At the end of every February, hundreds of NFL coaches, scouts, doctors, and staff members flock to Indianapolis. At the same time, die hard football fans start to show the effects of rookie fever and flock to their TVs to set their DVRs for the NFL Combine.
When you stop to think about it, it really is a strange phenomenon.
We watch these young men run, jump, and lift over and over again. They get measured like prize cattle and prodded by team doctors to see if they fit the bill. The only issue is that no one really knows exactly what to look for in these measurements. Some NFL teams are known to have a strong affinity for one measurement over the others (for example, Oakland and 40 yard dash times) and there are a ton of commonly held beliefs such as quarterbacks needing to be 6’2” or taller to succeed. What exactly does the combine mean to us, the dynasty fantasy footballer? Sure, faster and bigger is better. But the question that I’ve always had is exactly how fast is fast enough? Is it just a fast 40 or do I need to look at cone, shuttle, 10 yard splits and everything else too?
Last spring I took a look at wide receivers in an effort to uncover a few grains of truth about them. If you need a refresher on the results, you can find them here. That article will be updated sometime after the combine with a few tweaks to the method and formula. Now it is time to take a look at running backs and see what we can figure out about them.
For this study, I took 20 of the top running backs in a PPR format. The names are very familiar to all of us. Names like Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice Arian Foster, and all the others. I then went back and looked at the data from their combine performances to try and get a template for what a top 20 RB should look like. The backs were evaluated in the following nine areas:
1) Body Mass Index (BMI) – Used instead of height and weight separately because it is more the build that matters for a RB.
2) Speed Score – A measurement developed by Football Outsiders to simulate the force a back runs with. Bigger backs don’t need to run quite as fast as smaller ones.
3) 40 yard dash time – To look at “long speed”
4) 10 yard dash split – To look at acceleration from a stop
5) Bench Press – Strength
6) Vertical Leap – Lower body explosion
7) Broad Jump – Slightly different way to look at lower body explosion
8) 20 yard shuttle run – To measure how quickly a back can stop and then restart.
9) Three cone drill – Evaluates ability to change direction quickly
Measurements for the 20 running backs were gathered in each of these areas (assuming they were available) and used to establish a baseline. Before we get to the exact results, there were a few non-statistical items that I need to throw out there.
1) You always hear that running backs can come from anywhere in the draft. This study of 20 top running backs didn’t back that up. In fact, 17 of the 20 (85%) were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. That consisted of eight from the first round, four from the second round and five from the third round. The only exceptions were Arian Foster (undrafted), BenJarvis Green-Ellis (undrafted), and Alfred Morris (sixth round). People have been trying to figure out what happened with Foster for years. Law firm isn’t a special talent in my eyes (more on this later), he’s just been in good situations. Morris is a Shanahan running back, enough said there. Or is it?
2) I also looked at the conference that the running backs came from in order to see if the level of players on their team and their opponents played a part in it. The 20 running backs came from nine different conferences. The SEC led the way with 5, followed by the Big 12 with 3. The ACC, Big 10, PAC 12, Big East, and C-USA all had 2. The Mountain West and Sun Belt had 1 each. In other words, top backs can come from any school.
3) I decided to omit Darren Sproles from the study. His production is a result of a perfect mix of situation and skill set that I do not think can be predicted or duplicated elsewhere. He was on the far end of the spectrum on just about every measurement. Rather than skew the results with his numbers, I decided to just treat him as an outlier and ignore him due to his uniqueness.
Now, let’s get on with the show. The average top running back will look like the following:
Height: Slightly over 5’ 11”
Weight: Around 214 pounds
Speed Score: 107.2
40 yard dash time: 4.47 seconds
10 yard dash split: 1.52 seconds
Bench Press: 21.3 reps of 225 pounds
20 yard shuttle: 4.29 seconds
Three cone drill: 6.93 seconds
Vertical Leap: 34.5 inches
Broad Jump: 121 inches
We all know that exact running back doesn’t really exist. Each back is a little different. Some are bigger, others are faster, while others are stronger. They also might be lacking in one of the areas. Does excelling in one area make up for a deficiency in another? I think we can all think of situations where that is true. In order to help sort this out, I developed the following scoring method for each of the nine measurements:
+2 points – More than one standard deviation away from the mean in the positive direction
+1 point – Within one standard deviation of the mean on either end of the spectrum
0 points – If the back didn’t participate in that drill
-1 point – Between one and two deviations away from the mean in the negative direction
-2 points – More than two deviations away from the mean in the negative direction
Like any measurement, this system as a whole is meant to be used as a guide, not the end all be all. It is not perfect and is not going to take everything into account. For example character, situation, injury history, vision, patience, desire, work ethic, hands, ball security and all kinds of other traits are not taken into account in any way. This merely measures the physical tools that a back has at his disposal. It is also a little harsh on players that have a poor showing at the combine or don’t participate in all of the drills like Reggie Bush and Arian Foster.
