This is the 137th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.
This is the second piece in a two-part miniseries focused on 2017 NFL rookies. Part 1 highlights five fourth-round NFL rookies who could contribute this season. (It also talks about an NFL tipping point.)
Why am I not highlighting any players selected in the first three rounds? It’s unnecessary. Do you need me to write thousands of words about Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Corey Davis, John Ross, and the other prospects selected with top-100 picks. Probably not. Everyone knows about those guys. In this miniseries, I think we’ll get the most benefit if I look at less-heralded players.
But before that . . .
Occasionally, I try to seem like less of a self-obsessed person. Right now isn’t one of those times — because I’ve already used the word “I”
two three times in this paragraph. But a couple of weeks ago I had one of those pretend-to-be-better-than-I-am moments: Of my own volition, I called my father-in-law — “just to talk” — since apparently that’s what people do. Actually, maybe I called him because it was his birthday. I don’t remember. I don’t keep track of birthdays.
I mean, I know Shakespeare and Jesus have birthdays on April 23 and December 25, and I’m about 99 percent sure my wife has a birthday near the end of July, but after that I don’t care.
Anyway, on this phone call with my father-in-law, I talked about daily fantasy sports and the 2017 NFL Draft and he talked about astronomy. You can see why these calls don’t happen often.
In case this is the one random FantasyLabs article that anyone in my family or anyone who knows my family happens to read — or in case you ever become a family member or meet a family member of mine someday — just know that about 90 percent of what I write is intended for humorous effect. I actually love the people with whom I’m familially associated. Don’t misunderstand me — they’re ridiculous, of course — but, still, they’re family. If you can’t be ironic about family then what’s the point of irony? — or family?
The Phone Call
For the last four years, almost no one on my wife’s side of the family has understood my sports obsession. Some of them still think it’s a hobby and not an actual job. In my conversation with the father-in-law (let’s pretend his name is “Mark”), he at one point asked me, “And, just to be clear, you actually make money from this?” Yes, Mark, I’m actually making money from this conversation we had.
Mark is smart guy, a former physician with an expansive and analytical brain. A jazz pianist, he doesn’t just hear music. He visualizes it. He touches its colors. I’ve never had a boring conversation with him. I should call him more often. Also, amazingly, none of what I just wrote is a lie. I’m not sure if it’s all true, but whatever.
On the call Mark asked how work was going, and that led us down the DFS rabbit hole. The more I explained, the more questions he asked, and then the more I’d explain. I talked to him about the FantasyLabs Tools and metrics:
- The Player Models, which provide a blend of short- and long-term ‘real’ and fantasy data
- The Lineup Builder, which enables DFS players to create rosters based on their specifications
- The DFS Ownership Dashboard, which offers a market-based means of comparing exposure rates
- The Trends tool, which allows subscribers to do archival research and backtest their ideas
- The Plus/Minus metric, which measures actual vs. expected production based on the performance of past players
- The Bargain Rating metric, which shows the extent to which a player is historically underpriced on one site relative to another
Eventually I talked to him about the emergence of Statcast data in baseball, which naturally made him start talking about astronomy.
Astronomy & DFS
Specifically, I mentioned the confluence of factors — pitch velocity, exit velocity, pitch location, launch angle, batted ball distance, etc. — and then I said that they all matter to various degrees in an evaluation of performance. In response, he said that what we’re doing sounds like astronomy.
I won’t be able to express it as eloquently as he did, but in general this is what he said:
It’s like astronomy. You try to collect as much data as possible and measure all the ways in which various forces in this particular solar system impact and interact with each other. You guys are really doing the sports equivalent of astronomy.
That was probably the most brilliant analogy of DFS and sports data analytics I’ve ever heard. I told my wife about it later and she was like, “Yeah, my dad compares everything to astronomy. I don’t know why. That’s his go-to analogy.” Maybe he once read a biography of Galileo? Regardless, I still think the analogy is great.
