If you have read Yards Created for the last year now, you know what the deal is. It’s April. It’s almost (real) draft time. And it’s time to digest a fantastic running back class with a ton of data.
However, if you are a new Yards Created reader – welcome! Please head here for a full overview of my charting process and wherein I detail what my long-term goals for Yards Created are. In short, “Yards Created” measures what happens on every snap and give equal importance to positive, negative, and routine events. I’m here to convert what we see into data.
Ultimately, Yards Created is my attempt at finding out what happens after the offensive line has—or has not—done its job.
After watching nearly 2,700 carries over the past two running back draft classes, I can affirm that the 2017 class is head-and-shoulders above last year’s class that featured Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, and fifth-round breakout, Jordan Howard. The top of the class is filled with four potentially great running backs and is littered with promising talents with differing skill-sets.
It has been fun watching, analyzing, and combing data for the 2017 class – but now it is time for the results. Below, you will find a myriad of filters, consumable data, and percentage points–lots of percentage points–on this year’s running back crop. Let’s get to it.
Yards Created and Yards Blocked Data
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||5||96||5.85||1.08|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||5||99||5.83||1.06|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||NA||95.6||5.12||1.11|
(Data sorted by Yards Created per Attempt).
First off, old readers may notice that the 2017 class as a whole is leaps and bounds better than the 2016 group. The class last year averaged just 4.77 Yards Created/Attempt while the 2017 group ripped defenses for 5.37 Yards Created per carry. That is a staggering difference.
You also may notice the name at the top of Yards Created’s sheet.
I’ll be upfront here: I have really struggled evaluating Joe Mixon. As you will continue to read on, you will likely discover a sobering truth that I have not yet reconciled myself. Mixon may very well be the most talented running back in the class. Mixon’s violent past is disturbing and there is no getting around the truth that, as a man, there are few more reprehensible acts than physically harming a woman.
As a human – I can’t stand how much I enjoyed Mixon, the running back. I do not know Joe Mixon, the person. I know some NFL teams have interviewed and met with Mixon and I also know one team will select him–probably earlier than most expect–in the upcoming NFL Draft. From here on out in this article, I will write about Mixon as the running back; but I won’t begrudge any of my readers for refusing to draft (in fantasy) or not wanting (in the NFL) Mixon on their respective teams.
Last year, Ezekiel Elliott was by far and away Yards Created’s predominant darling. This year, it is Joe Mixon. Like Elliott (5.98 Yards Created/Attempt), Mixon dominated in almost every category amongst his peers. At 6.75 Yards Created per rush, Mixon is 1.38 yards ahead of the 2017 class average and nearly two yards clear of the 2016 group average. Mixon’s creativity and versatility will be on full display throughout the contents of this article.
After Mixon, we have the last two seasons of data on Leonard Fournette headlining Yards Created’s initial offering and two unlikely backs: D’Onta Foreman and Alvin Kamara (5.82 Yards Created/Attempt). However, with a large dose of context, Kamara and Foreman’s strong initial data may look a little different in light of a new part of my process: Defenders Faced in the Box.
Defenders Faced in the Box
|Name||7 or Fewer In Box||8 or More In Box||Avg. Defenders In Box|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||33.30%||66.70%||7.82|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||62.50%||37.50%||7.43|
|Sample Avg. (2016)||70.45%||29.55%||7.11|
(Data sorted by Average Defenders Faced in the Box).
While Kamara and Foreman are tied for third amongst their peers in Yards Created per Attempt, both backs benefited greatly from light defensive boxes. Both Kamara and Foreman each saw seven or fewer defenders inside of the tackle box on more than 80% of their carries, which is well above the sample average.
Herein lies a new, crucial detail of Yards Created. Offensive personnel certainly influences the number of defenders opposing teams put in the box, but simply knowing how rushers create their yards against multiple defensive fronts is very powerful.
So, while Kamara and Foreman did post strong Yards Created/Attempt figures, their data doesn’t really hold a candle to say, Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey. Fournette and McCaffrey are one of just four running backs (out of 14) to see eight or more defenders on more than half of their carries. For more background, Dalvin Cook—besides Leonard Fournette in 2015—is the only other running back in this class to face eight or more defenders on over one-third of his carries.
