A Metrics Breakdown of Top Running Backs: Tier 1

By Greg Peshek
April 9, 2013

Photo: James Santelli/Neon Tommy

Running backs are one of the harder positions to evaluate through statistics and metrics. Each RB’s fate is inextricably linked to the quality of his offensive line, thus skewing many of the standard statistics. It’s possible for the Alabama O-Line to elevate Eddie Lacy just as much as Michigan State’s line diminishes Le’Veon Bell. However, if we realize some of the upcoming metrics are influenced by the O-lines, we can put them to good use.

Statistics are best used when put in the proper context and combined with film study. These metrics can tell you exactly how many tackles Andre Ellington 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.

  Johnathan
Franklin
Eddie
Lacy
Giovani
Bernard
Andre
Ellington
Le'Veon
Bell
Extra 39.8 35.0 41.7 31.8 24.0
Bkn Tak % 8.16% 7.84% 8.15% 5.66% 4.19%
YAC 2.71 2.88 3.19 2.59 2.41
  • Giovani Bernard generated the most extra yardage and came out with the highest score amongst the group. His high percentage of broken tackles is impressive for a smaller running back and most likely can be attributed to his above-average speed. He also had the highest yards after contact, which is surprising given his 202lb weight at the combine.
  • Lacy came in third in this metric behind Bernard and Johnathan Franklin, generating 2.88 yards after contact per carry and broken tackles on 7.84% of his runs. You might expect higher given that he’s considered the premier power back in this draft, but we must consider the difficulty in running over players against stronger SEC defenses.
  • Another big back that slightly disappointed was Bell. His extra yardage score came in 6th amongst the 11 RBs I looked at. His yards after contact was respectable, but he only broke tackles on 4.19% of his carries. I can’t prove this with the data I have, but I suspect Bell’s incredibly high amount of carries wore him down and caused these numbers to be lower relative to players with less carries.

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.

  Johnathan
Franklin
Eddie
Lacy
Giovani
Bernard
Andre
Ellington
Le'Veon
Bell
Adjusted Yds -202.4 57.7 -34.0 -147.7 130.3
Left YPC 6.10 5.44 9.21 6.94 4.95
Middle YPC 5.61 6.08 5.83 4.03 4.36
Right YPC 7.95 8.56 4.73 7.17 5.19
  • Franklin, Ellington and Bernard would all suffer in this generic offense. That doesn’t mean we should discount their production or diminish their accomplishments. It simply means that their systems took advantage of their strengths.
  • According to this metric, Bell was used inefficiently in Michigan State’s offense. Bell was extremely effective out of shotgun, averaging 5.94 yards but only ran out of the formation 20% of the time. Interestingly, for a ‘bruising’ back, Bell’s worst direction was rushing up the middle. This is one of those cases where context is extremely important; MSU’s passing game was woeful at best and the O-line wasn’t much better. Facing defenses stacked in the box didn’t do his YPC many favors.
  • Lacy should be thanking DJ Fluker every chance he gets. Lacy averaged 8.56 yards when running to the right, likely due to Fluker and Alabama’s TE Michael Williams. He still averaged a quality 6.08 yards running up the middle.
  • Ellington was sub-par at running up the middle, averaging 4.03 yards per carry. It’s tough to tell whether that will transfer to the pros, but it might be worth going back to the film to check out.

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.

  Johnathan
Franklin
Eddie
Lacy
Giovani
Bernard
Andre
Ellington
Le'Veon
Bell
Clutch 48.5 79.2 72.8 47.2 55.5
Third & Short YPC 2.70 5.10 3.20 3.70 3.80
  • Lacy was superb in 3rd and 4-or-less-to-go situations, averaging more than enough to pick up the first down with 5.1 yards per carry.
  • Bernard, although not having the highest YPC on third and short situations was ranked highly in the clutch ratings.
  • Bell had the third highest YPC in third and short situations among all 11 RBs at 3.8 yards. That means on average he gamed 3.8 out of the 4 yards necessary to convert a first down in these situations.

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 five yards of the line of scrimmage. 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.

  Johnathan
Franklin
Eddie
Lacy
Giovani
Bernard
Andre
Ellington
Le'Veon
Bell
% Carries 6.67% 4.60% 7.14% 4.40% 1.90%
% Yardage 23.84% 17.54% 22.22% 11.03% 8.07%
  • Approximately 23% of Franklin and Bernard’s yardage came from free runs. What this means is that 23% of their yardage came on only 7% of their carries. They picked up chunk yardage when the offensive line got to the second level and defenses couldn’t reach them in time. This could be both a reflection on both their O-lines and the defenses they played.
  • Lacy’s low 4.6% free carries doesn’t mean Alabama’s O-line was bad; Chance Warmack and Fluker alone should quell that criticism. It’s most likely a result of tougher SEC run defenses that swarmed faster to the ball.
  • Poor Bell. He had both the lowest percentage of free carries and yards out of all 11 RBs in the group. The Michigan State O-line just couldn’t open big running lanes or help him get chunk yardage. Although some of his other metrics have been simply average, there’s something to be said for a guy who runs into a wall of defenders, gets back up and does it again play after play.

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