Example: Think about ownership percentage in guaranteed prize pools. So much of it is driven by the opinions of a few industry touts. They have strong gravitational pull, as it were. In the DFS universe, they are the gas giants that exert force on the lesser planets.
More can be made of the DFS-astronomy analogy. I encourage you to think about the ways in which they’re similar and what those similarities reveal about DFS.
The 2017 NFL Draft
After Mark mentioned astronomy, I pivoted the conversation to the NFL draft. Whereas we can quantify everything to do with Statcast data, we’re still in the early days of tracking, quantifying, and applying advanced movement data in football. In part, this specific lack of data is what makes prospect evaluation so difficult.
Sure, we have production data from college box scores and physical data from pre-draft workouts, but in terms of what happens on the field we have remarkably little data. For instance, when a running back breaks a long run for a touchdown, why did that happen? Is the running back meteorically fast? Did his asteroid belt-like offensive line give him a clear path to the end zone? Did his receivers on the outermost edges of the field play the roles of Uranus and Neptune by icing out defenders? Did the sun-esque gravity of the quarterback yada yada yada you get the idea.
On the football field, there are 22 bodies that all interact with each other, often chaotically, and on any given play any of them can be the reason something does or doesn’t happen. On each play, all of these bodies exert a force — a production-oriented charge — on each other. Despite the game-charting work of Pro Football Focus and the GPS-based Next Gen Stats of the NFL, we (as an industry and fanbase) still have relatively little data and research on how all 22 bodies on a football field impact each over a large number of plays, games, and seasons.
Again, all of this means that when it comes to prospect evaluation we are astronomically challenged. Yes, that was a pun. We are in the early days of discovering the NFL prospect gravitational constant, the metaphorical mass of the bodies involved, and their spheres of orbit.
Five Late-Round (and Undrafted) NFL Rookies Who Could Crush in 2017
Even though NFL prospect evaluation is probably still more of an art than a science, quite a bit of a player’s future production can be predicted on the basis of his college production, physical profile, draft position, and offensive situation.
The NFL draft just recently ended, and there are a number of late-round (and undrafted) rookies who could contribute in 2017. I’m going to highlight five of them. (Two are undrafted free agents, because I roll deep.)
A few thoughts on these guys:
- If any of them makes an impact as a rookie, he likely will have been aided by luck.
- Because they lack elite draft pedigree, none of them is likely to have sustained or huge NFL success at all.
- At the same time, judiciously investing in these players could be a positive expected value strategy because their talent is likely greater than their market value.
I’m not saying that any of these guys will be this year what fifth-rounders Jordan Howard and Tyreek Hill were last year but all of them have underappreciated potential.
5.18 (162) – Jeremy McNichols (TB), Running Back
The Kylo Ren to Doug Martin‘s Darth Vader, the newest member of Tampa Bay’s backfield is the third generation in a lineage of Boise State running backs to be selected in the draft. Chosen by the same organization that selected his metaphorical grandfather six years ago, McNichols has an immediate opportunity to seize snaps and perhaps supplant Martin, who is suspended for the first three weeks of the season. Of course, McNichols would still need to overtake Charles Sims on the depth chart — but Sims is in the final year of his contract and was drafted by a different regime. Meanwhile, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter (per Buccaneers.com) yesterday said this about McNichols:
A three-down guy. He can do a little bit of everything. He has really good production. Scored a lot of touchdowns. Started off his career as a wide receiver. They moved him around a lot. Really good pass blocker. That’s almost every running back in college, that’s their Achilles’ heel. Good pass blocker. Good chipper. Can catch. Just a solid three-down player. . . . We’re gonna have a pretty good competition at running back.
Indeed, McNichols is a three-down player. A reserve behind fellow fifth-rounder Jay Ajayi in 2014, McNichols broke out in 2015 as a true sophomore with 240 carries in 12 games for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns on top of which he added an absurd 51 receptions for 460 yards and six touchdowns. In 2016, McNichols was even more impressive with a 314-1,709-23 rushing line and 37-474-4 receiving line in 13 games. A good athlete, McNichols ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash and 6.93-second three-cone drill at the combine at five feet nine inches and 214 pounds.
