When the New York Giants selected Penn State’s Saquon Barkley second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, we got a chance to witness a referendum of sorts. The value of running backs in the NFL has been in question for quite a while, but if any back was worth a top-two pick in this day and age, it was the explosive, diversely skilled, NFL Combine-killing Barkley.
Even with known efficiency issues continuing, as predicted, at the next level, Barkley did everything he could to justify the pick. He received 382 intended touches (261 rushes, 121 pass targets) and generated 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns from them. He made the Pro Bowl and led the league in all-purpose yards (which, in this era, should probably be the go-to metric for running backs).
Better still, the Giants’ offense improved while he took on this load. They went from 15.4 points per game (31st in the NFL) to 23.1 (16th) and from 23rd in Offensive DVOA to 13th. Considering the work-in-progress line in front of him and the fact that Eli Manning was still the Giants’ quarterback, that’s awfully impressive, though obviously having Odell Beckham for 12 games in 2018, as opposed to four in 2017, also helped with that improvement.
Barkley’s inefficiency was an issue, however, and it was one you could predict from his all-or-nothing college stats. His personal rushing DVOA was just 2.9 percent because of this, 19th in the league. Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted free agent for the Broncos, ranked sixth at 17.0 percent.
Lindsay was a revelation. Acquired from nearby Colorado, he received 239 touches (192 rushes and 47 targets), gained 1,278 yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. He averaged 5.3 yards per intended touch, exactly the same as Barkley.
Second-round pick Nick Chubb averaged 5.2 yards per intended touch for the Browns. Undrafted Gus Edwards averaged 5.3 for the Ravens. Second-rounder Kerryon Johnson averaged 5.4 for the Lions, and fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels averaged 5.4 for the Steelers.
Rookie backs had a great year in 2018. And there was very little correlation between where a guy was drafted (if he was drafted at all) and how he produced.
You could find value from Round 1 to Round 7 and beyond. Spoiler: 2019 isn’t going to be any different. In fact, when you compare college production to projected draft status, you find maybe an even wider array of potential value.
Below we’ll walk through all sorts of stats, NFL Combine measurements, and even an elementary grading rubric. But let’s review the basics of most of my draft analysis:
- Your college stat line is typically your pro ceiling. Stats can’t necessarily tell you everything a player can do, but they tell you what he probably can’t.
- Efficiency is infinitely more projectable than explosiveness. This is true if you’re trying to project a team’s future midway through a given season, and it’s true of draft prospects.
- As far as running backs go, value isn’t derived specifically from running the ball. While I don’t have a very good way of measuring pass-blocking effectiveness, I do think it’s worth it to figure out what we can learn from receiving efficiency.
Most backs don’t come anywhere close to their college efficiency levels when they’re starting out in the pros. Here’s a chart I used to illustrate this last year:
A couple of rookies approached their college ceiling in 2018.
In four years at Colorado, Lindsay generated a 44.2 percent rushing success rate. He matched that almost to the decimal in his rookie season. He hit a wall late in the year, and we’ll find out if that was due to opponents making adjustments or to him simply running out of gas in the first 16-game season of his career. I would be surprised if he topped 44 percent moving forward — few do — but he proved his worth very quickly.
Sony Michel tried as well. His 43.9 percent rookie success rate was close to his 45.7 percent in college. Still, most go through an adjustment period. Barkley’s success rate was 44.3 percent in college and 32.6 percent last year, Chubb’s was 46.0 in college and 40.8 last year, etc.
So what can certain college efficiency stats tell us about each RB prospect’s efficiency potential? See below.
Efficiency is why Josh Jacobs’ draft stock appears off the charts at the moment. It also offers a massive red flag for those fancying David Montgomery. Let’s talk about some of this year’s most interesting backs.
Case Study No. 1: David Montgomery vs. how much blame you can place on an OL
Montgomery broke Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics over the last couple of seasons. From before the 2018 season:
His overall PFF grade last season was 92.1, the third-best figure in the nation, and that grade wasn’t as impressive as his sheer tackle-breaking prowess, which wowed on a weekly basis. Last season, he broke 10 tackles on the ground and six more on receptions in the first week of the season, and ended the year with 109 total broken tackles. That’s the highest figure we have seen over a single-season in either college or the NFL over the course of PFF’s grading.
