Zachariason: 8 Players My Rookie Model Likes More Than the Consensus
There are hundreds of scouts who are better at analyzing college game film than I am.
And that's because I'm a data-driven analyst. I watch tape of every relevant wide receiver and running back (the important positions in fantasy football) in each draft class, but numbers are what guide me through the prospecting process.
Maybe you're turned off by that. Maybe you hate numbers. If that's the case, then you're probably on the wrong website.
But data can tell us a lot. Especially when it comes to scouting for fantasy football.
For instance, if successful fantasy wideouts and running backs performed similarly and at a high level in college, then we can use those data trends to spot potential success stories in the current draft class.
And that's really what my rookie prospect model does. It says, "Hey, here's how fantasy football studs performed in college. Now let's look at this year's group of running backs and wide receivers and see if any of them also performed this way."
It's not always correct. Where players get drafted matters. Their landing spot matters. And production and measurables alone aren't always going to hit. Every college producer isn't a fit for the NFL.
But most producers in the NFL were producers in college.
With all this in mind, let's take a look eight players my rookie prospect model seems to like more than the overall consensus.
Andy Isabella, WR, Massachusetts
The concept of market share is a big one when scouting through production. Looking at the raw statistics doesn't tell you a whole lot about these players when one college team can run a drastically different offense from another. Army threw the ball 98 times last year, while Washington State had 677 pass attempts. A wide receiver for Army isn't going to have the same type of numbers as a pass-catcher from Washington State would.
So instead of using raw numbers, we can use market share, or the percentage of receptions, receiving yards, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receiving touchdowns -- anything, really -- a player compiles within his own offense.
Andy Isabella had crazy-good market share results at UMass. During his final season, he caught about 39% of the team's passes, he had over 47% of their receiving yards and, despite his smaller frame, he scored over 48% of their receiving touchdowns. Isabella then went out and ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the combine, giving him an above-average height-adjusted speed score, which is significant considering he's only about 5'9''.
My model adjusts for strength of opponent, but even after that modification, Isabella comes in as the number-three receiver. Give him a big-armed quarterback, and he should be productive in the NFL.
Alex Barnes, RB, Kansas State
There aren't many running backs in this class that have great size and athleticism, but Alex Barnes is one of them.
At the combine this past weekend, Barnes ran a 4.59 40. There's nothing special about that standalone speed, but he's 226 pounds, so that time gave him a weight-adjusted 40 that ranked 8th out of the 22 running backs who ran at the combine. On top of that, Barnes finished the weekend with a burst and agility score that placed him in about the 85th percentile.
Barnes wasn't getting a lot of love pre-combine, but he was the only running back who truly performed like a fantasy football stud during his final collegiate season. My model looks at all college campaigns, but a running back's last year has shown to be most predictive when evaluating how they'll perform at the next level. And in 2018, Barnes had a 50.5% attempt share, about a 62% rushing yard share, a 39.7% total touchdown share, and a 12.1% reception share in Kansas State's offense. Each of those marks ranked in the top five among all running backs who were at the combine this past weekend.
Hakeem Butler, WR, Iowa State
One data-driven reason to be down on Hakeem Butler is breakout age. That's an important piece to evaluating a wide receiver, and Butler's going to turn 23 in May after redshirting his Freshman season.
But final-season production is also key when searching for wide receivers who can successfully make the jump to the NFL, and Butler produced at a high level in 2018. No Power Five conference wide receiver who was at the combine had a better receiving yard share than Butler last year, and he also finished in the top-five in percentage of team receiving touchdowns scored.
He measured just under 6'6'' last week while weighing in at 227 pounds, so he has the size to be a physically dominant wideout as a pro. And with that big body, Butler ran a 4.48 40, good for the fourth-best height-adjusted speed score in the class.
Sign me up.
Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M
Trayveon Williams has one of the better production profiles in this year's running back class. He posted pretty strong numbers during his Freshman and Sophomore seasons, but in his Junior campaign -- his 2018 season -- Williams had the fourth-highest rush attempt share, the fourth-highest rushing yard share, and the fourth-highest touchdown share versus the rest of the backs in the class.
Williams had raw production as well. Of the backs at the combine, only Darrell Henderson averaged more yards per game on the ground last year, and only five backs had more receiving yards per contest.
