Shane Vereen: Stop The Madness

Shane Vereen's draft stock is rising, but the numbers don't entirely agree with it.

I once bought a sweater vest.

I’m no fashionista; I often wear gym shorts and a t-shirt, and my conservative weekend wear is nothing to raise eyebrows. But one time – I promise it was one time – I purchased a sweater vest because it was (not it wasn’t) “in”. I could’ve had just another nice button-up top, but no – I went with a sweater vest.

And it was argyle.

I regretted it almost immediately.

I wasn't thinking with a clear mind. I didn't think about the safe clothing options that I was able to purchase with my 30 dollars. Instead, I forced myself to join the argyle hype train (that's not a thing). It wasn't my best decision.

However, now, in 2013, I can use and remember my unexciting experience in a positive light. You see, I’m afraid that drafting Shane Vereen will remind me of that dark time. He reminds me of that sweater vest. Well, his situation does at least. Over the last month, the Patriots versatile running back has risen in average draft position (ADP) ranks faster than anyone in the league. I'm worried though. I'm worried that his climbing ADP is going to do more harm than good. I'm worried that Shane Vereen is going to be another argyle sweater vest.

The Argument for Shane Vereen

Some may draft Vereen because he’s got one of the best middle names in the league (it’s Patrick-Henry), but plenty of informed fantasy owners are selecting him based on obvious potential. There are two main reasons for Vereen’s growing ADP:

1. Danny Woodhead finished with a favorable PPR ranking last season, and Vereen is a better player.

2. The loss of Aaron Hernandez, among other receiving weapons, will force the Patriots to use Vereen more as a wide receiver, which he can play.

At the surface, I think both points are quite valid. Vereen had already been lining up wide in the Patriots spring practices, and Woodhead was certainly a surprise last season.

But does a potential fourth- to fifth-round ADP in 12-team league drafts really make sense for Shane Patrick-Henry Vereen?

Replacing Danny Woodhead

Expected points data can give us a good idea about how important (or good) a player was to his team’s real point output. Raw numbers won’t tell us the same story, which is why we can’t always rely on simple statistics like yards or touchdowns to form honest conclusions in football.

Woodhead’s total NEP, which encompasses both his rushing and receiving efficiency numbers, has yet to be below zero in all four years of his NFL career. This shows us that he’s consistently performed better than an average running back for his specific team in terms of total rushing and receiving effectiveness.

His rookie season as a Jet wasn’t bad at all, but his efficiency rose pretty dramatically when he moved to New England. It peaked in 2010, as his total NEP – again, this is his rushing and receiving contribution to his team’s total score – ranked only behind Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy at the running back position.

Before you start screaming at your computer, keep in mind that New England’s rushing efficiency numbers were second best in the league in 2010, helping Woodhead’s cause. And, of course, Danny Woodhead wasn’t the primary back; defenses more than likely weren’t as worried about defending a running back who looked like he had just finished up an acoustic gig at a local coffee shop.

The point is, that coffee shop guitarist has been thoroughly underrated in terms of production throughout football circles. In fact, if we compare Woodhead’s rushing numbers to Vereen’s, two backups who have played for the same team, we see that they don’t really vary much at all:

PlayerYearRush NEPRush NEP/RushTotal NEP
Danny Woodhead2009-2.17-.143.48
Danny Woodhead201024.70.2550.40
Danny Woodhead20118.29.1117.27
Danny Woodhead20127.10.0948.77
Shane Vereen20112.40.162.40
Shane Vereen20126.59.1118.27

In short, you’d argue that Woodhead’s figures look better than Vereen’s do. Even if we were to assume the Patriots offense was more proficient during Woodhead’s early years, it seems pretty reasonable to conclude that Woodhead isn’t even close to as bad as some think he is (in terms of production), at least versus Vereen.

Shane Vereen as a Wide Receiver

We saw Danny Woodhead catch 40 of his 55 targets last season, totaling 446 yards and three scores. Vereen’s being projected to take on that role and potentially more in 2013. Can he duplicate or even succeed Woodhead’s catch totals?

Judging by his receiving NEP per target, there’s definitely a possibility. Though he was targeted only 13 times last season, Vereen ranked second in effectiveness per target among running backs (minimum of 10 targets). We should be aware, however, that Danny Woodhead’s receiving NEP per target was just 0.14 points fewer than Vereen’s in 2012, so it’s not as though Vereen’s effectiveness blew Woodhead’s out of the water. This just goes to show that, again, Danny Woodhead has been an underrated asset for New England.

If the targets are there, it seems like Vereen should be able to post Woodhead-like receiving numbers. Keep in mind that Danny Boy’s 55 targets were 16th best in the NFL last year among backs, so if Vereen ends up with better raw receiving numbers, it’ll probably be because he ranked in the top 10 within the targets category at running back. After all, Vereen and Woodhead match up pretty similarly production-wise.

Also, it seems that there's a possibility for Vereen to see more than Woodhead's 55 targets in 2013. There’s no Brandon Lloyd (131 targets), Wes Welker (assume targets will be replaced by Danny Amendola) and Aaron Hernandez (83 targets). And Rob Gronkowski is probably under the knife as I write this. Aside from Amendola, the only place Tom Brady can look to throw the rock is to a group of young receivers and, our man, Shane Vereen.

Assuming he matches Woodhead's rate (remember, his numbers are comparable) and sees a 50% boost in targets, we'd expect a receiving stat line of around 59 receptions, 657 yards and four to five touchdowns. It looks favorable, but not only do those numbers assume he'd rank second or third among running backs in targets, they also don't factor in the fact that Vereen isn't the lead back in New England. It's not as though these high-end receiving numbers are being associated with a player who will run the ball 200-plus times. That's Stevan Ridley's job.

Part of the reason Woodhead's been successful is because he's been under the radar, too. The Patriot's offense appears less potent than it has in year's past, so to assume Vereen can fulfill Woodhead's pace isn't necessarily a fair thing to believe. Unless he lines up at wide receiver often, it looks as though those numbers could be his receiving ceiling.

The Verdict

Vereen is going to be one of the more interesting players to watch up until the start of the season. On one hand, the analytics tell us that Danny Woodhead’s play in the Patriots offense may have been slightly underrated. With Vereen taking over, we shouldn’t assume an automatic boost in production. On the other hand, the difference in this year’s Patriots team is their lack of proven weapons. You could argue that Danny Woodhead never had this type of opportunity, and that’s definitely played a huge role in Vereen’s hype.

And really, I have no problem if you target Vereen in your draft this year. If you do, just don't reach for him. He's been drafted as high as the third round in mock drafts, and often gets selected at the tail-end of the fourth and into the fifth. Unfortunately, it seems as though that type of draft position is reflecting Vereen's ceiling.

Keep opportunity cost in mind if you're about to pull the trigger on Vereen. Each position has more talent in 2013 than it did in 2012, so the production you're missing out on when you select the Patriots runner is larger than it was a year ago. By getting Vereen as early as some are drafting him, you're potentially missing out on players like Marques Colston, Jordy Nelson, or even the new Jets back, Chris Ivory.

My sweater vest is still hanging in my closet, and I'm convinced - and hopeful - that I'll never wear it. Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't buy Shane Vereen on a whim. Let the numbers talk.