Welcome to October, the month where a player like Danny Woodhead is either a distant memory or, for those stubbornly hanging onto him for Week 9, a symbol of remote hope. October also marks the beginning of desperation plays from the waiver wire. Guys whose draft stock is low enough to measure just how vapid your favorite Lego-haired, TV-Webcast-Twitter Suit really is when it comes to talent.
I'm just jealous of those folks who have Lego Hair, I could never tame mine. They can own the vapidity. It always made me nauseous trying to cultivate it.
This week, we're digging into three running backs who emerged from the depths of their respective rosters as productive fantasy options in Week 4. Who are they? Are they talented enough to sustain viable production? And will they be worth your investment on the waiver wire?
Seattle Utility man J.D. McKissic
McKissic made two of three plays that transformed the Seahawks-Colts Sunday Night game from an 18-18 tie into a fourth-quarter blowout. The 5'10", 195-pound UDFA from Arkansas State was a Dexter McCluster-like option for the Red Wolves. I studied his game in the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio and labeled him a wide receiver.
Here are some notes from my film study database from McKissic's effort against Missouri in 2015 where he earned 8 receptions for 82 yards (60 after the catch) and 4 carries for 11 yards:
McKissic is a gadget player who isn't particularly strong in a single area as a receiver or runner. He has the hip flexibility to drop his weight and make a hard break. This gives him promise as a cutback runner and a timing-route receiver, but he needs to address his footwork and expand his route knowledge so there's actual form and application to his raw athletic ability.
McKissic's most polished position is running back. He understands how to press and cut with patience at the line of scrimmage. He has a good spin move. When he can eliminate a defender's angle with his quickness and agility, he has enough balance to bounce off indirect contact to his frame and balance-touch.
McKissic has enough burst to get into the secondary if he emerges from a crease without significant contact to slow him down. Although he lacks the breakaway speed to turn any run into a touchdown of 50 yards or more (4.59-second 40-time), he's quick enough that when he reaches the secondary, defensive backs will often be in a chase position and that's good enough for McKissic to generate gains of 30-40 yards. Because he can set up defenders with effective moves, he may not automatically take the top off a defense or special teams unit, but he can generate big plays.
He tends to bounce plays outside as a between-the-tackles runner when there is a viable opening inside based on the play design. When he reaches the first crease opening or lead blocker, McKissic must learn to get his pads down and take what is there so he's not putting his teammates and coaching staff in a down-and-distance hole when the field position and game situation dictates a higher percentage decision. He he chooses to finish strong, he had good pad level and knows how to get under defenders at the end of runs. His ball security isn't tight enough when running in traffic.
McKissic has a habit of hopping or skipping off the line of scrimmage when he begins his release. He rarely earned a good angle on opponents when blocking in the open field. He's best-suited as a shield blocker than a player coaches should rely on to deliver a hard punch and square hit.
McKissic began his career in Atlanta and he flashed early with a kickoff return for a touchdown during the preseason.
Despite this and other moments where the rookie flashed in Atlanta, the Falcons made him one if its final roster cuts and signed him to its practice squad. He was waived in December and the Seahawks claimed him four days later. A compelling storyline forms around McKissic when combining what he did against the Colts this weekend with the "we expected it" reactions of his teammates and whom Seattle cut to keep the second-year player on the team.
After the Sunday night game, Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Pete Carroll all said that McKissic's playmaking versatility had been on display since he arrived in Seattle and that the players have been lobbying the team to give him a shot in the games. Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels also noted on-air that they were wowed by McKissic during practice this week but didn't read too much into the effort because it's common for players to shine in practice and clam-up on the big stage.
Even if it has only been a handful of preseason games and a quarter during the regular season, the fact that McKissic has established an early track record of "showing up" in games as well as practice is a good first step that many practice stars never make. From spring through the first half of training camp, McKissic was listed as a receiver. However, C.J. Prosise's groin injury led the team to give McKissic some action at running back.
Against the Chiefs, McKissic earned 46 yards on 7 carries and 21 yards on 2 catches as a third-down back. According to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times, the Seahawks changed his jersey number from No. 14 to No. 37 and predicted that if McKissic earned a roster spot it would be due to his versatility on offense and special teams as a hedge for both Prosise and Tyler Lockett.