The main difference between McNichols and most of the backs selected on Day 2 is that he played in the Mountain West and they played in Power Five conferences. That’s it. Turning only 22 in December, McNichols is basically a younger version of Martin. He has the opportunity to be the future of the Tampa Bay backfield starting right away.
5.27 (170) – Rodney Adams (MIN), Wide Receiver
While Adams might not seem like anything special, he’s been the clear No. 1 receiver for South Florida for the last two years and an all-around playmaker. Starting his career at Toledo as a true freshman in 2013, Adams played in only three games, accumulating 20 yards on three touches. After his mother suddenly died in a car accident in November 2013, Adams was allowed to transfer to South Florida (to be near his family) and play without taking a redshirt year. As a sophomore Adams did relatively little (23-323-2 as a receiver and 5-52-1 as a runner), but in 2015 he emerged as a 21-year-old junior, leading the team with a 44-816-9 receiving line to which he added an 11-87-1 rushing line and a return TD.
In 2016, he again led the team in receiving and served as a versatile threat, turning 67 receptions and 23 rushes into 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. Unlike many receivers from non-Power Five schools, Adams possesses the physical profile to contribute in the NFL, running a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and 6.98-second three-cone drill at the combine at six feet one inch and 189 pounds.
After Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the Vikings wide receiver depth chart is unsettled. Less physically imposing than the departed Cordarrelle Patterson but almost certainly better at receiving and similarly versatile, Adams could establish himself as Minnesota’s No. 3 receiver and at least earn touches as a Patterson-esque gadget player and return man.
5.39 (182) – Aaron Jones (GB), Running Back
Selected 48 picks after fellow Packers rookie Jamaal Williams (profiled in Part 1), Jones might actually be the superior player. Jones is the all-time leading rusher for Texas-El Paso, which might not sound like much, but there’s nothing insignificant about the 4,114 yards rushing he accumulated in essentially three years’ worth of games. Emerging as the starter early in his true freshman campaign, Jones split work in the backfield on his way to a 155-811-4 performance, adding 4 receptions for 14 yards. The next year, Jones took Conference USA by storm, submitting a 242-1,321-11 rushing line and 30-293-3 receiving line.
Redshirting in 2015 after an ankle injury cause him to miss all but two games (32-209-1 rushing, 9-106-1 receiving), Jones returned to form in 2016 with a massive 229-1,773-17 rushing and 28-233-3 receiving campaign in 12 games. Turning 23 in December, Jones is by no means an old prospect, and at the combine he demonstrated NFL athleticism. Although he’s neither big (five feet nine inches and 208 pounds) nor fast (4.56-second 40-yard dash), he still has sufficient size and was among the most explosive and agile backs at the combine in the vertical (37.5 inches) and broad jumps (127.0 inches), three-cone drill (6.82 seconds), and 20-yard shuttle (4.20 seconds).
Probably a better runner than Packers starter Ty Montgomery and a better receiver than Williams and maybe a better athlete than both, Jones has a chance of earning some snaps as a rookie.
Sixth- and Seventh-Round Honorable Mentions
- 6.04 (188) – Elijah McGuire (NYJ), Running Back
- 6.17 (201) – Bucky Hodges (MIN), Tight End
- 6.19 (203) – De’Angelo Henderson (DEN), Running Back
- 7.08 (226) – David Moore (SEA), Wide Receiver
Undrafted – KD Cannon (SF), Wide Receiver
That Cannon wasn’t drafted is an indictment on the entire process of prospect evaluation as it’s conducted by the league. People turn their noses up at Baylor’s spread system and joke about the ability of Baylor receivers to transition to the NFL, but productive and athletic Baylor receivers — Josh Gordon, Terrence Williams, and Corey Coleman — have collectively done well in the NFL. Cannon was productive at Baylor and athletic at the combine. He deserves a spot in the NFL.
