A Metrics Breakdown of Top Running Backs: Tier 2

The second grouping of RBs certainly has its fair share of interesting prospects. Among the group, there are intriguing RBs like Marcus Lattimore and Christine Michael as well as college workhorses like Stepfan Taylor and Montee Ball. Are any of them worth being considered in the first tier? I’ll explore their college production, trying to determine just that.

Statistics are best used when put in the proper context and combined with film study. These metrics can tell you exactly how many tackles Lattimore broke and can provide support for what you see on film, but it can’t tell you what to feel about a player. Keep that in mind as you read through them. All statistics are provided by STATS ICE, a system that has every game charted from BCS contests this past year.

How Were They in the Open Field?

To start, we’re going to focus on how many extra yards the running backs were able to generate. Combining two common RB metrics, I’ve created an Extra score on a scale of 0-50, combining yards after contact per run and percentage of total yards after broken contact. The score is then divided by their size, since these metrics are geared slightly towards bigger backs. The size factor only had a slight effect on their overall scores. The higher the score the more extra yards a back created.

Montee
Ball
Marcus
Lattimore
Joseph
Randle
Mike
Gillislee
Christine
Michael
Stepfan
Taylor
Extra 27.5 13.87 27.46 16.95 21.76 25.43
Bkn Tak % 4.78% 1.40% 4.01% 2.46% 4.55% 4.97%
YAC 2.49 1.95 2.60 1.76 1.76 2.18
  • I’m going to feel bad about writing unkind things about Lattimore, but his ability to break tackles and gain extra yardage was abysmal. Maybe the lack of ability was due to his previous injury or some other unforeseen factors. On 143 carries he only had 2 broken tackles according to the STATS ICE data. That’s rough for a 230-pound running back regardless of how you slice it.
  • Ball and Taylor, the two workhorse backs, were just about average in these measures. You might hope for some more broken tackles and yards after contact from Taylor given his reputation, but all in all it’s not something that would drastically alter my perception of them.
  • My first instinct is to blame Lattimore and Mike Gillislee’s poor numbers on playing SEC defenses, but Eddie Lacy proved that one could indeed generate extra yardage against tough opponents. That type of ability is clearly what separates Lacy from the other RBs.  As for Gillislee, he’s on the smaller side at 208 pounds, so this could indicate that he may not be cut out for an every down role in the NFL.

Did Their Offensive Systems Suit Them?

With this metric, I’ve adjusted for run direction and formation to create a generic offensive system. Thus, how would they fare if their O-line remained the same, but each of their offensive coordinators ran the same number of times to each direction and formation. The goal is to see if the RBs were used optimally in their offenses. Due to the prevalence of the read-option in college, the directions are broken down into left-middle-right instead of off tackle, etc.

Montee
Ball
Marcus
Lattimore
Joseph
Randle
Mike
Gillislee
Christine
Michael
Stepfan
Taylor
Adjusted Yds 183.72 18.89 -17.60 -9.06 26.21 86.70
Left YPC 5.07 4.48 6.48 4.92 4.29 4.28
Middle YPC 5.19 3.79 4.63 4.06 5.37 4.88
Right YPC 4.71 9.00 4.75 6.53 2.25 4.75
  • Le’Veon Bell and Ball both had drastic increases in yardage when I adjusted for their systems. What this tells me is that it’s possible their Big Ten offenses were insistent on pounding the ball in a certain direction and out of certain formations without further thought for their skills. Had Ball been in an ‘average offense’ he would have gained roughly 183 more yards by this metric.
  • Taylor faced a similar predicament at Stanford, gaining 87 yards in an adjusted offense. The trend seems to be highlighting systems that concentrated on running the ball consistently and from under center. For all of these RBs, it could show they have the talent to thrive in more creative NFL offenses.
  • Every other RB was well utilized. Each one could have had minor gains or losses, but for the most part their programs used them in ways that took advantage of their talents.
  • Both Ball and Taylor were extremely consistent when running each direction. That’s exactly the type of back they need to be: consistent, well-rounded players.

How Clutch Were They?

The clutch metric measures how well each RB did in obvious rushing situations. Game situations like third and shorts, running when a team is ahead, and a few more factors combine to create a score 0-100 to measure the quality of a RB in clutch situations. A higher score meaning a RB is more clutch.

Montee
Ball
Marcus
Lattimore
Joseph
Randle
Mike
Gillislee
Christine
Michael
Stepfan
Taylor
Clutch 60.34 62.62 70.21 57.14 34.35 44.89
Third & Short YPC 3.30 3.30 5.10 3.20 2.10 2.90
  • To this point I haven’t written anything about Joseph Randle, but his clutch score is tops in this tier and third overall amongst RBs. The high score is mostly due to the fact that in third and short situations, he averaged 5.1 yards. That’s to say, he averaged enough to get a first down in third down situations, an impressive stat.
  • For a slower, bruising back, Taylor’s YPC on third and short was a bit wanting. He only averaged 2.9 yards in these clutch situations. Honestly, you’d expect more for a bigger RB who was used to pounding it up the middle.
  • Ball, Lattimore, and Gillislee all come out around the same with around 3.2-3.3 YPC in clutch situations and solid all-around scores in the Clutch metric.
  • Michael’s 2.1 yards per carry is underwhelming. For a big, athletic back who needs to find a niche in the NFL this stat certainly doesn’t do him any favors. It’s true that A&M likely used him in only the most obvious of situations, so that’s a possible reason for his low YPC.

How Many of Their Yards Were Free?

This section is a little bit of an experiment, combining some of my own charting ideas with the STATS ICE data. What I’ve done is sample their games and count the number of plays in which the running back was not touched or did not have to make a football move (juke, spin, etc) within 5 yards of the LOS. This is to measure how many “free” touches each RB got. It doesn’t necessarily measure the quality of the line because the quality of defenses affects the metric as well, but it gives you a feel for how many easy runs each RB had. I only counted runs that even the most mediocre of RBs could have made, so field vision didn’t play a factor.

Montee
Ball
Marcus
Lattimore
Joseph
Randle
Mike
Gillislee
Christine
Michael
Stepfan
Taylor
% Carries 4.67% 5.00% 10.75% 3.33% N/D* 4.59%
% Yardage 12.63% 17.71% 40.1% 18.39% N/D* 11.42%
  • The first thing that sticks out is Randle’s ridiculously high amount of free yardage and carries. Nearly 11% of his carries left him untouched within the first 5 yards of his run. Those runs weren’t just 7 or 8 yard runs, 40% of his yardage came on those. Whether it was poor Big 12 defensive effort or the result of an offensive line that only allowed 12 sacks this year, he got a lot of help.
  • Gillislee didn’t get much help from his offensive line at all. Between strong SEC defenses, a passing game that couldn’t get out of its own way, and some mediocre offensive line play, only 3.33% of his carries were free.
  • Much has been made of the Wisconsin offensive line. While no one would argue that the line play was as superb as previous years, these statistics don’t indicate he received an undue amount of free yardage. Both his percentage of carries and yardage are near average, which would seem to indicate that any talk about Ball’s o-line last year was far overblown.

* Michael was left out since he had such a limited amount of carries relative to the other players, the sample size would have been much smaller than the other players.