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Is RB Sleeper Chris Thompson a Better Rookie Pick Than Gio Bernard?

Chris Thompson

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Gio Bernard was a bit of an odd pick for the Cincinnati Bengals since he profiles almost exclusively as a scatback. Statistically, there isn’t much to separate Bernard from players like Kenjon Barner or Kerwynn Williams.

Don’t get me wrong. As an NFL head coach, I’d love to have a player like Bernard on my roster, just not at the cost of the No. 37 pick in the NFL Draft, and not with players like Le’Veon Bell and Christine Michael still on the board. Drafting Bernard represents a specific type of “drafting for need” that’s decidedly sub-optimal. The Bengals needed to add explosiveness, and since the draft didn’t really offer any all-around backs with explosiveness – regardless of your personal evaluation of Bell, Ball, or Lacy, those guys are pretty clearly not game-breakers – they used a valuable pick on a part-time player.

In fact, the Bengals could have used an upgrade on their pedestrian early-down back (Green-Ellis) and an explosive in-space runner. RotoViz is a big fan of Rex Burkhead, but his selection just muddied the waters further.

Is Bernard explosive?

40 Time Highlight Yards/Opp
Gio Bernard 4.53 6.67
Zac Stacy 4.55 6.52

Okay, so we’ve written about Stacy ad nauseam, but it’s worth noting that when multiple ways of looking at a prospect continue to come back with the same answer, maybe that answer is important. Moreover, this is a bit of a red herring because Bernard’s 6.67 Hlt/Opp is excellent; Stacy’s is just very good too. (My point with Stacy is not that Bernard lacks explosiveness, but that the Bengals could have waited for a similarly explosive back who would have simultaneously upgraded the Law Firm.)

Bernard Versus Chris Thompson

Many dynasty rankings have Gio Bernard at No. 1 in 2013 rookie drafts. He trails Bell and Ball in redraft formats because Bernard’s not expected to get a full complement of carries in 2013. (But does he ever project for a full complement at 202 pounds with a Speed Score of 96?)

Perhaps the most similar player to Bernard in this draft is Washington rookie Chris Thompson. The former Seminole doesn’t even register in rookie drafts. This also makes some sense. Even in dynasty formats, situation matters. Barring injury, Thompson has basically no shot of ever beating out Alfred Morris, the man who will be the next Terrell Davis.

In fact, he could find himself in a camp battle with Roy Helu just to make the roster. Despite a thoroughly discouraging 2012, Helu remains an excellent dynasty stash. A far better athlete than anyone in the 2013 draft, Helu’s best bet for value is probably getting cut, which Thompson could help with.

Thompson finds himself in a race against time just to be ready for training camp after an ACL tear cut short his senior season. At only 5’7”, 197 pounds, Thompson is an omnipresent injury risk. His 2010 college season was essentially wiped out by a fairly significant back injury.

So those are the reasons you wouldn’t draft the diminutive speedster. Why would you draft him?

Mike Shanahan suggested Thompson’s knee injury allowed them to get a massive steal in the fifth round. (It’s worth noting that while Thompson is off the fantasy radar, he was picked in the reality draft ahead of guys like Stacy, Mike Gillislee, Kenjon Barner, and Andre Ellington. His selection came only three spots after Joseph Randle.) The Washington braintrust suggested Thompson would have been a first or second round pick if healthy, and there are reasons to believe this is true.

Consider.

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Yds/Att HltOpps Hlt/Opp Adj. POE
Chris Thompson 91 687 374 4.11 45 8.31 21.7
Giovani Bernard 184 1228 560.4 3.05 84 6.67 -0.6

Via Bill Connelly, Football Study Hall

One thing that most talent evaluators consistently underestimate is the way explosive plays help project success at the NFL level (conversely, tough yards don’t translate well at all). So the ability of both Thompson and Bernard to generate a significant number of “Highlight Yards” bodes well for their pro prospects. Of course, while Bernard’s numbers are elite, Thompson’s are stratospheric.

I don’t have any idea what Thompson’s healthy 40 time would be, but his level of explosiveness suggests something in the mid-4.3 range, whereas we know Bernard is in the 4.5 range. It’s also worth noting that Thompson created incredible value on a per play basis according to Bill Connelly’s numbers. Essentially, Adjusted Points Over Expected is a metric that says, “Behind a similar offensive line, how many points is this back worth over what we would expect an average back to create?”

