Why Bishop Sankey May Disappoint Fantasy Football Owners in 2014
Bishop Sankey is bringing his awesome name and considerable talent from the University of Washington to the Tennessee Titans. Sankey was the first back selected in the 2014 draft as part of a running back class that was considered deep, but one that was perhaps lacking a true feature back.
Sankey scored more touchdowns than any back in Washington history, and his 1,870 rush yards topped Corey Dillon’s previous school record of 1,695. He can be considered a jack of all trades, but a master of none. His body type is short but sturdy, allowing him to run inside or outside the tackle box. Don’t expect him to punish tacklers like Adrian Peterson or to cut it up field with blazing speed a la Chris Johnson, but he has solid hands and has the build to become a solid pass-blocker one day.
The hype surrounding Sankey was considerable throughout the offseason. Presumably, he was to take over the lion's share of the carries for the Titans, an expectation that has, of late, come into question. A relatively poor preseason that has seen him struggle in terms of ball security and pass protection hasn't instilled confidence in fantasy players. While it’s generally unwise to look too much into preseason struggles, for a rookie it may be a little different because it’s the first chance their coaches have to see them perform at the highest level. Regardless, fantasy players have cooled considerably on Sankey of late, as his average draft position has fallen from 4.06 all the way to 6.01 from August 1st to September 1st, per FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
The question at hand is whether his drop in average draft position is warranted, or if Sankey’s primed to make a fool out of his doubters. Let’s start by looking at his competition in the Titans’ backfield.
'Clusters of Greene
As of September 2nd, Sankey is listed as the number-two back on the Titans’ depth chart behind Shonn Greene, but leaping ahead of Dexter McCluster. Most fantasy players are aware by now, however, that depth charts can have little bearing on who the top back in an offense ends up being. After all, just last season, Giovani Bernard was the number two back behind Benjarvus Green-Ellis for the Bengals, yet Bernard finished amongst the top-20 backs while Green-Ellis finished outside the top 30.
Still, Greene’s almost certainly going to get a crack at first team carries in the early going, and he could easily continue to see the majority of touches should he play well. It is worthwhile, then, to take a look at just how good (or bad) Greene is as a runner. Below is a table of how Greene has performed in terms of numberFire’s signature Net Expected Points stat over his last two healthy seasons:
|Year||Rush Attempts||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP/Rush|
Note: The rankings above are among backs with 100-plus carries
Despite the flak Greene gets for being a below-average back, he was actually a relatively strong performance in his last two healthy seasons. In those seasons, he worked as a near-bell-cow back for the Jets. He posted mediocre yards per carry averages of 3.9 and 4.2 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but rushed for a combined 14 touchdowns in those years. Regardless of his skill level as a pure runner, he has over 20 pounds and two inches on Sankey, and should see the goal-line carries regardless. (For a more detailed look at Shonn Greene’s ability, check out our own Joe Redemann’s feature on him.)
One thing Greene doesn’t do, however, is catch passes. He’s only once caught over 20 passes, but the Titans have offseason acquisition Dexter McCluster primed to take over the third-down role. Quite the opposite of Greene, all McCluster seems to do is catch passes. He had 114 carries in 2011, but has had a total of 20 carries the past two seasons. The Chiefs used him almost solely as a receiver, and while the Titans may give him some carries, it’s unlikely he steals a ton of carries from Sankey and Greene. Regardless, he will take many valuable third down snaps from Sankey, putting yet another barrier between Sankey and consistent time on the field.
Among backs last year, McCluster’s Reception NEP of 38.30 was sixth-highest among running backs. That figure places him above the likes of Reggie Bush, Giovani Bernard and LeSean McCoy, all considered strong receivers out of the backfield. He’s racked up an impressive 151 catches on 220 targets of the last three seasons, and poses a serious threat to Sankey’s chances of getting on the field for third downs.
No Love From numberFire
Our projections paint a very pessimistic picture for Sankey’s 2014 outlook. He’s projected to have just 103.38 standard points, making him the 37th-ranked back. Considering he’s easily being selected among the top 30 backs on draft sites currently, and if you drafted a few weeks ago he may have gone amongst the top 20, it certainly isn’t the type of forecast you want to see.
Looking at Sankey’s “Similar Players” on his player page furthers the idea that he could be in for a disappointing 2014 campaign. Similar Players is a feature on numberFire found on every active players’ player page that shows a list of players who, based on NEP data and team construction, have had seasons that would seem to be a realistic outcome for that player’s future season.
In Sankey’s case, the list includes the likes of Jason Wright’s (who?) 2008 season where he gained 241 total yards and Bryce Brown’s 2013 season where he scored under 50 total fantasy points. The only semi-positive comparison is Chester Taylor’s 2008 season where he had 798 total yards and 6 touchdowns.
Clearly, our system hates Sankey. It’s more to do with his placement on the depth chart than to anything fundamental about his abilities, but it’s a concern nonetheless to see him projected so weakly.
I’m not overwhelmingly optimistic about Sankey’s chances to be a steal at his draft day price in 2014. Greene all too often is being sold short, and McCluster will cut into Sankey’s third-down chances considerably. However, Sankey has the most all-around talent of any back in Tennessee, and if Greene struggles early or has to deal with injuries, he could absolutely step up and become the most valuable back for the Titans. With that said, even a sixth-round pick is a lofty price to pay for a guy who has a very undefined role heading into the season.
The potential is there, but it may be at least another season before the Titans unleash it.