Demarco Murray and the Hidden Value of Special Teams Stats

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.

Receiving Yards

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.

F3 receiving yards



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.

F3 rush yards per game

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 McAllisterJonathan 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.

Marcus MurphyMissouri23.287203623.437580110.74
Akeem HuntPurdue21.974174723.620000
Ross ScheuermanLafayette21.872164522.820000
Duke JohnsonMiami (FL)21.341128831.420000
BJ CatalonTCU213699727.720000
Todd GurleyGeorgia20.41142238.420000
Ameer AbdullahNebraska21.661159226.113131610.21
Tevin ColemanIndiana21.7306902310000
Corey GrantAuburn232356324.510000
David JohnsonNorthern Iowa231243836.510000
Trey WilliamsTexas A&M22.170168424.100000
Prince-Tyson GulleySyracuse22.64291121.706447.30
Zach ZennerSouth Dakota State23.33275423.600000
Karlos WilliamsFlorida State21.72965522.600000
Tyler VargaYale21.32353423.200000
John CrockettNorth Dakota State22.91635722.300000
Jahwan EdwardsBall State22.41625816.100000
Rasheed WilliamsAlfred State22.592072300000
Melvin GordonWisconsin21.7817421.800000
Terrence MageeLSU21.839431.300000
Donovonn YoungIllinois22.188210.300000
Dominique BrownLouisville237649.100000
Dee HartColorado State22.4357190171498.80
Braylon HeardKentucky23.223316.500000
Jay AjayiBoise State21.51161600000
Gus JohnsonStephen F. Austin21.41111100000
Terrell WatsonAzusa Pacific21.400001660
Joey IosefaHawaii2300000000
Matt JonesFlorida21.800000000
David CobbMinnesota21.600000000
TJ YeldonAlabama21.200000000
Kenny HilliardLSU23.200000000
Malcolm BrownTexas21.600000000
Dreamius SmithWest Virginia22.300000000
Buck AllenUSC23.300000000
Michael DyerLouisville24.200000000
Mike DavisSouth Carolina21.900000000
Josh RobinsonMississippi State22.400000000
Thomas RawlsCentral Michigan21.400000000
Cameron Artis-PayneAuburn24.500000000
Jeremy LangfordMichigan State23.100000000
Malcolm AgnewSouthern Illinois21.600000000

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.