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My Case Against Mike Davis (... and maybe others)

By Matt Schauf 8:07pm EDT 7/22/21


I don’t want Mike Davis.

I’ve mentioned that plenty on Twitter. I argued with Jared about it on our NFC South preview podcast. I most recently laid out my case on the Draft Sharks Discord. I even talked about it with Pat Fitzmaurice on his podcast back in May.

So maybe this article is overkill on a guy with a 5th-round ADP. Even his worst-case scenario isn’t slaughtering rosters at that level.

But I think it’s worthwhile because I’m against the concept of 2021 Mike Davis much more than I am the player. And I believe the case against him can apply to other players and situations.

First, let’s take a quick look at the case for him:

-- The 2021 Falcons return none of their top 3 rushers from last year.
-- Arthur Smith arrives after coordinating a successful Tennessee offense the past 2 seasons.
-- Davis produced well in relief of the injured Christian McCaffrey.
-- Davis’ 412 career carries easily leads all current Atlanta backs. Cordarrelle Patterson (167) ranks 2nd.

(You can check out the free view of Kevin’s Mike Davis profile for more details.)

So we have a guy who finished 12th among PPR backs last season and 4th at the position in receptions. Now he’s finally getting a chance to lead a backfield. And this opportunity comes under the coach that piloted the Titans to #4 finishes in yards per play each of the past 2 years.

What’s the problem here?

Well, I’m not about to build a statistical case against Davis. Frankly, if Arthur Smith would just say something like, “We’re confident in Mike Davis as our top back,” then I’d probably stop talking about Davis altogether. (Though that would probably push him into Round 3.)

But we haven’t gotten that yet. At least not that I’ve seen. So let’s get into what seems to be driving the Davis love.


Overconfidence Effect

I’ve been reading “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli lately. I’m only a bit more than halfway through -- I should make more time for reading -- but I can already strongly recommend it. The book calls itself a guide to “cognitive biases” -- some of which have made their way into fantasy discussion at this point.

I’ll be referring to 3 of them here, starting with the overconfidence effect.

“We systematically overestimate our knowledge and our ability to predict -- on a massive scale,” Dobelli writes. “The overconfidence effect does not deal with whether single estimates are correct or not. Rather, it measures the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.” (Emphasis his.)

He adds: “What’s surprising is this: Experts suffer even more from the overconfidence effect than laypeople do.”

This is less surprising if you spend time consuming fantasy content -- or any sports content, really. Hot takes sell. Strong, loud opinions tend to draw audiences -- regardless of how accurate they prove to be.

We (fantasy content creators) are supposed to build opinions on players, take stances and make recommendations. We all know we’ll get plenty of them wrong. (And if you find anyone who doesn’t concede that, don’t bother listening to the advice.) But knowing that doesn’t keep us from succumbing to blind spots.

So what does this have to do with Mike Davis? Well, the market is making a lot of assumptions in drafting him where he goes.

He’s the clear top candidate to lead that backfield right now.

Is he? You could certainly look at Atlanta’s offseason moves and believe that it points to them trusting Davis. The Falcons (in order):

-- let Todd Gurley and Brian Hill walk in free agency
-- signed Davis
-- signed Cordarrelle Patterson
-- waived Ito Smith (same day, actually)
-- traded away the pick that Denver spent on Javonte Williams
-- passed on all other RBs in the NFL Draft

Maybe that does signal confidence in Davis. Or maybe it means the new staff is intrigued by Qadree Ollison, the top holdover. After all, Atlanta signed Davis for the same amount the Giants paid Devontae Booker, less than Detroit paid Jamaal Williams and just $1 million more (total) than Jacksonville gave Carlos Hyde. Patterson’s 1-year contract carries a higher annual average than Davis’ 2-year deal.

Maybe the sum of the moves signals that the Falcons believe the new collective is good enough to hold up as a committee this season. Smith has already told us that’s his plan. Fantasy drafters, however, are sure it’ll be Davis and then everyone else. And the market has only become more sure.

