In just a few short days, all rookies will officially report to their very first NFL training camp. With a new year comes new talent in the league and Yards Created is my attempt to better quantify an integral part of fantasy land. Whether you love them or hate them, running backs will always be tough to evaluate for numerous reasons. Offensive lines, quarterback skill, play-calling and game flow can muddy the water between signal and noise in running back production. Yards Created is not agnostic of offensive line play, but instead attempts to clear the road for a better understanding of the position itself.
If you have not read Yards Created yet, please check out the introductory piece. You will find a plethora of detail about Yards Created, it’s origination, how I chart running backs and it’s mission in the debut. Additionally, I wrote a handful of Yards Created profiles this offseason that are chock full of additional information. You can access all of them here.
Due to the lack of college film, all of the Yards Created samples feature at least five games played and/or 60 or more carries. The entire sample for the 2016 class is 12 deep and features all but one of the 13 running backs selected in the first five rounds of the draft.
This column will focus primarily on the rookie class and their individual Yards Created metrics with a slant toward immediate and future fantasy opportunity. While this process isn’t directly predictive of NFL success, it can give us a better idea of where to stand on certain prospects.
Let’s get to the data.
Yards Created and Yards Blocked
|Name||G||Att||YC/Att||YC In/Att||YC Out/Att||YB/Att||YB In/Att||YB Out/Att|
|Name||G||Att||YC/Att||YC In/Att||YC Out/Att||YB/Att||YB In/Att||YB Out/Att|
|2016 Class Avg.||NA||91||4.77||4.48||5.75||1.07||1.09||1.05|
Here is the beating heart of the 2016 Yards Created project. In the chart above, you can find Yards Created per attempt on an inside and outside basis along with team-based Yards Blocked data. The distinction here is important: Yards Created is anything a running back gains after the offensive line has or has not completed their blocking assignment while Yards Blocked is the amount of yardage cleared for the rusher. Offensive line play is directly related to running back production, but Yards Created tries to better parse out the marriage of running back and blockers.
Run Type and Alignment
|2016 Class Avg.||70.0%||22.8%||2.4%||3.1%||1.4%||77.1%||22.9%|
In addition to Yards Created, I also track play type and dignify inside, outside, counter and toss plays as such. Adjoining rush type is alignment data denoted as: Shotgun/Pistol (S/P) and Under Center (UC). The alignment data does not account for formation (i.e. I-Formation, three-wide receiver sets, etc.), but instead gives a snapshot of where the running back receives a carry when the ball is snapped.
Right off of the bat, we notice Ezekiel Elliott’s uncanny ability to create yards on his own. Dallas’ new addition created more yards on inside (5.98) and outside (7.63) attempts than any other back in the class. At just 20-years-old, Elliott shredded opposing defenses for 100 or more yards in 12-of-13 games in 2015 and accounted for a robust 77% of Ohio State’s total rushing yards. By all measures, Zeke’s Yards Created production backs up Kevin Cole’s strong prediction of NFL success. Elliott has the makeup of a top-10 fantasy back for many years to come.
Kenyan Drake’s small sample success pops off of the page, but be aware of the pitfalls of limited data. Yes, Drake finished atop the class in Yards Created per attempt — but I’m legitimately concerned that most of Drake’s carries cannot be replicated in the NFL. Only 37.8% of Drake’s attempts went in between the tackles, well below the class average (70%). To utilize Drake’s 82nd percentile weight-adjusted Speed Score, Alabama designed 62.1% of Drake’s attempts to go outside of the offensive tackles. No other back in the class had more than 44.1% of their carries go off-tackle.
I wrote in more detail about how to make sense of Drake’s small sample success earlier this offseason, but the likelihood Drake makes an immediate fantasy splash is now further diminished by the ‘Fins acquisition of veteran Arian Foster. Perhaps Foster’s signing is more of a warning sign for Jay Ajayi, but at the very least, Foster should cut into Drake’s usage in the passing game. Drake is still very much worth a second round pick in dynasty rookie drafts, but he is nothing more than a RB5/6 stash in 2016 re-draft/best ball leagues.
The Eagles’ 5th round pick Wendell Smallwood is a quiet winner per Yards Created. He finished third in the class on a per attempt basis (5.30 yards) while leading the class in inside attempt percentage (81.0). Granted, West Virginia tied Ohio State for the most Yards Blocked per attempt (1.34) in the class, Smallwood is explosive behind his 5-10, 208 lbs frame.
