Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire
As I write my first piece here for QB List, I have set the goal to pass on my never-ending fantasy wisdom to anyone who is smart enough to listen. That wisdom allowed me to fall in love with Michael Thomas two years ago, but has also found me drafting useless Devante Parker over and over again. Point is, we all fail, and fantasy football is extremely unpredictable. But I believe we can learn more from those stupid draft picks and waiver wire mishaps than we can from my random identification of a second round receiver.
Enter another Saint, Alvin Kamara. For whatever reason last year (mostly looking at highlight tapes) me and my co-owner in a dynasty league identified before the NFL draft that Kamara might be an interesting option. Practical geniuses we are! Then the draft happened and suddenly Kamara was potentially facing one of the worst roles for any rookie running back, buried behind two established studs Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. So, we moved on and never looked back. Had I been paying more attention to that backfield I probably would have ended up with him on my team, landing one of the best steals of the 2017 season. But this article is not about Alvin Kamara, it is about another buried running back, the Falcons Ito Smith.
Before anyone gets excited I am not comparing talent levels between these two, rather I am comparing the situations they are in. Ito is absolutely BURIED right now behind the most dynamic and fantasy relevant duo in the league, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Not a pretty sight when you are trying to get on the field. But as with Kamara or literally any other player in football, it only takes one injury or suspension to suddenly be thrust into real valuable playing time. While everyone is ignoring him in the draft this year (as should you) here are some reasons to keep an eye on this rookie even with his murky path to playing time.
Research has actually shown that one the most valuable things a running back can do on the field is block well. And if the Falcons are smart they will realize that Ito was one of the best pass blocking running backs in this year’s class. Pro Football Focus puts his pass blocking efficiency at 96% which is top 15 for all FBS running backs. For a lot of rookies, even the most talented ones, pass blocking is often what keeps them off the field and can be a huge obstacle to playing time early in their careers. Hopefully, this will give the Falcons at least some trust in their rookie, which could potentially have him seeing the field more than people expect. If he can see any consistent playing time early in the year, he would be more likely to get significant touches when either Coleman or Freeman miss time.
One of the first places I look when trying to measure performance on the field is Pro Football Focus. They grade every play, for nearly every player in the FBS. This composite, non-biased recording of every play creates an overall grade for each player that often correlates very well from college to the NFL. Put more simply, the pro-football focus grade can often predict next level performance more than any other single stat. No stat is perfect, and players often develop and change in ways that stats can never capture. Nonetheless, it is a great start and Ito’s grade comes in at a solid 85 for his senior year at Southern Miss. Context is important for any stat, some other running backs from last year’s grades are as follows, Saquon Barkley 89 and Nick Chubb 87. Considering Ito played at a smaller school, in a smaller conference, it is clear he is a tick below some of these more elite running back prospects, and his draft position justifies this difference. At the very least Ito did perform at a high level in college which can often lead to success in the NFL.
His production is not limited to an obscure one number grade either. It also shows up in his traditional stats as well. Ito was the bell cow for his entire four year career. In 820 rushing attempts he accumulated 4,500 yards (5.5 ypc) and 42 touchdowns, to go along with 140 rec for 1,400 yards and an additional 10 receiving touchdowns. However you slice it he was productive and was extremely durable throughout his career. He averaged about 40 receptions per year in college, but there is definitely some room for improvement as his Pro-Football Focus receiving grade has declined in each of the last three years from 82 as a sophomore, down to 56 last year as a senior. This is slightly concerning, but posting the solid grade back in 2016 shows there is at least potential for Ito to factor in the passing game, albeit with some improvement on his current skill set.
In the running game, Many scouting reports mention Ito Smith’s small frame (5’9” 195lbs) and then extrapolate that too, “he is weak through contact”. Contrary to that, on the field last year, he was one of the hardest players to tackle in college football! More importantly he was one of the harder players to tackle after contact. He was not tackled on the first attempt nearly 40% of the time. In comparison, here are some of the best running backs from last year, Saquon Barkley 33%, Nick Chubb 35%, and Derrius Guice 37%. That is extremely impressive and is being looked over by many evaluators. Playing through contact is one of the most important things a running back can do, and Ito has shown that skill before.
Let’s See the Tape!
Often times it is best to see something with your own eyes and what better way to do that than some GIFs of Ito playing against Florida State last year.
One thing you can notice immediately is that Ito is clearly extremely athletic (as most RB’s are) and it shows even against a formidable opponent. You can spot pretty easily his elusiveness on the field as he makes quite a few defenders miss just in the first few plays.
Also you can see some solid patience and ability to read holes. Some analysts see patience as passiveness, and sometimes that can be true, but I love to see patient running backs because it shows me they are thinking and have a good feel for the game.
But what got me most excited was his ability to block. Two Florida State backs come screaming in from the left side and Ito is left all alone to stand them up. He smashes into the first player creating enough space for his QB to get a throw off on a completely broken play. This willingness to block is exactly what I identified in the stats, and hopefully can earn him some playing time on his new team.
All of this does come with one big caveat, Ito did all of this at Southern Miss, where the level of opponent is not the same as those other running backs I mentioned. It will take some time to determine whether his skill set can translate smoothly against better players. Even so, basically every single fantasy owner will be ignoring Ito completely (and they are not wrong to do so) but there are some intriguing aspects of his profile that could make him productive given the chance. His team situation is not great (because he is buried…duh) but if/when he gets on the field, the offensive line and surrounding skill players are some of the best in the league, which give him a better than average chance to produce. This is definitely an underrated aspect of many running backs. A lot of their production is dependent on the scheme and players around them, more so than many other positions. It is part of the reason why the Falcons running backs have been so good the past few years. They are clearly talented, but the situation has made them elite. Ito can benefit in the same way if he gets a shot, and that is worth getting him on the waiver wire watchlist in nearly every league. For bigger dynasty leagues, he could even be late-round flyer when the talent pool is slim.