Which Draft Hopeful Running Backs Produced Like Studs in College?

By looking strictly at college production, which running backs should teams be targeting in this year's NFL Draft?

During Melvin Gordon's final college season, he averaged nearly 185 rushing yards per game with a yards per carry rate north of 7.5. Before Todd Gurley tore his ACL during his last year, he was averaging over 151 rushing yards each game. Le'Veon Bell? As a Junior at Michigan State, he carried the ball nearly 30 times per contest. Matt Forte saw a similar workload as a Senior at Tulane.

And there's also Alvin Kamara, who...well, nevermind him.

Not every successful NFL running back had an elite production profile at the college level, but a lot of them did. Like, a lot of them. And knowing this simple fact can help us spot potential studs who are about to be selected in this year's draft.

Defining Success

If you were with us last week, then you may have seen this same process for wide receivers. If so, great. If not, let's just walk through what's going on here.

As I noted, good NFL running backs -- successful NFL running backs -- were generally also good in college. Surprise! Players who were good when they were 21 and 22 years old are also good when they're 25 and 26!

(It's not a surprise.)

How do we determine who's "successful" at the NFL level, though, when the descriptor "success" is a subjective one? Good question. There's no real answer to it, but since we all play fantasy football, let's connect the dots there. For argument purposes, I've deemed a successful running back as one who's averaged 13 or more PPR points across multiple seasons (minimum of 10 games in a season) since 2011. Why 13 points? It's rather arbitrary, but that's generally what you'd see from a top-20 back.

And the point of this study isn't to be unbelievably exact. That NFL Draft isn't unbelievably exact. Nothing is with football. We're trying to just see if there are any red flags with these running back prospects when comparing them to good running backs in today's NFL. Or good fantasy running backs, if you will.

There were 29 running backs who fit the 13 points per game restriction, and of those backs, 24 played for FBS schools. That's our sample of "studs." For this year's class, we'll just look at players invited to the NFL Combine, minus a few fullbacks. There's no reason to analyze their college numbers.

Here's a side-by-side look at both groups and their averages during their final college season (minimum six games played) among major statistical categories. (Note: for running backs who played fewer than six games, previous season numbers were used.)

Sample Average 2018 Class Average
Games 12.04 12.19
Attempts/Game 20.46 15.79
Attempt Market Share 48.52% 36.66%
Rush Yards/Game 122.06 86.44
Rush Yards Market Share 58.15% 42.76%
Yards/Attempt 6.01 5.43
Touchdown Market Share 34.29% 24.24%
Reception Market Share 10.90% 8.43%
Receiving Yards/Game 20.80 14.99

Naturally, the NFL sample looks stronger across the board. Let's see what it tells us about this year's class in terms of usage, rushing production, receiving production, and scoring.

Usage Concerns

Among the NFL sample, only four running backs averaged fewer than 15 attempts per game during their final collegiate seasons, and just two backs -- Mark Ingram and Arian Foster -- saw an attempt share (percentage of their team's total runs) south of 35%. Technically Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley did, too, but they also only played seven and six games, respectively, during their final seasons, so we'll give them a pass.

Here's a look at the running backs from this year's class who had a sub-35% attempt market share this past season.

Attempts/Game Attempt Market Share
Chris Warren 5.92 14.03%
Lavon Coleman 7.42 18.82%
Bo Scarbrough 8.86 20.26%
Nick Wilson 11.64 20.98%
Sony Michel 11.14 23.18%
Darrel Williams 11.15 25.75%
Kyle Hicks 11.58 26.08%
Kalen Ballage 12.08 27.84%
Chase Edmonds 19.43 32.38%
Nick Chubb 14.87 33.14%

Let's just get it out of the way: measuring Nick Chubb and Sony Michel strictly by production is a difficult task. This doesn't mean college production doesn't matter -- it just means that context is always important. Two highly-touted prospects sharing the same backfield is a lot different than one highly-touted prospect sharing a backfield with an underwhelming runner.

If your mind is telling you But Alvin Kamara! right now, then your mind is on point. Kamara toted fewer than 20% of his team's carries during his final season at Tennessee, and he's now looking like a stud. He's just not in this study because he's only played in the NFL for one season. Keep in mind that outliers -- and Kamara is most definitely an outlier -- shouldn't overshadow what production-related studies like this one are analyzing: trends. It's all about trends.

