Senior Bowl: 4 Running Backs With Fantasy Football Dynasty Value

Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams turned heads in Mobile. Which other senior runners have NFL potential?

The NFL rushing title in 2015 went to Hall of Fame lock Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who racked up 1,485 yards on 327 attempts.

The 100th-best running back in terms of 2015 rushing yardage was Oakland Raiders running back-turned-cornerback-turned-rusher again, Taiwan Jones, who scrabbled together just 74 yards on 16 carries.

Pretty different results, no?

What if I told you that between those two running backs, of the 100 most prolific rushers of the 2015 season, 22 of them missed at least a quarter of the season (4 games or more) with a significant injury? More than almost any other fantasy football position, the attrition rates at running back make them at best hard to predict and at worst impossibly frustrating. Even worse for fantasy players, the average length of an NFL running back’s career is 2.57 years – worse than any other offensive skill position. What is one to do?

That’s one of the reasons I went to the 2016 Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, hoping to glean some information on the fourth-year rushers coming out in this year’s draft class.

Here are a few of them to keep your eye on late in fantasy drafts.

Jonathan Williams, Arkansas

My favorite offensive player in Mobile was a guy who didn’t even see the field in team drills or the actual Senior Bowl game -- that’s the importance of seeing the week of practices.

Down in Mobile, Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams looked well-built, despite weighing in a few inches shorter and a few pounds lighter than expected. He did not participate in contact drills but looked agile and light on his feet during every individual workout, making smooth cuts with speed in jump cut drills and displaying soft hands in catching drills. He was easily one of the most complete-looking runners at the game, and (while understandable) it was a shame to not see him in action in the Senior Bowl.

Williams should have been Arkansas’ starter in 2015, but he sustained an undisclosed left foot injury in August and was sidelined his entire senior year. In his junior 2014, though, Williams had a very solid showing, racking up 1,194 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on just 211 carries.

The table below shows his rushing statistics and ranks among the 220 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2014, including Yards After Contact Average (YCo) and Missed Tackle Rate (MT%), via Pro Football Focus.

Player Rush YPC Rush TD% YCo MT% Fum%
Jonathan Williams 5.6 (t-51st) 5.7% (t-66th) 3.5 29.0% 1.9%

Williams clocked in at 5'10", 219 pounds in Mobile, with 10-inch hands and 30 3/4-inch arms. He’s projected to run between 4.45 and 4.65 in the 40-yard dash. With these physical parameters considered, he presents a similar player profile as Ladainian Tomlinson, DeAngelo Williams, Mark Ingram, and Doug Martin. The shiny upside to this? He has bigger hands than all of them, which should help him in terms of receiving and preventing fumbles. He has the prototypical size and basic measurables that indicate major NFL upside but should come at a discount in fantasy.

Tyler Ervin, San Jose State

Tyler Ervin is a much smaller player than his Senior Bowl compatriots. The San Jose State halfback fits the mold of an NFL pass-catching back much more readily than he does a bell cow lead back, but he wasn’t strictly used that way at the Senior Bowl. There were plenty of 11-on-11 drills where Ervin showed no fear plunging through the line, and -- despite his slighter frame -- falling forward after contact. He did still display solid hands in the receiving game and great burst on outside runs, but he left the biggest impression on me in his desire on the inside run game.

In his final year with the Spartans, Ervin racked up a ridiculous 1,594 rushing yards on 293 carries, playing 764 snaps in total -- not your typical receiving back numbers. He also had a shocking 0.0 percent Drop Rate on 54 targets this year, clearly displaying his prowess in that field. The table below shows his senior year stats among the 206 running backs with at least 100 carries this season.

Player Rush YPC Rush TD% YCo MT% Fum%
Tyler Ervin 5.4 (t-50th) 5.4% (t-113th) 2.7 15.0% 0.7%

At the Senior Bowl weigh-in, Ervin was a compact 5'9", 192 pounds, with 9 1/4-inch hands and 30-inch arms. With a projected 4.34 to 4.54 40-yard dash, Ervin comes up with a few very close physical draft comps, including Isaiah Pead, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and Kerwynn Williams. Like these players, the troublesome thing about his profile is that he did not have many missed tackles or yards after contact in college, and pass protection was not a strength of his (13 percent quarterback pressures allowed). He has the desire and play style to be a back with speed and versatility, but this may not translate easily to the NFL. Still, he’s worth a late flier pick in rookie drafts.

Aaron Green, TCU

The first thing I had to say about Texas Christian (TCU) running back Aaron Green when I saw him on the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium was, “Holy cow: that guy has a donk.” Aaron Green isn’t the most physically imposing presence at first blush, but he has an incredibly-built lower half, which allows him to keep balance and continue to push the pile of tacklers on inside runs. He showed that in practices -- ramming into the pile and bursting out the other side unstopped repeatedly in 11-on-11’s -- and in the Senior Bowl game, when he eluded tacklers on his way to a 25-yard touchdown romp.

His offensive showing in his senior year was also impressive, as he totaled 1,286 rushing yards on 249 carries, along with 11 touchdowns. Green wasn’t heavily used in the passing attack, roping in just 23 targets (catching 16 of them for 123 yards). His full rushing rates and ranks among 2015 running backs are below.

Player Rush YPC Rush TD% YCo MT% Fum%
Aaron Green 5.2 (t-84th) 4.5% (t-110th) 2.2 16.0% 0.4%

When measured up, Green was a stout 5'10", 203 pounds but had surprisingly small 8 3/8-inch hands and 29 7/8-inch arms. The best physical comps for him are a scattered bunch: Cyrus Gray, Ronnie Hillman, James White, and Ameer Abdullah. Green may have to be a complementary back in the NFL, but he has an intriguing physical profile that should be worth a flier pick and short-term fantasy value.

Kenyan Drake, Alabama

Weirdly, one of the biggest fliers in this group may come from the biggest program. Kenyan Drake, Alabama's third-down back in 2015, had a very good week of practice as a runner. He displayed some versatility in drills, demonstrating some physicality on inside runs (which he almost never got the chance to with the Crimson Tide), as well as speed and balance on the outside in catching drills and sweep rushes -- his forte.

The worrisome thing about Drake is that he hardly had a chance to attempt between-the-tackles running at Alabama -- thanks, Derrick Henry -- so he made a few bad decisions in Mobile in that regard. Indeed, his senior year stats are severely dampened due to his teammate’s physical presence: he had just 401 rushing yards on 75 carries, as well as 257 receiving yards on 31 receptions (38 targets). His full senior rushing rate stats are below, despite his not qualifying for the 100-carry mark.

Player Rush YPC Rush TD% YCo MT% Fum%
Kenyan Drake 5.3 (t-77th) 1.3% (t-195th) 2.9 33.0% 0.0%

At the Senior Bowl, Drake weighed in at a solid 6'0", 200 pounds but featured minuscule 8 3/4-inch hands and 30 3/4-inch arms. He is projected to run a 4.40 to 4.59 40-yard dash, which puts him in a physical comparison near very few players in recent memory. Only Bilal Powell and Mike Gillislee come close. He could have a place in the NFL, but he’s a very unproven commodity, so we will have to wait and see how his future team uses him.