Despite facing a ton of defensive pressure that is unusual for college backs, Leonard Fournette (2016; 5.83 Yards Created/Att.), Christian McCaffrey (5.69 YC/A), and Dalvin Cook (5.53) each posted Yards Created per carry figures well above the sample average.
On the other end of the spectrum, James Conner (4.83 YC/A) and Jeremy McNichols (4.45 YC/A) are the other two running backs in the 2017 class to face eight or more defenders on more than half of their carries—Conner (64%) and McNichols (57.26%), respectively—but it’s clear they aren’t in the same talent echelon as Fournette, McCaffrey, and Cook.
While Conner and McNichols’ below-average Yards Created/Attempt figures look better when exposed to defenders faced, it also partly illuminates why dominant Joe Mixon was on a per carry basis. Note that Mixon saw eight or more enemies in the box on just 5.8% of his totes, the second-lowest rate in the class.
What’s fantastic this year is we can take this data even one step further. Thanks to pivot tables and wise words from a football wizard, Yards Created gets even better and more in depth when filtering by Defenders Faced in the Box on a per carry basis.
Yards Created: Defenders in the Box
|Name||YC/A vs. 7 or Fewer||YC/A vs. 8 or More||Avg. Defenders In Box|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||6.53||5.48||7.82|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||5.84||5.85||7.43|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||5.59||5.24||7.11|
(Data sorted by Average Defenders Faced in the Box).
Besides the initial Yards Created data itself, I think charting defenders in the box has been the most beneficial addition to the Yards Created process. I’d be remiss if I did not thank The Wizard himself, Matt Waldman, for helping me last summer with this idea. He inspired me to start charting defenses and it has wholly changed how I view the data itself. As crucial as offensive line play is for running backs, defensive alignment is an almost equally important concept in understanding running back production.
Here is where I believe Yards Created is most powerful.
Because we now know that most college running backs face seven or fewer defenders on 70% of their runs, we can provide a baseline of what to expect and what is above average for each running back. So, yes — while Joe Mixon faced seven or fewer enemies in the box on almost 95% of his runs, it’s also important to note that he led the entire class in Yards Created per rush vs. 7 or fewer defenders by a pretty wide margin (6.98 YC/A).
Dalvin Cook is most impressive when looking solely at Yards Created/Attempt versus seven or fewer defenders, too. Cook finished second (6.76 YC/A) amongst his peers versus seven or fewer defenders, while Leonard Fournette posted strong scores in both of his 2015 (5.84 YC/A) and 2016 (6.53 YC/A) campaigns.
Perhaps the most telling data point—and one of the main reasons why I am still very bullish on him after a shoddy three-cone time (10th percentile score) at the NFL Combine—is Dalvin Cook’s strong scores in spite of a disastrous offensive line at FSU. I wrote in great detail why there is still a lot to love in Cook’s game here, but due to injuries and constant shuffling amongst their front-five, FSU really did not have much continuity in the trenches in 2016.
In fact, the average offensive line averaged 1.22 Yards Blocked per Attempt when facing seven or fewer defenders. Even though FSU’s offensive line postged 0.56 Yards Blocked/Attempt vs. seven or fewer defenders, Cook still absolutely dominated. As a reference point to show just how bad FSU’s run blocking was in 2016 and for your own perusing, here is a full list of each charted running back’s respective collegiate offensive lines versus less than eight men:
|College||YB/Att. 7 or Fewer|
Outside of FSU’s dreadful run blocking, there are not any other glaring outliers here. Alvin Kamara finished tied for third with Fournette (2016) in Yards Created versus seven or fewer men, but he did so with an elite offensive line that utilized power-blocking schemes mostly from the Spread Offense. Like Kamara too, D’Onta Foreman benefitted from light boxes on a juiced-up Texas offense that ripped off a ton of plays, but Foreman finished 10th in Yards Created/Attempt vs. seven or fewer defenders.
