With a desire to develop my skills in evaluating talent, I have often listened to many podcasts that discuss talent evaluation. There have been many tools made available to the fantasy community to provide a summation of in-game observations. There are tools like Airyards.com, Reception Perception, and NextGenStats that help us evaluate the passing game, but I have had trouble finding tools that capture running back abilities. It is important for fantasy players like myself to have a tools that help us scope our film study.
Matt Harmon‘s Reception Perception is one of these tools I used to scope my film study. It is a wonderful collection of articles (now exclusive to The Fantasy Footballers) summarizing his film study of top receiver prospects in the draft and the NFL with a focus on how often they get open. One of the best things about Reception Perception is the graphical representation of the data from his film study which is awesome for visual people like myself.
I have always wanted to create something similar for running backs, but the challenge was identifying what is truly important to rushing performance. Michael Kist on BGN Radio trimmed down the numerous contributing factors to rushing performance to three factors he uses in his evaluations:
- Vision: How well the running back can see and navigate the field through the defense. Essentially, identifying the hole at the point of attack.
- Burst: Noticeable acceleration through the identified hole.
- Balance: Lateral balance through contact.
There are two other factors that I wanted to add to these metrics because they seem relevant from a fantasy perspective:
- Creation: When the offensive line fails, allowing early penetration or blocking all holes quickly, is the runner able to make something out of what looks like nothing. This quality is something that makes backs special at the next level.
- Blocking: This is more important for draft prospects because good blockers will see the field sooner than their colleagues which translates to more playing time and opportunities
While receiving is becoming an increasingly important aspect of a running back’s fantasy value, I need to determine if there are any observable aspects of receiving beyond basic receptions/targets metrics.
This is where the Running Back Vision (RBV) posts come in. To perform this evaluation, I will be looking at the top 10 running back draft prospects for this initial attempt. For each of these backs, at least four available cut ups available on Draftbreakdown.com or YouTube (only cut ups vs a single team). If more than four are available, the two best and two worst statistical games will be evaluated. Four games is an admittedly small sample size, but with limited free time this will at least allow me time to evaluate the methodology.
Once the evaluation of all ten backs are completed, then there metrics will be compared and an average will be derived. Then the following graphic will be created to help you envision the possibilities for the running back at the next level:
Each shape will be color coordinated based on their comparison to the class:
- Blue: Above group average in category
- Yellow: Within 2 percentage points of group average
- Red: Below group average
With regard to the objective measurement of each category, here is what I am looking for:
- Vision: A percentage of total snaps where it is observed the runner identified and and ran through the hole at the point of attack
- Burst: A percentage of total snaps where it is observed the runner accelerated suddenly through the hole or around the edge
- Balance: A percentage of total snaps where it is observed that a runner continues running forward motion after contact from the side (can look bad for runners that avoid contact well with their vision)
- Creation: Percentage of times where positive yards are created when offensive line gives up early penetration or fails to open a hole
- Blocking: Percentage of blocking assignments where initial blocking attempt is successful (QB isn’t sacked, or forced from pocket by defender being blocked)
After performing evaluations on ten rookie running backs, it was interesting to me that my eyes told me some different stories than what I read or heard from other fantasy analysts. I also realize that it is okay for my observations to differ from what other analysts have shared so long as my observations don’t completely oppose the consensus. When that happens it will be acknowledged, but at the end my observations are just that: what I saw on tape.
For this series, will work through the ten backs that I evaluated revealing them in two groups: 10th – 6th and 5th – 1st. The ranking order will be based on vision, as that capability is the most important to me as a fantasy owner. If a running back cannot consistently identify the hole to run through, all the burst, balance, and creativity in the world will not matter. All those other capabilities build on the vision, therefore I will reveal my findings working backwards from the runner displaying the worst vision all the way to the top. Keep in mind, the games chosen for the observation sample directly influence what has been observed. For context here is the range of outcomes for this sample:
- Vision: 27-55% – Average: 36%
- Burst: 17-29% – Average: 23%
- Balance: 9-26% – Average: 10%
- Blocking: 48-94% – Average: 77%
- Creation: 2-7% – Average: 4%
It was noticeable that Johnson often runs into back of linemen which correlates with his seeming lack of vision compared to the observed group. Part of his issues in this area come from attacking the line of scrimmage with a little too much aggression, but would do well to show a little more patience. When he learns this patience he must also learn to be more fluid with his feet as they often seemed to stop moving when encountered with blocked up holes. If he can develop in this area, he could become a steal later in dynasty rookie drafts. The redeeming factor is that he was around the group average when it came to creation, which gives a little hope for him being able to make something out of nothing.
His burst was average compared to the group, but unfortunately his burst is capped by having no real breakaway speed. This will cap his upside and also explains why he did not attempt the 40 at the combine. Kerryon was third in this class of running backs in the broad jump though, and his leg drive was on display several times as he fell forward or pushed the pile. This is a nice quality for running back with his style being less evasive and more of a bruiser. Unfortunately, his balance was below the group average so Johnson isn’t likely to gain extra yards when encountering contact down the field.
Blocking should get him on the field early as he seemed to block pretty well compared to the group. During some of his blocking attempts he was steady and successful when being required to block for extended periods.
Overall, Johnson could be a solid fantasy contributor in the right fit. Don’t let him be drafted to a team with a great offensive line though because this could unlock his potential as he hones his craft at the pro level. If he gets drafted into a mediocre offensive fit, then his ceiling is probably around low-end RB2 or hihg-end RB3.