The risk with Williams is his size. At 5'8'', 206 pounds, there will be some question marks surrounding his ability to handle a full workload in the NFL. But at the very least, Williams should be able to play a third-down role and be part of a committee in the NFL. It's a weak running back class without true bell-cow runners, so that's something.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford
Arcega-Whiteside has an elite first name -- that's just my humble opinion -- but he also seems to have gone a little under the radar, especially after not testing at the combine.
My model loves him.
JJAW's (that's what the cool kids call him) production during his final collegiate season was great, but not spectacular. He had fewer than 30% of Stanford's receiving yards, and he caught just 23.2% of the team's completed passes. We've seen successful fantasy football wide receivers in the NFL post similar market shares when they were finishing up college, but Arcega-Whiteside's numbers are on the lower end of things.
So why is my rookie model into him? Well, he has a really good breakout age. It's the fifth-youngest one in the class, or of the pass-catchers who were at the combine. Arcega-Whiteside actually posted similar market share numbers in 2017 as he did in 2018, too. The one area where he improved was in the touchdown column, where his 39.1% touchdown share two years ago turned into an elite 48.3% one last season.
Really, his profile is a lot like Kelvin Harmon's, and Harmon is often looked at as the better prospect. With JJAW having a better touchdown share of his offense, my model favors him straight up against Harmon, assuming Arcega-Whiteside shows average athleticism.
James Williams, RB, Washington State
Remember the whole Washington State throws a lot of passes thing I mentioned earlier? Yeah, well, James "Boobie" Williams definitely benefited from that, finishing the 2018 season with 83 receptions.
It may seem like this is all the result of playing in Mike Leach's offense, but Williams' 17.4% reception share is still the best mark in this year's class. And while other running backs in Leach's Washington State offense have also been littered with targets in the past, Williams' reception share in 2018 is still more than five percentage points higher than we've seen from any other back in the system.
Williams projects to be a pass-catching running back at the next level. He'll more than likely play a James White-like role if he hits. The reason my model likes him is because most running backs who are successful in the NFL posted good receiving numbers in college. And Williams has far and away the best receiving stats in this year's draft class.
He may not have a high ceiling as a fantasy asset when playing in the NFL, but if he finds a pass-heavy team like he had in college, he could be an intriguing PPR asset.
Ashton Dulin, WR, Malone University
I have no idea where Malone University is. I do know that the school produced a sweet wide receiver in Ashton Dulin, though.
Of course a wide receiver prospect who was invited to the NFL Combine and played at a school called Malone faced inferior competition in college. That's why his market share numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. The share of receiving yards or touchdowns a player has in his offense when the rest of his teammates are probably not Division I-quality players should be high.
But even when you adjust for the fact that Dulin went up against schools like Alderson Broaddus and Kentucky Wesleyan -- yes, Alderson Broaddus is a school with a football team -- he still looks like a solid player. He has an elite breakout age, and among all wide receiver combine invites since 2005, only four had a better final-season touchdown share.
At the combine, Dulin's 6'1'', 215-pound frame clocked in with a 4.43 40 time, which gave him the seventh-best height-adjusted speed score in the class. And he was fine -- pretty average -- in the agility drills.
Given the talent in this year's wide receiver group, it's unlikely that Dulin will be drafted super high. It's tough to invest in a player who went to such a small football program. But he's someone to watch, and he's someone my prospect model seems to like.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
Because Saquon Barkley existed in the Penn State backfield, Miles Sanders wasn't able to grab hold of a big workload until 2018, his Junior season. He ran 220 times for 1,274 yards and 9 touchdowns, giving him above-average marks in attempt share, rushing yards per game, and yards per attempt.
Sanders only caught 24 passes last season (for reference, Barkley had 54 during his final year at Penn State), but Penn State didn't throw the ball a whole lot. He finished the season with an 11.7% reception share, the fifth-best one among the backs who were at the combine. And, to reiterate, my model likes pass-catchers, so Sanders gets a boost in that category.
He also killed the combine. According to 3SigmaAthlete.com, Sanders graded out as the fifth-most athletic running back in the class.
So you've got a physically-gifted runner who had above-average rushing and very solid receiving production during his final collegiate season. In the right landing spot, Sanders could shoot up rookie draft boards.