I should also make special note of Christian McCaffrey’s elite ability to create on his own when facing eight or more defenders. Among the four running backs that saw eight-plus men in the box on at least half of their carries, McCaffrey (5.86 YC/A) ran laps around the competition. Leonard Fournette (2016; 5.48 YC/A), James Conner (5.05), and Jeremy McNichols (4.15) all failed to even sniff McCaffrey’s ability to run against loaded boxes. Be it in tight quarters with a lot of noise or in open space where he has to move and shift, McCaffrey wins at all levels of the field.
On the flip side, both Wayne Gallman and Jamaal Williams struggled mightily to create yardage in this part of my study. On a per carry basis, Gallman ended up nearly 1.50 yards below average while Williams was 1.85 yards below the mean when facing seven or fewer defenders in the box.
Next up, it is time to dispel some myths and poke holes in narratives. Yards Created will now venture outside of the box and look at where each running back excels (and struggles) when carrying the ball inside, outside, from under center, and when the quarterback is in shotgun or pistol formation.
Yards Created: Run Type
|Name||Att.||YC Inside/Att.||YC Outside/Att.||In%||Out%||Counter%||Toss%|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||99||4.46||5.46||68.7%||14.1%||0.0%||17.2%|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||96||5.20||NA||53.1%||11.5%||4.2%||34.4%|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||95.6||4.71||5.98||68.8%||22.6%||2.9%||4.6%|
(Data sorted by total attempts).
One of the most frustrating draft “narratives” this year is over Christian McCaffrey’s size and potential inability to run inside of the tackles because of his 203lbs frame. Let me be unequivocal: This is a complete and utter fallacy.
In fact, at 4.93 Yards Created/Attempt, McCaffrey bested both Dalvin Cook (4.47 YC/A – inside) and Fournette (2016 season; 4.46 YC/A – inside) on carries in between the offensive tackles. Myth busted.
By contrast, Joe Mixon’s data still reigns supreme. It really is astonishing just how well Mixon glides in and out of cuts and small creases for a back that comes in a shade over 225lbs and boasts a 91st percentile weight-adjusted speed score. Mixon created an uncommon 7.32 Yards/Attempt on carries inside of the tackles in the 2017 class, which is not only the best figure I have ever charted – it is also light-years ahead of Ezekiel Elliott’s 2016 figure (5.98 YC/A – inside).
This time as an inside-zone runner, Alvin Kamara keeps making his way into the discussion. But, here is where I will caution: Be wary of small sample bias. Sure, Kamara is second in the class in Yards Created/Attempt on inside carries (6.23 YC/A), but just 55.2% (32-of-58) of his carries actually went in between the tackles. Mixon (80.2%), Kareem Hunt (81.2%), and Ezekiel Elliott (79.6%) are the only other running backs over the past two years to sniff 6.0 Yards Created/Rush on inside carries and each back toted the rock inside of the tackles nearly 80% of the time.
numberFire’s J.J. Zachariason did a great job detailing why Kamara will have to be an outlier, in terms of collegiate production, at the next-level. Out of these 14 running backs in the 2017 class, Kamara is the only back that did account for at least 40% of his team’s rushing yards. Similarly to last year’s small-sample dynamo, Kamara was used a lot like Kenyan Drake while at Tennessee.
In perhaps underrated fashion, big-back James Conner dominated Yards Created coffers on carries that went off of the tackles. Conner (7.91 YC/A – outside), Cook (7.66 YC/A – outside), Samaje Perine (7.21 YC/A – outside), and Marlon Mack (6.88 YC/A – outside) comprise this year’s top-4 ball carriers on outside-zone attempts. While I am more than willing to give Conner a pass for his poor showing on inside carries (3.75 YC/A – inside) due to the sheer amount of defenders he faced on average, I am not willing to do the same for USF’s Marlon Mack (3.85 YC/A – inside).
