Darrin Reaves is living a catch-22.
NFL rosters are teeming with former undrafted free agent playmakers. While undrafted running backs such as Willie Parker and Fred Jackson became valuable fantasy options over time, undrafted rookie running backs are rarely given every-down opportunities. In 2013, a handful of drafted rookies, such as Zac Stacy and Le’Veon Bell, were quickly thrust into every-down roles in their inaugural seasons. However, Arian Foster circa 2009 was the last undrafted free agent running back to accumulate 25-plus carries in a game.
The unheralded, undrafted rookie’s path to fantasy relevance is typically less direct than the heir apparent early round draft pick. Given this, it was both surprising and encouraging when the Carolina Panthers’ recently endorsed undrafted rookie, Darrin Reaves, as their week 5 starting running back vs. the Chicago Bears.
“The one nice thing about Reaves is he’s terrific with pass protection,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “[Reaves] did a nice job. Had only one [mental error] for the number of plays he played. Had two technique errors, but he did a nice job. He’s a tough little guy, and he works very hard at it and deserves the opportunity to play.” Rivera when on to say that the starting job is “not too big for Reaves.”
I don’t believe you, Ron.
Less than a year ago, the New York Giants running back corps was similarly ravaged by injuries. Heading into a week 6 match-up with the Minnesota Vikings, Tom Coughlin announced that seventh round rookie, Michael Cox, would be the Giants’ starting running back for the game. Fantasy hipster streamers naturally pounced.
To their horror, street free agent Peyton Hillis proceeded to out-touch Michael Cox 23 to 13 and post 18 fantasy points to Cox’s 4 fantasy points. Michael Cox did not exceed ten touches in a game for the rest of the season.
The problem was not Michael Cox’s athleticism. His workout metrics on PlayerProfiler.com are impressive:
40-time: 4.63 (30th percentile)
Burst Score: 133.2 (95th percentile)
Agility Score: 10.95 (89th percentile)
Bench Press: 24 reps (77th percentile)
Darrin Reaves workout metrics on PlayerProfiler.com illuminate his athleticism:
40-time: 4.59 (41st percentile)
Burst Score: 128.7 (89th percentile)
Agility Score: 11.61 (13th percentile)
Bench Press: 20 reps (47th percentile)
Michael Cox appears to be the superior athlete, but his 100.6 (59th percentile) PlayerProfiler Athleticism Score is dwarfed by Darrin Reaves’ 107.9 (97th percentile), because PlayerProfiler‘s Athleticism Score is BMI-adjusted for running backs. As Jonathan Bales discovered, high BMI running backs are generally more productive and durable. At 5-foot-10, 220-pounds, Reaves comes at you like a bowling ball, meanwhile, the 6′ 1″, 214-pound Cox’s lanky frame is easier to tackle both head-on and in the open field.
Reaves’ athleticism was on full display during a productive college career. His pre-draft highlight reel features every advanced tackle eluding move on the Madden controller. I’m not a certified tape-watching expert, but I know most effective running backs share one trait: low center of gravity. Reaves’ extraordinary BMI and ultra-low pad level running styler enhances balance and enables his efficient, make-you-miss running style. Though his YouTube highlights are overlaid with some outdated rap music with explicit lyrics, jump to the 0:40 mark to see Reaves’ fabled 360-degree horizontal spin touchdown dive. Then, jump to to the 3:15 mark to see Reaves’ pull off the physically improbable zero-momentum-loss spin move. Reaves’ low center of gravity and lower-body burst enables him to avoid tackles while simultaneously pushing the ball upfield, a special feat.
Darrin Reaves is a faster, more dynamic runner than Michael Cox, but like Cox, he is short on experience. Do the Panthers’ have a Peyton Hillis or an Andre Brown-type veteran in the running back pipeline who could conceivably cannibalize Reaves’ opportunities this season?
