Earlier this month I detailed the hidden value of college special teams stats for wide receiver prospects and how they might help us identify undervalued commodities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, special teams stats matter for running backs too.
In a recent round of testing I solved for 24 different variables, including a mix of rush yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions and receiving touchdowns and their per-game siblings over the first one, two and three years of a running back’s career. In those 24 tests, at least one special team variable was significant in 23 of the models. In short, college special teams stats matter for running back prospects.
To be clear, draft position is overwhelmingly the most significant predictor of future success for running backs, and rushing production absolutely matters too, but I think our evaluations can be improved through the inclusion of return game stats. Let’s dig into specific applications, case studies and importance for 2015 prospects.
Let’s look at the model for total receiving yards a running back should accumulate in their first three NFL seasons. The r-squared for this model is 0.471 and you’ll see that both career punt return yards and career kick return touchdowns show as significant variables.
Case Study in Punt Return Yardage
Domanick Davis – Despite a sub-par speed score and underwhelming athleticism, Domanick Davis racked up more than 1,276 receiving yards in the first three years of his NFL career, which is eighth-most since 2001, and more than Lesean McCoy and Brian Westbrook in the early parts of their careers. Davis, who won the 2003 Pepsi rookie of the year award as a fourth-round pick, was an elite special teams player at LSU, accounting for more than 1,100 punt return yards and two punt return touchdowns in his college career. Honorable Mentions: Reggie Bush, Marion Barber III, Maurice Jones-Drew
Rushing Yards Per Game
Solving for rushing yards per game over the first three years of a player’s career, we come up with the following equation, which boasts an r-squared of 0.514. As you can see, other than draft position, the next most important things you can know about a running back prospect are how many carries they got per game in college and how many kick return yards they accumulated.
Case Study in Kick Return Yardage
Demarco Murray – For a 6 foot 1 inch, 213 pound running back prospect, it was surprising to learn that Murray returned more than 50 kickoffs while at Oklahoma, accumulating 1,462 yards and two touchdowns in the process. Although he had a great speed score during the draft workouts and his career has been a success, it’s easy to forget now that Murray was the sixth running back drafted that year and was a third-round pick. Perhaps a more well-rounded appreciation of Murray’s skills would have helped identify him as a more unique talent than Daniel Thomas or Mikel Leshoure, who were drafted ahead of him in 2011. Honorable mentions: Larry Johnson, Deuce McAllister, Jonathan Stewart
To be perfectly clear, special teams stats alone are not a silver bullet for identifying undervalued running backs, but I think they can help advance the conversation about a prospect’s talents and their functional athleticism. Obviously it’s preferable to find a prospect who “checks all the boxes” but I think paying attention to a thing like special teams contributions can illuminate athleticism that doesn’t show up in the drills.
2015 Special Teams All Stars
Punt Return Yardage
Ameer Abdullah – One of the most explosive and agile running backs in this draft, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Abdullah was a dynamic punt returner in college. Add this to the fact that he caught more than 70 passes in college and it wouldn’t surprise me if Abdullah emerges as the most productive pass-catcher from this running back class.
Marcus Murphy – I’m probably the first person to get in line to write about Murphy, but I want to drop his name just in case. As a 5 foot 8 inch, 193 pound running back who never accumulated more than 700 yards from scrimmage until his age 23 season, there’s not a lot to like. However, he was SUCH a dynamic special teams player that maybe there’s some underlying functional athleticism that doesn’t show up in testing. Murphy accumulated more than 800 punt return yards and four punt return touchdowns in his Missouri career. For good measure, he added another 2,000 yards and three touchdowns in the kick return game. I could see him sticking as a third-down contributor and return man.
Kick Return Yardage
Duke Johnson – with more than 1,200 career kick return yards and two kick return touchdowns, Duke Johnson is one of the more electric special teams players in this class. He also happens to look a lot like LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, so when you add these factors together it’s easy to imagine him being a big-time runner on a per-game basis.
Zach Zenner – weighing in at 223 pounds, it’s amazing that Zenner was counted on to return kickoffs and did so to the tune of 23.6 yards per attempt, or 754 yards for his career. He’s a mostly unknown small-school runner, but his overall profile compares similarly to Jay Ajayi. Likely to be a late round pick, Zenner fits the mold of a guy who could be quite successful if given a chance.
Karlos Williams – What he lacks in collegiate rushing production, Williams makes up for with intriguing athleticism. At 230 pounds, Williams ran a 4.48 forty, giving him one of the best speed scores in this year’s draft. He also played defensive back at Florida State, which is pretty amazing, and racked up 655 career kick return yards. He’s a wild card, but a fascinating one at that.
Todd Gurley – Despite handling only 11 kickoffs in his college career, Gurley returned two of them for touchdowns en route to a 38.4 yards-per-return average. In my entire database, if I search for running backs over 210 pounds with multiple kick return touchdowns in their career, I get: Michael Turner, Jonathan Stewart, Gurley, George Atkinson, Tristan Davis (who?) and Demarco Murray. That’s the entire list. Not too shabby.
Here’s a list of the special teams stats for 2015 running back prospects. If you don’t see your guy on here, it’s probably because he wasn’t invited to the Combine, which is really important.
|PLAYER||SCHOOL||F Age||KiRt Att||KiRt Yds||KiRt Avg||KiRt TD||PuRt Att||PuRt Yds||PuRt Avg||PuRt TD|
|Duke Johnson||Miami (FL)||21.3||41||1288||31.4||2||0||0||0||0|
|David Johnson||Northern Iowa||23||12||438||36.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Trey Williams||Texas A&M||22.1||70||1684||24.1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Zach Zenner||South Dakota State||23.3||32||754||23.6||0||0||0||0||0|
|Karlos Williams||Florida State||21.7||29||655||22.6||0||0||0||0||0|
|John Crockett||North Dakota State||22.9||16||357||22.3||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jahwan Edwards||Ball State||22.4||16||258||16.1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rasheed Williams||Alfred State||22.5||9||207||23||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dee Hart||Colorado State||22.4||3||57||19||0||17||149||8.8||0|
|Jay Ajayi||Boise State||21.5||1||16||16||0||0||0||0||0|
|Gus Johnson||Stephen F. Austin||21.4||1||11||11||0||0||0||0||0|
|Terrell Watson||Azusa Pacific||21.4||0||0||0||0||1||6||6||0|
|Dreamius Smith||West Virginia||22.3||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mike Davis||South Carolina||21.9||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Robinson||Mississippi State||22.4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Thomas Rawls||Central Michigan||21.4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jeremy Langford||Michigan State||23.1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Malcolm Agnew||Southern Illinois||21.6||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|