Mack was, by far and away, the most high variance running back in this year’s crop. In fact, almost half (48%) of Mack’s total Yards Created came on five runs (77 carries in sample) and over one-third (67%) of Mack’s inside-zone carries created fewer than two yards. So, while Mack finished third-from-last in Yards Created/Attempt on inside carries, he doesn’t have as nearly as a good enough excuse as James Conner, who finished second-from-last. Conner faced 8.21 defenders in the box on average (most in the class) while Mack saw just 6.35 defenders on average (least in the class).
Finally, it is apparent in this data just how often LSU loved utilizing Leonard Fournette on their patented power-toss plays. To be clear, Fournette has apparent open-field speed and a sixth-gear that can be hit in the blink of an eye. He hits that red-line in a flash. It should be no surprise that 34.2% of his cumulative Yards Created came off of LSU’s dominant power-toss. However, I have to caution here that NFL defenders, obviously, are much faster at the next level. Pro teams simply don’t use power-toss plays as a foundation of their offense like LSU.
While most pro teams that are trending towards pass-heavy splits with three or more wideouts on the field at a time, Fournette will have to learn another new reality: The ability to run out of shotgun.
Yards Created: Shotgun and Under Center
|Name||Att.||SG YC/A||UC YC/A||Shotgun%||Under Center%|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||99||4.14||6.11||14.1%||85.9%|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||96||3.18||7.00||30.2%||69.8%|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||95.6||5.19||4.64||71.2%||29.9%|
(Data sorted by total attempts).
In case you did not read the column when it came out, I went back and broke down the differences between Leonard Fournette’s 2015 and 2016 seasons in exhaustive detail here. The crux of the article is simple: Due to an ankle injury in 2016, Fournette’s ability was undoubtedly hampered. When comparing the two campaigns, Fournette actually forced 46% more missed tackles per attempt in 2015 (when he was healthy) than in 2016 (when his season was cut short to seven games).
However, going back in the time capsule confirmed a notable and tough truth for Fournette.
In 2015-16, Fournette ran out of shotgun on 22.1% of his attempts and averaged an abysmal 3.50 Yards Created/Attempt on such carries. Over the past two years, no running back–other than Fournette–has averaged fewer than 4.0 Yards Created/Attempt out of shotgun. Perhaps the sample is still too small to make whole judgments, but there is no refuting that Fournette is demonstrably better with the quarterback under center. In 2015-16, Fournette averaged 6.50 Yards Created/Attempt with the quarterback under center, which is miles ahead of the second-best runner from either I-Formation or Singleback in my database, Christian McCaffrey (5.66 YC/Att.).
Honestly, there are more unknowns in prospect evaluation than anyone would ever want to admit. My hope is that Yards Created fills some of the voids for running backs, but I am entirely comfortable in saying that Fournette is entirely uncomfortable running out of the shotgun as he enters the NFL.
Do you know who is not uncomfortable running out of shotgun? Dalvin Cook. That is who.
Over the past two years, here are the top-3 rushers in Yards Created/Attempt out of shotgun among qualifiers: Dalvin Cook (7.23 YC/A), Joe Mixon (6.75), and Ezekiel Elliott (5.98). Did I mention above the Cook (7.66) barely bested Elliott (7.63) in Yards Created/Attempt on off-tackles runs, too? That bad three-cone time for Cook is looking a bit silly now, no?
On another scale, I mentioned here that McCaffrey impressively created virtually the same amount of yardage regardless of the formation the offense ran out of. In shotgun or pistol sets, McCaffrey created a robust 5.74 yards per attempt versus 5.66 yards on carries with the quarterback under center. On average, there is about a 0.5-yard difference in favor of runs out of the shotgun. Meaning, regardless of the college program, running out of the shotgun is usually slightly more efficient due in large part to fewer defenders in the box. Still, McCaffrey is a very balanced runner compared to the field and he routinely showed the ability to create yardage inside, out of shotgun, or under center.
There should be no further concerns if McCaffrey needs to be a part of a platoon at the next level. He can be a three-down workhorse.
Unlike McCaffrey, Kareem Hunt did not get a chance to prove he can run with the quarterback under center, he enjoyed a below-average offensive line at Toledo, and he is a sub-par athlete. However, as you will read on below, Hunt remains a Yards Created sleeper in spite of his lackluster athleticism (27th percentile SPARQ athlete).