1. DeAngelo Williams
DeAngelo Williams suffered a high-severity high ankle sprain and will not return until later in the season. Now 31, the years have been kinder to Williams to most. Coming off a severe lower leg injury and already missing the extraordinary agility of his early twenties, he will not offer the Panthers the playmaking ability they desperately need to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere on offense.
2. Jonathan Stewart
Jonathan Stewart suffered a medium-severity knee sprain in week 3 but seems determined to play through the injury in hopes of maintaining his place on the depth chart. While Stewart’s utterly dominant 110.1 PlayerProfiler Athleticism Score is without equal, a litany of major leg injuries throughout his seven-year career have reduced him to a more powerful, yet more fragile, Darren McFadden. Let that sink in. A 235-pound Jonathan Stewart cutting and juking on a sprained knee may represent the most blatant injury risk in NFL history. Given his current health status and injury track record, Stewart is unlikely to impede Darrin Reaves’ path to a significant workload.
3. Fozzy Whittaker
Before we speculate whether or not Fozzy Whittaker will play a meaningful offensive role for the Panthers in 2014, let’s review his last plum opportunity. In week 15 of the 2013 season, the Cleveland Browns faced the Chicago Bears, which at the time, featured the league’s worst run defense. As the default starter, Fozzy Whitaker was given one early-game carry, which went for one yard. The Browns quickly benched Whittaker for Edwin Baker, who ran for 38 yards on 8 carries, a 4.8 yard average. Edwin Baker is no Darrin Reaves, and Fozzy Whitaker is a minimal threat.
4. Chris Ogbonnaya
Once the Panthers’ fully understood the extent of DeAngelo Williams’ high ankle sprain, the team signed another former Brown, Chris Ogbonnaya. Ogbonnaya played wide receiver the at the University of Texas and was a productive situational player with the Browns. He offers above average hands out of the backfield and has the necessary size to handle goal line situations.
Ogbonnaya’s skill set indicates that he could play the Peyton Hillis touch-villain role conspiring to limit our hero’s fantasy point-scoring opportunities. On the positive side, Chris Ogbonnaya’s signing likely locks Reaves into a lead back role between the 20’s with Ogbonnaya handling the hurry-up offense and 3rd down duties. With goal line work will be up for grabs this Sunday, I expect Ogbonnaya to be a panhandling Fred Jackson to Darrin Reaves’ homeless C.J. Spiller.
Ogbonnaya’s precise role aside, if given 60-percent of running back touches, a typical running back with Darrin Reaves’ athleticism would be an instant RB2 in fantasy football. However, the lineman in front of Reaves, not the fellow running backs behind him, are the biggest threat to his productivity. Here are the Carolina Panthers offensive line run blocking metrics per Football Outsiders:
Power-run Success Rate: 40-percent (30th)
Stuffed Rate: 25-percent (28th)
2nd Level Yards Per Carry: 0.72 (30th)
Extending the Michael Cox comparison further, Panthers running backs are getting stuffed at a similar rate to the 2013 New York Giants. Worse yet, Carolina’s offensive line has been league-bottom in all run blocking categories in 2014.
Darrin Reaves is a living catch-22, because his touches will be limited until the coaching staff is able to fully appreciate his ability, but Reaves will not be able to fully showcase his ability until the coaching staff trusts him in a variety of high-touch situations. This undrafted rookie catch-22 is compounded by the Panthers’ 25-percent stuffed rate, which contributed to Reaves’ anemic 2.6 yards per carry last week.
I would be higher on Darrin Reaves if the Panthers thought enough of him to draft him. I would be higher on Darrin Reaves if the Panthers had not signed Chris Ogbonnaya. I would be higher on Darrin Reaves if the Panthers had a better offensive line.
Regardless, Darrin Reaves’ athletic profile and rapid march up the depth chart has significantly enhanced his dynasty league value. Though Reaves is the healthiest, most explosive running back on the Carolina Panthers’ roster, surrounding forces reduce him to a speculative weekly flex play in re-draft fantasy leagues.
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.