The 2020 Draft was deep in talent at the Wide Receiver, Runningback, and Quarterback positions. Sometimes that talent was obvious – Jonathan Taylor rushed for over 2,000 yards for 3 consecutive years, ran a sub 4.40 40-yard dash, and displayed the prototypical physical traits every General Manager drools over. Ceedee Lamb was the YAC King. Joe Burrow led the most prolific offense in the history of the NCAA. There were several candidates that displayed all the qualities we typically look for, but due to terrible team play, they were buried. Two of the highest profile examples are Cam Akers and Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Vanderbilt’s offensive line ranked outside of the top 80 in every Football Outsiders metric but opportunity rate (50 in 2019 and 24 in 2018). For comparison, Cam Akers’ offensive line ranked below 66, again in opportunity rate. Despite Vanderbilt having the broken coffee filter equivalent of an offensive line, Vaughn rushed for two 1,000-yard seasons (1,244 in 2018 and 1,028 in 2019) and had 13 receptions in 2018 averaging 13.1 yards per catch. He tallied 28 receptions in 2019 averaging 9.6 yards per catch. This sort of profile is usually enough to garner enough positive reviews to receive some positive hype prior to the draft. Despite his production despite his situation, he was a bit of a diamond in the rough. He started his career in Illinois behind Lovie Smith, who by the looks of it, wasted an NFL talented running back. His sophomore year Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt after sitting out for a year. Vaughn finished out his two seasons and committed to the NFL draft. Most players who transfer and sit a year, especially after a lackluster beginning college career, get overlooked their first year looking NFL ready.
The biggest knock on Vaughn was that he was entering the NFL at the age of 23. With the runningback production cliff edging closer and closer every few years, you are at an inherent disadvantage by having an older rookie back on your team. To flush this out for those that do not have a good grasp of why that is an issue, the current cliff of running back production is hovering around 25 years old, which is when most runningbacks reach peak production. That is not to say they lose all steam afterwards, but they are statistically less likely to be as productive than their earlier career. Drafting an unproven rookie to your team that has two years to theoretically deliver peak upside is really capping his return value. I outlined above why he came out at the age of 23, so it is a fair assumption he may have another year until he reaches his peak production given his body got a break from blows during his year of ineligibility. Outside of his age, most people outside of the NFL were blinded by the logo on his helmet and wrote him off as a fringe NFL candidate.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn received his Senior Bowl invite, and everyone was excited to see him run behind competent talent. Vaughn came for one day, finished the testing and interviews, but was held out due to an undisclosed injury. The fantasy football community had Vaughn keep sliding due to the inability to showcase his talents at the Senior Bowl.
There was a fair amount of anticipation riding on Vaughn at the Combine. There were three solid running backs and the dynasty community was desperate for more workhorse capable running backs. Akers, Gibson, Vaughn and CEH all delivered upon that wish. Vaughn tested out very well with a 31.6 BMI, a 4.51 forty (103.45 speed score), 32-inch vertical jump and a 117inch broad jump. He had the necessary speed, body weight and burst to be successful in the NFL based on predictive measures of success. Sadly, Vaughn could not test in the agility portion of the drills (3-cone and 20-yard shuttle). Based on my Predictive Measures of Success Model, Vaughn graded out as the ninth best running back prospect in the class (database and explanations coming).
Day two was always going to be the jackpot day for Vaughn. In round 3 at pick 12, Vaughn heard his name called. Vaughn was the seventh running back off the board, falling into what was a very favorable situation. The incumbent, Ronald Jones, had been a very contentious topic the past off-season, plagued by poor blocking and difficulty catching the ball. I had written him off, thinking that Jones would be no better than a breather back in the NFL. When off-season activities started, the first pitfall came when Vaughn ended up on the COVID19 list, costing him precious time learning the playbook, bonding with the offense, and being able to showcase his skills. Meanwhile Ronald Jones was having a very impressive camp, reports saying his pass blocking and pass catching had been focal points in the offseason. As Jones built steam, Vaughn was always found playing catch up. Then came the second pitfall, in a close sequence of days, Vaughn had fumbled in practice (big no-no for Arians) and then Arians was quoted saying that Vaughn was to be delegated to a returning role in week 1. Then came the ‘killshot’. Leonard Fournette, who was released by the Jaguars, had been signed as a Free Agent by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I had been intending to write something similar to this article in about three weeks, however, the Fournette signing sped things up for me. Vaughn has seen early adversity, more than any rookie running back has seen this year in his draft position. Tampa has just released Dare Ogunbowale, which means that Vaughn is going to slide into the third slot as the running back depth chart shakes out. While this season seems uncertain to give him any meaningful production, his dynasty outlooks still has a rosy tint. Vaughn possesses the necessary size, athleticism, and college career to have an honest shot at being a productive running back in the NFL. Vaughn does seem to have another opportunity in the 2021 season given the fact that Fournette is on a one-year deal and Jones will be on his contract year. If you take a macro look at this, while Ronald Jones has seen positive news from the Arians, the Buccaneers bringing in two running backs, one from the draft and through Free Agency, spells a distrust in the backfield that they have. While that is not a ringing endorsement for Vaughn, it does feel rather dreary for Jones, especially considering Vaughn has not had the opportunity to show his capabilities through the usual avenue’s rookies previously had the opportunities to use.
Though Vaughn has had limited opportunities to prove himself in camp (thanks COVID-19), I strongly feel that at Vaughn’s current value in dynasty leagues, now is the ideal time to go and send out inquiries to their owners. I would suggest making a trade push after week 1, when they see Vaughn get hardly any backfield snaps. At that point it should set in; He will not be productive this year. I would look to trade a handcuff option for Vaughn, ideally you will be able to trade two third round picks for him. I would be willing to trade a second for Vaughn, but I would want the second to be in 2022.
Now that you have heard the Vaughn Fairytale, will he be able to overcome the adversity and retain a productive role? Or will he be vanquished and relegated to a career backup?
Only time will tell.