Tyler Ervin, a fifth-year senior out of San Jose State, weighed in at the combine at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds and showcased his speed with an impressive 4.41 40-yard dash time (he finished as a top performer in several combine categories). In his final collegiate campaign, he was the star of SJSU's offense and collected 1,601 rush yards with 13 touchdowns on the ground and added 45 receptions for 334 yards and two scores through the air. Because of his shiftiness and prowess as a pass catcher, Ervin has drawn early comparisons to return specialist and third-down expert Darren Sproles. But does Ervin have a skill set that will land him a significant enough role on an NFL squad to contribute as a fantasy asset in 2016?
» Speed, speed, speed
» Unreal burst at the line of scrimmage
» Tough for his size, finishes strong
» Excellent vision in open space
» Can contribute as kick returner, receiver and runner
Tyler Ervin is fast. In fact, at 4.41 seconds, he clocked the second-fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at the 2016 combine. And while speed isn't everything when it comes to evaluating a running back, top-tier speed like Ervin's does not grow on trees ... despite what you may have heard. That alone makes Ervin immediately intriguing as a prospect and lends him an opportunity to make a splash as a returner if he doesn't have a significant role as a high-volume ball carrier out of the gate (see: David Johnson, 2015).
An attribute that naturally comes with being a good kick returner is vision in space. Ervin's extremely dangerous when he has some open field to work with. And SJSU took advantage of Ervin's versatility, splitting him out wide to get him in space on screens and short passing plays. He has also demonstrated elite burst when hitting his gaps, which helps make up for his lack of strength at the line due to his lighter frame. His natural plant-and-explode run style is, as many have noted, fun to watch on tape. He has enough elusiveness to shed arm tackles and although he's not the strongest back, he always finishes his runs with tenacity, especially in crowds. Simply put, Ervin possesses many traits that fantasy owners are looking for when drafting for upside in later rounds.
» Slight frame leads to lack of power between tackles
» Could be limited to change-of-pace role
» Lack of size is an issue when picking up blitzes
Because Ervin doesn't quite fit the mold of what we think of as an every-down back who can punish defenders in a ground-and-pound system, he could be limited to more of a change-of-pace role in a committee backfield. But there are guys who have made a career out of that kind of role and have been extremely valuable in fantasy (the aforementioned Sproles, Danny Woodhead). His slighter frame also presents a problem when pass-blocking and protecting the quarterback from a blitzing linebacker. Some pundits have even said that Ervin may be a better fit on an NFL squad as a slot receiver, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for his overall football value. But for our own selfish fantasy reasons, we'd rather see him remain a running back.
Ideal fantasy fits
Right now in San Francisco, there isn't a clear leader for the change-of-pace role behind Carlos Hyde (Reggie Bush is 31 and a free agent). And if we know one thing about how Chip Kelly rolls with running backs, it's that he likes to rotate a handful of them in and out. Ervin would be a perfect fit for Kelly's system and presents a potentially dangerous one-two punch option with Hyde. The same goes for Oakland's backfield; behind Latavius Murray, there's no real front-runner for a change-of-pace role. Since the Raiders aren't prioritizing running backs in the draft, Ervin's mid-to-late round projection could work for the team's needs. In Seattle, Thomas Rawls projects as the feature back but is coming off a broken ankle. Ervin could excel as a pass-catching back in Seattle if he's able to find space during Russell Wilson's extended scrambles. As for New England (which is basically a death sentence for a running back's fantasy value) Ervin could fit there in a specialized role that we're used to seeing Bill Belichick utilize on a game-by-game basis.
Early fantasy draft projection
Ervin possesses traits that fantasy owners should be seeking when drafting for upside in later rounds: Top-tier measurables (second among running backs in 40-yard dash, broad jump and vertical leap), extreme versatility and an acute awareness of what kind of work he'll need to put in to solidify a significant role. It's also worth noting that in my evaluation of another running back prospect from a few weeks back, I cited a study that Kevin Cole of Pro Football Focus ran that predicted fantasy success rates among incoming running backs based on their combine results. Interestingly, despite Ervin's lighter build, he ranked fourth on the list, albeit atop an entire tier lower than the top three finishers (Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, C.J. Prosise). So while Ervin does present late-round upside, don't get carried away here. Late rounds of fantasy drafts can be hit or miss, and thats exactly what Ervin projects as for his rookie season.