by Nathan Forster
Saquon Barkley, who is perhaps the most hyped running back prospect since Reggie Bush, arrives at an interesting point in NFL history. The running back is no longer a "premier" position in the draft -- NFL teams would much rather use a high pick on an offensive tackle, a pass-rusher, or a wide receiver. Proponents of advanced statistics have been at the forefront of this change of thinking, pointing out that running backs often have short careers and are usually easily replaced. Accordingly, any team willing to go against this trend and use a high pick on Barkley should be fairly certain that he is likely to live up to his hype.
Enter BackCAST, which is Football Outsiders' metric for projecting the likelihood of success for running back prospects in the NFL draft. Historically, a college running back with a good size/speed combination, a high average yards per carry, and who represented a large percentage of his college team's running attack is more likely to succeed at the NFL level. BackCAST considers these factors and projects the degree to which the running back will exceed the NFL production of an "average" drafted running back during his first five years in the NFL. For example, a running back with a +50% BackCAST is projected to gain 50 percent more yards than the "average" drafted running back.
In sum, BackCAST includes the following factors:
- The prospect's weight at the NFL combine.
- The prospect's forty-yard dash at the NFL combine. If he did not run at the combine, BackCAST uses his pro day time.
- The prospect's average yards per rush attempt, with an adjustment for running backs who had fewer career carries than an average drafted running back.
- The prospect's "AOEPS," which measures how much, on average, the prospect's team used him in the running game during his career relative to the usage of an average drafted running back during the same year of eligibility.
- The prospect's receiving yards per game in his college career.
BackCAST also includes "RecIndex," which measures whether the player is likely to be a ground-and-pound two-down back, a player who catches passes out of the backfield more often than he takes handoffs, or something in between. In short, RecIndex measures the likelihood that the player records a disproportionately high or low number of receiving yards versus his rushing yards. The two factors significant in predicting RecIndex are receiving yards per game in college and weight, as smaller players are likely to be receiving backs.
We have run BackCAST for Barkley and all of this year's other top running back prospects. This year, there is a huge gap between the top prospect and the rest of the crop. This draft is also a weak draft for receiving running backs -- with one notable exception.
Would it surprise you to learn that the top prospect and the top receiving back are both Saquon Barkley?
Saquon Barkley, Penn State
BackCAST Score: +181.9%
You can believe the hype: Saquon Barkley has a massive BackCAST projection. Barkley has the second-highest projection of any running back in BackCAST's dataset, and he is a relatively close second to Ricky Willliams' best ever +190.1% projection.
|Top BackCAST Projections, 1998-2018|
Barkley's historically great projection is primarily driven by his great size/speed combination. Barkley is the heaviest running back in BackCAST's dataset to run a forty-yard dash in 4.40 seconds or less.
Moreover, Barkley is not just a workout warrior. Penn State gave Barkley 42.8 percent of its rushing attempts when he was only a freshman, and gave him more than half of its rushing attempts each year thereafter. Nobody knows a player's talents as well as his coaches, who see the player's performance in practice as well as on game day. Any competent coach (as well as most of the incompetent ones) will try to get supremely talented players the ball. Barkley's coaches gave him the ball a lot, and history shows that Barkley's coaches' vote of confidence is an excellent sign for his potential success.
The weakest aspect of Barkley's projection is his yards per attempt. Barkley averaged 5.73 yards per attempt. That is above average. It is just not stratospherically above average like the rest of his metrics.
To top it off, Barkley is also likely to be effective catching passes out of the backfield.
Barkley's numbers don't nullify all the analytics that caution against using a high first-round pick on a running back. And despite all of these positive indicators, Barkley could still conceivably bust. However, it is hard to imagine a much better prospect at the running back position than Saquon Barkley.
Royce Freeman, Oregon
BackCAST Score: +88.1%
In last year's draft, BackCAST had three very good prospects that it rated relatively close together: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon. This year, there is a huge gap between Barkley and BackCAST's second-rated prospect, Royce Freeman.
That said, Freeman is a pretty nice prospect who may be severely underrated as a mid-round pick. Freeman is a good all-around prospect. He received relatively heavy usage at Oregon, he has a good size/speed combination, and he averaged 5.94 yards per rush attempt, even better than Barkley.
Derrius Guice, LSU
BackCAST Score: +86.8%
Derrius Guice is probably appropriately rated as a first- to second-round pick. Guice had a relatively heavy workload in college, especially considering that he had to compete with future top-five pick Leonard Fournette for carries. Guice also did a lot with those opportunities that he did receive -- he averaged 6.40 yards per attempt, which is one of the best marks of this running back draft class.