At 6′ 1″, 228 lbs Ballage is intriguing even though his vision was only marginally better than Kerryon Johnson’s vision. The big difference here is that Ballage has nimble feet, allowing him to avoid more contact than Johnson. Additionally, his feet allowed him to transition from receiving to bursting up the field often. Unfortunately, his film didn’t display as much capability in the balance department that would afford him opportunities to generate extra yards after contact. However, his leg drive (confirmed with the 5th ranked broad jump in this RB class) when trying to drive the pile was evident several times. If his vision improves, Ballage has the speed (confirmed by 4.46 40-yd dash time) to take full advantage of the point of attack.
His blocking, although successful per this sample, could use some work. It seemed he liked to block low a lot of the time which is an effective tactic on short passes, but it would be ineffective at the next level. If he can shore that up, he could see the field earlier than many in this class.
With receiving chops being the other component that gets backs on the field, watching Ballage run as many routes as he did (especially with 4.46 speed and 6′ 1″ height) in interesting. Arizona State clearly trusted him to run routes often, so much so that he split out wide on many snaps and even ran a few deep patterns. If he ever gets matched up with a linebacker on a wheel route, watch out! His ball skills seemed solid as well as many of his targets were behind him, but he was able to adjust to the ball and make the reception. Ballage has a great high-RB2 ceiling if teams elect to utilize his full skillset.
Ranked at 8th in vision is Rashaad Penny (37%), which is interesting because his yards per carry for 2017 was 2nd in the evaluated group behind only Sony Michel. Many analysts state that he has excellent vision, so I have to attribute my downgrade in his vision to the quality of the sample I have compared to what many other analysts can access. Based on the non-highlight Youtube cut ups I could find, he definitely has been able to show his vision since he generally gains big when he hits the hole hard. His offensive line did not consistently provide running lanes, essentially robbing him of opportunities to show off his vision. His burst on the other hand, showed off his 4.46 speed where he was frequently able to outrun defenders to the endzone.
Since burst and vision have a strong correlation with each other in the sense that you want to see a runner hit holes and creases with suddenness, another perspective became important. When displaying vision, how consistently did the running back exploit holes and creases with his acceleration. Penny performed with a burst:vision ratio of 64%. For a point of comparison, Chubb (#7 in vision) was a whole 20% less at 44%.
Penny does boast balance above the group average. This capability helped him gain plenty of extra yards after contact. Perhaps all of these capabilities will overshadow some of his struggles in blocking. If the observed 79% success rate at blocking is true across his career, then teams could be reluctant to have him on the field during third down which would be a shame given that he showed decent receiving ability on the field in the 15 routes that he ran.
Given what has been seen and read about Rashaad Penny, the efficiency of the offensive line he inherits and his ability to grow in the area of blocking will be the determining factors in his ceiling. As it stands Penny’s floor should be around low to mid RB2, but adding those other two factors could have him flirting with RB1 territory.
One has to wonder how much the knee injury has affected Nick Chubb, and my observations somewhat justify the concern. Over the last few years, people had been talking up Nick Chubb as the top of the running back class. Based on the hype around Chubb, I had to take another look just to be sure that I saw what I saw. After looking at some more tape on Nick Chubb, I’m still comfortable with my observations, which have him around the group average in vision. I noticed when revisiting the tape that it should be understood that there is a range of quality in how each runner takes advantage of their vision that simply cannot be quantified.
When looking at the quality of maximized opportunities, Chubb was able to hit some crazy narrow creases at times the offensive line would provide little help at times. This is a quality I love in running backs, because we never know what offensive line these guys will play behind. The other desirable quality Chubb shows when displaying his vision is his toughness getting extra yards. While this is not necessarily reflected in his average balance rating, you can see often he carries defenders for a few more yards after contact.
His total upside may be capped however as there wasn’t much evidence of his ability to create when the line fails. Additionally, if his real blocking capability is reflected in my observations, his sub-par blocking could impact how many 3rd down snaps he might see. Receiving chops can also be a factor in getting on the field, however there wasn’t much evidence to support the idea that this aspect of his game would earn him 3rd down either. Just because he didn’t do much of it in college doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it. Depending on his team destination, I recommend looking at as many camp reports as possible to determine if the are trying to use him as a receiver at all. On the few targets observed, he looked comfortable catching the ball and with 4.5 speed he will most definitely be a mismatch for linebackers if used in this way.
6. Ronald Jones II
Ronald Jones is exciting to watch with his speed and elusiveness in the open field. Ranking 6th out of this group in vision, he shows a lot of qualities that we like in draft prospect at this position. While being around the average of the group in showing burst and balance his 92% in blocking will surely get him on the field early. In addition, he took clear advantage of opportunities to create when the situation called for it at 6% of observed snaps. Vision and creation when combined with the extra opportunities afforded by being a solid blocker are encouraging for Jones as a prospect.
His durability concerns me a little. While he doesn’t have a long injury history, him pulling up lame at the combine reminds me of John Ross when he ran his 40-yard dash. That injury plagued Ross for his entire rookie year, and that would be a real significant detriment to a dynasty team. Not running at USC’s pro-day doesn’t help our confidence in this matter either. If this hamstring issue persists as they are wont to do, it could short circuit his early career productivity. The earlier seasons for running backs are where we see most of their career production so to lose one would hurt.
I just wish he had a little more weight to him, because I didn’t witness many snaps where he was able to push the pile or fall forward. This is a small aspect that could enhance his game, but if he can remain elusive and fast it shouldn’t matter so much.
Overall, this potential home run hitter could be a nice addition in a rookie draft assuming he returns to full health. It feels so cliche’ to say “if he goes to the right fit the sky is the limit”, but that doesn’t make it any less true here. For this specific prospect I will be watching the draft and those early OTA/camp reports closely for possible re-aggravation of the hamstring issue.
Running backs 5 – 1 ….