It’s that time of year again ladies and gentlemen; it’s dynasty rookie season. The excitement of the NFL Combine is less than a week away. Stat nerds, film grinders, and the entire NFL community will come together to salivate over rookie measurables and their athletic testing. The belief amongst fantasy and NFL Draft analysts is that the 2019 rookie class is loaded with talent. Dynasty managers are trading away proven assets for players with potential talent like D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, and JK Dobbins. The community has got a fever, and the only prescription is more 2020 rookie analysis (or cowbell).
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One player fantasy managers have had a fever for lately is Clyde Edwards-Helaire (CEH), running back (RB), LSU. At the start of the 2019 NCAAF regular season, CEH wasn’t on any NFL Draft or devy analysts’ radars. I was unable to find any mock drafts with CEH being selected in the NFL Draft or in dynasty rookie drafts. Then CEH burst onto the scene in 2019 and was a dynamic RB for the National Champions, LSU Tigers. He did it all for the Tigers rushing, receiving, and returning kicks last season. The way CEH catapulted himself into the national spotlight reminds me of how Sony Michel balled out during the College Football Playoffs in 2017. Looking back, should fantasy players have shown restraint and cautioned themselves against recency bias with Sony Michel? Are managers about to make the same mistake and let the CEH fever overvalue him in rookie drafts? This article will compare the production, athleticism, and narrative surrounding Michel and CEH to examine if recency bias fueled the values behind both players in rookie drafts.
First, let’s compare the production profiles of CEH and Sony Michel. Both players only had one season with over 40% of their team’s rushing attempts. CEH rushed 215 times for 42% of LSU’s team rush attempts, 1,414 yards, and 16 touchdowns during his 2019 breakout season. Sony Michel had 218 rush attempts for 45% of Georgia’s team rush attempts, 1,136 yards, and 8 touchdowns in 2015.
Market Share of Team Rush Attempts (%)
Michel and CEH both received a similar amount of their team’s work in the passing game as well. In Michel’s breakout season, he caught 13.1% of his team’s receptions and CEH secured 12.9% of LSU’s team receptions.
Market Share of Team Receptions (%)
CEH and Michel broke out (greater than 15% of the scrimmage yards and touchdowns in their college offense) at the age of 20. They did this behind dominant offensive lines and in the SEC. Michel and CEH’s overall career workloads are strikingly similar because both players only had one season with over 200 rush attempts. Plus, during their other, non-freshman seasons, both players saw roughly 25% of their team rush attempts. Neither RB profiles as a workhorse back (20+ touches per game) coming out of school, but they both had a season where they averaged 18 touches per game.
There are minor differences in their production as well. CEH only had one other season in which he had close to 150 rush attempts. Michel had two additional seasons with over 150 rush attempts. However, Michel did play four years at Georgia and CEH declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season. Conversely, CEH earned more carries at a younger age compared to Michel. CEH had 146 attempts at age 19, and Michel only handled 64 attempts at the same age. CEH was also slightly more efficient than his teammates at his peak compared to Sony Michel. CEH accounted for 56.4% of his team rush yards while Michel topped out at 45.9% of Georgia’s rushing yards.
Market Share of Team Rush Yards (%)
CEH scored a higher percentage of LSU’s rushing touchdowns as well. CEH scored 51.6% of LSU’s rushing touchdowns while Sony Michel scored 38.1% of Georgia’s rushing touchdowns in his best touchdown scoring season.
Market Share of Team Rush Touchdowns (%)
The perceived receiving ability is what really generated the fever around Sony Michel and CEH. CEH flashed all over the field for 55 catches and 453 receiving yards while Sony had two seasons with over 20 catches. Before I go any further, it should be noted that Sony Michel and CEH played in two very different offenses. Georgia was a high volume, running offense throughout Michel’s career. CEH played in one of the most explosive passing offenses in NCAA history. Looking at just the raw numbers is misleading and wouldn’t provide a proper comparison between Michel and CEH. There is one major difference between CEH and Michel’s receiving abilities. Michel caught most of his passes as dump-offs or on screens out of the backfield. CEH did this but also ran routes split out wide or from the slot which makes him a lot more dynamic in the passing game. Michel wasn’t split out wide or used out of the slot at Georgia.
Examining workload and descriptive production metrics is an excellent method to gain an understanding for how an RB might be used in the NFL. But, there is a lot more that goes into evaluating college prospects than just box score scouting. Athleticism is important when building predictive models for RBs. Plus, the NFL’s version of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the NFL Combine, is less than a week away, so let’s have some fun.
