Hidden Receiving Ability: 2018 RBs and the Backfield Dominator Rating

In the past we’ve measured RB contributions in the receiving game in one of two ways. Either we measure their raw counting stats — i.e., the total number of receptions and receiving yards (which does have predictive value) — or we measure their receiving contribution as a percentage of team receiving production, via the College Dominator Rating. Both have drawbacks that make them less-than-perfect measurements of a college back’s true receiving ability.

When 19 Is More Than 54

Measuring raw totals, of course, penalizes RBs on low-passing-volume offenses. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny is one of the top backs in the 2018 class. But Penny only caught 19 passes this year, which pales in comparison to Saquon Barkley’s 54 catches. Barkley managed almost five times more receiving yards than Penny.

At first glance, Barkley looks to be far and away the better pass catcher. But here’s where the raw totals might not be giving us an accurate picture. San Diego State attempted just 19.4 passes per game. Only six FBS teams passed the ball less. Barkley’s team, Penn State, on the other hand, attempted more than 35 passes per game, slightly above league average. Although Barkley has far more receiving yards than Penny, as a percentage of team receiving yards, the difference between them is much smaller. This is where using market-share-based metrics such as College Dominator can be hugely helpful.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with the College Dominator rating as well. It unfairly penalizes RBs whose teams choose not to utilize RBs in the passing game. Again, looking at Penny, he accounted for only about seven percent of San Diego State’s receiving yardage — a small percentage, even for a RB. Barkley, for instance, accounted for nearly 17 percent of Penn State’s receiving yardage.

However, things look a little different when you consider that only three other passes were caught by an Aztec RB.1 Whereas Penn State directed more than 18 percent of their pass attempts toward RBs, San Diego State chose to target RBs on less than 13 percent of their passes. If we compare Penny and Barkley only to the other RBs on their respective teams, Penny actually accounted for a higher share of his team’s RB receiving yardage.2

The Disappearing Derrius Guice

Comparing Penny to another top back in the class, Derrius Guice, reveals an even bigger difference. Guice caught 18 passes, nearly equalling Penny’s total. But because LSU passed much more, and passed to RBs much more, Guice only managed 15 percent of his team’s RB receiving yardage, one of the lowest numbers among draftable RB prospects. To put the point bluntly, Guice simply wasn’t featured on passing downs, if he was even on the field. Comparing raw statistics would give the impression that Guice and Penny are about equal in their potential for three-down roles in the NFL. But a closer look reveals that only Penny actually had such a role in college.

Therefore, I’m introducing a new metric that will hopefully even the playing field a bit and give RBs the credit they deserve even if they play for teams who choose not to use RBs as pass catchers very often. I’m calling it the Backfield Dominator Rating, because it measures each RB’s production in relation to the other players they share backfield duties with. The idea is to combine rushing and receiving dominator ratings into a single metric, much like the College Dominator Rating does, but to look only at each player’s share of RB production.

For rushing production this won’t make much of a difference, since QBs are typically the only other position running the ball, and QB rushing is already factored out of a RB’s rushing market shares. Where it will make a big difference is in receiving production. Basically it will tell us what happened when a team targeted a RB in the passing game. The idea is that even though a RB may not have a huge share of total team receiving production, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he wasn’t the team’s primary receiving back.

How To Use the Backfield Dominator

While I’ll use a follow-up article to share the results of testing against draft position, BDR is like the Workhorse Metric in that the emphasis is not on players with already elite profiles. Rather, Backfield Dominator has two separate functions: First, it can help us find potential sleeper RBs among prospects without the elite draft pedigree. Second, it can help us understand how a RB was used within his offensive scheme — in particular it can help us find potential three-down backs who played at schools where RBs were not a focal part of the passing offense.

To give an example that shows this difference in action, consider one of our favorite prospects from last offseason, D’Onta Foreman. Foreman had only seven receptions for 75 yards in 2016. Nobody thought of him as a pass-catcher. However, in games Foreman appeared in, Texas RBs only managed 85 total receiving yards. Foreman accounted for more than 88 percent of Texas’ RB receiving yardage, giving him a Backfield Dominator Rating of over 82 percent—among the best in the class.