In being worth 21 points over expected on only 91 rushes, Thompson certainly fits the profile of a first round pick. Bernard grades out worse than the average college runner, which is . . . discouraging. Now, it’s important to keep these results in perspective. Most studies suggest running back efficiency numbers have shockingly little predictive value. (Indeed, a player’s Adj. POE in any given year doesn’t seem to have a great deal of predictiveness for his Adj. POE in the subsequent season.) I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that my favorite 2013 back posted terrible Adj. POE numbers.

But at some point, we’ve got to wonder what Bernard’s projected value is based on. These are the things we know. 1) He’s small. 2) He lacks long speed. 3) His timed agility is good but not elite. 4) An average college back would have been expected to outperform him in the same situations last season.

I think you can dismiss one or two of those things as falling into the “numbers don’t tell the whole story” category, but all of them?

What about Thompson? Might he eventually emerge as another Darren Sproles?

Let’s take a quick look at Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and see if we can divine the types of opportunities that might exist for running backs in the passing game. (I’ve removed fullback receptions from these numbers.)

RB Receptions
2008 67
2009 81
2010 66
2011 75
2012 26

Now, it’s entirely possible that the RG3-centric offense will continue to be completely different from the types of offenses that Kyle and the elder Shanahan have previously run. But I doubt it. Although I expect Griffin’s running ability to remain a focal point, the rest of the offense will probably become more pro-style in nature. (RotoViz loves WR sleepers Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson and suggests targeting TE addition Jordan Reed.)

As Griffin develops and Washington adds playmakers around him, this offense could quickly rival Green Bay, New England, and New Orleans. Using the halfbacks in the passing game should be a part of that. Either Alfred Morris will add receiving to his game and become the No. 1 fantasy RB in the NFL, or those touches will fall to Thompson or Helu.

With Sproles a RB2 fixture in PPR leagues, everyone is on the lookout for his heir apparent. Unfortunately, most of the comparison backs don’t actually bring Sproles’ game-breaking agility and long speed to the table. Chris Thompson not only fits the physical profile, but he proved himself quite adept as a receiver in college. Before going down with injury last season, Thompson caught 21 passes for 248 yards or an 11.8 clip. (Compare that to human joystick Tavon Austin, who only averaged 11.3 despite theoretically playing receiver.)

2013 Fantasy Projection . . . And Beyond

Gio Bernard is obviously the guy to target in 2013. The Bengals have signaled their intention to get Bernard involved by drafting him with the No. 37 pick.

On the other hand, I don’t factor draft position into my rankings nearly as much as many analysts. Draft position does make a huge impact, but emphasizing it at the expense of other metrics tends to fill your roster with guys who have value but underperform their draft slots.

Chris Thompson is a similar or better talent when compared to Gio, and his projected role may not end up that different from the one Bernard settles into at the NFL level. Over time, the difference in fantasy value should begin to converge and come to more fully represent the reality abilities of the two players. Thompson won’t have the most total value in 2013, but he will end up with far more value over ADP in the long term.

Thompson is a Candidate to Be the Next Chris Johnson

Sure, that’s probably a stretch, but CJ2K was widely considered to be a huge reach when the Titans picked him with the 24th overall pick of the 2008 draft. After all, he was a scatback.

I know the guys who grind hours of tape find it infuriating when analysts – or fans – send people to the highlights. If I were in their shoes, I’m sure I would be incensed too. Here’s my take. If you want to know how good or efficient a player was, check out Bill Connelly’s numbers. While certain forms of human bias tend to make their way into supposedly objective statistical measures, those errors aren’t nearly as rampant as the ones that result from watching tape.

Unless you’re watching tape and recording the information the way Pro Football Focus does, then what you’re really doing is trying to get an intuitive sense of the player. Highlights can be useful in doing that. Anyone who’s watching highlights knows they’re watching the cherry-picked best plays. When you watch highlights of the 2013 RB class, the dispiriting part is that these guys rarely look electric even on their best plays.

In watching highlights of Gio and Le’Veon and Montee, you’re not trying to answer the question of who’s the best player, you’re trying to get a sense of how explosive they might be. Depending on your personal aesthetic and depending on the role they’re being drafted into, explosiveness might even be more important than overall quality.

Regardless, all of that is preamble to saying that I’m going to embed Chris Thompson’s 2012 highlights. If you can watch these and think he’s not at an entirely different level than Gio Bernard when it comes to explosiveness . . . then you should definitely take Bernard with one of the top couple of picks in your rookie draft.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trUV0_4ZB0g&w=420&h=315]

 

Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Redraft Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

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By Shawn Siegele | @ff_contrarian | Archive

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