Chris Evans, Nico Collins and The Michigan Prospect Conundrum

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Michigan University has recruited some of the highest-rated prospects in the nation since John Harbaugh took over in 2015. That said, the fact that few have made it at the NFL level is a conundrum. Keep in mind that Harbaugh, starting in 2015, wouldn’t have his own recruiting classes become draft-eligible until about 2018. Donovan Peoples-Jones, the first relevant skill position player drafted to the NFL in Harbaugh’s tenure, lacked college production, but had other metrics that were promising. Nico Collins and Chris Evans are the next Harbaugh recruits at fantasy football positions that lack production but can still be productive NFL prospects. Can they also be underrated fantasy assets due to the Michigan system? Can they be large returns on investments late in rookie drafts?

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Chris Evans’ Upside

Chris Evans is polarizing because he has shown everything fantasy players look for in a late-round rookie pick. The traits are there to be a productive NFL running back and he has shown bits and pieces of being a workhorse, but has never put it all together. He kicked off his career as a freshman in 2016 by averaging 7.0 yards per carry on 88 carries in the Big Ten. The next season, his impressive yards per carry dramatically fell to 5.1, but his reception total jumped from six to 16 and he had his breakout year. He caught 18-of-19 targets as a junior, and was the position leader in receptions for his last three college seasons. This shows off early production and some pass-catching ability, which are two important traits for NFL translation.

Size is another important trait to have to be able to handle a large workload at the next level. Evans is listed at 5-11 and 219-pounds, leading to a 30.5 (58th-percentile among qualified running backs) Body Mass Index. If he runs a 40-yard Dash in the 4.45-4.5 range like projected, he could be an upper 80th or even lower 90th-percentile Speed Score athlete. He has flashed most predictive metrics to potentially become a fantasy-relevant player in the future, but has some holes in his profile that hurt him as well.

Chris Evans’ Negatives

While getting better over time as a pass-catcher, Chris Evans got worse over time as a rusher. His 7.0 yards per carry fell to 5.1, 4.0, and 4.6 in his final three seasons. Although he has the traits, he has never been the primary back and could never earn that job under John Harbaugh.

Chris Evans College Stats

Evans was the team’s second-leading rusher as a freshman and outrushed Karan Higdon, who then went on to start over him in 2017 and 2018. To make things worse, Higdon went undrafted, meaning Evans couldn’t take the lead back role over an undrafted guy. He was set to be the starter in 2019 before being suspended for the season, and then ended up fifth in rush attempts on the team in 2020. His career path has been a roller coaster ride with a lot of question marks, but also some good.

NFL Potential

Whether or not to draft Chris Evans in rookie drafts is dependent on personal rookie draft strategy. There are fantasy gamers who prefer underrated, smaller-school upside players in the late rounds. Others simply look for any production at all. Coming from a big school and not being productive, it’s tough to take a chance on Evans when a small school player could be better. The Michigan running back is years removed from the best football he has shown. However, those looking for a player with any potential production late in rookie drafts should take a chance on him.

Evans’ profile hits many important metrics which can translate to the NFL. This suggests that if he goes in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft, he will start his career as a backup but could be a productive RB2 if he can ever become the starter on his team. He has shown the ability to effectively rush (early in his career) and catch passes, but he has never put it all together at the same time. If he can do it at the next level, he’ll become a quality fantasy asset.

Nico Collins

Before investigating Nico Collins’s NFL potential, let’s first compare him to his former teammate Donovan Peoples-Jones. Collins was more productive as a sophomore on fewer receptions, and heavily outplayed Peoples-Jones when they were both juniors. However, Peoples-Jones has the edge for freshman-year production. He also has the advantage of being a 99th-percentile Burst Score athlete and being a force on special teams as a punt returner, where Collins has no special teams plays. He also came out early while Collins went back for his senior season, even though he opted out this year. Like Evans, he was underutilized, but after flashing at the Senior Bowl, Collins has the size and playmaking ability to be a true alpha WR at the next level.

Collins is the next Michigan wide receiver in line for an NFL job. His production is on par with Peoples-Jones, who has now proven he can be a future fantasy asset. Having the better sophomore season and almost 300 more yards as a junior on only five more targets helps Collins’ case even more. Both players competing for targets helps each other as prospects, too. The 6-4, 215-pound Collins has the size to be a starting outside receiver in the pros. In addition, this size means he is likely to have an upper-percentile Speed Score if his 40-yard Dash time is even average. He sports a 19.7 (92nd-percentile) College YPR and a 19.5 (80th-percentile) Breakout Age. If he can pair that size with great athleticism, he’ll have the most upside of any late-round rookie receiver in this class.

The Michigan Offensive Conundrum

Michigan players are beginning to go underrated in the NFL Draft due to their poor offenses. According to Sports-Reference, Michigan’s offense has been nationally ranked as follows in points per game scored from 2017 to 2020:

  • -No. 91
  • -No. 21
  • -No. 44
  • -No. 66

In offensive yards per game they ranked:

  • -No. 105
  • -No. 50
  • -No. 68
  • -No. 79

Using data from teamrankings.com tells us that Michigan might be crippling its offensive skill players under Jim Harbaugh. Shea Patterson ranked No. 35 and No. 41 in the nation in Yards per Attempt in 2018-2019. He ranked No. 21 in College QBR at Ole Miss in 2017, which isn’t too low, but put into context, it should have been higher when factoring in his receivers. From 2018-2019 at Michigan, his College QBR ranked No. 26 and No. 60. Using PlayerProfiler metrics, his College YPA was a 47th-percentile mark, while his College QBR landed in the  58th-percentile. He posted these numbers despite playing with A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson, DaMarkus Lodge, Dawson Knox, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Nico Collins.

The two Michigan receivers never received over 50 targets in a season and Collins never received even 40 looks. In both seasons under Patterson, the team was outside the top 60 in plays run per game, which connects Chris Evans and all skill position players to this. Michigan cripples their recruited talent by not feeding them the ball and playing a defensive style of football, refusing to open up the offense. The offensive problems may be an indicator that Peoples-Jones, Collins, Evans and future Michigan prospects might be better in the NFL. When factoring in the poor offense, Collins and Evans come away as two prospects with great size who project to have high Speed Scores and could be better than their production might indicate.

Conclusion

Using stats, data, metrics, and staples of PlayerProfiler analysis leads us to believe that Nico Collins and Chris Evans could be rookie draft sleepers in 2021. Athletic testing will play a large role in this, but Evans’s 219-pound size and Collins’s 6-4 frame will likely lend to favorable Speed Scores. Both logged early-career collegiate production, but were products of bad offenses. They each possess traits that can translate to the NFL, which makes them late-round rookie draft picks that could return value. They might have to earn their way up depth charts come 2021 and beyond, but both possess metrics that can lead to fantasy football production.