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About this time last year, I wrote an article on running back Agility Scores that critics have called ‘groundbreaking,’ and ‘the kind of outside the box thinking we need in football analytics,’ and ‘surprising he could add two small numbers together.’ The article for Pro Football Focus examined the correlation between the yards that running backs gain before contact and Combine results in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill. Fortunately for you as a dynasty owner – and for the crafty NFL teams already hooked on RotoViz – that discovery hasn’t changed ideas on NFL running backs.Here’s the idea in a nutshell. If you combine the times for the short shuttle and 3-cone drill, you’ve got a metric with a meaningful level of predictiveness in a runner’s ability to generate yards before contact. Conventional wisdom suggests a back has little control over his performance before being contacted, which is why so much scouting ink is spilled discussing what happens at the point of contact. However, the stats say something different. Even when you adjust for offensive line strength, the ability to gain yards before encountering the first defender is a running back skill, not a product of random variance.

As I mentioned, I call the combined measure an Agility Score. Understand that posting a great Agility Score doesn’t guarantee opportunity. The NFL is an inefficient market in the way it values running backs, and players with good Speed Scores tend to receive first crack. When they do get an opportunity, however, runners with good Agility Scores tend to thrive in space and in the passing game. The passing game production takes on a special importance with the proliferation of PPR leagues and is doubly helpful in dynasty leagues since runners who catch a lot of passes tend to have more gradual decline phases.

It’s probably worth noting that none of this is surprising. In fact, it’s highly intuitive. Laterally explosive runners should be better in space. That many scouts and GMs would prefer to focus on esoteric minutiae like ‘falling forward’ creates a special opportunity for savvy NFL teams and for you as a dynasty owner.

Each year there are breakouts at the running back position and each year many people believe hitting on them is a matter of luck. But it’s not. It’s a matter of correctly applying arbitrage principals. I employ a contrarian strategy in my own fantasy drafts, rarely using a first round pick at RB. In 2012 Doug Martin and Stevan Ridley were the key to making my upside down draft strategy work. (Although Martin wasn’t going at much of a discount by the time the season started, I identified him as possessing more upside than Trent Richardson before the 2012 Draft.) Both backs were targeted based on their Agility Scores.

All of which brings me to the running back comps I’m going to be rolling out for RotoViz.

The comps will focus on Agility Score as well as size, speed, and collegiate production. This first article focuses on an unusual subset of runners with good Agility Scores – the large, quick back.

In terms of Agility Score, 11.1 is the cutoff I use for targeting a back based on his lateral explosion, but obviously the faster the better.

Le’Veon Bell Comps

Player College College Yards College YPC College TD College Rec Weight (lbs) 40 Yard Speed Score Agility Score
Le’Veon Bell Michigan State 3346 5.0 33 78 230 4.6 102.7 10.99
Player College College Yards College YPC College TD College Rec Weight (lbs) 40 Yard Speed Score Agility Score
Doug Martin Boise State 3431 5.6 43 67 223 4.55 104.1 10.95
DeShaun Foster UCLA 3049 4.4 39 57 222 4.57 101.8 10.98
Delone Carter Syracuse 3104 4.8 24 28 222 4.54 104.5 10.99
Stevan Ridley Louisiana State 1419 4.6 19 17 225 4.65 96.2 10.99
Joique Bell Wayne State (MI) NA NA NA NA 220 4.68 91.7 11.01

Le’Veon Bell carried 382 times last year for Michigan State and racked up 1,793 yards. At 6’1”, 230, he brings ridiculous size to the running back position. Despite this, he hasn’t generated much draft buzz until fairly recently. Most scouts still have him outside the top five runners even though this is a very weak draft. (Bucky Brooks disagrees.) They seem to be ignoring the shocking nature of a sub-11.0 Agility Score for a man of his size. As you can see here, his comps are very strong.

I’ve mentioned Martin and Ridley already. Martin was well regarded out of Boise State, but many believed he would split time with LaGarrette Blount as a rookie. Even once he trounced Blount in a training camp battle, his fantasy finish as the No. 3 running back was unexpected. Martin immediately showed his receiving ability with 49 catches for 472 yards, but he actually struggled before contact. This also fits in with the research that shows rookies tend to struggle in this area.

Many scouts focus on the fact that shifty backs tend to ‘bounce everything to the outside’ and ignore evidence suggesting that a large percentage of them naturally adjust as they acclimate to the pro game. This is a reason why second and third year runners consistently represent value in fantasy drafts. Martin averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, despite generating most of that after contact. He’s a great bet to eclipse the 5.0 yard barrier in 2013. (I agree with Jonathan Bales’ excellent piece on Martin and would go so far as to say he’s a clearly superior option to Adrian Peterson in 2013 PPR leagues.)

Stevan Ridley was a surprise 3rd round pick after a mediocre college career at LSU. His very slow 4.65 forty confirmed to most scouts that he lacked the athleticism of an NFL starter. Although Ridley hasn’t emerged as a pass-catcher, he is one of the NFL’s best early down backs in terms of creating yards before contact.

I haven’t included Joique Bell’s numbers at Wayne State where he tore apart Division II on the way to the Harlon Hill trophy. Needless to say, he was unstoppable. Bell finished with the third most receiving yards among NFL running backs in 2012 and was barely edged by Darren Sproles for the most yards per route. (Although as a Detroit fan I’m delirious about the acquisition of Reggie Bush, Bell should have value again sometime in 2013 when Bush inevitably gets injured.)

DeShaun Foster disappointed as the No. 32 pick in the 2002 draft but cleared 1,000 yards from scrimmage three times. Delone Carter is the least appetizing back on this list, but even he is worth a cheap dynasty pickup or last round selection in deep redraft leagues.

Le’Veon Bell’s Fantasy Impact

If you were to make Le’Veon Bell the average of these backs, he’d probably be worth a mid-round pick in the NFL Draft and a late first round dynasty selection. However, his passing game usage suggests Doug Martin and DeShaun Foster as the closest comps. Considering where those guys were taken in their respective drafts, Bell is poised to be a steal in both reality and fantasy.

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