Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in our new weekly series focusing on a lesser known rookie or young player who dynasty owners should have on their radars or watch lists. The “Who is” series is designed to give us more information about some of the less mainstream players who are hoping to make some future noise in dynasty leagues.
While the majority of rookies who are likely to become fantasy relevant are already rostered, the next Zac Stacy (fifth round in 2013), Alfred Morris (sixth round in 2012), or Charles Clay (sixth round in 2011) could be on the waiver wire. Following Marion Grice and Richard Rodgers in this series, several readers requested the player featured in the third article of this series should be former Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney, selected by the Carolina Panthers with pick #204 in May’s NFL Draft.
This wasn’t Gaffney’s first draft selection by a professional sport franchise. In 2012, he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round of the Major League Baseball draft and spent the following summer as an outfielder in Single-A. Following the departure of Stepfan Taylor, who transitioned from the Stanford Cardinal to Arizona Cardinals, Tyler Gaffney returned to college and impressed in his first and only year as a lead running back. In addition to his 1,795 yards from scrimmage on 345 total touches, Gaffney reached the end zone 22 times and finished eighth in the nation in rushing yards. The 2013 season was crucial to Gaffney’s draft stock after a season of professional baseball, combined with the fact he only totaled 969 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in his first three seasons as a backup at Stanford.
The 5’11″, 220-pound Gaffney is a strong inside runner whose legs keep churning as he grinds out tough yards. He has good vision and patience, allowing his blockers to open running lanes for him to plow through. While he also has good hands as a receiver out of the backfield and is strong in pass protection, Gaffney has more of a throwback ground-and-pound style and wears down defenses as he plays hard through the final whistle of the game. All the punishment Gaffney takes has not made him any less durable, handling a heavy workload including a school record 45 rushes in a single game against Oregon. Despite this playing style, Gaffney has demonstrated a good degree of athleticism, recording a 4.49 40-yard-dash and finishing second among running backs in the three-cone drill at the Combine.
[inlinead]Though his running style has been compared to former Carolina Panther great Stephen Davis, Gaffney is generally considered to be more of a complementary piece in an NFL backfield. He is not elusive, has only average quickness and lacks breakaway speed, so there won’t be many long touchdowns found on his highlight reel. While he stayed healthy in college, the sample size was fairly limited and there is some question as to whether his body can withstand the same level of punishment for a longer period of time at the NFL level. Though he is by all accounts a motivated and high character player, Gaffney’s wavering between professional baseball and football is noteworthy in terms of full commitment to his craft (though the Panthers surely would have thoroughly researched this consideration prior to the selection).
If you choose to look for a more realistic NFL comparison for Gaffney than Davis, former Charger and Chief (and current Titan) Jackie Battle would be a good candidate. Similar strengths (in particular, their toughness as inside runners) and weaknesses (lack of elusiveness or receiving prowess) link both players as solid, yet unspectacular running backs who are better NFL players than fantasy assets. Aside from a brief stint as a flex play in 2011, Battle has done little to merit fantasy consideration, so owners taking a flier on Gaffney hope this analogy does not come to fruition. The style of Alfred Morris, if not the same level of production, is a reasonable gauge when identifying Gaffney’s fantasy output – that is, a steady player who will provide yards and rushing touchdowns, but little in the receiving game. However, this is not to say Gaffney can’t hone his receiving skills after simply not being used in that role at Stanford.
While Carolina may appear to be loaded at running back, the cap hit at the position is significantly greater than the talent level. DeAngelo Williams ($6 million cap hit), Mike Tolbert ($3.35 million), perennial fantasy disappointment Jonathan Stewart ($4.585 million with a hefty long-term deal remaining) and 2013 sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner are all ahead of Gaffney on the depth chart. As long as all four are employed by the Panthers, there will be few carries allotted for the rookie. Gaffney appears to fit better than Williams or Stewart into the physical mentality the Panthers are evolving into under Ron Rivera, so he may get the call in some short yardage situations depending on Tolbert’s effectiveness and roster status. However, an impact in 2015 is much more likely. Lack of productivity relative to salary will likely result in a veteran cap casualty or two, opening the door for Gaffney to make an impact in a year or so. Word out of the Panthers’ OTAs indicate Gaffney is already impressing the coaching staff with his pass protection skills and is doing well picking up the power running scheme.
Luckily for dynasty owners (as was the case with Marion Grice), the cost to take a flier on Gaffney is minimal. July ADP is in with Gaffney undrafted and outside the top 52 rookies, which is consistent with nearly all of my leagues where he was either picked up in blind bidding or remains on the waiver wire. Personally, I’d rather stash Gaffney than Grice (who was drafted in five of the six DLF mocks) as style and opportunity appear to favor the Panther with regards to a potential feature back role. Don’t expect much in 2014, but the contract situations of the frustrating veterans at the top of the Carolina depth chart will dictate whether Gaffney gets a real shot at fantasy relevance in 2015.
If he does, I like his potential.