Chadron, Nebraska is two hours from Sioux City, five hours from Denver, and seven hours from Omaha.
In the middle of the middle of nowhere is a football field. The former cattle pasture features a main seating area with 12 rows of benches. Auxiliary bleachers are erected behind one end zone for local rivalry games. From this humble setting, a 180 lb junior running back set a divisional single-season record with 2,854 yards rushing to go along with 34 touchdowns. His name was Danny Woodhead, and the Chadron State football trophy case is a shrine to him, the most decorated athlete in the school’s 103-year history.
Chadron State coaches and fan’s all knew Danny Woodhead was special, but would his athleticism translate at the highest level of competition? Could he become a productive NFL running back?
Let’s head over to PlayerProfiler.com and review Woodhead’s measurables when he entered the league:
4.43 40-yard Dash (91st percentile amongst current NFL running backs)
11.23 Agility Score (56th percentile)
125.1 Burst Score (79th percentile)
Having demonstrated both über efficiency on the college football field and upper echelon workout metrics, no one should have been surprised when Danny Woodhead scored the 12th most RB fantasy points 2013. It surprised me. It surprised almost everyone when, at age 28, Woodhead finally clawed enough opportunity from an NFL franchise to reach his potential.
It was a long drive from northwest Nebraska to RB1 status. The problem: fantasy footballers now appreciate Danny Woodhead enough to draft him in the same round as every-down backs Steven Jackson and Maurice Jones-Drew, as well as passing down stud contemporary Darren Sproles. To get 2014 Danny Woodhead production at a 2013 Danny Woodhead price, let’s review a handful of specific traits that enabled Woodhead to ascend to RB1 status in 2013.
1. Extraordinary athleticism
2. On-field efficiency
According to MyFantasyLeague’s 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP) Results, three running backs meeting these requirements are currently being drafted outside the top 150 NFL players.
4.42 40-yard Dash (93rd percentile)
10.68 Agility Score (99th percentile)
121.6 Burst Score (63rd percentile)
At 5’ 11”, 219 lbs, Roy Helu fits the physical profile of a dynamic RB1 workhorse. Though a Danny Woodhead comparison is apropos, because Helu is most often utilized on passing downs. It is surprising, however, that a size-speed freak who was 19 years old when he started dominating skill player production at the University of Nebraska cannot pass the most famous Mazda 626 owner of all time. Alas, nothing says “a running play is probably coming” like seeing an Alfred Morris parked in the backfield.
Indeed, Mike Shanahan’s 2013 schemes were as predictable as Jay Gruden’s Cincinnati Bengals’ schemes were creative. Featuring ample running back screens and check downs, Bengals’ Giovani Bernard was targeted 71 times on his way to posting a +21.1 Production Premium (PlayerProfiler’s isolated efficiency metric), which was No. 10 in the NFL in 2013. Meanwhile, the underutilized Roy Helu was targeted a mere 42 times on his way to posting a +20.2 Production Premium (No. 12 amongst NFL RBs) and .92 Fantasy Points Per Opportunity (No. 9 amongst NFL RBs).
Roy Helu never got the opportunity to covert his efficiency into consistent fantasy production in 2013. Few skill position players, regardless of efficiency, saw fewer opportunities per snap than Helu. Mike Shanahan’s abject refusal to feed a player with Helu’s athleticism and efficiency was one of the most underreported fantasy crimes of 2013. While Giovani Bernard was enjoying a 22.9% Opportunity Share (team running back carries plus targets) in Cincinnati, Helu was given 9.9% of Washington’s running back carries and targets – table scraps.
Fortunately, Bernard is a proof point that when Jay Gruden has an efficient pass catching running back on the roster, he feeds him. In a new scheme with a history of RB passing game utilization, Roy Helu’s targets will probably converge with Bernard’s in 2014. Helu has standalone PPR value while sharing touches with Alfred Morris, as well as the ability to produce on an every-down basis if given the opportunity. Helu’s versatility provides the highest potential payout of any of the later round lottery tickets on the fantasy draft board.
4.52 40-yard Dash (63rd percentile)
10.94 Agility Score (90th percentile)
119.5 Burst Score (49th percentile)
Lance Dunbar hits close to, or well above, the 50th percentile on all key athleticism metrics. While Dunbar cannot match Woodhead’s “burstiness,” his agility is superior.
Note: though the Agility Score metric may say otherwise, anyone that actually watches football games knows Danny Woodhead is among the most agility running backs in the league.
While Lance Dunbar‘s NFL game action sample size is too small to meaningfully gauge his on-field efficiency, his 40.6% College Dominator Rating (percentage of all team skill player production) at North Texas puts him in the 87th percentile of NFL running backs. Many football fans also caught an impactful glimpse into Dunbar’s potential on Thanksgiving Day 2013 when he made many causal fans remark, “who is that guy that looks so much faster than DeMarco Murray?” on his way to tallying 94 all-purpose yards before leaving with a season-ending knee injury.
Lance Dunbar is now fully healed and ready to assume the Reggie Bush role in Scott Linehan’s offense. While he will definitely see a lower snap share and less total touches than Bush, Linehan has a track record of getting the team’s second running back highly involved in the offense. Per XN Sports’ Rich Hribar, Linehan’s running backs have accounted for 46.8% of team receptions and the second running back on the depth chart has averaged 51 targets per season. Based on Linehan’s track record and Dunbar’s athletic profile, Dallas’ pass catching specialist is poised for Woodhead-like targets and production.
4.58 40-yard Dash (43rd percentile)
10.79 Agility Score (96th percentile)
122.8 Burst Score (67th percentile)
McCluster’s Agility Score is both extraordinary and predictive. As high stakes fantasy league stud Shawn Siegele first outlined on Pro Football Focus, both receptions per touch and receptions per snap were correlated with Agility Score. Agility Score is the skeleton key to unlocking reception hog running backs, and McCluster’s agility is in the league’s 96th percentile.
Dexter McCluster’s dynamic workout metrics have also translated into on-field efficiency. In a running back-wide receiver hybrid role at the University of Mississippi, McCluster posted a 28.7% College Dominator Rating, an above average percentage amongst NFL running backs. With the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, McCluster took full advantage of his 89 rushing attempts + passing targets leading the league with 1.25 fantasy points per opportunity.
Dexter McCluster’s new three-year $9 million contract with the Tennessee Titans signaled a significant rise in fantasy point scoring opportunities. With explosive-yet-raw Bishop Sankey the only other competent pass catching running back on the roster, McCluster will surely be asked to play significant snaps in passing situations. His role was further cemented when Tennessee hired former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who will be installing some of the Chargers’ 2013 personnel packages and play calling schemes. Following that logic, XN Sports’ Rich Hribar believes McCluster will be utilized in a similar fashion to how Danny Woodhead was a year ago under Whisenhunt. With more targets and carries forthcoming, his per-opportunity efficiency will necessarily decline as his per-game production rises in 2014.
Matt Kelley (@fantasy_mansion) is an XN Sports contributor and founder of RotoUnderworld (@rotounderworld) and PlayerProfiler.com, which distills a wide range of advanced metrics into a single player snapshot.