“We are moving him around, doing a lot of things with him,’’ Carroll said of the 5-10, 195-pounder. “The return game for sure. He can play receiver, he can play running back, he can do it all. He’s a very valuable player as he’s merging with us.’’
Carroll also has raved about McKissic’s play on special teams coverage units — he has two solo tackles on kickoffs.
“He’s covered two kickoffs,’’ Carroll said. “He had a great hit in week one, he had an excellent play in week two. I looked at the very last instant approaching the contact, is the guy giving it up with everything he had. J.D. is one of those dudes. Shoot, I love the way he’s playing.’’
Condotta also had some sense that the team favored McKissic over Alex Collins.
That McKissic may suddenly be regarded by the team as more of a running back than a receiver may be meaningful mostly in how much faith the Seahawks show in his ability to play several different roles as much as anything else. Ultimately, Seattle has to cut its roster from 90-53 by Saturday and how many are running backs and how many are receivers isn’t necessarily as important as keeping the best 53.
But it could have some implications on some of the other running backs on the roster, notably Alex Collins, a fifth-round pick last season who didn’t get a carry against the Chiefs.
I have to believe that the Seahawks wish they had Collins with Carson on IR, Prosise still dinged and lingering questions about Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy, but McKissic could be the better fit based on his skill in space. It was also the most sensible decision if the team still believed in its investments in the other backs and McKissic's versatility was a better value that could serve them at running back, receiver, a returner, and a special teams coverage ace.
While McKissic's 30-yard touchdown run was a display of his skill when a bounce-out works, I was more impressed with his adjustment to the football as a receiver earning a mismatch against a Colts linebacker.
This play is exactly what the Seahawks hoped to get from Prosise this year. Although Prosise has also flashed as well if not more often than McKissic in real games, injury and strong play from a replacement can keep a high-upside player on the bench.
The odds are stacked against McKissic offering anything more than what we used to see from Dexter McCluster, a talented football player who could deliver 3-5 weeks of production that ranged from flex-worthy to a low-volume/high-intensity (big plays and scores), boom-bust RB1 stats. It could make him a frustrating roster addition for anyone seeking a temporary starter.
Remember, Rawls was a healthy scratch last week. With Carson gone, Rawls should get a shot to earn his job back. At the same time, McKissic was given an active status ahead of Rawls, which means one of two things: Rawls was healthy enough to go, but another week of rest seemed like a better idea and the team liked the potential matchup of Carson-Lacy versus the Colts defense. Or, the team is emotionally through with trusting Rawls to be healthy and opted to give McKissic a shot.
If Rawls is a healthy scratch or receives limited touches this week in lieu of an expanded workload from McKissic, then you'll know that Seattle sees Rawls as an oft-injured afterthought it can't trust. It could lead to a trade to a RB-needy team, but most organizations think it's easy to find running backs or its easier to roll with backs who worked with them in training camp and understand its pass protection schemes.
If you're RB-desperate, McKissic could be a cheap addition whose usage this week and next should indicate whether he's Seattle's version of Danny Woodhead or a McCluster fantasy yo-yo.
Aaron Jones: Ability? Yes. Fit? To Be Determined...
A lot of football writers have linked me to Jamaal Williams because I did a film room show with him as a guest. I also had Williams as my No. 6 back in the pre-draft version of the RSP. What you may not know is that Jones was my No. 10 runner and the difference in that ranking was small enough that you could have interchanged Williams and Jones depending on the needs of a team.
When the Packers drafted Williams I was excited for as long as it took for Green Bay to follow up with Jones. It reminded me a lot of the Eddie Lacy-Jonathan Franklin situation. Lacy was the bigger name, but Franklin had an underrated game.
A rookie from UCLA, Franklin looked great during the second half in the season opener against the Bengals, only to suffer a career-ending neck injury in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, we might have regarded Lacy as an intriguing committee back relegated to a Tevin Coleman-like cameo role.
While slightly different in style, Williams and Jones both have the talent to produce on the level of starting ball carriers in the NFL. Williams has the slightly bigger frame, Jones has better burst and change of direction. Williams was the better pass protector in college, Jones was arguably the best pure pass catcher among all 2017 running back prospects.
Fast-forward to this fall and if I were to judge these players only on their regular season touches with the Packers as if I had never seen their tape, I'd tell you that Williams looks stiff, slow, and unimaginative as a runner. Jones appears fluid, quick, and comfortable.
