Which Draft-Hopeful Running Backs Produced Like Studs in College?
Success doesn't happen overnight.
Famous musicians don't pick up a guitar at 35 and grow an audience in six months. Doctors aren't providing care after a handful of weeks of schooling. Big-time entrepreneurs didn't grow their businesses in three days.
We see the end results -- we see the musician playing at sold-out arenas, we see CEOs running big businesses -- but we rarely see the journey. And for most success stories, there's a journey that involves talent and winning at various levels.
Success doesn't happen overnight.
This is no different with professional football prospects. Great NFL players -- or, in today's case, running backs -- were generally also pretty good at the collegiate level. Mind-blowing stuff, I know. But because of this concept, we can look at just how successful top-notch NFLers were in college and see if any trends emerge to help identify studs from this year's draft class.
There isn't one way to define success. Is a successful NFL running back one who plays in the league for a long time? Is it one who's hyper efficient but active for just four or five seasons? Should we just care about a back's cumulative numbers?
Like I said, there isn't one way to define success.
Since fantasy football is the core reason a lot of us are doing any prospecting work in the first place, it would make sense to outline success in a fantasy football-driven way. So we'll define it as the following: a successful running back is one who, in recent history (since 2011), has posted more than one season with 13-plus PPR points per game. Why 13-plus points? Well, it's subjective, but that's usually the cutoff point for a top-20 season at the position.
And while we're on the topic of subjectivity, let it be known that a study like this one is about probability. There will be outliers. Production won't tell us everything about a player. It'll just guide us in the right direction.
By putting those parameters around success, we get a result of 26 FBS running backs (there were a few who played at smaller schools, like David Johnson and Danny Woodhead). This is our "NFL studs" sample.
For this year's class, we'll look at the 27 running backs -- no fullbacks -- who were invited to the NFL Combine.
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.)
|2019 Class Average||Sample Average|
|Attempt Market Share||38.11%||47.52%|
|Rush Yards Market Share||44.39%||56.80%|
|Touchdown Market Share||23.31%||33.61%|
|Reception Market Share||7.54%||11.62%|
Unsurprisingly, the NFL sample of 26 running backs showed far better final-season numbers than the 27 runners who were invited to this year's combine. But let's see what the comparison tells us about specific players in this year's class in terms of usage, rushing production, receiving production, and scoring.
The NFL sample of studs -- the 26 running backs who have posted multiple 13-plus PPR points per game seasons since 2011 -- includes a pair of players who only played six and seven games during their final collegiate season. Those backs are Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson. Despite this, the average attempt share -- the percentage of team attempts seen by a running back -- within the group was 47.5%, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the 2019 class sample.
Aside from Peterson and Gurley -- two players we wouldn't expected to have high attempt share numbers given the number of games they missed -- only 6 of the remaining 24 running backs in our stud subset had a final-season attempt share lower than this year's class average. And just two of them -- Devonta Freeman and Eddie Lacy -- played more than 11 games.
It may seem almost silly to analyze such a basic statistic like attempts or attempt share when prospecting, but the reason volume is important is really simple: talented players are bound to see the rock more on a football field.
Let's take a look at the players in this year's class who have some sort of red flag associated with their usage.
There's a lot to unpack here.
First and foremost, you'll notice that there are some teammates on this list. You've got the Alabama pair of Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris, and the Memphis guys with Tony Pollard and Darrell Henderson. Naturally, if there's a split backfield with two talented players, attempt numbers are going to suffer at the individual level.
You could look at it another way, though. If there was more than one player seeing significant touches in a backfield, that could also mean that one of the players wasn't talented enough to handle a full workload. It's rare to see what we saw in 2018, where both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were high draft picks from the same team, and they now look like longer-term producers in the NFL. Over the last 10 years, we've seen 10 pairs of running back teammates get selected in the same draft. Chubb and Michel appear to be the only tandem where both players look like hits, with potentially Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake being another pair. Of the other eight tandems, only one of the players in said tandem ended up panning out fantasy-wise in the NFL.
Now, this isn't some death sentence. Much of the teammate thing probably has to do with draft equity. If, for instance, Jacobs and Harris are each picked in the first or second round, their probability of success will rise.
The Pollard and Henderson situation is interesting because Pollard is a hybrid player who was listed as a wide receiver throughout college. His role in the NFL will more than likely not be one where he's a traditional running back. And with Henderson sort of on the fringe for our usage cutoff, that whole situation may not be that big of a deal.
So, in essence, to feel better about Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris, it'd be ideal to see both get drafted early. With the Memphis backs, Henderson's usage profile is only slightly concerning, and we shouldn't even have typical running back-like expectations for Pollard.
Rushing Production Concerns
Our stud running back sample averaged 120 rushing yards per game in college, and the group accumulated a rushing yard share of about 57%. And, remember, that includes Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley's shortened seasons.
Just two running backs in this year's class hit that yards per game mark: Trayveon Williams and Darrell Henderson. And only Williams, David Montgomery, Alexander Mattison, and Alex Barnes were able to match that final-season rushing yard share.
|Name||Rushing Yards/Game||Rushing Yards Share|
One really intriguing prospect in this class is James "Boobie" Williams. His rushing totals aren't out of this world, but his market share numbers on the ground are mostly fine. That's because Washington State threw the ball 677 times last year with just 278 rush attempts. So his being on this list definitely has to do with the offense he was in.
