2018 RB Class

Saquon Barkley Broke Yards Created

It’s hard for incredibly hyped prospects to exceed expectations. Not only are these young individuals exposed to levels of ridicule that people rarely endure in their professional life, but high expectations surrounding a potential top-ten pick in the NFL Draft have a specific aurora around them. A layer of transcendence, if you will. With notoriety comes lofty Too Big To Fail forecasts and, in turn, incredible scrutiny.

Enter 21-year-old, soon-to-be first round draft choice, Saquon Barkley.

There is no denying Barkley’s case as an all-time collegiate running back. Since 2000, there have been just 42 occurrences in which a college RB rushed for at least 1,200 yards and had over 400 yards receiving in a single-season. Barkley did so twice in 2016 and once more in 2017. As an 18-year-old freshman in 2015, Saquon Barkley became Penn State’s starting back — dropping 182/1076/7 on the ground and adding 20/161/1 via the air.

However, does Barkley’s clout as a prospect stand up against the judgment of Yards Created?

Let’s turn to the data to find out.

The Phenom

Since this is the third year Yards Created has been in publication, we have a backlog of 30-plus collegiate running backs to set baselines around, form natural parameters, and better understand the data. A much larger sample size to work from has provided unequivocal truths, like how a collegiate running back entering the draft from 2015-17 averages about 5.1 Yards Created per Attempt and his offensive line opens up 1.1 Yards Blocked per rush.

Now, of course, Saquon Barkley has much loftier hopes than simply beating Yards Created baselines. As you will continue to read later on this year, Yards Created has evolved into much more than just charting runs and recording yardage gained by the back and line. Still, the nuts and bolts of this project have stayed the same: Yards Created (on a per carry basis), missed tackles forced, pass protection, and receiving output remain the analytical tenants.

At its core, Yards Created seeks one answer: What can a running back offer that others don’t?

With Saquon Barkley, you get everything.

Over the last three years, Saquon Barkley ranks in the top-four of the following central categories of Yards Created:

Yards Created per Carry 2nd
Missed Tackles per Carry 1st
Missed Tackles per Opportunity (attempts plus targets) 1st
Pass Protection Execution 2nd
Receiving Yards Gained per Route Run 4th

That’s right.

As a runner, Saquon Barkley is firmly in an elite territory of former first-round picks on a per carry basis. Joe Mixon leads Yards Created’s coffers (6.75 Yards Created/Attempt), but a cohort of phenoms follows him. Barkley (6.04 YC/Att), 2016 No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott (5.98 YC/Att), 2017 No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette (5.85 YC/Att), and 2017 rookie of the year Alvin Kamara (5.82 YC/Att) round out Yards Created’s top-five most best backs on a per carry basis over the last three seasons.

Not only is he the most second-most efficient runner at creating yards over the last three years after Joe Mixon, but Barkley is also the most slippery back to tackle, too. Over the previous three years, Barkley (0.580) reigns king over Mixon (0.577) and Yards Created standout Kareem Hunt (0.561) in Missed Tackles Forced per Opportunity.

With stellar balance, burst, body control, and lateral agility — Saquon Barkley put down moves on the field that other ball carriers can only dream of. It’s poetry in motion. At any given moment, Barkley can stop on a dime, hurdle defenders, walk the tightrope on the sidelines, or exchange his ballerina-like body control into a punishing wrecking ball.

All of this comes without mentioning Barkley’s top calling card: Pure, unadulterated speed. Saquon Barkley made at least one defender miss with speed alone on a mindnumbing 26% of his sampled carries, which is the most in Yards Created history — zooming past former No. 1 Dalvin Cook (21%) and No. 2 Alvin Kamara (19%).

Indeed, Barkley is arguably the most accomplished runner in Yards Created history. But, just as a bonus, Barkley is also the best asset to enter the NFL Draft in the passing game, too. With 4.1 receptions and 48.6 yards per game in his final year, Barkley leads all backs over the last three years in final-season receiving output. On that note, Barkley’s 4.53 receiving yards per route run ranks fourth behind Mixon (10.7), Kareem Hunt (6.43), and Kenneth Dixon (5.37) all-time while his Pass Protection Execution rate (93%) is second only to Ezekiel Elliott (94%) by a slim margin.

With prodigious production on both a per game and per route basis combined with steady pass-blocking chops, Barkley is an undeniably well-rounded asset in the passing game.

Nonetheless, in the face of overwhelming data suggesting greatness, there is one point that puts a slight snag in Barkley’s Yards Created evaluation: He struggled running in between the tackles. Was it all Barkley’s fault?

Pessimists Can Have Their Doubts

Running back and offensive line play will always be interconnected. Yards Created only attempts to isolate the two factors in some fashion, but the runner and his blockers will eternally form an inseparable marriage. Moreover, Saquon Barkley dominated in his 2017 sample — but he did so behind one of the worst offensive lines in Yards Created history.

Take a look at the bottom-five offensive lines charted in the 2016-18 NFL Draft classes:

LA Tech 2016 0.59
FSU 2017 0.66
PSU 2018 0.73
UCLA 2016 0.73
San Jose State 2016 0.73

So we may avoid bias, this is not just Yards Created data suggesting the Nittany Lions’ offensive line struggled in 2017. Penn State’s run-blocking ranked 63rd — one spot behind Syracuse — in FootballOutsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards.

Furthermore, while Barkley’s 3.55 Yards Created per carry on attempts in between the tackles is well below average (4.67) and sticks out like a sore thumb compared to his distinguished data elsewhere, that number needs a heap of context. The Nittany Lions’ 0.33 Yards Blocked per attempt on inside carries is the worst figure in Yards Created history. On average, offensive lines open up 1.09 yards of space per tote on attempts in between the tackles — essentially making Penn State’s interior line 70% worse than collegiate average.

Now, to be fair, Barkley does partly share in the blame — a running back is not an island — but the lack of creativity on inside runs is a function of an interior line that struggled intensely in 2017. Still, it’s no wonder Barkley struggled running the rock up the gut in 2017. Created yards is undeniably correlated with blocked yards, especially on runs in between the tackles.

Context is always king.

Hype’s Doorstep

Besides a poor showing in Yards Created on inside runs masked by a dreadful offensive line, Saquon Barkley destroyed all expectations set in front of him. His astonishing finishes across the board in Yards Created per attempt, missed tackles forced (both on a per carry and per opportunity basis), and his pass game chops deliver the package of a prescient superstar in the making.

Despite having the third-worst (tied) offensive line in Yards Created history, Barkley posted the second-best figure created yards per attempt ever and is, by far, the most accomplished off-tackle rusher in this project’s lifespan. At an astronomical 9.25 Yards Created per off-tackle rush, Barkley ripped past all-star backs Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott for the single-best figure on outside runs ever.

Admittedly, it’s easy to nitpick and get stuck on small surmountable issues in players’ games. One way or another, we’ve all been blinded by bias or extrapolated concerns that are either correctable or in desperate need of context.

However, in Saquon Barkley‘s case — he knocked on hype’s doorstep and shattered through it with a mountain of decisive data points. To that end, all of Barkley’s immense strengths outweigh his nit-picked, context-devoid weaknesses. To-date, Barkley is the best all-around back in Yards Created history.

(Originally posted February 2018).

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