Yards Created: Splits
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||99||16.2%||47.5%||30.3%||13.1%||6.1%||3.0%||3.0%|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||96||19.3%||47.9%||33.3%||14.6%||7.3%||3.1%||2.1%|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||95.6||20.1%||53.0%||28.6%||13.6%||5.0%||2.8%||2.0%|
(Data sorted by total attempts).
I almost had a seizure when I originally looked at this chart. No lie. Don’t be afraid. The data is actually very easy to understand.
These yardage splits are a new feature of Yards Created – and I am kicking myself for not adding it sooner. I actually think it could be one of the more meaningful filters in the data, like Defenders in the Box, because it splits out Yards Created data at different intervals. My goal here is to further describe where running backs derive their Yards Created and to find any notable positive or negative notes.
Simply put: “<=2%” is the percentage of carries that created less than two yards and a data point like “5+%” is the percentage of attempts that gained five or more yards. That’s all there is to it.
In what Kareem Hunt lacks as an athlete, he makes up for it with stellar Yards Created data pretty much across the board. I will grant you that a major part of Hunt’s strong scores come from the fact he was the only running back in the class to face eight or more defenders in the box on less than 5% of his carries, but there is still some “good” to take away.
First and foremost, in spite of the second-worst offensive line in the class (on Yards Blocked/Attempt basis), Kareem Hunt is the only running back over the past two years to have fewer than 40% of his totes create less than two yards. That’s rather promising. I’m still personally keeping on the light for Hunt as he finished inside of the top-3 in percentage of carries to create five- (34.7%) and 10-plus (19.8%) yards. As you will read on below, Hunt has some pretty wicked moves to get excited about, too. He will likely have to overcome low invested NFL Draft capital, but Hunt’s creativity can’t go unnoticed.
Continuing his sterling record of data, Joe Mixon categorically blows the completion out of the water in Yards Created’s splits, too. Over the past two years, Mixon leads all rushers in percentage of carries to create five-, 10-, and 20-plus yards. I’m running out of adjectives in which to describe Mixon’s prolific on-field ability.
Once again — Marlon Mack’s variability as a rusher shows up on full display in these splits. Mack finished last in the percentage of carries that created zero and less than two yards but he was fifth among all rushers in the 2017 class sample in carries that created 40-plus yards (2.6%). Perhaps Mack will find a shred of consistency with NFL coaching and a stronger offensive line, but his Yards Created data leaves a lot to be desired. It should be no surprise that Mack’s share of team rushing yards and share of team carries both fell in each of his three years at USF.
On the back of his elite weight-adjusted speed (94th percentile) at 233lbs, D’Onta Foreman quietly posted strong splits across the board. Only 10% of Foreman’s carries in his five-game sample failed to create any yards—which was the best mark in the 2017 group—and he was above average in every other yardage split among the class. Once again, I need to provide the token disclaimer that Texas’ fourth quickest paced offense coupled with terrible Big-12 defenses provide a difficult read on where Foreman fits at the next level. In a lot of ways, Foreman’s college data is a complete enigma. On one hand, he is a bulking back who averaged over 180 rushing yards/game in 2016 and he posted one of the best weight-adjusted 40-yard dash times for his weight class in the past 15 years.
Even though he possesses all-world straight-line speed, Foreman routinely struggled to make defenders miss while at Texas.
Missed Tackles Forced
|Name||Missed Tackles Forced/Att.||MTs/Opportunity|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||0.469||0.466|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||0.252||0.267|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||0.360||0.365|
(Data sorted by Missed Tackles Forced per Rush Attempt).
While being fast in a straight line like Foreman will when you a track race, there are a lot of subtleties that go into making defenders miss routinely in the college ranks. I parse out missed tackles by speed (running past a defender), elusiveness (defined as “cutting” in space or in tight quarters), or via power (running through an arm tackle, maintaining balance through contact, and/or running through a defender). These three data points are then meshed together and summed simply to provide the pretty chart we have above.
