Visualizing the Career Trajectories of 2016’s Running Backs
When it comes to running back prospects, opportunity isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
That said, toward the goal of figuring out which running backs might be most successful with their opportunities, two of the factors that I’ve found to matter most are age and rushing production. Continuing with the groundwork laid in the visualizing the careers of 2016 NFL Draft receivers article, I’ve created this article to show you how 2016’s top running back prospects progressed through their careers.
In the images that follow, you’ll see a trend line and the career plot for four players. The trend line was created by plotting the college careers of running backs drafted since 2000 who rank in the top 25 of career approximate value (via PFR). The trend line represents what those guys were doing in college in terms of age and rushing yards per game, both of which have tested as significant variables in my RB projection models.
The order in which they appear is based on the post-NFL combine RotoViz Scouting Index. I also included a couple of hybrid prospects like Braxton Miller and Bryon Marshall, who technically were invited to the combine as receivers.
All ages are pulled from the 2016 NFL Draft Age Database.
Looking at the FBS running back prospects in this class,1 Ezekiel Elliott has the best age 19 and age 20 seasons. Earlier this year I argued that his young dominance puts him in an elite tier of prospects that, on the bright side, includes Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and Todd Gurley. It would have been nice to see his agility numbers, but his speed and explosion drills give me confidence he’s a plus athlete. At this moment, I’d take him first overall in rookie drafts.
Derrick Henry‘s age 21 season is the best of the FBS runners in this class, which makes sense considering that he won the Heisman for his efforts. I’m not too worried about his lesser production in earlier seasons, considering he was there with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. Henry is a freak athlete, even in terms of agility, which he gets criticized for, but I briefly addressed that here. Even if he’s not a great receiver, he has a lot of unicorn-esque data points and I would take him top five in a rookie draft.
Of all the running backs in this class, Kenneth Dixon is responsible for the best performance in an age 18 season. After Elliott, Dixon also had the best age 19 season. At the combine, he proved to have above-average agility and explosion for his size, while having average speed. He’s one of the best pass-catching backs in this class and I think he is very worthy of being in this top tier.
After those three, I think this class gets wide open, but I’m intrigued by Paul Perkins. Although he’s not as big or athletic as the guys in front of him, his career arc is arguably better than Dixon’s and he’s a good receiver. When I analyzed him before the bowl game, I found guys like Duke Johnson and Joseph Randle to be similar. Landing spot will be especially key for valuing him compared to this next tier of backs…
Alex Collins looks like an interesting case study in the production versus measurables debate. He was shockingly un-athletic at the combine, but had a rock solid “meh” career in the SEC.
It took Devontae Booker until his age 22 season to appear at the FBS level, having spent two years out of the game and two years at Junior College before arriving at Utah. What he did accomplish in the Pac 12 was impressive, despite being an older prospect, and his receiving contributions are a major plus. I think his versatility could make him an instant NFL contributor, but he might not have much room for growth.
There aren’t too many 20 year old seasons on the graph that are better than what Jordan Howard posted. The UAB star turned Big 10 success is one of my favorite running backs in this draft. He’s probably not very explosive, but he’s athletic enough for 230 pounds and surpassed age-production expectations in every season of his college career.
Kenyan Drake was never really the guy at Alabama, but his combination of size, receiving production and special teams contributions have me cautiously optimistic about his NFL upside.
It might be easy to look at Florida alumnus Kelvin Taylor2 and say “well, Matt Jones didn’t have the best career and he was promising as a rookie.” The trouble with that, though, is that Taylor is smaller, older and much less athletic than Jones. I think tier three is too high for him.
Despite being a late bloomer, C.J. Prosise broke out in a big way in 2015, his age 21 season. Add in his size, receiving prowess and athleticism, and it’s understandable why Matt Freedman thinks he could be this year’s David Johnson. I wouldn’t be surprised if Prosise gets drafted above players in “tier two”.
