RSP Film Room 102: RB Tarik Cohen and Why Rankings Suck (But We Want Them Anyway…)

Running Back Tarik Cohen's game tape from Stanford offers insights into his 2017 NFL Draft Stock

Running Back Tarik Cohen's game tape from Stanford offers insights into his 2017 NFL Draft Stock

An extended look at the top Scheme-Based Talent at running back in the 2017 RSP (video at end of post).

I hate rankings. It’s a faulty categorization of talent. Every position in football has subcategories. Wide receivers and running backs have different roles based on the offensive system or their skill sets.

LeGarrette Blount’s role is much different from Darren Sproles. DeSean Jackson is a vastly different receiver than Brandon Marshall. Russell Wilson might perform well in New England’s offense, but would you ask Tom Brady to run zone-read and scramble in Seattle? Is Brady a worse quarterback than Wilson because Wilson would fare well in more varieties of systems because of his athletic ability?

You can have fun debating the question, but the point is that all the players mentioned above have value, and a linear ranking isn’t an accurate portrayal of their value. I prefer tiers because in most cases, there are groups of players that are so close in skill that a tier comes closer to recognizing talent value.

It shouldn’t matter to you whether Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are Nos. 1, 2, and 3 on an analyst’s board, it’s more important to know if they’re all within the same tier.

Three years from now, you may argue that Trubisky significantly out-performed the other two, but organizational fit, system fit, health, and surrounding talent are just four of several variables that don’t make a one-to-one comparison an accurate way of viewing talent. Nevertheless, I understand the desire for a linear order.

The rankings in each chapter of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication will also have headings that note the beginning of tiers where I would group these players. It satisfies my desire to dissuade readers from overreacting to a linear number (Why do you have [insert player’s name here] soooo lowwwww…) while giving you, the fantasy owner and draftnik, a beginning range to shift your boards around based on your team needs and fit.

Reader demand drives the inclusion of list-style rankings in the RSP. However, list-style rankings don’t provide the nuance that readers should have about the talent and fit.

Running back, tight end, and receiver positions have prospects with a wide variety of physical dimensions, athletic talents, and skill sets. Even a scoring system with all of the criteria of the RSP still has to prioritize which talents and skill sets are most important.

Every scoring system that’s consistent implicitly defines its standard of what’s ideal and grades every player to it.The system rewards players that come closest. Players like Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Rob Gronkowski are obvious high scorers.

Grading to a standard is excellent when seeking the best all-around talents—and I will never stop doing so. Yet, list-style rankings are harder for some readers to recognize the value of players that I’ve assigned a lower number on a list, but value their potential as high-end, perhaps even star-caliber, producers in a role tailor-made for them.

A ranking methodology can gloss over talents where specific traits will never have a chance to meet the conventional standards of the position. Some players have a bandwidth of talent that is too narrow even for an evaluation system set up to answer the questions: “How many talents does a player have for the position and how deep is that overall talent?”

When there are players with this narrow, but deep bandwidth of talent, I note it in the RSP Player Profiles so readers earn additional, valuable context to the rankings.  However, I thought it made sense to create a list of players whose Depth of Talent Score may not reflect their value if matched with an ideal scheme fit to make the most of their narrow, but deep bandwidth.

North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen, the Human Joystick, is an excellent example. He’ll never have meet the standards of size, power, balance, or blocking expected of a workhorse starter. However, if Cohen has elite traits elsewhere that could work in a role that matches his bandwidth, a team won’t be lamenting his lack of power, collision-oriented balance, and blocking.

Why? They have no intention to ever use Cohen in a capacity where he’ll need those skills.

When one approaches a player from this perspective, why even score him on traits where he’s doomed to fail aspects of an eval—especially when a team will never realistically expect him to perform to it?

While it is important to do the full eval, once it is determined that a set of players have a narrow bandwidth of talent, it’s time to pair down the evaluation to criteria that matches a potential role.

Then these players can be evaluated on a realistic standard of use. In addition to the comprehensive rankings that readers come to expect, this is what the 2017 RSP will be doing with runners, receivers, and tight ends—and it will only become more systematic in approach. This year’s publication will offer a basic look, but I see where I want to take this idea in future years of the publication.

The Scheme-Based Talents Section for runners will rank prospects who may not have the upside of a traditional every-down back but could become as productive as many workhorses with the right fit as role players. In many cases, these players have enough upside to produce like fantasy starters—even if their skills aren’t as well-rounded as the players that the RSP’s overall rankings have above them.

In fact, you’ll discover that some of the players placed at the top of this fit-based section are ahead of higher-ranked players on the overall pre-draft list. That’s because a narrower range of skills are considered.

Because a good fit can maximize a player’s talents while limiting on-field exposure to his weaknesses, the right pairing of team in May could elevate several individuals post-draft rankings—even if their pre-draft talent grades aren’t as well rounded as others.

Cohen is the 2017 RSP’s top Schemed-Based Talent at the running back position. The way I’m defining this term, the list is reserved for players who lack the physical traits and technical skills to perform as a traditional every-down runner. Here’s an extended look at what he can do for a team that can create a role for Cohen in its offense.

For analysis of skill players in the 2017 draft class, pre-order a login for the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – for April 1 download  Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2017 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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