D’Onta Foreman posted above average scores in missed tackles forced via speed and power, but his missed tackles forced by elusiveness (0.031 per attempt) was the worst rate in the class. Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols also posted a stunningly poor elusiveness rate (0.032 missed tackles forced per attempt by elusiveness alone), but he boasted a 67th percentile three-cone score at the NFL Combine that sort of clears some waves. D’Onta Foreman, on the other hand, has 33rd percentile agility.
You may also notice that Fournette’s Missed Tackle/Attempt figure improved sharply when accounting for the 2015. Apparently, it helps to have two operating ankles in order to make defenders miss. On a missed tackles forced per attempt basis, Fournette’s 2015 season ranks fourth-best behind Joe Mixon (0.570 MTs Forced/Att.), Dalvin Cook (0.495), and Tyler Ervin (0.482) while his 2016 campaign (0.252) is the single-worst data point I have charted among college rushers to-date.
Kareem Hunt is the second-most elusive back (defined as “cutting” in space or in tight quarters) on a per attempt basis in my database. Hunt is generally great at forcing missed tackles—he’s second in the class only to Joe Mixon on a per opportunity basis—but it’s in stark contrast with his athletic profile. Hunt posted an 11th percentile agility score at the NFL Combine and was less-than-stellar in the burst and speed drills. It’s certainly easy to bury Hunt for a poor athletic testing since he played lesser competition and rarely faced a stack box.
It’s a lot harder to bury Dalvin Cook for a bad combine, however.
Cook forced the second-most missed tackles per attempt in the class and was No. 1 in the 2017 class in making defenders miss by speed alone. There is no doubt Cook loves hitting the long ball and burning past would-be tacklers as he sets the edge perfectly, but the real story is that he posted the fourth-best score in missed tackles forced by elusiveness alone behind Mixon (0.31), Hunt (0.20), and McCaffrey (0.19). I’ll be blunt: I have no idea what happened to Cook in the three-cone and burst drills at the NFL Combine. I do know, however, that his ability to make defenders miss with his feet and with slight yet deceiving lower-body movement is extremely advanced for a college runner.
In contrast, while Cook was posting a 10th percentile score in the three-cone agility drill, Christian McCaffrey was busy racking up a 98th percentile mark. McCaffrey’s amazing elusiveness is only further personified by Yards Created data.
McCaffrey is easily one of the most elusive backs in Yards Created’s very short history. 60.3% of McCaffrey’s cumulative missed tackles in his sample came via a juke, spin, or cut (elusiveness). That is staggering.
We have seen that McCaffrey is nothing short of a craftsman regardless of formation, run type, and defensive alignment but he does not possess the long-speed or linear explosion of some of his peers in the 2017 class. Now, that is not to say McCaffrey lacks enough speed to succeed in the NFL. At 0.10 missed tackles forced per attempt by speed, McCaffrey is just closer to average here respective of other metrics. McCaffrey is not a rough runner with explosive power and break-neck pace, but he instead dominates with short area quickness and all-world agility. That is a winning formula.
Perhaps more importantly, however – McCaffrey also happens to be one of the best receiving running backs in recent college history.
Route Run Data
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||6.0||3.4||2.56||90.0%||10.0%||4.73|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||3.8||1.4||-0.71||89.5%||10.5%||2.74|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||7.7||3.0||0.40||89.6%||10.4%||3.40|
(Data sorted by Targets per Game).
You read that correctly. Christian McCaffrey averaged 5.6 targets/game at Stanford in his Yards Created sample, which is by far and away the most among qualifiers in my database. Stanford split McCaffrey out at receiver on just over 30% of his routes, making him one of just three running backs to run over 20% of his routes from out wide over the past two years.
From a counting statistics perspective, McCaffrey is one of the most prolific college rushers—and receivers—of our time. In fact, he is one of just 12 running backs since 2000 to run for at least 3,500 yards and have over 1,000 receiving yards in a career. Among players on that list, McCaffrey leads everyone in both yards per carry (6.2) and yards per reception (12.1) for their respective careers. That’s absurd.