While Williams makes decent reads as he makes his cutback on the play above, he should have been slower to the crease and pressed the run deeper to the edge before making that cut. This probably opens the backside crease more for his cutback. Instead, Williams cuts about 1-3 steps too early and gives the defenders in the chosen crease an advantage with their current position.
This is a common issue with young running backs still acclimating to a new team and the pro game. Samaje Perine experienced these issues during his first two weeks of playing time. He actually looked better in this respect and more productive on a per-play on Monday night before fumbling a toss that led to Jay Gruden benching the rookie. It also helped that Washington let Perine run the counter play, Rob Kelly's most successful play before he got hurt.
Williams doesn't look like the back I saw at BYU.
If I were to create a narrative around his play, I'd guess that Williams has bought into the Packers and media's assessment that he's a straight-line banger and power back who wears defenses down. Until the Senior Bowl, many public listings for Williams were 225-230 pounds when Williams' trainer told me in Mobile that the runner always played in the range of 210-212 pounds.
Williams also had a lot more wiggle to his game. He's capable of sharp cuts downhill, stop-start moves in tight spaces and jump-cuts to the next gap over. These haven't been consistent tools that have shown up in his running this summer or early fall. These were big parts of his running style that made him successful and a back I compared a lot of his game stylistically to former 49er and Eagles runner, Ricky Watters.
Whether he's over-thinking the game or trying to be what the Packers say he should be, he's playing tight and it's led to mediocre outcomes on most of his touches. This wasn't the case for Jones when he entered the game to replace the injured Williams. Jones didn't have huge gains but his timing with the line was better and he displayed better comfort as if he was playing rather than thinking.
Of the three plays I'm sharing, this one below be the one that even a more comfortable Williams couldn't run the same way.
The touchdown was a play that any back should make but it's another layer in the argument that Jones wasn't overthinking in the way Williams appeared to be.
Here's a play that I think Williams would have actually run better when he's at his best because of his balance, physicality, and footwork in tight space. However, Jones's comfort level translates well to the field in a way I haven't seen enough from Williams thus far this year.
If I'm picking a back solely on talent, I'd take Jones ahead of McKissic. If I'm picking a back based on his competition, the surrounding talent, and the injury situations of the depth chart, I'd choose McKissic. Ty Montgomery has multiple broken ribs but could play this week. Williams will only miss a week with a minor knee sprain and despite the "stiff" style, he's earned limited touches per game and has never gotten a chance to get into a flow that is often important for backs. Williams is also the superior pass protector.
While Jones may emerge at some point and hold onto a significant role if he can develop as a pass protector and make the best of future extended playing time, I think he's the most likely short-term fool's gold spend of the three backs in this piece. Long-term, he belongs on your dynasty rosters.
your new giant's starter (should be): Wayne Gallman
Gallman was my No.9 back in the RSP's pre-draft publication. Again, the differences in grades among Williams, DOnta Foreman, Jones, and Gallman were small enough that it depended on fit and how important pass protection and ball security factored into immediate playing time.
His long speed is the worst of these four backs, but his initial burst was superior to all but Jones. While Williams is a physical player who can wear down a defense, the stylistic descriptions I've heard parroted about Williams are more fitting for Gallman, who is more stylistically similar to a back like DeMarco Murray.
Unlikely Williams, Gallman appeared comfortable in his first extended appearance on the field. He's running some different types of plays than what Williams and Jones run in Green Bay, but the first of these two plays is a pretty good cut back to set up a gap play. It is also worth noting that the Giants were getting a better push than what I've seen from a lot of Packers runs.
The first in the next pair of plays is a nice show of patience in the red zone that we also saw from Jones.
The difference that I'm seeing (and it's a small sample size so beware of forming any lasting conclusions long-term) between Gallman and Paul Perkins is that Gallman is hitting creases harder and has a more physical style as a finisher. Perkins' rib injury is less serious than Montgomery's, but Montgomery is a proven producer and Perkins hasn't performed well. I'm not expecting Gallman to be a flashy producer if he earns the starting role, but his no-nonsense style could earn him 18-22 touches in close games for 80-100 total yards from scrimmage.
It's not as exciting as McKissic or Jones' potential on any given play, but Gallman fits a need and has the style to earn the volume that helps fantasy teams on a weekly basis.