The table above shows backs who failed to reach the lowest threshold that any "successful" back hit during his final college year (35%). Some notable players who finished with an attempt share under 48% -- players who were below the NFL sample's average -- include Josh Adams (roughly a 37% share), Nyheim Hines (40%), and draft favorite Derrius Guice. (42%).

Rushing Production Concerns

There was a pretty massive difference in rushing yards per game and rushing yard share per game between the NFL sample and this year's class. That's to be expected. But you can see, too, how the delta between rushing yard share and attempt share is much larger within the NFL stud subset, as they're essentially doing more with each touch. They're seeing more touches, but they're producing at an even higher level.

Seven running backs from the NFL group failed to reach a 50% rushing yard market share during their final college season. Two of those were, again, Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley, so that number should actually be five.

Rushing Yards/Game Rushing Yard Market Share
Nick Wilson 55.82 15.25%
Bo Scarbrough 42.57 16.98%
Lavon Coleman 33.92 17.09%
Chris Warren 26.17 17.25%
Kyle Hicks 53.08 26.12%
Kalen Ballage 51.46 29.28%
Darrel Williams 63.08 30.38%
Chase Edmonds 82.43 30.50%
Sony Michel 87.64 31.66%
Nick Chubb 89.67 34.70%
Martez Carter 71.17 38.18%
Roc Thomas 88.75 40.46%
Josh Adams 110.00 40.82%
Demario Richard 85.58 44.95%
Royce Freeman 122.92 45.20%
Kerryon Johnson 115.92 45.52%
Jarvion Franklin 102.33 45.53%
Derrius Guice 104.25 46.35%
Nyheim Hines 85.62 48.27%
Ryan Nall 73.64 49.09%

Some of these guys didn't play the full season (Chase Edmonds, for instance), so their yards per game can help tell their production story a bit.

We're seeing Derrius Guice here, who failed to meet the averages for attempt and rushing share during this past season. To be fair, we've got reasons for Guice's not-as-hot-as-it-should be production profile, and it's the combination of him missing a game and, more importantly, his nagging knee injury sustained in 2017. Guice's yards per carry rate dropped from 7.6 in 2016 to 5.3 in 2017, so it's not as though we've never seen him as a pretty efficient back. The production and usage concerns may not be as huge of a deal here.

Kerryon Johnson is someone with a fairly complete profile, but his rushing production is lacking given the volume he saw during his final season. He carried over 44% of Auburn's touches last year, but accumulated fewer than 46% of the team's rushing yards. That's due to a 4.9 yards per carry average, a bottom-half one in this class. Compared to his teammates, though, Johnson was the most effective higher-volume runner. That's a plus.

Receiving Production Concerns

Even if a successful running back isn't a pass-catcher in the NFL, he generally was in college.

Out of the 24 backs in our studly sample, only Todd Gurley finished with fewer than 10 yards per game through the air during his final season. Though, Gurley did average over 44 per contest the year prior. And when looking at reception share -- that is, the percentage of catches a player had within his offense -- 17 of the 24 running backs had a mark at or above 8% before entering the NFL.

Here's a list of this year's runners who failed to get to an 8% reception share:

Rec Yards/Game Reception Market Share
Nick Wilson 0.55 0.55%
Nick Chubb 2.00 2.15%
Justin Crawford 3.17 2.72%
Jarvion Franklin 2.92 2.91%
Demario Richard 5.58 3.03%
Ronald Jones 12.69 4.21%
Sony Michel 6.86 4.84%
Chase Edmonds 18.43 4.98%
Lavon Coleman 12.92 5.42%
Chris Warren 19.08 6.04%
Royce Freeman 13.67 6.90%
Josh Adams 7.77 7.14%
Jeff Wilson 15.27 7.32%
Kalen Ballage 7.00 7.58%

Ronald Jones
has had some of the best success on the ground in this class, and he'll more than likely be an early-ish round pick in this year's draft. But he only caught 14 passes this past year, tallying just 32 in his three seasons at Southern California. His 4.21% reception share in 2017 is one of the lowest in this class, and while that's no death sentence, it should be noted that none of the backs in the NFL sample had that poor of a mark during their final collegiate seasons.

