Is Zac Stacy worth a high pick?

Last year, Zac Stacy was a lovable waiver-wire legend. The Vanderbilt product saw just one carry and nine total snaps through Week 4 of his rookie season. From inactive to feature duties, Stacy took on meaningful snaps and touches in Week 5 and never looked back.

From Week 5 through the end of the season, Stacy posted the eighth-most standard fantasy points among all backs, as well as the seventh-most rushing yards and fifth-most rushing touchdowns over that span. The Rams' eight-year streak of 1,000-yard rushers was snapped last season, but Stacy (973) gave it an impressive go when you consider the late start.

Stacy is being taken as the 10th running back off the board in ESPN live drafts. He is going 17.8 overall on average, with a healthy average auction stock of $36.3. Yet as the offseason develops and the Twitter banter and buzz build, it seems the marketplace isn't nearly as confident in Stacy as this ADP information suggests. I've seen Stacy slip well into the third round and even beyond in mock and expert drafts this offseason. In saying that, I suppose I've also been cold to Stacy's stock in those drafts.

The loudest doubts focus on Stacy's talent level -- calling into question if he's anything more than a downhill plodder in the Cedric Benson mold, solely dependent on volume to be a valuable fantasy asset (is that even a bad thing?).

Is Stacy a player prone to getting passed on the depth chart, especially given that the team invested in Heisman finalist Tre Mason in the draft, 85 picks ahead of where the Rams took Stacy in 2013? Or was last year's impressive sample (1,114 total yards with eight scores) enough to cement Stacy as the team's featured workhorse for 2014?

We'll do our best to try to answer these questions to gain an understanding of how we might want to price Stacy come draft day. For some insight into what kind of players Stacy and Mason are, I turned to Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN and co-host of the Football Today Podcast: "I think Mason is clearly more laterally explosive and has a better burst and long speed, but Stacy is a no-nonsense downhill runner who stays low and doesn't give defenders a lot to hit. But in the end, I see Stacy more as a volume guy that needs a lot of touches to really put up numbers."

Short and stout at just 5-foot-8, Stacy has combine measurables that compare favorably to those of Doug Martin (closest match), DeAngelo Williams, Shane Vereen and Travis Henry (a former Jeff Fisher feature back). There's not a ton of "wiggle" to Stacy's game, as talent evaluators tend to say, as he ranked just 24th among qualifying backs (at least 50 percent of team's carries) in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating metric. Stacy forced a missed tackle on 11.6 percent of his carries, a respectable but middle-of-the-pack rate (top backs approach the 20 percent threshold).

Where Stacy really shines is in his ability to churn yards past contact. As Williamson noted, this skill is tied closely to Stacy's low base and consistent leverage. He was eighth among qualifying backs in yards after contact per attempt according to Pro Football Focus, with a healthy 2.45 Yco/Att clip (just ahead of backs such as LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte). There is also something of note when Stacy hits the second level, as he ranked 17th in breakaway percentage for Pro Football Focus, with 24.9 percent of his yardage coming on 10 rushes of 15 yards or more.

For specific and timely insights into this offense and backfield, I turned to ESPN's Rams beat writer Nick Wagoner for several key answers.

Should the presence of Mason be reason for concern in terms of Stacy's workload?

Nick Wagoner: Not to sit on the fence, but the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Mason is simply more talented, is faster and was a more costly draft expenditure. But the answer for now is no in the sense that Mason is more of a long-term threat to Stacy than he is in the immediate future. Mason looks good in practice, but Stacy does too. Stacy is noticeably quicker, has leaned out a little bit and has clearly made the details -- catching passes, picking up blitzes -- his primary focus for improvement. Mason has a long way to go in some of those areas, particularly as a pass-blocker. Mason should find his way into some carries, but he also needs to hold off Benny Cunningham, whom the Rams like a lot more than people realize and is another year removed from a serious leg injury.

I'll add this caveat too: Stacy had a tendency to get little bumps and bruises. It's never anything that keeps him out of games, but he would miss a quarter here or a half there. If that happens this year and Mason comes in and lights it up, we could be talking about a changing of the guard in a Wally Pipp type of deal.

What's your early projection for the split we might see in the backfield workload?

NW: I still think Stacy is the main guy. I'd guess he's good for 17 to 20 carries a game with three or four catches. I think the Rams would like something in the range of a poor man's Frank Gore, where he picks up all the tough yards and handles a heavy workload (the Gore of old, anyway) while providing a steady hand for the offense.

From there, I think Mason will eventually be an 8-10 guy with Cunningham and Isaiah Pead getting some work as well. They haven't given up on Pead even though the rest of us have. It looks like he could be used on third down to catch passes and pick up blitzes.

Do you get the impression Stacy is the unquestioned workhorse at this stage?

NW: There are mixed signals. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer insisted in the spring that he wanted competition for the job, but I've seen nothing in this camp to indicate that Stacy isn't the guy. I think they like him and, more important, I think they trust him.

To piggyback on Wagoner's information, coach Jeff Fisher told reporters earlier this offseason that Stacy would "probably be that 70 percent of the carries guy." Fisher's coaching history (going back to 2001 in the chart below) suggests the inclusion of a "70 percent" lead back is steady save for a few seasons split by injuries among his backfields.

Backfield Leaders On Jeff Fisher's Teams Since 2001

I thought it was more appropriate to display Fisher's backfield trends versus Schottenheimer's as a coordinator, especially since their two seasons together mirror Fisher's overall tendencies. The lead back on these Fisher teams over these 12 seasons has averaged 316.6 touches per season. Given a volume of work on the ground and meaningful duties in the passing game, backs like White, Henry, Brown and now Stacy have all turned in top-20 fantasy seasons under Fisher, several of them doing so in incomplete seasons.

I went into this with an unabashed pro-Mason bend but sought more information and clarity past simply liking Mason's playmaking ability from college. It's become clear to me that Stacy is Fisher's lead horse, his "70 percent" guy. You would be wise to get Mason as insurance, but I do buy that this is Stacy's gig for 2014.

It's also become clear to me that while Stacy is not a special player per se, it's indeed true that he doesn't have to be to successfully fulfill his duties for his real and fantasy teams alike. There is indeed a point when it's worthy to take a 300-touch back, and it's not too far past Stacy's current ADP for me, firmly in the third round as a trustworthy RB2.