When I wrote that linked Shark Bite above back in May (where I called him the “clear leader” -- oops -- and a “solid target” in best ball), Davis was going late in Round 8 as the 34th RB off the board in BestBall10s drafting. His ADP there is up to the end of Round 5 for July drafting. And that RB27 slot finds him lower than on other sites.

Davis is going:

-- in the middle of Round 5 on Underdog
-- in the 1st half of Round 5 (RB22) on DraftKings
-- at the end of Round 4 (RB22) in FFPC best-ball drafts.

The other Atlanta RBs sit 64th (Javian Hawkins), 74th (Ollison) and 77th (Patterson) in positional ADP for FFPC drafting.

When you consider those 3 names, of course, it’s not difficult to understand why drafters would gravitate toward Davis. And we’ll get to what makes him attractive next. But what if each of Atlanta’s backfield decisions this offseason has just been about following value?

Maybe they passed on Javonte Williams because they simply found the trade offer more valuable than an early 2nd-round RB. (RBs don’t matter, right?) They moved down just 5 spots and drafted a safety (Richie Grant) that might start this year.

And maybe their board just never lined up with any of the other RBs. It certainly didn’t look like a strong draft at the position.

And perhaps they’re waiting for training camp and preseason to sort out a backfield that features a committee of low-cost options -- with the contingency plan of working the trade/cuts market for further help.

Just the past 2 seasons have found the Buccaneers picking up Leonard Fournette, the Texans trading for Duke Johnson, Detroit signing Adrian Peterson and 2 teams adding LeSean McCoy, all after the start of camp. We’ve also seen significant in-season acquisitions such as Kenyan Drake and Le’Veon Bell.

Still, even though Arthur Smith hasn’t publicly anointed Davis the leader -- at least that I’ve seen -- we’re all very sure that will be the case.


Recency Bias

Why are we so sure it’ll be Davis? Well, because of the fantasy finish I mentioned earlier. He checked in 12th in total PPR points last season, despite ceding 3 games to Christian McCaffrey. Davis saw the 5th most RB targets in the league, despite playing in an offense that ranked just 22nd in pass attempts and sharing the field with 3 top-25 PPR wideouts.

We could quibble over just how well he actually played, but that’s beside the point here. Let’s just roll with the notion that Davis was a good fantasy back last season.

So, what about the rest of his career?

You’re probably familiar with recency bias at this point. And even if you’re not, it’s pretty self-explanatory. In short: It’s a matter of weighing more recent events over what came before.

In this case, drafters are looking at 2020 Mike Davis and willfully (or unwittingly?) ignoring the rest of his career.

Davis is a former 4th-round pick who played for 3 other teams over 4 seasons before landing with the Panthers late in 2019. Last season accounts for 40% of his career rushing attempts and 44.9% of his career targets. Including 2020, Davis is averaging 3.7 yards per rush and 6.4 yards per catch for his career.

Qadree Ollison, meanwhile, has carried just 23 times and seen 2 targets through 2 NFL seasons. Javian Hawkins just went undrafted.

Let’s try something, though. Remove the names from these 3 candidates and try to determine which profile seems most likely to lead the 2021 Falcons in carries:

-- 28-year-old, 7th-year player joining 5th team
-- 24-year-old former 5th-round pick in his 3rd year with the team
-- undrafted rookie with 111.8 yards per game and 5.9 per rush for his college career

Does any of those profiles really stand clearly ahead of the rest? At the least, wouldn’t you have to say you’re not certain who’d be the carry leader -- or if there is a true leader present?

Davis isn’t the only recency bias at play here.

Part of the allure is the Arthur Smith offense. In addition to the #4 finishes in yards per play each of the past 2 years, Tennessee ranked 6th and 4th in Football Outsiders’ overall offensive DVOA and 10th and 4th in the league in scoring.