The downside to Guice is that he is unlikely to give his team much in the receiving game. Guice averaged just over 7 receiving yards per game and is a larger than average back, which are both bad signs for his receiving prospects in the NFL.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
BackCAST Score: +81.0%
Aside from Barkley, Rashaad Penny may be the most intriguing prospect in this year's draft from a BackCAST perspective. Penny averaged a phenomenal adjusted 7.37 yards per attempt, which is the second-highest score in BackCAST's entire database. (Melvin Gordon was No. 1 at 7.8 adjusted yards per attempt.) Penny also has a good size/speed combination -- he is a big back at 222 pounds, but with a 4.46-second forty-yard dash, he has the speed of a running back 20 pounds lighter.
Penny's projection takes a big hit, however, because his workload was comparatively light. In fact, Penny, by far, has the largest disparity between adjusted yards per attempt and college workload in BackCAST's dataset. Until his senior year, Penny was stuck behind other running backs on the depth chart -- most notably, current Philadelphia Eagles running back Donnel Pumphrey.
There is some evidence that San Diego State's coaches may have simply been mistaken about who was the better running back. Every year he played, Penny beat every other running back on the roster in yards per attempt. In particular, Penny averaged over a yard per carry more than Pumphrey as a junior. In fact, if you follow the running back rotation at San Diego State closely, it appears that the coaches gave a lot of weight to running back experience (San Diego State also diverted carries to senior running back Christian Price during Penny's sophomore year). If that is the case, then Penny may be much more talented than his college workload suggests.
In sum, Penny's BackCAST projection is good, and there is significant reason to believe that the one negative aspect of his profile does not reflect his true ability.
Ronald Jones, Southern California
BackCAST Score: +60.0%
Ronald Jones had a reasonably heavy workload at USC. As a junior, Jones accounted for 52.0 percent of his team's carries, while the average drafted running back only accounts for 36.5 percent of his team's carries as a junior. Jones was also fairly explosive when he touched the football, averaging more than 6 yards per carry.
Jones is a bit of an odd case, however, because he is a smaller back, but he never was much of receiver out of the backfield in college.
Nick Chubb, Georgia
BackCAST Score: +76.2%
Sony Michel, Georgia
BackCAST Score: +16.8%
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel shared the same backfield at the University of Georgia, and so it makes sense to consider the two running backs together. Pre-draft prognosticators seem to value Michel over Chubb. BackCAST, however, thinks that Chubb is a far superior prospect, as he outperformed Michel in all of BackCAST's metrics.
Chubb shouldered a much larger share of the workload than Michel, and there is no reason to believe that was due to any unusual circumstance. In fact, the disparity would have been even larger if Chubb had not missed the second half of the 2015 season due to a knee injury. Georgia's coaches, who saw Chubb and Michel in practice every day, clearly preferred Chubb. Michel did not get within 60 carries of Chubb's totals in any year when Chubb was completely healthy. Chubb was also more productive on a per-carry basis.
Chubb is also bigger and faster than Michel. Chubb has a 13-pound weight advantage and had a slightly better forty-yard dash time (4.52 seconds versus 4.54 seconds).
Chubb is likely to be a below-average back in the receiving game, so Michel does have an advantage there, but Michel himself is not much more than average in that category. A smart team would probably avoid Michel in the first round and possibly take a flyer on the guy who actually carried the load for Michel's team.
The following table provides the BackCAST and RecIndex numbers for all of the halfback prospects invited to this year's NFL combine.
|BackCAST Projections, 2018 Combine Running Backs|
|Saquon Barkley||Penn State||233||4.40||20.3%||5.73||31.4||181.9%||0.61|
|Rashaad Penny||San Diego State||220||4.46||-11.2%||7.37||9.4||81.0%||-0.16|
|Ronald Jones||Southern California||205||4.48||10.3%||6.12||7.6||60.0%||-0.09|
|Ryan Nall||Oregon State||232||4.58||3.0%||5.65||18.8||54.2%||0.10|
|Jarvion Franklin||Western Michigan||225||4.63||11.5%||5.17||12.9||27.5%||-0.07|
|Josh Adams||Notre Dame||213||4.71||5.0%||6.57||9.1||21.5%||-0.11|
|Jordan Wilkins||Ole Miss||216||4.53||-3.8%||5.85||8.5||7.2%||-0.16|
|Jeffrey Wilson||North Texas||210||4.56||-0.3%||5.71||12.9||-3.0%||0.07|
|Nyheim Hines||North Carolina State||198||4.38||-10.1%||5.39||24.6||-20.7%||0.67|
|Kalen Ballage||Arizona State||228||4.46||-9.8%||4.53||14.9||-27.8%||-0.02|
|Justin Crawford||West Virginia||202||4.64||-3.4%||6.03||4.2||-45.2%||-0.20|
|Demario Richard||Arizona State||218||4.70||-0.3%||4.95||14.1||-57.3%||0.05|
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)