The Michael Carter Dilemma

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By Jacob Bourgeois; Twitter: @JacobBourgieFFB

The Dilemma

In an article leading up to the draft predicting which teams would draft a difference making RB (linked here), I connected “difference making” with draft pick investment: 

“As it happens you can predict which running backs will find their way onto the impact players list. Using the consensus dynasty RB ranks on FantasyPros.com it shows that only 1 of the top 16 RBs was drafted after pick 67 (Aaron Jones selected at the end of the 5th by GBP). And only four of the top 24 RBs weren’t taken in the top 86 (Aaron Jones 182, James Robinson UDFA, Chris Carson 249, and Austin Ekeler UDFA). There are no guarantees, and no data without exceptions, but large in part, if you’re an NFL GM and looking to make a difference in your RB room you’d better be selecting that difference maker no later than the early third.”   

Enter stage left, the second pick of the 4th round of the 2021 NFL, Michael Carter (pick 107).  He was selected by the New York Jets as the 5th running back off the board, after Najee Harris (24), Travis Etienne (25), his UNC running-mate Javonte Williams (35), and Trey Sermon (88).

Pre-Draft Notes

I was high on Carter before the draft and it shows in the summary I wrote for my pre-draft rookie profile series (linked here):

“Finished with back to back 1000-yard rushing seasons while averaging 6.8 YPC.  He was a consistent contributor in the passing game as well, which is important given his size.  I like Carter more than most and see an Austin Ekeler ceiling for him – he’s more athletic than he is fast but has fine top end speed (unless you adjust for size).  He always looks like he’s working hard, that’s both the thing I like most about him and my main criticism.  Doesn’t have the easy grace you see with some backs but isn’t afraid of contact and keeps searching for an opening to get North.”

So, what’s changed in his situation post draft.

Situational Analysis

As opened in the article, part of his situation is being drafted at 104, which gives him only a 17% chance of being considered a top 24 RB at this time next year (based on the current landscape).  Not zero. 

The Depth Chart is another big piece of the puzzle.  The Jets currently boast the following compliment of backs in addition to Michael Carter:

  • La’Mical Perine: 5.0 YPC in 4 years at Florida, 4.62 40’, 5’11, 216 lbs; Drafted in the 4th last year (pick 120) put up 3.6 YPC as a rookie on 64 attempts, 2 TDs, and 2 targets in 10 games.
  • Ty Johnson: 7.6 YPC in 4 years at Maryland, ran a 4.4 40’, 5’11, 210 lbs; Drafted in the 6th by the Lions in 2019 (pick 186), has averaged 4.5 YPC (4.7 as a Jet in 2020); his usage in 2020 was all over the place, but demonstrated efficiency as a rusher and pass catcher.
  • Tevin Coleman: 28 years old entering his 7th NFL season, 6’1 210, former 3rd round pick of Falcons (73), was unable to get anything going in 2020 in SF with 1.9 YPC on only 28 carries and 4 receptions.  Prior to 2020 he’s maintained between 4.0 and 4.8 YPC across five seasons.

If anything, this means that Ty Johnson has earned himself a role, having produced on a team that wound up with the 2nd overall pick (but was probably worse than that in reality).  If Mostert teaches us a lesson about the Shanahan offense it’s that it’s RB friendly, and it loves break-away speed.  Johnson is the only one on the team with that.  Ty Johnson also has a size advantage over Michael Carter.

The difference between La’Mical Perine’s profile and Michael Carter’s is that Carter was drafted by Saleh and his staff, albeit the same GM, Joe Douglas, as Perine.  Perine’s 3.6 YPC as a rookie did nothing to earn him extra reps this year in camp. 

Coleman is getting long in the tooth, but his connection to the SF coaches should earn him some snaps at a minimum.  We know that Shanahan plays a hot hand, and uses backs almost interchangeably and seemingly at whim, so we’ll need to see how much of that Mike LaFleur adopts from his former boss. 

