of his comps. But all three players caught a pass for at least a 10th of their college touches and figure to possess the agility to handle a third-down role, even though all three skipped the shuttle drill which would have helped identify it.

Looks like an early-down back

Player Optimistic Comps
Derrius Guice, LSU Kareem Hunt (1.52), Marshawn Lynch (1.56), Mark Ingram (1.57)
Rashaad Penny, San Diego St. Damien Williams (1.33), Marlon Mack (1.45), Marshawn Lynch (1.48)
Nick Chubb, Georgia Robert Turbin (1.38), Rashad Jennings (1.62), Leonard Fournette (1.71)
Ronald Jones, USC Paul Perkins (1.41), Elijah McGuire (1.41), Shane Vereen (1.43)
Josh Adams, Notre Dame Wayne Gallman (1.47), T.J. Yeldon (1.58), Melvin Gordon (1.64)
Royce Freeman, Oregon Carlos Hyde (1.27), Stevan Ridley (1.38), Kareem Hunt (1.42)
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama Jeremy Hill (1.55), Alfred Blue (1.82), LeGarrette Blount (1.92)

Derrius Guice and Rashaad Penny had similar combine performances. Both underperformed with 15 or fewer bench reps given their weights of over 220 pounds, but both counterbalanced those concerns with excellent sub-4.50-second 40 times for their sizes. Both players fell significantly short of their shared comp Marshawn Lynch’s reception frequency in college, and so I think both could be limited to early-down work even in their peak seasons. For me, that makes Guice a reach to take over Sony Michel with the latter’s three-down potential, but Penny is a relative bargain coming off the board in rookie drafts eight spots after Guice.

Only Saquon Barkley matched Nick Chubb’s total of 29 bench reps at the position, and that was seven clear of Chubb’s teammate Sony Michel and the rest of the field of running backs. Backs with Chubb’s kind of power have a definite place on NFL teams, but he may need to score double-digit touchdowns to reach fantasy relevance unless he dramatically increases his reception ratio from the 3.9 percent it was in college.

I don’t fully trust Ronald Jones’ list of comps because he aggravated an already injured hamstring during his 40-yard dash. That left him with an unofficial time of 4.65 seconds that likely undersells his top-end speed, and it also precluded him from the shuttle and three-cone drills. But even if he had wowed at the combine, I am concerned that Jones’ lack of size at 205 pounds and lack of catch frequency at USC will steer him to an NFL role without as much fantasy value as his draft status would suggest.

In contrast to Jones, Josh Adams voluntary skipped a lot of his combine drills, and so his comps are built mostly on his measurables — he’s 6-2 and 213 pounds with long arms and average-sized hands — and his college production. The number that stands out there is Adams’ 6.7 yards per carry, which is in the 15th percentile of historical combine backs. That and his reputation make him a good bet to quickly earn an early-down role, but his 7.9 percent receiving ratio in college doesn’t suggest a volume of targets to make him an RB1 at his fantasy peak.

Royce Freeman didn’t put up a top-tier 40-time (4.54 seconds) the way some of the more heralded big backs like Barkley and Guice did, but at least from my model’s perspective, he did something better with his 4.16-second shuttle time. My model really values shuttle times, and so Freeman has started to look like some really productive fantasy backs like Hyde, Ridley, and Hunt. He could be a steal in the second round of rookie drafts.

Bo Scarbrough was something of a combine All-Star with a good-for-his-size 4.52-second 40-yard dash and top-tier vertical and broad jumps. However, he was less successful in the two drills my model values the most, the bench press and short shuttle. Those results combined with a poor track record of health create a pretty big bust potential in my mind. And without a history as a pass-catcher, his upside may not be super high, either.

Looks like a three-down back

Player Optimistic Comps
Saquon Barkley, Penn State David Johnson (1.42), Leonard Fournette (1.57), Ezekiel Elliott (1.82)
Sony Michel, Georgia DeMarco Murray (1.41), Isaiah Crowell (1.41), Alex Collins (1.49)
Kalen Ballage, Arizona St. Javorius Allen (1.50), James Starks (1.60), Darren McFadden (1.72)
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn Kenyan Drake (1.52), Kenneth Dixon (1.69), Ryan Mathews (1.70)
Darrel Williams, LSU T.J. Yeldon (1.43), Peyton Barber (1.50), Wayne Gallman (1.52)

Saquon Barkley absolutely destroyed at the combine. He was at or near the top of the position at the bench press, in the vertical jump, with the 40-yard dash, and with the short shuttle, and he did all of that at 233 pounds. Barkley’s best comps are or were all top NFL talents and fantasy stars. He looks like a lock to be a three-down back and is a no-brainer for the No. 1 rookie pick in all fantasy formats.

Sony Michel is a little on the smaller side for a three-down back at 214 pounds, but he showed power beyond the typical for his frame when he put up 22 reps on the bench, tied for third-most at the position in the combine. Meanwhile, Michel showed impressive athleticism with a 4.21-second shuttle time and in catching a pass for a 10th of his college touches. He may have a lower floor than Guice, but he has a higher ceiling as a three-down back that I think justifies his being the No. 2 running back in dynasty rookie drafts.

Kalen Ballage is another player with a low bench total (14 reps) but with an excellent 40 time (4.46 seconds) for his size (228 pounds). His 4.4 yards per carry at Arizona State were more than 2 yards shy of Guice, but from a fantasy perspective, he could overcome that talent discrepancy if he continues to catch passes on 15.4 percent of his touches.

Kerryon Johnson didn’t help himself much at the combine with a middling 4.29-second shuttle time and a position-low 11 bench reps. He showed his athleticism best with a 40-inch vertical leap, but that’s something my model considers a relevant predictor for backs only for their catch rates. With that and with his solid 9.6 percent reception ratio at Auburn, Johnson does look like he could contribute on third downs. The biggest question might be if he has the power to run between the tackles at the next level, which he will need to do to become an every-down player.

Darrel Williams is my favorite fantasy sleeper at the position. Stuck behind Leonard Fournette and Guice for his entire college career, he’s far off of the radar. But Williams impressed at the combine with 22 bench reps and a 4.21-second shuttle time, which my research thinks are better predictors than his poor 4.70-second 40-time. Meanwhile, Williams actually led this class with 12.2 yards per reception in school, which he accomplished over a not-insignificant 38 receptions that were more than a 10th of his total college touches. Maybe it’s a long shot he ever earns a fair shake in the pros, but I’m definitely willing to take a chance on what I see as a three-down upside in the mid or late rounds of rookie drafts.

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