In his rookie season in the NFL he was only targeted eight times across 10 games,3 but he caught six of those passes while averaging over 10 yards per target, showing a glimpse of receiving upside that we hadn’t really seen at the college level. The Backfield Dominator would have predicted that Foreman was probably a better receiver than his raw stats or even College Dominator Rating indicated.

Or, consider Jamaal Williams, who also failed to catch many passes in college. He ended 2016 with a Backfield Dominator Rating above 80 percent. In his rookie season he caught 25 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns. This is a stat line that few could have predicted based on his final-year receiving production. If the Backfield Dominator Rating had been around then, maybe this receiving production wouldn’t have been so surprising.

I bring up these examples not only to show how helpful this metric can be, but also to show further just how deceptive raw RB receiving stats can be. We need some way to contextualize them, and the Backfield Dominator does just that.

The table below shows each player’s final Backfield Dominator Ratings, along with the various components that go into it. Backfield Dominator Ratings are scaled in much the same way as the Workhorse Metric. A score above 90 is elite, and somewhat rare. A score above 80 is very good, but anything above 70 is solid. Scores below 60 could indicate a potential timeshare situation.

I’m also including the traditional College Dominator Rating, for reference. College Dominator Ratings are scaled differently: basically, ratings above 50 percent are elite; above 40 percent is very good and anything above 30 percent is solid. My comments are below the table.

PlayerSchoolMS of Backfield RuYdsMS of Backfield RuTDsMS of Backfield ReYdsMS of Backfield ReTDsBackfield DominatorCollege Dominator
Phillip LindsayColorado96.91%100.00%90.49%100.00%97.95%41.97%
Ralph WebbVanderbilt70.78%100.00%71.21%50.00%81.26%26.34%
Ito SmithSouthern Mississippi75.16%81.25%80.00%100.00%79.75%36.66%
Ronald Jones IIUSC72.26%82.61%48.32%100.00%75.97%34.95%
Rashaad PennySDSU73.39%76.67%77.59%100.00%75.87%50.51%
Larry Rose IIINew Mexico State73.70%90.91%65.41%50.00%75.26%30.43%
John KellyTennessee67.36%81.82%67.49%0.00%74.61%38.00%
Josh AdamsNotre Dame79.53%64.29%92.66%0.00%72.28%26.86%
Saquon BarkleyPenn State72.67%72.00%73.75%50.00%70.38%35.74%
Ray LawryOld Dominion72.46%63.64%21.65%100.00%64.51%42.56%
Kerryon JohnsonAuburn58.25%72.00%68.07%50.00%64.13%35.18%
Nyheim HinesNC State66.67%60.00%71.36%0.00%63.60%23.41%
Akrum WadleyIowa59.67%58.82%73.58%60.00%60.83%31.49%
Justin JacksonNorthwestern61.15%57.89%70.59%0.00%60.25%29.20%
Ryan NallOregon State56.21%57.14%52.77%100.00%57.71%36.83%
Jordan ChunnTroy54.82%55.56%66.23%0.00%56.21%29.06%
Jalin MooreAppalachian St53.90%57.14%44.17%100.00%55.71%27.84%
Jarvion FranklinWestern Michigan52.03%55.00%38.46%100.00%54.34%29.01%
Mark WaltonMiami (FL)56.39%50.00%49.46%0.00%52.52%22.08%
Terry SwansonToledo50.59%51.85%49.36%0.00%50.22%24.61%
Royce FreemanOregon51.07%53.33%34.82%0.00%49.40%31.62%
Justin CrawfordWest Virginia56.98%43.75%20.00%0.00%48.65%16.37%
Derrius GuiceLSU52.20%44.44%15.03%50.00%43.61%29.48%
Kamryn PettwayAuburn36.22%50.00%41.56%0.00%41.41%25.70%
Sony MichelGeorgia35.16%47.06%35.56%50.00%41.20%25.91%
Darrel WilliamsLSU35.09%50.00%36.86%0.00%37.37%24.39%
Nick ChubbGeorgia35.89%40.54%10.71%0.00%36.30%22.54%
Kyle HicksTCU39.35%25.00%54.29%50.00%35.42%17.29%
Kalen BallageArizona State35.09%33.33%44.39%0.00%34.73%14.63%
Nick WilsonArizona37.97%29.41%2.13%0.00%28.39%14.46%
Bo ScarbroughAlabama23.56%30.77%26.39%0.00%26.26%14.15%
Lavon ColemanWashington19.85%14.81%32.02%50.00%21.70%13.59%