Those performances got Smith the Atlanta job, and you can find film breakdowns that signal strong play-calling. But we’re also about to get the 1st year of Smith with no Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown or Ryan Tannehill. He inherits an offense that ranked just 21st in DVOA last season, with an O-line that checked in 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.

Perhaps this is a situation that we just want to avoid, especially if the top back is a 28-year-old journeyman.


Social Proof

According to Dobelli: “Social proof … dictates that individuals feel they are behaving correctly when they act the same as other people. In other words, the more people who follow a certain idea, the better (truer) we deem the idea to be. And the more people who display a certain behavior, the more appropriate this behavior is judged by others. This is, of course, absurd.”

ADP is social proof. It’s the marketplace for player draft values. And overall, drafters have gotten sharper. But we still get things wrong. And when you see any player climbing the ADP ranks significantly … you should at least stop to think about what’s going on.

I recommend checking out JJ Zachariason’s “Breakout Running Backs” episode of his The Late-Round Podcast from July 12. Among the interesting findings he shared in that episode was this: We’ve seen more “breakout” RB performances come from the 1st player drafted from ambiguous backfields when both he and a backfield mate are going in the middle rounds. The middle-round backfield “leader” hasn’t fared nearly so well when his nearest RB teammate is going in the late rounds.

You can check out the 16-minute show for more details. For me, it was another signal that ADP is way too sure of Mike Davis.

His move up the ADP board over the past 4 months sure looks like a textbook example of social proof. We’ve gotten no further public commitment from Davis’ new coaches to make his situation seem more favorable. We have only drafters collectively deciding the player should keep going earlier.

Think back to any players who shoot up ADP boards throughout drafting season, and how well such guys tend to work out for late drafters. Round 1 Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a glaring example from last year.

And if you’d rather dismiss the “breakout” data, reasoning that you’re not chasing a “breakout” season from Davis … well, then why bother with a guy who lacks that kind of upside?


Conclusion

Let’s consider the potential workload paths for Davis this season …

  1. He dominates Atlanta’s backfield work and finishes top 15 among PPR backs.
  2. He acts as the committee chief, leading in carries and targets but by smaller margins.
  3. He leads in carries but not targets.
  4. He leads in targets but not carries.
  5. He winds up in a true committee, with unpredictable weekly touch distribution.
  6. Someone else on the roster beats Davis out to head the committee.
  7. Atlanta acquires another RB who takes a big chunk of the work.
  8. Atlanta gets a new RB who heads the committee.
  9. Davis gets hurt.

Davis probably has to hit 1 or 2 on this list to be worth his Round 5 ADP. Whether you are drafting him depends on how confident you are in either of those scenarios. And that list doesn’t even include permutations for this Falcons offense going run-heavy, pass-heavy or league average; efficient, inefficient or average on the ground; high or low scoring. You get it. There are a lot of possibilities here.

Of course, Davis also sits in a somewhat nebulous range of RB ADP. Travis Etienne comes next on the FFPC board at RB, then Javonte Williams. We don’t know what this season will look like for any of the 3. We can’t be sure that Myles Gaskin (behind Williams) will reprise his 2020 role under a new OC. We do know that Kareem Hunt -- the only other RB inside Round 5 in ADP -- faces role limitations.

But not knowing what to expect from any of these players doesn’t increase the strength of Davis’ profile. A reason to not draft another RB near Davis does not equal a reason to draft Davis.

If the RBs make you queasy in this range -- and they probably should -- then skip them all. Instead, take a WR, a TE or even a QB -- especially if we’re talking about drafting a single team rather than volume-drafting on a best-ball site.

Beyond the Mike Davis conundrum, be mindful of overconfidence when projecting other ambiguous backfields. Or assuming continued momentum for a player who finished last season strong. Or staying away from a guy who struggled last December.

None of us knows as much as we think we do about this high-variance game. Guarding against that where possible will make your drafting stronger.

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