One last time, Joe Mixon’s name rests near the top of a list in Yards Created’s coffers. In this instance, it’s in receiving yards gained per route run (10.70). As if he needed to further show how dynamic he is—beyond his sublime rushing data and amazing missed tackles performance—Mixon leads the class in both career and 2016 receiving yards/game. As for Mixon, the running back – I can’t find a single bad word to say. His on-field performance in his Yards Created sample is really only paralleled by Ezekiel Elliott. Once Mixon is drafted in late-April, I will provide a full breakdown of his game that accompanies his new team.
Alvin Kamara is a tough back to crack as a runner, but there is no denying that he is a strong receiver. Kamara was split out wide on nearly 20% of his routes and was utilized heavily in the passing game while at Tennessee in 2016. Among the 14 running backs in this sample, only Christian McCaffrey (18%) accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s receiving yardage in 2016 than Alvin Kamara (15%). What’s more, Kamara was fourth—by a small margin—in receiving yards/game amongst the bunch. Joe Mixon led the way in 2016 with 44.8 receiving yards/game while Dalvin Cook (37.5), Jeremy McNichols (36.5), and Kamara (35.6) followed suit.
As a former wide receiver that converted to running back when entering Boise State, it should be no surprise that Jeremy McNichols posted strong receiving scores. Even though he still has a lot of room to improve as an inside-zone runner, I am of the mind that McNichols is a little bit underrated. We can make sense of McNichols’ below average rushing data with the fact that he faced eight or more defenders on 57.2% of his carries and by the fact his surrounding talent was nothing to right home about. Dominating 74% of your team’s rushing yards and ripping defenses for 131.5 rushing yards/game like McNichols did in 2016 is pretty strong in it’s own right.
But how impressive is it, that as a former receiver, McNichols may be the best pass-protector in the class?
Pass Protection Execution Rate (PPE)
|Name||Pass Pro Att.||Pass Pro Execution%|
|Leonard Fournette (2016)||15||86.7%|
|Leonard Fournette (2015)||10||80.0%|
|Sample Avg. (2015-16)||15.8||77.4%|
(Data sorted by Pass Protection Execution%).
To be fair to all running backs coming out of college, almost everyone struggles in pass protection at one time or another. Its why in almost every scouting report, you will see some version of the language: “needs to improve in pass protection” or that he is “up-and-down protecting the passer”. The good news is that I’m not here to provide clichés.
Outside of Ezekiel Elliott (94.1% pass protection execution rate), there is not a single running back in either of the last two classes that is “pro-ready” to handle NFL-caliber defensive pressure. Every running back just needs different levels of fine-tuning when protecting the quarterback.
Jeremy McNichols and Leonard Fournette both appear to be the closest to NFL-ready when it comes to protecting the pocket on passing downs. Fournette’s strong pass pro scores may come as a surprise given the untrue narrative that he is a liability in the passing game, but it’s still notable that the former-Tiger improved his pass pro execution rate by almost 7% and upped his receiving yards gained per route run by almost 2.0 yards year-over-year.
Unlike McNichols, Samaje Perine is a great example of a running back that may never be a passing-catching dynamo—he only caught one ball per game in 2016—but that can still stay on the field on passing downs by playing as a sixth-protector.
On the flip side, you’ll also notice another myth was busted here. Despite his smaller frame, Christian McCaffrey posted an above-average pass protection execution rate to accompany his prodigious receiving prowess. Like all college backs, McCaffrey still has room to improve as a pass-protector but he doesn’t have as much ground to make up relative to the field.
Despite a shoulder injury that nagged him at times while at FSU, Dalvin Cook posted strong pass protection scores. Somewhat similarly to McCaffrey, the former-Seminole has been improperly characterized as a slighter back that needs heaps of work protecting the passer.
As always, though – please keep in mind that pass protection is more of a system-by-system assignment. Every school—and every NFL team—asks slightly different tasks of their backs.
(Column originally posted April 2017 at Fantasy Guru).