The Top Backfield Dominators

Phillip Lindsay

Phillip Lindsay was the top workhorse in this class and also dominated his team’s RB receiving production. Colorado RBs not named Phillip Lindsay had a total of four receptions for 27 receiving yards and no TDs in all of 2017.4 Lindsay did not receive a combine invite, but he did run a 4.39 forty at his pro day, which would have been the second fastest time at the combine. Hopefully that gets the attention of some scouts and he gets a legitimate shot to compete for NFL touches as a result.

Ralph Webb

Ralph Webb was a workhorse throughout his college career. Although his raw production fails to impress, Vanderbilt relied on him as the centerpiece of the backfield. He’s the only back besides Lindsay to post a Backfield Dominator Rating above 80.

Ito Smith

Ito Smith and Lindsay are the only draftable FBS RBs to account for at least 80 percent of their teams’ RB production in three of the four statistical categories. Smith was not invited to the combine, but he surprised scouts at his pro day by, according to some timers, unofficially running a 4.45 forty, while also boasting a 37.5-inch vertical leap. The athleticism was unexpected, and hopefully confirms to NFL scouts that Smith’s production was not a fluke.

Ronald Jones

Ronald Jones only caught 14 passes for 187 yards and a TD in his final season at USC. But he gets a boost by being the only USC RB to catch a touchdown pass, while accounting for nearly half of USC’s RB receiving yards. His 4.66 forty at the combine is clearly not a reflection of his true speed. The 4.48 he ran at his pro day is apparently still near the high end of his range. He reportedly ran a 4.45 as a high-school prospect. The high-school track star’s personal best at the 100-meter dash rivals those of known burners Marquise Goodwin and Tyreek Hill.

Rashaad Penny

Penny has the highest College Dominator Rating in the class. He’s also one of only three backs to account for at least 70 percent of his team’s RB yards and touchdowns in both phases of the game.5

Josh Adams

Josh Adams suffers a bit in the Backfield Dominator Rating because he didn’t catch a receiving TD. However, no other Notre Dame RB caught a receiving TD either. Adams’ share of his team’s RB receiving yards is the highest in the class.

Ray Lawry

Ray Lawry has one of the highest College Dominator Ratings in the class, largely because he accounted for 25 percent of Old Dominion’s receiving TDs in games he played in. To be clear, he scored one of Old Dominion’s four receiving TDs in those games — the only one by a RB. This is one case where the adjustments made by various market-share-based metrics go a little too far. Old Dominion completed only about 16 passes per game in 2017, and only scored nine TDs through the air over the course of the entire season — the majority of those coming in games Lawry missed due to a hamstring injury. Lawry’s 22 percent of RB receiving yards paints a more sobering, and unfortunately more accurate, picture: Lawry was not used as his team’s receiving back. His dominator ratings actually overrate his receiving ability.

Notes on the 2018 Class

Apart from Barkley, many of the top backs in the current class of prospects have disappointing receiving numbers. In a few cases, such as with Guice and Nick Chubb, the raw stats paint a fairly accurate picture. In other cases, such as with Penny, Jones, and Adams, the raw stats leave out an important part of the story. The Backfield Dominator Rating goes some way toward providing the missing context. It suggests that in some cases, these prospects may have more potential to become three-down backs in the NFL than a quick glance at their receiving stats would suggest.

  1. I don’t count Nick Bawden as a RB. Although he’s listed as a fullback, he functions as a tight end — he’s only carried the ball once in the last two seasons.  (back)
  2. Penny’s 78 percent share of RB receiving yardage just beats Barkley’s 74 percent share.  (back)
  3. He was the starter in only one of those games.  (back)
  4. And note that I’m counting teammate K.D. Nixon as a RB in this calculation. Although he’s listed as a WR, he carried the ball three times for 20 yards while catching only two passes for 17 yards. It’s not clear what position he really plays, in other words. But calling him a WR would improve Lindsay’s score even further.  (back)
  5. The others are Lindsay and Smith — no other back managed even 60 percent of RB production in all four phases.  (back)