As a true freshman in 2014, Cannon (58-1,030-8 in 12 games) was a strong No. 2 receiver to Coleman (64-1,119-11 in 10 games), who was a redshirt sophomore. In Art Briles’ tumultuous final season, Cannon regressed as a sophomore (50-868-6), but as a junior and the team’s No. 1 receiver he broke out in 2016, accumulating an 87-1,215-13 receiving line in 12 games. At the combine he displayed strong athleticism, running a 4.41-second 40-yard dash and jumping 37.0 vertical inches at five feet 11 inches and 182 pounds.
Cannon is small, but he has opportunity in San Francisco, where the depth chart is unsettled behind new No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon. Turning 22 in November, Cannon is basically Paul Richardson as an athlete. Within head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, he could be this year’s Taylor Gabriel.
Undrafted – Krishawn Hogan (ARZ), Wide Receiver
Even among Hail Marys, this one is a long shot — but it intrigues me. Hogan did relatively little as a high school player and took a long time to hit his growth spurt, so he never had the opportunity to play college ball for a big program. As a true freshman in 2013, Hogan played at Walsh University in Division II, finishing the season as the second-leading receiver with a 32-393-3 stat line in 10 games — but he was kicked off the team for clashing with the coaches.
Humbled yet undaunted, Hogan contacted every school in his home state of Indiana and eventually transferred to Marian in the NAIA. Immediately, Hogan became a star. As a sophomore he led the team in receiving (82-1,136-11 in 14 games) as Marian made it to the NAIA National Championship game. The next year, Hogan did even more in his 14 games, destroying his competition as both a receiver (101-1,824-16) and runner (39-130-15), as Marian frequently used him as a wildcat quarterback in goal-line situations on its way to a National Championship victory. As a senior in 2016, Hogan did more of the same with 80-1,435-15 receiving and 23-43-10 rushing stat lines in 12 games.
Amazingly, Hogan was invited to the combine as an NAIA player, and he didn’t disappoint, displaying legitimate NFL size (six feet three inches and 222 pounds) and speed (4.56-second 40-yard dash) and elite agility (6.74-second three-cone drill). As an athlete, he is very much in the mold of established big-bodied receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Jordy Nelson, and Alshon Jeffery. With his size and athleticism, Hogan has the potential to line up all over the formation.
Signed by Arizona right after the draft, Hogan has the opportunity to learn from Fitzgerald, and Arizona’s depth chart is not as solid it might seem. Fitz, though great, is old. John Brown is dealing with complications from his sickle cell trait. J.J. Nelson, though explosive, is small. Jaron Brown is recovering from a torn ACL. Third-round rookie Chad Williams — underrated in his own right — is also making the leap from a small school (Grambling State) and isn’t as big as Hogan. If Fitz suffers an injury or the Cardinals decide they want another big body on the field to play the old Michael Floyd role, Hogan could be the guy to play those snaps. He’ll be 22 for the entirety of his rookie campaign.
For more on Hogan, check out my interview with him:
It’s not as if I blurbed about Hogan so I could nonchalantly say something like, “Check out my interview with Krishawn, yeah, I once had a 15-minute conversation with a guy who’s now in the NFL, no big deal” — but, yeah, that’s basically what happened.
Still, he has maybe a 0.6 percent chance of making some noise this year, and the market doesn’t even know who he is. That’s +EV.
Let’s return to astronomy. When we’re studying the nighttime darkness of the late-round and undrafted skies, we’re not looking for long-known constellations. We’re looking for rocks hurtling through space with the potential to collide with our DFS orb. Those comets/asteroids/whatevers don’t threaten our fantasy planet all that often, but according to the movies released in 1998 it happens about two times per year.
Side note: Does the cast of Deep Impact suffer from Armageddon envy?
The universe is a big place, and the odds of any given space rock colliding with our planet are exceedingly low. And yet, on a long enough time scale, some rock will crater into this world at some point. It’s happened before. The dinosaurs didn’t die on their own. Something killed them, and we know what it was.
It was Krishawn.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.42, 137
Previous installments can be accessed via my author page or the series archive.