Hidden Receiving Ability: 2018 RBs and the Backfield Dominator Rating

In the past we’ve measured RB contributions in the receiving game in one of two ways. Either we measure their raw counting stats — i.e., the total number of receptions and receiving yards (which does have predictive value) — or we measure their receiving contribution as a percentage of team receiving production, via the College Dominator Rating. Both have drawbacks that make them less-than-perfect measurements of a college back’s true receiving ability.

When 19 Is More Than 54

Measuring raw totals, of course, penalizes RBs on low-passing-volume offenses. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny is one of the top backs in the 2018 class. But Penny only caught 19 passes this year, which pales in comparison to Saquon Barkley’s 54 catches. Barkley managed almost five times more receiving yards than Penny. At first glance, Barkley looks to be far and away the better pass catcher. But here’s where the raw totals might not be giving us an accurate picture. San Diego State attempted just 19.4 passes per game. Only six FBS teams passed the ball less. Barkley’s team, Penn State, on the other hand, attempted more than 35 passes per game, slightly above league average. Although Barkley has far more receiving yards than Penny, as a percentage of team receiving yards, the difference between them is much smaller. This is where using market-share-based metrics such as College Dominator can be hugely helpful. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the College Dominator rating as well. It unfairly penalizes RBs whose teams choose not to utilize RBs in the passing game. Again, looking at Penny, he accounted for only about seven percent of San Diego State’s receiving yardage — a small percentage, even for a RB. Barkley, for instance, accounted for nearly 17 percent of Penn State’s receiving yardage.

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By Blair Andrews | @AmItheRealBlair | Archive

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  1. I like the article, and it is good idea, but I can't help but think the sample seems to be really small, especially in those RBs coming from schools that don't throw to their RBs. Sometimes they don't throw to their RBs all that much because they are all not that good at catching the ball. Would it be helpful to look at how much production they had compared to historical comps at the same school? Most coaching staffs/systems are fairly stable so may be a helpful indicator.

    It would help if we could see some correlation with NFL performance, even if it is only anecdotal?

  2. These are fair points. It's certainly possible there are schools that don't throw to their RBs because they don't have any good receiving backs on the roster. But I tend to think it's more often scheme or QB related. Previous work has shown that running QBs do not target RBs as often, for example. Regarding comparing previous players from the same school, I'm not sure of the real value there. Even if college coaching staffs are stable (and it's not clear they are significantly more stable than NFL staffs), college rosters are not. Every team is completely different from the same school's team just four years prior, for all intents and purposes.

    Ronald Jones fares well in my analysis, considering he only caught 14 passes. Just a few years earlier, though, Buck Allen caught 41 passes at USC. However, that was a completely different team with different personnel (and in this case, a different head coach), so trying to draw a conclusion from this sort of comparison seems tenuous. I'll keep that in mind though, and give it some more thought.

    We have enough examples of RBs who didn't catch a lot of passes in college but went on to be great receiving backs in the NFL that it's worth asking why they didn't catch passes in college -- BDR is one way of trying to answer that. Jamaal Charles, for instance, never had even a 20-catch season at Texas. The most receptions LaDainian Tomlinson ever had at TCU was 16. Obviously I'm cherry picking the best examples, but the point is that raw college receiving stats are often deceiving. I'm hoping BDR can correct that to some degree.

    I'm in the process of testing it against NFL performance and determining the best way to use the metric -- more to come soon.

  3. I just looked. With regard to Ladanian Tomlinson and jammal Charles, neither were the primary receiving backs for their schools in their senior year. Both had yardage percentages below 40 percent it seems.

  4. I don’t have BDR data on Tomlinson but that doesn’t surprise me—he was actually quite bad at receiving in college. I do know TCU did not throw to RBs often while he was there. I think he had half their RB receptions (even if his share of yards was much lower—he only had about 4 yds/rec—like I said, bad).

    Charles accounted for about 47% of Texas’ RB receiving yards his senior year, according to my numbers. (His BDR was about 64%—above average, but hardly notable.) That’s not a lot, but for someone who caught only 17 passes it’s significant. Guice caught 18 passes but only 15% of LSU’s yards. So whereas Guice was really only used as a two-down back for LSU, Charles actually had a significant (but not dominant) role in the passing game (despite the presence of Chris Ogbonnaya who was strictly a third-down back).

    My initial tests reveal BDR is probably most useful for late-round picks. RBs with the sort of draft capital Tomlinson had rarely fail, and so BDR adds little.

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