Spend any time on a fantasy football message board and you’ll quickly find Christine Michael is arguably the most polarizing fantasy-relevant player in the NFL today.
His supporters believe he has a great chance to be the next big thing at running back, while his detractors point out he’s never had a huge workload, that he sustained a couple of injuries, was suspended at Texas A&M, and was a late second round pick who was inactive for most of the 2013 season.
Latching onto either one of those positions in isolation is a mistake: i.e. Michael might be the next big thing AND he came into the NFL with some fairly obvious drawbacks.
First, let’s address why Michael is seen as such an outstanding prospect – especially by those in the “metrics” community.
My own running back model has evolved some since I wrote it up prior to last year, and now incorporates a more refined notion of size and includes better measures of both explosion and agility, but it’s still fairly similar overall.
The central idea in my model remains that in order to be successful as a long-term starting back in the NFL, virtually all backs will either be big, fast or agile – defined as the threshold at which an NFL back can be successful possessing any one of those characteristics. That idea along with the concept of a specific measurables threshold for each of the types is what defines the models. The variables are not continuous and cumulative below the threshold, at least as it relates to finding true NFL #1 backs.
Again, those definitions have morphed some in the last 18 months – since I described them in detail – but the central concept has not changed. In addition:
- Explosion is best thought of as complementary, but still highly desirable, trait.
- Vision is accounted for separately, and acts as a filter. Good backs need both a specific combination of physical tools and vision/football skill/field awareness (whatever you want to call it).
- Medical, character and work ethic are another series of filters but we generally have much less information about those as outsiders and we can only get at how the NFL might perceive those risks indirectly (more on that below).
Regardless of the details though, anyone who’s looking at running back prospects by the numbers would come up with something similar to what follows below.
That’s it. And Michael’s measurables are identical or slightly better than LT’s across the board.
Not only that, if we relax all of the criteria one at a time the backs who are almost as good from a measurables standpoint are still exceptional. (Using listed playing weights, not combine weights.)
- All of the above, except Explosive: Doug Martin and DeAngelo Williams
- All of the above, except Agile: Jonathan Stewart, Deuce McAllister
- All of the above, except Fast: None
- All of the above, except Big: Edgerrin James, Ahman Green(?), Clinton Portis(?) Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden, LaMichael James(?), Jerick McKinnon
- All of the above, except Vision: Ben Tate, Jackie Battle
So, that’s the starting place for why some people like Michael. His measurables are absolutely top notch. The only thing that’s somewhat weak is his receiving measurement (interestingly it’s still much better than LT’s was entering the league).
But, wait! If Michael is that good, why wasn’t he a first round choice?
It’s a good question. Leaving aside the fact that the NFL Draft has does have arbitrage opportunities (which may be closing now), they don’t typically miss on guys like Michael.
The answer is that Draft Position = Talent + Risk.
In Michael’s case, we don’t have to look very far to find obvious risks that could have affected his draft stock. His NCAA volume was low for one. Even elite players (such as Demaryius Thomas) will be drafted later if there’s a small body of work at the collegiate level. For Christine Michael, my estimate is that having fewer carries (in this case due to injury) resulted in his draft stock being dinged by around 35 spots. Obviously that’s just an all-else-equal estimate based on the average of many low volume prospects, but the general relationship is unambiguous.
Additionally, given Michael’s difficult relationship with A&M’s current coach, the comments of A&M’s former coach, the fact Michael was suspended once and racked up a DNP, coach’s decision in his final game as a senior, there are also some potential character concerns. It’s not really possible to estimate those quantitatively except to look at Michael’s prospect peers and back into a guess. In this case, my own take is that Michael saw his draft position fall by 15-20 spots, similar to someone like Dez Bryant, as a result of character concerns.
You don’t have to buy the specific estimates to agree with the general idea that maybe Michael’s draft position isn’t completely a reflection of his talent level — the injuries and character concerns are facts after all — and take a common sense approach that those things might have affected how he was considered by NFL drafters.
As mentioned in the 2012 article above, these types of players offer exceptional value in fantasy football since our risk profile is very different from the risk profile of an NFL team (that will lose huge sums of money when they’re wrong about a highly-drafted prospect).
So, that’s a very long winded way of suggesting Michael offered value a year ago. Getting him for a late first or early second round pick was a steal since draft picks are the most easily replaced resource. After all, you get them every year without giving up anything other than league fees.
Furthermore, if you believed in him a year ago for quantitative reasons, absolutely nothing that’s happened since then would suggest you were wrong to do so. He hasn’t been in trouble. He hasn’t been injured. Raves from his coaches and camp observers and video of his limited on-field exploits all subjectively support that notion.
If you think being inactive behind Lynch in a year that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl undoes all of the above, more power to you — don’t roster Michael. I understand the argument, but disagree and enough said about that.
What about today though?
Has the “hype” added enough risk to offset the potential reward? Only if you don’t buy into the quantitative measure of Michael in the first place. Which, again, more power to you — don’t roster Michael. Career value in fantasy football is a pretty steep curve at the high end and players who might be way out on that curve don’t need a particularly high chance of panning out to justify a high price.
But if you do buy the metric-driven case, as the 15th-20th back off the boards in the ~5th round of startups, he still represents value. Without doing anything formal, I’d guess that Michael needs maybe a 20-30% chance of hitting to justify the price. Because in the event that he does pan out to his full potential he offers upside that’s many multiples of the guys currently being similarly drafted.
This isn’t intended to convince anyone, just to explain why some of the people who are high on Michael believe he’s a great prospect.
If you don’t buy the arguments here — well, that’s what makes the game fun. If we all felt the same way about every player we’d all be similarly good at fantasy football, there’d be no room for trades or clever working of the draft and waiver wire and winning and losing would be entirely luck-based.