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Why Derrius Guice might be the safest running back to pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

There’s a lot of hype around Saquon Barkley, but advanced stats tell us Derrius Guice might be the safest pick at the position.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Notre Dame vs Louisiana State Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest name of the 2018 NFL Draft among running backs is Saquon Barkley, and for good reason. He’s a talented back who stole the show at the NFL Combine with his freakish athleticism. But he might not be the safest pick at the position.

That’s not to say Barkley won’t be the NFL’s next dominant back. If we’re going strictly by the eye test, he’s an easy pick, and will be a good one regardless. But SB Nation’s Bill Connelly took a look at a new approach to evaluating running backs, that shows drafting a running back early may not be the best, and that Derrius Guice might actually be the safest pick at the position.

Here are the reasons why.

The value of running backs are similar, no matter the round.

This handy chart that Connelly gives us shows that running back draftees with at least 100 career carries aren’t all that different in the first round than they are through the sixth round.

RB draftees (2010-17) with at least 100 career carries:

Round RBs Total carries (first 4 years) Marginal efficiency Marginal explosiveness
Round RBs Total carries (first 4 years) Marginal efficiency Marginal explosiveness
1 12 6332 -6.4% -0.20
2 18 6953 -5.5% -0.25
3 14 4711 -6.2% -0.16
4 18 4626 -5.8% -0.30
5 13 3327 -6.1% -0.21
6 12 4288 -6.8% -0.20
7 3 580 -9.8% -0.24

Another big piece of this, is college stats can help define what a player’s pro ceiling is, because of efficiency. In their first NFL season, players don’t match it, but can come close to it, as these stats of 66 running backs from 2010-17 show:

Nine of the 66 came within three percentage points of their college efficiency levels.

So what makes Guice the safe pick?

Connelly’s stats show marginal efficiency is more important when it comes to determining pro success than marginal explosiveness. Explosiveness is pretty, but it doesn’t always breed success in the NFL.

In more detail, this is how those two factors are determined:

Marginal Efficiency: the difference between a player’s success rate* (passing, rushing, or receiving) or success rate allowed (for an individual defender) and the expected success rate of each play based on down, distance, and yard line.

Marginal Explosiveness: the difference between a player’s IsoPPP** (passing, rushing, or receiving) or IsoPPP allowed (for an individual defender) and the expected IsoPPP value of each play based on down, distance, and yard line.

For offensive players, the larger the positive value, the better.

* Success rate: a common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

** IsoPPP: the average equivalent point value of successful plays only.

Guice has the third highest efficiency according to Connelly’s stats below, with Barkley’s being near the bottom, despite great explosiveness. However, Guice was also on the top half of explosiveness.

For reference, here is a chart for how explosiveness has translated from college to the NFL, with the less-explosive players coming closer to matching it in the NFL than the more explosive college players.

Does this mean Guice is definitely going to be a better RB than Barkley?

No, but for all of the evaluations that get made on prospects, it’s a different metric to look at how we should look at players. Connelly fairly points out that Barkley’s iffy line play and playmaker instincts could have made him be less efficient at Penn State. It’s something that he improved on, but his style is still a concern.

He writes:

But his style is such that if he doesn’t have a speed advantage over the opposition, he’s going to bounce his way into a lot of two-yard losses.

In a way, his acing of the combine complicates things — his 41-inch vertical was absurd, but typically we associate a ton of bench reps with burly guys like Samaje Perine or Le’Veon Bell, neither of whom topped a 33-inch vertical.

So Barkley defies type. And his explosiveness profile probably translates to the pros. But it’s going to be at least a little bit of a concern until it isn’t.

This isn’t to say you should raise a red flag on Barkley. He’s clearly a talented player, and there’s no denying that. But for the team not trying to hit a home run with Barkley, Guice is easily the next best option.