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Branden Oliver and Antone Smith: Undrafted and Unstoppable

Branden Oliver and Antone Smith have the speed and athleticism to make a fantasy impact with or without an every-down workload.

Branden Oliver

Branden Oliver knocks on doors. Antone Smith breaks down doors.

It often takes years for undrafted running backs such as Joique Bell and Fred Jackson to become relevant fantasy options. Given this, the unheralded, undrafted rookie starting running back is a particularly uncommon phenomenon.

Antone Smith is the undrafted cautionary tale — a 29-year old perpetually parked behind durable veteran backs like Michael Turner and Steven Jackson with multiple 300-carry seasons on their respective resumes. On the other hand, Darrin Reaves and Branden Oliver are the exceptions. Very rarely have two undrafted rookie running backs started a game during an NFL season. Yet, both Reaves and Oliver have started, or are in line to start, games this season. Even more amazingly, they sit atop their team’s depth charts despite coming from relatively unsophisticated college offenses, experiencing very limited reps with the first-team offense during minicamp and the preseason, and having accumulated less than 50 total professional touches.

As was discussed previously, Darrin Reaves has the burst and stature to be a productive NFL running back. How did Branden Oliver find himself in this position, and how productive will he be this week at Oakland?

Branden Oliver was so impressive during the preseason that he leapfrogged Marion Grice whom the Chargers drafted this spring. The team was forced to release Grice before week 1 in order to guarantee Oliver an active roster spot. Clearly, the team knew they had something special in Oliver.

Then, the improbable happened. Ryan Mathews sprained his knee, Danny Woodhead fractured his ankle, and then last Sunday, Donald Brown suffered a concussion. Suddenly, Branden Oliver became the team’s no. 1 running back, and he proceeded to roll up 182 total yards and two touchdowns. The touchdowns were eye-opening in different ways. The first came on a 15-yard draw play that showed off Oliver’s agility and vision. The second came on a reception over the middle that exhibited his pass-catching prowess and power as he pivoted upfield and ran over a defender into the end zone.

Could we have seen this coming? Yes. There were two specific clues:

1. Oliver’s Raw Athleticism
2. Oliver’s College Efficiency

Branden Oliver’s workout metrics on PlayerProfiler may seem pedestrian on the surface:

40 time: 4.65 (25th percentile)
Agility Score: 11.26 (52nd percentile)
Burst Score: 115.5 (29th percentile)
Bench Press: 26 reps (87th percentile)

However, Oliver’s athleticism is greater than the sum of its parts. His Athleticism Score is actually 102.2 (76th percentile), because PlayerProfiler weights running back athleticism according to the player’s body mass index (BMI). Oliver’s 31.6 BMI is 82nd percentile.

A high BMI enables the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Oliver to come at defenders like a bowling ball. His low center of gravity and pad level enhances his balance, which enables quick, efficient cuts that make defenders miss after the catch and in the open field and allow him to quickly gobble up additional yards after contact.

With Donald Brown missing this Wednesday’s practice, his week 6 playing status is highly questionable. Branden Oliver has the athleticism, field instincts, and most importantly, the projected opportunity to produce RB1 fantasy numbers against the Raiders’ bottom-5 rush defense.

Unlike Branden Oliver, during Antone Smith’s career, his running back teammates have remained relatively healthy. Consequently, Antone Smith has been trapped in an all-too-common undrafted running back catch-22. His touches have been limited, because the coaching staff does not fully appreciate his ability, but Smith cannot fully showcase his ability without first gaining his coaches’ trust.

Antone Smith could only become fantasy relevant by using his handful of touches to put on laser show of epic proportion — shock and awe Atlanta’s coaches into putting him on the field for more snaps. In less than 20 NFL touches this season, the Antone Smith show has been awe-inspiring:

Week 1: 54-yard touchdown reception (3 total touches)
Week 3: 38-yard touchdown run (4 total touches)
Week 4: 48-yard touchdown run (4 total touches)
Week 5: 74-yard touchdown reception (4 total touches)

How could a 4th stringer pull of such a special feat? Antone Smith’s workout metrics on PlayerProfiler point to a highly unique combination of speed and strength:

40 time: 4.38 (97th percentile)
Agility Score: 11.22 (59th percentile)
Burst Score: 115.4 (28th percentile)
Bench Press: 31 reps (98th percentile)

Note: PlayerProfiler adjusts +.05 seconds to all pro day 40-yard dash times to ensure they are on par with typically slower NFL Scouting Combine 40 times.

If the Falcons are not trying to lose on purpose, how could the team not give Antone Smith more weekly opportunities? Is Smith stuck behind other game-breaking running backs? Hardly. Here is a list of officially-documented 40 times for all Falcons running backs:

Antone Smith: 4.33 (Pro day)
Devonta Freeman: 4.58 (Combine)
Steven Jackson: 4.55 (Pro day, pre-lower leg injuries)
Jacquizz Rodgers: 4.64 (Combine)

Despite this disparity, here is Antone Smith’s weekly team running back snap share ranking:

Week 1: 3rd
Week 2: 3rd
Week 3: 4th
Week 4: 4th
Week 5: 4th

Only Falcons coach Mike Smith knows the answer the great Antone Smith snap share riddle of our time. Alas, if you were the coach of the Atlanta Falcons and found yourself living out a real-life Liam Neesen thriller where your family’s life depended on the Falcons winning a football game, who would get the most carries? The 31-year-old with 2500-plus career carries averaging 3.55 yards per carry since arriving in Atlanta (Steven Jackson) or the ultra-athletic, late blooming track star turned prodigious NFL speed-size freak (Antone Smith)?

Though Liam Neesen movies are typically far from reality, after the Falcons’ loss to the Giants last Sunday, Mike Smith did acknowledge Antone Smith’s unprecedented productivity and eluded to a higher workload moving forward. While this coach-speak was heartening, teams rarely make dramatic changes to their running back touch hierarchy without injuries (both real or exaggerated) providing the internal political cover. Showing well as both a runner and a pass catcher, Smith will likely cannibalize a handful of snaps from Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman in the weeks ahead. Given Smith’s propensity for scoring long touchdowns, even a modest rise in touches, from 4-6 to the 8-12 range, vaults him into the flex conversation in fantasy football as home run hitter that could win a matchup with just one or two big plays.

[clap-stomp] GIVE IT TO ANTONE!
[clap-stomp] GIVE IT TO ANTONE!
[clap-stomp] GIVE IT TO ANTONE!

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.

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