Using this kind of scoring method, the average score for the 20 running back sample was right about 7 points. Out of the 20 backs, 12 of them ended up with a score of 7 points or higher. The biggest total was 11 points by none other than Peterson, even without him doing the bench press which would have pushed him to 12 or 13. Doug Martin, Ray Rice, Darren McFadden, and Mikel Leshoure all scored ten points while Matt Forte scored nine.
Not all the 20 running backs had good scores though. The leader on the negative end of the spectrum was none other than the Law firm of BenJarvis Green-Ellis – he graded out as being significantly slower than the average top back in just about every drill as well as doing rather poorly in the jumps. He ended up with a score of -5, which goes back to my earlier comment that he is more a product of positive situations and other items that aren’t measureable than being a quality physical talent.
After the combine, I’ll take a look at the incoming rookie class to see who has the physical tools to stand out. For now, I looked at 12 young runners that might be transitioning into starting roles or at least larger roles in the near future to see how they would grade out under this system to see if they fit the mold. There were some really good and also some pretty poor scores. Just remember, high scores don’t guarantee success and low scores don’t mean failure. It just means that they do or don’t have the physical tools of a top 20 back. Here they are in order from best to worst.
Jonathan Stewart – 12 points while missing 2 drills. Excelled in size, speed score, 10 yard split, bench, and broad jump.
David Wilson – 11 points while missing 1 drill. Excelled in the shuttle run and the jumps.
Kendall Hunter – 11 points. Excelled in BMI (though he is shorter than most) and cone drill. He was picked in the fourth round, which breaks the mold a bit, but only by one round.
Bennie Wells – 10 points with 2 missing drills. Excelled in size, bench, and broad jump.
Knowshon Moreno – 10 points. Excelled only in bench, otherwise he was slightly above average in everything.
LaMichael James – 10 points. Excelled in the shuttle, but slightly below average in speed score and bench.
Ryan Williams – 9 points. Excelled in size and vertical jump, but deficient in his 10 yard split.
Bryce Brown – 9 points. Mostly average across the board. Slightly under average in jumps and acceleration based drills, but nothing excessive. He was also drafted outside of the top 3 rounds.
Isaiah Pead – 7 points while missing 2 drills. Slightly below average in most drills, but nothing major.
Daryl Richardson – 5 points. Excelled with jumps, but deficient in size, speed score, and strength. Slightly below average in other drills and draft position is low.
Ronnie Hillman – 3 points but missing 4 drills. Lacks a bit of strength but very average in other drills.
Mark Ingram – 1 point only. Good size, average straight line speed and strength. Poor jumps, cone drill, and a terrible shuttle.
These numbers reaffirm a few things I thought I knew and sheds some light on a few other things. Stewart is one of the most physically talented backs in the league; he just needs to figure it out and stay healthy, which might never happen. Wilson and Hunter are very valuable backs of the future for their teams and the Moreno we saw over the last part of the season just might be a back that we can count on. Wells and Williams are fairly equal when it comes to talent, but both have major question marks on other fronts and have probably lost a step due to injuries. James will be a valuable change of pace back for Hunter. Brown has talent, but I still think he is lacking in other areas. Pead has a talent edge over Richardson and should eventually beat him out according to the numbers. Hillman is best suited for a chance of pace role. Ingram is a power back and a straight line runner, but he doesn’t have much wiggle or the ability to do much when out in space.
Check back after the combine to see which rookies make the grade. I’ll look at which ones fit the mold of a top running back and what the combine drills tell us about them.
Find Jacob on Twitter at @feldmanjacob