Finding Sleeper RBs: A Collegiate YPC Threshold (2019 Fantasy Football)

Jun 12, 2019

Damien Harris’ high collegiate YPC may translate to success at the NFL level

Statistical trends can offer a unique and focused view into forecasting future success. If a certain stat has held true for 10 years, we have no reason to doubt it, right? While that’s certainly not a bulletproof statement, it sure can’t hurt playing the odds in favor of it. Being a fantasy football contender, we are always attempting to give ourselves the best chance at finding the most productive player we can acquire at the cheapest price possible. Below, you will find why there are three running backs that stand out in this year’s rookie class along with a few other young veterans worth noting that could outperform their current ratings.

The stat I’m referring to is collegiate yards per carry (YPC) in the context of the volume of carries. Using this stat on its own without thresholds projects wildly for every RB in the fantasy world. For example, Saquon Barkley averaged 5.7 YPC in his collegiate career and Ameer Abdullah averaged 5.6 YPC. Clearly, this has very little direct correlation. However, when we look at it from a threshold perspective, we can find some highly consistent and seemingly reliable data.

Using a combined minimum of 6.41 YPC and 270 carries in their last two completed collegiate seasons, along with being drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft (plus fifth rounder Aaron Jones), we find an amazing qualifying threshold. This trend goes all the way back to 2010 (possibly further) and plots against their average fantasy points per game throughout their first three years in the NFL.

The results are astonishingly useful. Regardless of both year drafted or round selected, as long as it’s within 1-4, those who met the threshold criteria had an 88% chance of scoring 10 fantasy PPG or higher throughout their first three seasons in the NFL. There is time left in the classes of 2017 and 2018 to make it even more relevant yet and LaMichael James is the only true failure from this group which occurred from the class of 2012.

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Qualifying RBs for 2019
Moving on to this year’s rookie class, there are three individuals who have hit this same qualifying threshold that has translated into solid fantasy production for the last 10 years. They are Damien Harris, Darrell Henderson, and Bryce Love. In rookie dynasty drafts, these three are respectively being drafted 18th, 10th, and 21st overall, according to Fantasy Football Calculator and ranked 15th, 10th, and 25th, according to FantasyPros’ rookie rankings.

The data indicates that there is clearly value to be had here. Bryce Love carries the most risk coming off of an injury, but Harris and Henderson are currently more poised for success than some may realize. Also of note, is that all three of these RBs reside in backfields where the depth chart RBs above them have incurred significant injuries in the recent past. While this success may not come immediately in their first year, the long game is in their favor.

Another interesting fact is that four of these RBs reside on the same teams in Michel/Harris with the Patriots and Gurley/Henderson with the Rams. These two teams also happen to have top-five rated offensive lines to run behind this upcoming year, according to Dynasty Nerds. While it still seems apparent from a statistical standpoint that they are likely to continue the 10+ PPG threshold, we should temper our expectations to be in the 10-15 PPG range (or slightly lower) as there are only so many opportunities to go around if they truly share these backfields together. If injuries or other circumstances lead to any one of these assuming a bell-cow role, naturally this number will skyrocket.

Taking this a step further and away from just rookies, we find that we can also expect limited to strong positive regression from other young prospects entering their sophomore and junior NFL seasons. Marlon Mack, Tarik Cohen, Sony Michel, and especially Rashaad Penny all are trending to at least maintain if not significantly increase their production if the trend continues on.

Ranking these four from lowest expected increase in production to largest, we start with Marlon Mack. Mack has earned top dog starting duties, but Nyheim Hines dominates pass-catching downs, severely limiting Mack in the receiving game. This status quo should remain relatively unchanged, but a small increase in performance could be expected. Cohen suddenly finds himself as the most proven back in Chicago and has more opportunities made available through the departure of Jordan Howard, albeit newcomers Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery will be hungry to eat up those touches as well. Also, bear in mind that Cohen is not an early down back considering his lightweight frame, so perhaps his role and opportunities stay put.

Michel is in great company in the chart above, having the added perk of being a first-round pick while simultaneously hitting the qualifying threshold. This typically leads to even higher scoring than his current rate from pedigree alone. These same circumstances apply to fellow first-rounder Rashad Penny as well. He has the biggest projected jump in production because his underperforming 5.0 PPG is primed to better fall in line with the rest of the data. Add in that more touches are available after the Mike Davis departure and that he is residing in the heaviest run-scheme offense in the NFL with Seattle, and it screams that positive regression is incoming.

Keep a watchful eye out for these rookies and young veterans going forward as they could be bargain buys considering their potential upside. Finding fantasy diamonds in the rough is increasingly difficult, but this newly revealed trend could be your edge in the game. Are you willing to play the odds?

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David Zach is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive and follow him @DavidZach16.

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