David Montgomery forced 100 missed tackles rushing this season, almost double the next closest competitor in the Big 12. pic.twitter.com/AiSwrnqcHv— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 17, 2019
From last month:
Montgomery looks the part. He doesn’t get brought down by one tackler (one college tackler, anyway), he moves well in tight spaces, and for what it’s worth, his efficiency numbers improved considerably from 2017 (37.6 percent success rate) to 2018 (44 percent), too. He wasn’t working with what you might call a blue-chip offensive line in college, but he still carved out some gains for himself.
PFF grades are pretty well-correlated to future success, and he might live up to the grade-based hype. But mercy, were his career stats bad. Really, really bad. Nearly the worst among all draft prospects, and unlike a Bryce Love, he never really showed much explosiveness to offset the inefficiency.
I get that he had to work harder for his yards than backs from blue-blood schools, but there is a massive difference between his career success rate (41.3 percent) and that of other top prospects like Josh Jacobs (56.6 percent) or Rodney Anderson (51.5). Plus, plenty of other prospects have dealt with iffy lines through the years (Lindsay, to name one) but produced success rates far better. As good as Montgomery is at breaking tackles, should he maybe be better at avoiding tacklers altogether?
Case Study No. 2: Darwin Thompson, and explosiveness vs. explosiveness potential
In last year’s running backs piece, I noted that there was almost no correlation whatsoever between college and pro explosiveness.
The correlation between your marginal explosiveness in college and in the pros is almost nonexistent. And to the point that it does exist, it’s negative.
Correlation between marginal explosiveness in college career and in first pro season: -0.11
Correlation between marginal explosiveness in college career and in first four pro seasons: 0.03
Here’s where combine numbers can play an interesting role, however. One’s vertical jump, bench reps, and broad jump all had decent correlations with NFL explosiveness.
Combining these data points, we get a conflicted look at who might have true big-play ability at the pro level.
To measure college explosiveness this time around, I‘m using a measure I call highlight yards per opportunity. Highlight yards are the yards credited to the back after the line has done its job.
Highlight Yards = Yards - Line Yards
(The definition for line yards can be found here.) Anyway, the general idea is, when a running back finds open space, how much does he take advantage of it. There’s a little more of a college-to-pro correlation than there was for marginal explosiveness, so we’ll go with it.
- Players who did well in both rushing explosiveness and explosiveness-friendly combine measures: Utah State’s Darwin Thompson, Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson, Appalachian State’s Jalin Moore, Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Penn State’s Miles Sanders.
- Players who failed both tests, so to speak: Montgomery, Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr., Michigan State’s LJ Scott.
- Mixed bags: basically everybody else
Actually, let’s talk about Darwin Thompson for a second. A three-star transfer from NE Oklahoma A&M, the Jenks, Oklahoma, product was un-damn-believable for Utah State last season.
- He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in barely 150 carries. He rushed more than 20 times per game just once but had seven games with 90-plus yards all the same. His 50.3 percent success rate was fifth among the prospects we’re tracking here.
- His explosiveness was better than that of everyone but the two most explosive college backs in this batch (Memphis’ Darrell Henderson and Stanford’s Bryce Love), too.
- Below, we’ll see that his receiving numbers were also among the class’s best, too. After a slow start (9 yards per catch through seven games), he caught 11 balls for 243 yards and two scores over the second half of the season.
He basically aces all three on-field tests here, and he also posted a 40-inch pro-day vertical. Using numbers alone, he might be the most valuable back here.
He’s also small (5’8, 200 pounds) and has played only one season beyond the JUCO level. He’s a Rudi Johnson All-Star, in other words, but Johnson — a one-year college-via-JUCO wonder who went on to rush for nearly 6,000 yards over eight pro seasons — at least played for Auburn. Utah State was dynamite last season, nearly the best mid-major team in the country per S&P+, but the Mountain West isn’t going to get the same benefit of the doubt as the SEC.
Thompson got almost no attention and appears to rank in the teens in most publications’ RB prospect lists. It only takes one team to fancy you, though I’m wondering which team will unearth this potential gem. His red flags are obvious, but he couldn’t have possibly proven more in his lone FBS season than he did. He’s the most fascinating name here for me, especially because of his potential back-of-the-draft value.
Case Study No. 3. Josh Jacobs, and value in and out of the backfield
(What’s “tgt_pct”? It’s the percentage of a back’s total intended touches — rushes plus pass targets — made up by targets. So only four percent of Elijah Holyfield’s intended touches were passes, for instance, while 55 percent of Tony Pollard’s were.)