And since we're on the topic of receiving, know that this class has some really strong pass-catching prospects. In fact, of all the backs drafted over the last decade, two players from this class -- Saquon Barkley and John Kelly -- have top-10 final-season reception shares.

Scoring Concerns

The player bringing down the NFL sample's average in touchdown share is easily Arian Foster, who scored just one total touchdown (rushing and receiving) as a Senior at Tennessee. Foster also had his most productive season the year before, or his Junior year.

But as you'd guess, the NFL group is filled with touchdown scorers. Half of them tallied a 32% touchdown share or better during their final collegiate seasons, when we're getting that from just five of the NFL Combine participants in this year's class.

Here's a look at players in this class who failed to reach the 30% mark in total touchdown share:

Touchdown Market Share
Nick Wilson 8.96%
Kyle Hicks 9.09%
Bo Scarbrough 12.50%
Kalen Ballage 12.50%
Lavon Coleman 12.50%
Justin Crawford 12.73%
Chase Edmonds 15.63%
Josh Adams 16.36%
Chris Warren 19.05%
Jordan Wilkins 21.28%
Darrel Williams 21.43%
Nick Chubb 22.73%
Nyheim Hines 23.08%
Justin Jackson 23.40%
Demario Richard 25.00%
Sony Michel 25.76%
Jarvion Franklin 26.67%
Jeff Wilson 26.67%
Martez Carter 26.67%
Royce Freeman 27.59%
Mark Walton 29.41%
Akrum Wadley 29.55%

Really, there's not a whole lot of difference between this list and the ones that came before it. And it's essentially because of volume being a huge driving force with a lot of production. Without attempts or catches, you shouldn't expect a lot of touchdowns.

With that being said, an interesting exercise is totaling a player's attempt and reception shares and seeing the difference between that and their touchdown share. That is, if they're touching the ball a lot, you'd expect them to score a lot.

When doing that, Justin Jackson's name pops up. At Northwestern this past season, Jackson saw over 53% of the team's rushes and nearly 16% of the team's receptions. But he scored only -- and I say "only" within the context of his volume -- 23.40% of Northwestern's touchdowns. Like most of the things we're talking about here, this is merely something to note, not the end of the world.

Fitting the Mold

This is a good running back class. It's actually a great running back class. Yet, using the averages of successful NFL backs above, we get just one who hits within attempt, rushing yard, reception, and total touchdown market share. And it's not Saquon Barkley.

Attempt Share Rushing Yard Share Touchdown Share Reception Share
Rashaad Penny 50.35% 68.37% 54.35% 12.67%

Before firing off that tweet to tell me I'm wrong, know that this isn't where I'm ranking Rashaad Penny. He, to me, is not the best running back in this class. He simply meets the average criteria of successful NFL running backs. That's all.

And what's funny is that Saquon Barkley was less than a percentage point off in attempt share, only two percentage points off in total touchdown share, and just one percentage point off in rushing yards share. And that's on top of Barkley being arguably the best receiving prospect we've ever seen at the position.

So let's be a little more lenient with the filters:

Attempt Share Rushing Yard Share Touchdown Share Reception Share
Justin Jackson 53.45% 57.91% 23.40% 15.94%
Akrum Wadley 52.39% 61.27% 29.55% 14.07%
Rashaad Penny 50.35% 68.37% 54.35% 12.67%
Saquon Barkley 48.12% 57.46% 30.88% 17.94%
Mark Walton 48.05% 56.61% 29.41% 10.27%
John Kelly 45.76% 55.22% 36.00% 20.56%

Keep in mind, none of this is looking at the size of these running backs, or how they'll be deployed in the NFL. Akrum Wadley, for example, once weighed in at 170 pounds.

But the names on here are interesting nonetheless. Justin Jackson was a beast for all four of his years at Northwestern. John Kelly has one of the best receiving profiles we've seen over the last 12 or so years. In fact, among running back Combine participants since 2005, his final-season reception share ranks fifth-best.

Mark Walton's another intriguing prospect. He only played four games in 2017 thanks to an ankle injury, so the numbers listed above are what we saw from him in 2016. But as a Sophomore (2016), Walton was super productive in every facet, scoring 15 total touchdowns while catching 27 passes and rushing for over 1,100 yards on 209 carries.

Now let's see how these guys look at the NFL Combine.