Thanks to ESPN.com, I was able to find high school athleticism testing for both Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Sony Michel.
In 2014, Michel was 5’11” and weighed 194 pounds. Michel ran a 4.46-sec. 40-yard dash, a 4.22-sec.short shuttle, and had a 30.5” Vertical Jump. Adjusting his 40-time for weight, Michel had a 98.06 weight-adjusted speed score.
In 2017, CEH was 5’8” and 201 pounds. CEH was clocked at 4.47-sec. in the 40-yard dash, 4.04-sec. in the short shuttle, and had a Vertical Jump of 39.8”. His weight-adjusted speed score was 100.69. From a pure athletic testing point of view, CEH was superior in straight-line speed when adjusted for weight, lateral quickness, and was more explosive with a significantly better vertical jump. These athletic measurements change while players are in college and I will be able to do more of an “apples to apples” comparison after the NFL Combine. But, their high school athletic testing gives us a decent barometer for Michel and CEH’s athleticism.
To understand dynasty player value, we can re-watch the movie “Mean Girls” or take a trip down narrative street. Initially, I wanted to compare Sony Michel and CEH because of their exciting rise up draft boards due to their success in their final year of college. Sony Michel was outside the first two rounds of devy mock drafts before his final year at Georgia in 2017. He wasn’t even mentioned in NFL or fantasy mock drafts prior to the College Football Playoffs. Michel went off in his final two primetime games and he ended up being drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. Michel was Dynasty League Football’s (DLF) third player overall in rookie average draft position (ADP) in February of 2018. By the time May rolled around Michel was the RB6 and the seventh player in overall rookie ADP. Similarly, CEH was not being discussed in devy analysis or by the NFL scouting community either prior to his breakout season at LSU. But, in DLF’s February 2020 rookie mock draft ADP, CEH was the RB5 and the seventh player off the board overall.
The majority of the narrative for both players revolved around their receiving ability, which is a coveted skillset in PPR leagues. Both players are viewed as elusive in space and their ability to make defenders miss. Despite the many similarities, there are a few differences in how CEH and Sony Michel were perceived by the football community.
First, the quality of Michel’s teammates was considered when looking at the lack of a workhorse load at Georgia. The narrative that Georgia recruits talented RBs by saying they won’t overwork them in college doesn’t apply to Michel because he was recruited by Mark Richt. Next, there were injury rumors swirling around Michel prior to the NFL Draft. This didn’t affect his ADP at all, probably buoyed by his first-round draft capital, but it was definitely part of the story surrounding Michel at the time. Lastly, CEH was dominant for an entire season running and catching the ball for LSU. The Sony Michel fever heavily relied on his performance in the final two games of 2017.
Should fantasy players have shown restraint and cautioned themselves against recency bias with Sony Michel? I’m not sure this question can be answered without being soaked in my own confirmation bias. However, it’s safe to say that the story behind Michel being a dynamic pass catcher was most likely fueled by his exciting performances in the College Football Playoffs. He didn’t demonstrate route-running ability in college. It could be argued, Leonard Fournette is an example that a lack of route running in college does not necessarily mean a player won’t catch the ball in the NFL, an argument couldn’t be made at the time because he wasn’t catching the ball for the Jaguars yet. But, assumptions have to be made for that to happen. Those assumptions come a little easier after amassing over 200 total yards against Oklahoma on national television.
Are fantasy owners about to make the same mistake and let the CEH fever inflate his value in rookie drafts? I don’t think so. CEH displayed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, from the slot, and was flexed out as a wide receiver in 2019. The fact CEH only put up the incredible raw stats that he did in his final season is a concern for me. If CEH had put up the stats he did at the age of 21 or 22, I would be a little more worried though. Additionally, CEH had 42 kick returns during his three years at LSU, further solidifying the belief that he is a dynamic player. However, the narrative could all change after the NFL Combine and NFL Draft if CEH has disappointing measurements, athletic testing, draft capital, and/or a bad landing spot. Regardless, while there are a lot of similarities between Michel and CEH, I do not believe the Clyde Edwards-Helaire fever is leading the fantasy community to overvalue him in rookie drafts at this moment in time.
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All stats and metrics were found on www.sports-reference.com/cfb/, team websites, team media guides, team game day programs, and ESPN.com. Measurements were found at nflcombineresults.com, playerprofiler.com, and pro-football-reference.com.