Back in December, I wrote a piece about how the best way to evaluate running backs at this point might be to combine their rushes and pass targets into a number I called intended touches. This more properly illustrated the value of players like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara than simple rushes and rushing yards did. It also serves as a reminder that your ability to do damage in the passing game is pretty damn important.
A handful of college backs stood out in this regard. Thompson was among them, certainly, but at the top of the list were two of the more well-known pro prospects: Rodney Anderson and Josh Jacobs.
We’ll come back to Anderson, but Jacobs, seen by many as the top back in the draft, was proving his value as a receiver even before he got an extended shot in the backfield.
Midway through his junior season, Jacobs had carried more than 10 times in a game just three times, all during blowout wins during his freshman season. He looked great, but the Alabama backfield is forever crowded, and he was used mostly as a third-down back, catching 28 passes for 324 yards in his first two seasons.
He inched toward feature-back status over the back half of his junior year, rushing nearly 10 times per game and averaging 5.7 yards per carry. All the while, he kept flaring out of the backfield. He caught four balls for 53 yards in the 2018 Iron Bowl, then caught four for 60 (while rushing 15 times for 98 yards) in the CFP semifinal win over Oklahoma.
His efficiency is ridiculous: a 57 percent success rate on rushes, a 58 percent success rate on pass targets. Among these prospects, he’s got no peer in that regard. Looking at all intended touches (carries plus pass targets), he’s easily at the top in terms of efficiency.
The efficiency is important because few prospects proved their explosiveness potential less than Jacobs. No one did a better job of gaining 6-10 yards, but his 5.54 highlight yards per opportunity were mediocre, and his 112-inch broad jump was downright poor. I don’t do much with 40 times, but his pro-day 40s ranged from 4.6 to 4.67. Not great.
Jacobs is smooth and reliable, and that better be enough because there might not be much in terms of a fifth gear.
Case Study No. 4: Rodney Anderson vs. bones and ligaments
Out of curiosity as much as anything, I decided to grade prospects on a 1-to-5 scale in three categories: efficiency potential, explosiveness potential, and receiving potential. My grades were based loosely on the data above. Scientific? Not even slightly. Informative? Hopefully.
Grading 2019 NFL Draft RBs
|Player||Approximate Round||Efficiency Potential||Explosiveness Potential||Receiving Potential||Total|
|Player||Approximate Round||Efficiency Potential||Explosiveness Potential||Receiving Potential||Total|
|Benny Snell, Jr.||3-4||3||1||2||6|
My love of Thompson was established above, and other potential high-round prospects like Memphis’ Darrell Henderson (explosiveness) and Alabama’s Damien Harris (overall steadiness) grade out well enough here. But only one power-conference product managed a score above 12, and it’s the one with a downright voluminous injury history.
Anderson fractured his fibula early in his true freshman season, then fractured his C5 vertebrae during fall camp in 2016. He was downright incendiary in 2017, rushing for 1,161 yards and catching 17 passes for 281 despite not earning feature-back status until October. He rushed for 201 yards in the Sooners’ epic Rose Bowl loss to Georgia.
Then, in just the second game of 2018, he tore his right ACL.
Anderson played only 17 games in college, barely more than Thompson. He was the feature back for basically nine games. He more than proved his blue-chip status when he got the chance, and technically none of his injuries were connected to each other — you can’t say he’s got chronic knee issues or anything. But one figures the injury history will bump him at least a little bit further down on draft boards. That gives him some intriguing draft value, doesn’t it?
Thompson is my favorite of the potential low-round picks, but a couple of other under-the-radar backs stand out using this elementary rubric.
- Tony Pollard was used almost equally as runner and receiver during his time in Memphis’ innovative offensive system. That gives him a chance to carve out an early third-down niche.
- Kansas State’s Alex Barnes was a load bearer in Bill Snyder’s run-heavy system, averaging 11 carries per game as a sophomore in 2017, then 21 as a junior. With a coaching change, combined with the fact that he’s already taken quite a few hits, it made sense that Barnes would declare for the draft even if he didn’t have standout stock. And when you combine his run efficiency (49 percent career success rate) with his dynamite explosion-based NFL Combine numbers (38.5-inch vertical, 34 reps on the bench, 126-inch broad jump — all above average at worst), you’ve got a guy worth giving a late pick (or a very quick UDFA) to, just in case.