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The 2017 Rookie Running Back Class, By the Numbers

A tour through the relevant data for 2017's solid running back class

This is, to me and to most, a very solid (if not enthralling) class. The running backs are top-heavy, but it’s an impressive top – the consensus three frontrunners all look like true top-20 NFL options. And the middle tiers offer a nice blend of workhorse resumes and accomplished pass-catchers, so I'm expecting a handful to come out of draft weekend in good shape for prominent roles. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas of their respective resumes:

How productive was he? Maybe dominant? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Backs who took an especially hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. Generally speaking, for a back expected to compete as an NFL starter, I like to see him claim at least 50-55% of his team’s rushing yardage over the course of his career. More importantly, I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year. I like seeing that rate spike over the course of that career, and if he lands north of 65% in his final year I’ll call him a workhorse. (That’s no NFL guarantee, of course, but it’s a display of an important ability.) There are exceptions to this, of course – guys like Curtis Samuel who weren’t full-time runners, or sheer size/athleticism freaks like Joe Mixon – but it’s an extremely strong indicator.

How fast is he, considering his size? The 40-yard dash is no longer the draft community’s catch-all measurement, which is nice. It’s a number with so little variance and such misleading information that it’s all but useless – unless we’re factoring in size. A 4.41 dash tells us little, but we learn a lot by first noting whether the runner weighs 175 pounds or 240. Speed score is a tidy and widely agreed-upon method of leveraging size and speed, giving us a picture of breakaway speed potential. It’s not perfect, but we can generally expect a speed score above 110 to suggest elite speed, and a score under 100 to point to a lumbering, one-gear type. Still, I wish we had more and/or better combine metrics to test agility. I love a back who can move in a phone booth, and the short shuttle and three-cone tests are great metrics to view that skill, but backs routinely opt out of those at the combine. Of my 17 tested prospects, only 4 participated in both drills, and 5 held out of both altogether. Thus, I’ll take solid satisfaction in measuring breakaway speed potential.

Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per rush, as it helps to build a profile. A 2,000-yard season is made far less impressive if the rusher in question needed 400 carries against college defenses to do it.

How involved was he in the passing game? This is a sticking point, more so for some than others, and to varying degrees. Frankly, it’s a measure that stirs up controversy and arguments every draft season. “Player X caught 50 passes in his last year of college! Marshall Faulk much?” “So what if Player Y only caught 10 balls in 3 years? That was just the scheme!” Honestly, this isn’t a measure that will definitively tell us, on its own, whether a guy is destined to be a dual threat. We have to factor in his college offense, of course, as well as his backfield competition, injuries, etc. As a result, I’m only paying attention to the extremes, the top and bottom receiving numbers in the class. And while I may boost a prospect markedly for being a studly receiver in college, I’m not necessarily damning anyone for not. Besides, there are a lot of peripheral benefits to familiarizing ourselves with a prospect’s pass-game resume. A guy who catches a boatload of college passes probably comes into the league with extended experience in pass blocking and option routes, which can get him onto the NFL field faster. Conversely, a guy who was rarely thrown to in school might face a steeper learning curve once he’s a pro, keeping him “redshirted” longer.

Was he utilized in the return game? Versatility is great, of course, but it goes further than that. Heavily-used college returners often possess strong pure speed (kickoffs) and/or agility (punts), and we’ve seen numerous recent examples of running backs and receiver who simply play faster than they’re timed. College coaches tend to notice that, so if a player looks ho-hum in agility testing but spent years returning punts effectively in school, I’m inclined to believe he deserves at least a tiny bump in evaluation.

Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2017 class of running backs:

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RkAge Player’s age during Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season

Ht Height

Wt Weight

40 40-yard dash

VJ Vertical jump

BJ Broad jump

SpSc Speed score (Weight * 200 ) / (40-time ^ 4)

CarMSYd Career market share of rushing yardage (please note that, here, “career” means “all of his relevant seasons” – seasons in which he claimed at least 20% of his team’s yardage)

CarYPC Career yards per rush

FinMSYd Final-season market share of rushing yardage

FinYPC Final-season yards per rush

Rec/Gm Career receptions per game

KR Career kick returns


 

My thoughts on the data, and the running back tiers as I currently see them:

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

Leonard Fournette, LSU

What made McCaffrey’s dazzling career even more so is the fact that he excelled in the face of heavy attention and stacked defensive boxes. Graham Barfield broke down McCaffrey’s situational running extensively and reported near-elite marks against eight-man fronts, which he faced on a high 64% of his runs. He ran out of a complex, pro-style offense at Stanford, which bodes well for his NFL transition. And that, of course, doesn’t even touch on McCaffrey’s receiving prowess, which is in the stratosphere. After chiming in as a change-of-pace freshman, he went on to catch 82 passes over the next 2 seasons, and his overall 12.2-yard average is just stellar. He returned kicks (and punts), too, and as a result carries a floor that’s nice and high. McCaffrey isn’t as well-built as the other two backs in this tier, and his combine was solid though not world-beating. But the dynamic versatility he brings is an enormous boon to any NFL offense. He’s frequently compared to Reggie Bush, which honestly looks like a floor to me; a high-paced system could make him an annual threat for 1,800 scrimmage yards and a boatload of receptions. McCaffrey can be a featured back anywhere, but a landing spot like New Orleans or Indianapolis would make him the clear rookie 1.01 in my eyes.

Reviewing Cook’s Florida State career, I was struck semi-dumb by his production level. From 2014 to 2016, only one FBS back (Donnel Pumphrey) racked up more scrimmage yards, and no back in this class commanded a higher share of his team’s rushing yardage. While I pored over Cook’s productivity, including his per-rush efficiency and pass-game chops, three recent big-name prospects sprang to mind that wound up comparing somewhat neatly to Cook:

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That’s cherry-picked, sure, but it still drives home that Cook qualified as a high-impact workhorse, despite a sample of significantly more games than those future NFL studs. It’s not quite apples to apples, of course, and Cook’s value does diverge from Elliott’s in terms of athleticism. Elliott viciously laid waste to last year’s combine, posting an elite 112.72 speed score, while Cook left onlookers wanting with a fairly ho-hum workout. He certainly doesn’t profile as a freakish physical talent a la Elliott. That said, Cook’s combine wasn’t atrocious by any stretch. His speed score came in at 103.34, the eighth-best mark at the combine and better than those of Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. (Better than Ajayi and Gordon, too.) His jumps and short shuttle times were on the disappointing side, but again, not damning. Simply put, while he wasn’t Ronnie Brown, nothing at the combine made me question Cook as a clear-cut top-three back. His school production gives me the googly eyes, and that’s the first aspect I note if I’m looking to spend high on a cornerstone back. Cook may not boast the same visible upside that Leonard Fournette has hinted at, but at the risk of being glib, he also might. His three-down-workhorse profile is not only a safer play, but also a more shrewd PPR investment.

Remember a minute ago, when I gushed over Ezekiel Elliott’s 112.72 speed score? Yeah, Fournette buried that this March, blazing to a 116.02. A 4.51 40-yard dash goes extremely well with a 240-pound frame What concerns me a bit athletically are his empirically poor vertical jump, as well as the fact that he opted out of the broad jump and cone drills. Those aren’t death knells, but it’s perfectly fair to wonder whether his agility and short-area explosiveness would complement his open-field speed. Of course, going on his two-year production at LSU, that could all be white noise. Fournette dazzled in 2015 and made the best of an injury-riddled 2016, notching 147.2 yards per game over the whole span. I really do see and appreciate the ceiling Fournette carries, but I’m also mindful of his risk, which is markedly higher than I think GMs should shoulder in first 10 picks of the NFL draft. He’ll likely go that high, though, which bodes well for his opportunity outlook. No one, not even Cook, projects easier to a 300-carry season right off the NFL bat.