The West Virginia product finished third in the class in Yards Created on inside attempts (5.30), a little more than half a yard above the class average (4.77). Smallwood is currently in line to spell Ryan Mathews — but should he find more work — he theoretically fits very well in new Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson’s offense. Pederson is an Andy Reid disciple, whose quasi-West Coast offense predicates on inside-zone rushing.
Coming in near average in all three Yards Created categories (per attempt, inside and outside), Jordan Howard is expected by some to supplant the incumbent Jeremy Langford with relative ease. Ironically, Howard is less athletic than Langford and — just like his teammate — does not do one thing on a per attempt basis extraordinarily well. As you will see below, Howard’s missed tackle per attempt rate (0.282) was the worst in the class. Howard does posses enough functional athleticism to succeed on inside and outside attempts, despite lacking eye-popping Yards Created numbers. The 10th running back off of the 2016 NFL Draft board, Jordan Howard can compete for touches, but I am not convinced by his college data that he will immediately relegate Langford to the bench in his first professional season.
Despite a really poor combine, Alex Collins showed very well in all three Yards Created categories (per attempt, inside and outside) posting above average scores across the board. After Thomas Rawls and his draft mate C.J. Prosise, Collins is the forgotten name entering the now Marshawn Lynch-less Seattle backfield. Collins’ dynasty average draft position (187 overall) has dipped below Josh Ferguson’s (181 overall), who is a shifty pass catching back, but went undrafted. Collins was selected in the 5th round this May. Collins may not light up the measurables column, but his functional athleticism and ability as a rusher is demonstrated by his rock solid Yards Created data. Regardless, any running back that is 21-years-old or younger and rushes for 1,000 yards in three straight SEC seasons needs to be on our radar.
Before we get to the missed tackle data, I would be remiss without mentioning “The Terminator”. Given the Schwarzenegger-like nickname by RotoViz’s Matt Freedman, Derrick Henry is nothing short of an enigma. Standing at a rock solid 6-3 247 lbs, there are no subjective or objective comparisons that fit Henry’s bill.
Irresponsibly mischaracterized due to his massive size as an inside-runner only, Henry is the second-best off-tackle runner in the 2016 class behind Ezekiel Elliott. Henry’s mammoth 96th percentile weight-adjusted Speed Score gives him the raw speed and explosiveness necessary to post an absurd 7.03 Yards Created on outside attempts. Once more, Henry is usually thought of as a pounder who is more proficient when his quarterback is under center. That is simply not the case. In fact, Henry was better out of shotgun (4.03 Yards Created/Attempt) than under center (3.81 YC/Att.) at Alabama. Becoming just the 13th running back all-time to post 2,100 or more rushing yards in a season, Henry’s cumulative final season production was nothing short of grand. Should the Titans’ allow a 50/50 carry split, Henry may be the better back in Tennessee at season’s end.
Missed Tackles Forced
|2016 Class Avg.||0.349||0.347|
An early Yards Created darling, C.J. Prosise has the best chance to become an every year fantasy producer whose last name is not Elliott or Henry in this year’s class. A converted wide receiver, Prosise tied for the fourth-most Yards Created per attempt (4.90) of the rookie crop and his missed tackle rate (0.405) was good enough for second-best behind Tyler Ervin’s impressive mark (0.482). Additionally, C.J. Prosise ripped of gains of 10 or more yards on 23.6% of his carries in his final season at Notre Dame, well above the class average (15.03%). Keep in mind, 2015 was Prosise’s first season ever playing running back.
Prosise’s presence alone makes Thomas Rawls a bit risky at RB17 overall in re-draft leagues and that doesn’t factor in Rawls’ major ankle injury. Seattle lets their players compete for jobs regardless of draft capital invested, and if Rawls is healthy, I’d imagine it will be his gig to lose come training camp. If Rawls falters or his ankle isn’t 100 percent just yet, Prosise’s Yards Created data indicates a potential star. Even though he needs work in between the tackles (3.70 YC/Att on inside carries), Prosise’s promise shined through in his first year as a running back.
Even though his missed tackle numbers don’t initially jump off the page, Derrick Henry did lead the class in the one category you would expect: missed tackles forced by power (0.19). In my full-length profile of Henry I mentioned that he is the living embodiment of Mario Kart character Bowser’s speed and strength paired with the “star” power up that allows you eviscerate your opponents without batting an eye on the football field. Anyone who looks at this data and sticks their nose up at Henry is genuinely overthinking it.
