Ke’Shawn Vaughn Is Worth the Risk in Fantasy Football
Former Vanderbilt Commodores running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn was not a highly regarded draft prospect by most analysts. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, for example, ranked him No. 14 overall among running backs in the 2020 NFL draft.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Vaughn in the third round of April's draft, however, the fantasy football community was forced to take notice. Tampa's revolving door of Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber failed in 2019, making the Buccaneers one of the few teams with an immediate path to significant playing time for this year's incoming rookie class.
Barber is now with the Washington Redskins, leaving Jones, in his third year with the Bucs, as the only viable competition for Vaughn. The job likely won't be handed to the rookie without a legitimate training camp battle, but this is an ideal scenario for Vaughn to make a splash during his rookie year.
Let's take a deeper look at Vaughn's game, as well as his expected role on the Buccaneers' offense to determine how optimistic we should be for his fantasy impact in 2020.
Potential in the Run Game
Bruce Arians runs an aggressive pass-heavy offense and isn't afraid to use a committee at running back. During his six years as a head coach, Arians' offense has only produced one 1,000-yard rusher (David Johnson in 2016).
Arians' history of splitting carries is not a good omen for Vaughns -- especially since he's in a known competition with Jones and getting less time working with is new coaching staff due to the pandemic.
From a schematic standpoint, there could be further issues in trusting Vaughn's production this year. According to Sports Info Solutions, Vaughn averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt between the tackles in 2019 at Vanderbilt, compared to 6.0 yards per attempt on the outside. With such an obvious difference in his production based on his running direction, Vandy allowed Vaughn to go to the outside on 63 percent of his attempts.
The question now is: will the Buccaneers be smart enough to adjust their running game as well? Last season, Tampa's running backs ran to the outside on just 51 percent of their attempts, the fifth-lowest rate in the league.
With a predictable downhill running game, Tampa averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt between the tackles, and Vaughn's college performance indicates he may not improve upon that.
Bruce Arians stubbornly running up the middle has been a trend throughout his career. For example, during David Johnson's breakout 2016 campaign with the Arizona Cardinals, Johnson ran between the tackles on 52 percent of his attempts despite averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. On runs to the outside, Johnson averaged 5.3 yards per attempt, per Sports Info Solutions.
So while Vaughn appears to have the skill set to be productive in the running game, Arians' offense is unlikely to be the ideal environment for him to reach his full potential.
Role in the Passing Game
Like most running backs these days, a significant portion of Vaughn's fantasy value is likely to come from his role in the Buccaneers' passing game.
During the last two seasons as Vandy's starting running back, Vaughn saw 51 targets. His volume also doubled in 2019, according to Sports Info Solutions, indicating the team's confidence in him grew as he gained experience in that role.
Vaughn's production in the passing game bodes well for him making an immediate impact in Tampa due to Tom Brady's tendency to lean heavily on his running backs. In each of the last five seasons, Brady has targeted his running backs on at least 20 percent of his attempts. And as Brady continues to get up there in age -- likely losing some of his ability as a downfield passer -- his usage of running backs in the passing game could continue to rise.
The Buccaneers did not lean too heavily on running backs last season -- Jones and Peyton Barber combined for 64 targets (10.5 percent target share) -- but this was likely due to Jameis Winston's aggressive downfield style. The Bucs coaching staff took advantage of Winston's arm strength and their weapons at receiver to stretch the field. With Brady at quarterback, it's likely they'll adjust the game plan to suit his strengths.
How to Value Vaughn
Clearly, there are reasons to be both optimistic and nervous about Vaughn's 2020 season. He has a path to a significant role, but it's also easy to envision a scenario where Vaughn and Jones split touches, rendering them both relatively useless.
Based on numberFire's current projections, Vaughn is the 32nd-ranked running back, slightly behind teammate Ronald Jones (29th). These projections expect a fairly even split of carries: 186 for Jones and 176 for Vaughn.
This is a safe projection since neither running back will be handed the job until much closer to the season, but it's also much easier to envision a scenario where Vaughn far exceeds these numbers than Jones.
Jones has been in Tampa for two seasons and failed to maintain a solid grip on the starting job. Additionally, he was drafted by the previous coaching regime, which means Arians is less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt over Vaughn. If their performance is close, we should expect Vaughn to see more opportunities.
According to BestBall10s.com, Vaughn has been coming off the board at the 70th pick (late 5th round) over the last month. That places him 33rd overall among running backs, and in the same range as others such as Marlon Mack, Kerryon Johnson and Kareem Hunt who are also in battles for playing time.
Since Vaughn is in a battle for the starting job, this is the appropriate range for him to be coming off the board -- although he probably has an easier path to reaching his ceiling than the aforementioned running backs in the same range. Not only should you consider the talent of the running back you're drafting but also their competition. So while Vaughn might not be as talented as Hunt, for example, beating out Ronald Jones for touches is a much easier task than battling Nick Chubb.
Based on his pending training camp battle, you probably shouldn't reach for Vaughn any higher than the fifth round. But if you're faced with a decision of Vaughn or one of these veterans in the same range, go with the younger running back who was hand-picked by his current coaching staff.