Curtis Samuel, Ohio State

He’s a tier unto himself. Samuel is hard to categorize, or even to paste to a position. There are player comparisons, and then there are twinsies, and it’s hard not to see Percy Harvin here. That’s not merely because both are fast, athletic, versatile swingmen. It’s because they’re virtually the same person:

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See? Twinsies. Randall Cobb’s name also gets thrown around, but he’s not nearly as fast as Samuel, nor was he as dynamic in school. Harvin is the clear comparison here, and it goes beyond the measurables. Both were coached – and utilized similarly – by Urban Meyer for three years. Like Harvin, Samuel is an exceptionally tough player, and is exceptionally hard to bring down in the open field. As a result, both posted per-touch production that was nothing short of electric. Samuel, as a junior, cranked out 9.57 yards each time he was given the ball, and found the end zone on every 12th touch. Let the purists wring their hands over his lack of a position; Samuel looks easily integrable into an NFL offense. He’s dynamite as a receiver, showing polish and high-pointing ability. But he looks even sexier out of the backfield. His speed score was elite, of course, and while he wasn’t quite as productive as Harvin, his 7.48 yards-per-carry was outstanding. Simply put, the downside to Samuel isn’t nearly as doom-and-gloom as is typical of this athletic profile. That makes him a true Round 1 contender, one who should provide a huge step in transforming an NFL offense. His landing spot will tale the tale of his true fantasy value, though. A high-paced offense with tons of space can make him a mega-stud, but if he’s shoehorned into learning one specific position, the learning curve will increase.

Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

We all know the narrative on Mixon: big boom or bad bust. There is clear risk in targeting him highly in rookie drafts, as we’re unsure just how much weight he carries on NFL boards. In fact, at this point in the offseason, I might even opt for Curtis Samuel instead – he’s also a blur of a man and also showed serious dynamism at a major program. There’s a non-zero chance Mixon’s plummet has actually been understated, and that he won’t see the head role of an NFL backfield anytime soon. But I’m still proceeding into draft season under the assumption Mixon is an easy first-round talent, and I’m not pausing much on the risk. It’s important to note that Mixon isn’t dealing with any looming legal issues, and he’s not at risk of any form of NFL discipline. Many fantasy owners are likely letting their thought processes bleed a bit too close to that, and as a result they’re treating him as a “who knows what we’ll get?” prospect.

But for what it’s worth: we know enough to make an educated assumption that he’ll be dynamic. He’ll be off a few teams’ draft boards, sure, and he may not enter 2017 with the same backfield mandate Leonard Fournette will. But Mixon is universally regarded as a first-round prospect, and he’ll almost certainly present a noticeable talent upgrade in any backfield that takes him between picks 20 and 60. He’s fresh off a pro day that dazzled, producing a truly brilliant 118.40 speed score. Pro day numbers can be bloated, but we at least get the sense he’s an elite athlete with speed to burn. He showed it off gaudily in school, boasting a career 6.8 yards-per-carry mark and scoring 26 times on just 365 touches. His receiving resume is air-tight, with 2.6 catches a game and 13.8 yards per catch. The real concern is his college market share; Mixon was never the head of Oklahoma’s backfield, nor close to it. He was no rotational cog, either, touching the ball 14.6 times per game and raising his share noticeably as a sophomore. All told, unless we see some indication of future suspension risk, we need to regard Mixon as the third- or fourth-best back on the board – if not higher.

D’Onta Foreman, Texas

Jeremy McNichols, Boise State

Foreman and McNichols are relatively similar prospects in terms of college production, and both seem like legitimate second-round NFL picks. Both locked down more than 75% of their offenses’ run games in 2016, and both topped 2,100 scrimmage yards in doing so. It’s difficult to order them, but NFL scheme will tell their tales, as both bring their own flair to the table. Foreman was more dynamic per rush, but McNichols gets (significant) points for catching passes – he caught 103 in 3 years, while Foreman managed just 13. Between the two, I prefer Foreman, who’s a slightly harder-to-find type of back. Frankly, his 4.58 at 233 pounds is rarer and more impressive than McNichols’ 4.49 at 214. That could easily be white noise, though, so I’m not married to one over the other. Both profile as NFL workhorses, and their landing spots could make both first-round rookie picks.

Aaron Jones, UTEP

Marlon Mack, South Florida

Joe Williams, Utah

Kareem Hunt, Toledo

It’s true that Jones is small and relatively slow, but that’s a narrow picture. He also looked insanely agile at the combine – the second-best short shuttle and the sixth-best three-cone – to go with awesome production at UTEP. He posted 2 seasons of 1,600+ scrimmage yards and likely would’ve added a third if not for injury, and he notched a studly 7.74 yards per rush last year. He put up that gaudy average while absolutely dominating his backfield, and he caught the ball at a solid clip, too.