Coming in smack dab in the middle of nearly every Yards Created category is former-UCLA Bruin, Paul Perkins. Akin to Jordan Howard, Perkins doesn’t do one thing exceptionally well and was just average at creating yards on his own in college. The one key difference in Perkins’ game, however, is his ability to make defenders miss. Perkins finished 5th in missed tackles forced per opportunity (attempts plus targets) and came in fourth in missed tackles forced via elusiveness (0.15).
Although Perkins does not have a singular calling card and forcing missed tackles doesn’t directly score us fantasy points, his ability to make defenders miss can transfer to the next level. Obviously, veterans Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen stand in Perkins’ way from immediate opportunity, meaning his rookie year value is entirely dependent upon an injury in front of him. Even though it may seem odd, Perkins is appropriately valued as a mid-second rounder in rookie dynasty drafts in this weak 2016 class.
|2016 Class Avg.||8.90||3.50||37.0%||-0.08||90.8%||9.2%||2.94|
Along with rushing and missed tackles, Yards Created also profiles running backs’ receiving ability by charting what is taking place on a per-route basis. Here you will find anything from targets per game, average depth target (aDOT) and alignment data (i.e. a route run from the backfield or split out wide in formation).
Like Paul Perkins, Devontae Booker needs an injury or two in front of him to see consistent year one value — but there is a bit to like in Booker’s data. The former-Utah Ute finished fifth in Yards Created on inside attempts (4.81) and forced the third-most missed tackles per opportunity in the class. Booker is an exceptional if not under-appreciated receiver, too, leading all running backs in the class in team share of receiving yards (0.18) and finishing fifth in yards gained per route (2.84). Nevertheless, Booker’s main issue is his age. He turned 24-years-young in May, meaning he is a full three years older than fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott and he’s only one year younger than four-year veteran, Lamar Miller. Not only is Booker behind recently re-signed veteran’s C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, he’s also a relatively old rookie.
Continuing the running theme of murky backfields, Kenneth Dixon is in the running for the single-best pass catching back in this class. While I’m willing to give his sub-par Yards Created per attempt (4.14) a pass due to Louisiana Tech’s poor offensive line (0.59 Yards Blocked per attempt), Dixon excels in the passing game because of his shifty nature. A potent 51.1% of Dixon’s total missed tackles came via elusiveness in his five game sample. Dixon also led the 2016 class in receiving yards per game (42.2) and he finished second in yards gained per route (5.37). Looking at the Ravens’ backfield, Dixon may be a decent way to get the best of both worlds in Baltimore. While veteran-back Justin Forsett excels as a rusher and Buck Allen’s calling card is his passing game chops, Kenneth Dixon can do it all.
My favorite third-round dynasty rookie draft dart throw this year is Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington. Tech runs an ultra high-paced offense that juiced up Washington’s routes/game (15.6), so don’t let his below-average yards gained/route (2.04) scare you. Arguably already a better receiver than incumbent Latavius Murray, Washington finished fifth in the class in receptions per game (3.2) last year. Even though Murray is the starter for now, Washington can immediately steal third-down work at the next level.
|2016 Class Avg.||17.5||77.2%|
Finally, we get to the fabled if not over-emphasized pass protection. On one hand, a running back’s ability to protect their quarterback on blitz pickups or chipping at a leaking defensive end is valuable. However, pass protection may not matter much if a running back is an exceptional receiver. For example, Matt Forte is a pretty disastrous pass blocker. He’s ranked at or near last in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency year-over-year — but his receiving ability is well known. At any rate, let’s run through the pass protection data. Keep in mind, virtually all prospects need at least a little work in protecting the quarterback initially.
One of Ezekiel Elliott’s oft-mentioned positive traits is in pass protection and Yards Created bears those sentiments out. Elliott led all backs in Pass Protection Execution (PPE), allowing just one pressure in 17 measured attempts.
Even though he only caught 1.2 balls per game in college, Jordan Howard was a stonewall in pass protection at Indiana. Finishing fourth in PPE (88.2%), Howard is a good of example of a back that is not known for his receiving ability, but is still an asset in the passing game due to his protection acumen.
In contrast, Kenneth Dixon and Tyler Ervin measure out as reasonably poor pass blockers. In both cases, I’m willing to venture it does not matter much because both backs are rock solid receivers. Ervin and Washington both caught 80-plus balls in their collegiate careers.
(Column originally posted July 2016 at Rotoworld).