Meanwhile, Williams caught 83 passes in 2018, accounting for 17.4% of Washington State's receptions. That's the highest reception share in this year's class.
Josh Jacobs (and Damien Harris) is on this list as well. We've already talked through why that's the case, but I do think it's important to mention, considering many have him as the top running back in this year's class.
The path to success for Jacobs would be that he's an Alvin Kamara-like success story. Or maybe even Sony Michel. It should be noted that he had (arguably) worse final-season marks than both players, though. Kamara captured a 19.9% attempt share while rushing for 22% of his team's yards during his last year at Tennessee. But he also didn't play a full season. Michel finished his final campaign at Georgia with a 23.2% attempt share and a 31.7% rushing yard share. Jacobs, as you can see in the tables above, had a 21.0% attempt share to go along with a 21.5% rushing yard share in 15 games.
This doesn't mean Jacobs is going to be a bust. To me, it tells us that he's a high-variance prospect, and he's probably riskier than the consensus believes.
Receiving Production Concerns
One thing that helped Kamara's production profile was his pass-catching numbers. They were actually pretty hot. In the 26-back sample of NFL studs, his 16.8% reception share -- or the percentage of team receptions a player hauled in -- was fourth-best behind only Christian McCaffrey, Matt Forte, and DeMarco Murray.
Those three players were able pass-catchers at the next level, but the point in looking at receiving metrics isn't only to see how well the skill will translate. It's just as much about usage -- talented running backs will see the ball in more ways than just on the ground.
If we remove the injured Gurley and Peterson from our sample, the lowest reception share among our group of stud NFL backs was 5.5%. That was from Ryan Mathews. (Remember him?) In this year's draft class, seven players failed to hit that mark.
And the only non-injured player in the NFL stud group who failed to reach 10 receiving yards per game during his final season was Lamar Miller. We've got 12 of those players in this year's class alone.
|Name||Reception Share||Receiving Yards/Game|
Benny Snell had really strong final-season rushing numbers. He carried the ball 22.2 times per game for Kentucky this past season, and he accounted for 55.2% of the team's rushing yards.
He didn't quite make the cut in the receiving department, but for all you Snell fans (and I'm one of them), have no fear. Kentucky had the 11th-fewest pass attempts this season, making it hard for Snell to grab a high receiving yards per game average. His reception share was below average compared to the successful NFL running back mark, but 35% of the stud backs had a worse share during their last collegiate season. His receiving numbers are somewhat of a concern -- he doesn't have a perfect profile -- but they're not alarming by any means.
There's a lot of love for Devin Singletary out there, but it's not for his receiving numbers. As a runner, Singletary scored 54 times in 2017 and 2018 combined, which is bananas. But as a receiver, he caught just six passes last season, giving him one of the worst reception shares in the class. With that being said, he had a 12.1% reception share as a Freshman, and his share was 8.1% as a Sophomore. The slow drop in receiving numbers is a concern, but his low, low 2018 total probably isn't as bad as it looks.
This was mentioned in last year's article, but Arian Foster really brings down the touchdown share average within the stud NFL back sample. He only scored one total touchdown during his Senior season at Tennessee, which equated to 4.5% of the team's touchdowns. That's almost 30 percentage points lower than the group's average.
Over half of the stud backs were able to score 30% or more of their team's touchdowns during their final year in college. Let's use that as our benchmark for this year's class.
Mike Weber is one of the top backs in the class according to DraftScout.com, but an 8.1% touchdown share is pretty alarming. To go along with that, Weber only handled 30.1% of Ohio State's attempts this past season, accounting for fewer than 40% of the team's yards. Essentially, he's got lower-than-average marks in most categories, making him a questionable prospect when looking at production.
Fitting the Mold
When filtering this year's class by the NFL stud averages, only one name emerges. And it's a surprising one.
|Name||Attempt Share||Rushing Yard Share||Reception Share||Touchdown Share|
Yes, Alex Barnes. He's not on a lot of draft scout radars, and he's projected to go undrafted by many. In the few years this study has been done, the "fitting the mold" result has never been this out of left field.
But to be clear, this doesn't tell us that Alex Barnes is a slam-dunk running back prospect. Successful NFL running backs were good in college, but that doesn't mean successful college running backs will then be good in the NFL. We should really be more concerned about players with concerns. This Barnes result, to me, is more of a "watch this guy" situation than anything else.
If we loosen the market share filters a bit, we get the following results:
|Name||Att MS||Ru. Yds MS||Reception MS||Total TD MS|
The lack of players popping from a production standpoint does play into the notion that this may be a weaker class. David Montgomery and Trayveon Williams are two backs to like heading into the combine, though. Neither has a glaring hole in their respective production profiles, and both should get picked up in this year's draft.
And we know that's important, especially with running backs -- where and when these players get drafted will go a long in determining how successful their NFL careers will be. College production is just a piece to the puzzle.