Jonathan Williams is an overlooked prospect, thanks to his injury-lost 2015 season, but you can see here how strong he was in 2013 and 2014.
Josh Ferguson is undoubtedly one of the best pass-catching backs in this class and I think he has potential to be useful in PPR leagues in a seven-targets and seven-carries-per-game kind of way.
Aaron Green was atop many lists of combine snubs, but I’m not too heartbroken about it. Considering he played in a high-powered TCU offense, it’s a massive disappointment that he never averaged 100 rush yards per game in a season.
Tyler Ervin won me over with his play in 2015 and then proceeded to win the combine. One of the nation’s best workhorses, Ervin carried the San Jose State offense last year. He’s also the best return man in this running back class, which is a big deal.
DeAndre Washington is probably a better version of Aaron Green, but that likely doesn’t make him any more than a useful rotational back. On the bright side, he got to play college ball with RotoViz Radio favorite Jakeem Grant!
Devon Johnson is another forgotten man in this class. Like Jonathan Williams, Johnson’s best football was in 2014. Weighing in at 237 pounds, he’s a name to keep on your watch list.
There is very minimal footage of Wendell Smallwood on the internet, but his age-production profile and agility have me intrigued. One of college football’s most consistent running backs in 2015, Smallwood gained at least 72 rush yards in every single game.
Tre Madden played linebacker for USC in 2011, and managed at least 500 yards from scrimmage in 2013 and 2015. However, he missed the entire 2012 and 2014 seasons due to injury. He’s got some intriguing data points, but the overall profile is an enigma.
In the recent tradition of underappreciated, uniquely-athletic and productive-enough SEC running backs, I think Peyton Barber could be the next player to surprise.
D.J. Foster played mostly running back in 2014, but mostly receiver in 2015. Lance Zierlein was pretty critical of Foster on the podcast, but I’m keeping an open mind about a player who was so diversely productive.
Despite being ultra-athletic in some ways, Daniel Lasco concerns me in other ways. For starters, he wasn’t very good until his age 22 season, which wasn’t even his last. Also, he had a disastrous three-cone time, which is one of the few drills that actually matters for running backs, according to my research. Justin Winn thinks Lasco could be the third-best back in this class, but I’m a bit more skeptical.
It’s easy to forget that Storm Woods ran for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns as a 19 year old at Oregon State, but things just haven’t been the same since then. Although he wasn’t at the combine, his early breakout and 1,094 career receiving yards put him atop my list of best running backs who weren’t in Indy.
After running a 4.31 forty at 219 pounds at the combine, I was shocked to learn that Keith Marshall has the second-best age 18 season in this class. Since that promising 2012 campaign, Marshall has played only 19 games in three seasons. Perhaps his best football is ahead of him?
Tra Carson might have the size3 you’re looking for, but he doesn’t have much else. Originally an Oregon recruit, he transferred to Texas A&M and had a respectable career there, but unless he ends up being ultra athletic, I’m not sure there’s much to see.
Of all combine-invited runners in this class, Marshaun Coprich posted the most productive seasons at age 20 and 21. Granted, he played in the FCS, but I tend to not ding guys for being from that subdivision. For 207 pounds, he has good speed, but tested relatively poorly in every other drill.
Brandon Wilds is in the next batch of under-the-radar SEC running backs. While his production never lived up to his outstanding athleticism, I think there’s enough here to make him an excellent lottery pick after the 35th pick in your rookie draft.
Believe it or not, Byron Marshall was actually the third-most productive4 runner in this class in both his age 18 and age 19 seasons. He took a dive in his age 20 campaign as he transitioned to receiver and then had no rushing production in his age 21 season as a full time receiver, which was cut short by injury. Technically he was invited to the combine as a receiver prospect, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him be used as a runner and receiver. Perhaps overly optimistic, I’m on record as saying he has some surprising similarities to Randall Cobb.
Braxton Miller almost certainly isn’t going to get a shot at being a running back, but I think this graph and this article make a pretty good case that he should.