Comps: RB Pairs

One approach to Michael Carter is to assess other teammates who were drafted in the same year to look at their profiles and their outcomes, to see if we can draw on any similarities. Here are the one’s I found most interesting:

  • Derrick Henry / Kenyan Drake (45 / 73) 2016 Alabama
    • Henry
      1. 6’3 – 247 (Junior) 4.54 40’
      1. College: 602 carries, 6.0 YPC, 45 TDs, 17 Rec
      1. Pro: 3 200+ carry seasons (2x 300+); 5.0 YPC, 55 TDs (3 years as a starter)
    • Drake
      1. 6’1 – 211 (Senior) 4.45 40’
      1. College: 233 carries, 6.4 YPC, 22 TDs, 46 Rec
      1. Pro: 4x 120+ carry seasons, 239 carries in 2020; career 4.5 YPC; 2x 50+ target seasons (50+ Rec) (4 years of relevance, ~2.5+ as a starter)
    • Summary: Henry was a clear workhorse back of unicorn size/speed/production.  Drake had a nice well-rounded profile and Alabama pedigree, but was enslaved to a committee for his best years in Miami with Damien Williams and others.  He was arguably better than his opportunities afforded him.
  • Josh Jacobs / Damien Harris (24/87) 2019 Alabama
    • Jacobs
      • 5’10 212 (Junior) 4.60 40’
      • College: 251 carries, 5.9 YPC, 21 TDs, 48 Rec in 3 years.
      • Pro: 242 + 273 carries, 4.3 YPC, 45 targets last year was his most, 19 TDs
    • Harris
      • 5’11 221 (Senior) 4.58 40’
      • College: 477 carries, 6.4 YPC, 25 TDs, 52 Rec in 4 years
      • Pro: 137 carries last season in 10 games, 2 TDs, 5 Rec
    • Summary: Damien Harris was the 5 star recruit out of college and we all know Josh Jacobs’ underdog story and Junior year season that propelled him to the first round.  Still just looking at the raw production, size, speed, it feels a little bit like Damien Harris fell to the 87 overall pick out of name-fatigue where he should have been valued in a similar range as Jacobs.  In 2020 outside of injury he looked to be a more dynamic runner, but like Jacobs’ rookie season was barely used in the passing game.
  • Darrell Henderson / Tony Pollard (70/128) 2019 Memphis
    • Henderson
      • 5’9 200 (Junior) 4.49 40’
      • College: 431 carries, 8.2 YPC, 44 TDs, 63 Rec in 3 years
      • Pro: 138 carries + 24 targets last season in 11 games, 6 TDs, 4.4 YPC
    • Pollard
      • 5’11 200 (RS Junior) 4.52 40’
      • College: 139 carries, 6.8 YPC, 18 TDs, 104 Rec in 3 years
      • Pro: 101 carries + 40 targets in 16 games (2 starts) last year, 6.0 YPC, 8 TDs
    • Summary: Henderson is a smaller back but who was astonishingly efficient at Memphis in a lead role.  Pollard played complimentary in each of his three seasons while gaining share year over year.  Henderson being picked at 70 was likely due to his size, which pushed Pollard down even further, who profiled similarly but as a back-up/ change of pace.
  • Javonte Williams / Michael Carter (35 / 107) 2021 UNC
    • Williams
      • 5’10 212 (Junior) 4.55 40’
      • College: 366 carries, 6.3 YPC, 33 TDs and 50 Receptions in 3 years
    • Carter
      • 5’8 201 (Senior) 4.50 40’
      • College: 514 carries, 6.6 YPC, 28 TDs, 82 Rec in 4 years

Conclusion

Michael Carter’s fall in the draft must be due to his size because everything else checks out.  He has a similar profile to Henderson and Pollard, and you could argue was drafted appropriately between the two of them strictly from a production profile perspective.  Interesting to me is that both Henderson and Pollard have shown proficiency in opportunity, where opportunity has been the main challenge.  Henderson brought in with Gurley as the lead back, and now Akers, and Pollard famously serving backup to Zeke.  What would be the outcome if they got a chance to start and play a decent size role in the offense? 

Austin Ekeler marks the ceiling for smaller backs, but Ekeler has elite athleticism scores – where Pollard and Henderson are in the middle of the pack.  Unlike Pollard and Henderson, Michael Carter has near 100th percentile agility/short-area-quickness (3.98 20-yard shuttle + 6.83 3 cone), which gives him at least something to nudge him in Ekeler’s direction. 

But the biggest thing for Carter vs. Pollard and Henderson is opportunity.  He’s showing out in camp and writers and analysts alike are calling him the favorite to lead the backfield sooner rather than later.  It’s also no secret that Henderson and Pollard are considered the best handcuffs in the game right now, who would be highly productive given the role.  Enter stage left again, Michael Carter. 

The bad news for Carter is that the depth chart looking like it is, is no guarantee today, tomorrow, mid-season, or next season.  If he can continue to distinguish himself as he has in camp, he’s likely to at least earn a Gio Bernard type career for himself, with a higher ceiling when opportunity presents itself (as it has with Gio).  Look for him in the first half of the 2nd round of your rookie drafts. And it might not be a bad idea to trade away his production mid-season for a more long term secure asset.