Mack isn’t big, but he showed up at the combine a better athlete than anyone had predicted. His measurables weren’t eye-popping, but they provided a solid athletic backdrop to his solid production profile. Mack never owned South Florida’s backfield, but he registered 200+ touches in all 3 seasons and caught nearly 2 passes a game. Film scouts are gushing, too, and it’s hard to argue. He looks like a great vision/jump-cut guy, and his 272-yard, 3-touchdown showing against Temple in 2015 is a joy to watch.

Williams is a true spark plug. His speed score was on the fringes of elite-level, considering he’s stouter (5’11” and 210) than we typically see of such guys. He threw in an awesome 4.19 short shuttle time that was second-best at the combine. And his final-year production – 1,514 scrimmage yards and 73% of team carries – was nothing short of spectacular. He’d carry an easy Round 1/2 profile if not for his peripheral red flags, which are many. Williams was dismissed from UConn’s team after a theft charge, then bounced off-and-on the Utah roster as a senior amid injuries and personal matters. He’s also older (24) than you’d like a rookie to be. Still, I wouldn’t begrudge any NFL team that took a third-round shot at Williams. If that happens, fantasy drafters should take note and move him up significantly as well.

Hunt’s reputation has taken a hit since his great 2014 (1,670 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns). He lost chunks of 2015 to injury and suspension, and he wasn’t quite as remarkable a runner after. But what roared to life in 2016 was his receiving ability – Hunt caught 41 balls as a senior after never topping 12 in any season prior. He’s kind of a tweener in the key areas: less than ideal rushing shares, less than ideal combine numbers, but enough production at young ages that you have to like his odds to go in the middle rounds.

Alvin Kamara, Tennessee

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

Many are enamored of Kamara, and for a reason I certainly appreciate: he catches the ball exceptionally well. He just doesn’t bring the athleticism and production profiles I like. He jumped well at the combine (39.5), but came out ho-hum in the 40-yard dash (4.56) and the 3-cone drill (4.56). The dash time is slower than I’d like to see in a receiving specialist, and when a prospect’s 3-cone isn’t faster than his 40, I’m a bit concerned about his agility. After all, Kamara never posted great per-touch numbers in school; his value perception comes more from receiving volume than anything else. I overlook measurables often, but when I do, it’s typically because of experience and/or a striking production profile. And Kamara never commanded more than a quarter of Tennessee’s running game, even while starter Jalen Hurd underwhelmed. To me, he looks like a potential draft-day tumbler, and one I won’t be paying market price for.

Perine peaked early, with a dazzling freshman line (1,821 scrimmage yards, 21 touchdowns) that only receded each year. His production and per-carry average fall in both his sophomore and junior years, and he never developed as a pass catcher (just 40 receptions, career). It’s not directly his fault he lost raw production to Joe Mixon, but it doesn’t help the case of a slow back who declined in efficiency throughout school.

Wayne Gallman, Clemson

Brian Hill, Wyoming

Chris Carson, Oklahoma State

Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State

Here’s a group that (mostly) doesn’t pass the eye test, but carries some hidden value throughout. Workhorses with less athleticism and less fanfare tend to fall into this mid-to-late round landscape. Some of these guys plummet from the draft, but each class produces a handful of Rob Kelley types, so it’s helpful to know how they project.

Gallman deserves to be drafted, and I’m confident he will be. He never dazzled, and his combine was poor, but under normal circumstances he’d have a lot more green on that chart. Quarterback Deshaun Watson gobbled up a lot of the Clemson run game, while Gallman dominated the ball in traditional situations.

Hill looks like a thoroughly average prospect, complete with a slightly-above-average 103.10 speed score and below-par yardage rates. He also boasted the market shares of a steady if not dominant, college workhorse.

Carson doesn’t fit that workhorse profile; he never topped 36% of Oklahoma State’s run game. He also didn’t show well at the combine. But I liked his 2016 – his yards-per-rush ballooned to 6.8 as a senior, and he scored 10 times in just 9 games.

Pumphrey is the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, and I appreciate that, and it counts for something as a prospect. But you’d really like to see more in terms of the physical. He’s tiny at 5’8” and 176, which makes his 4.48 dash look awfully pedestrian. You can’t expect a workhorse role, and you can’t project him be a difference-maker in the passing game.