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2015 NFL Draft: RB Explosiveness Rankings


As the 2015 NFL Draft inches closer, it’s time to delve into some advanced stats at the running back position. Football Study Hall guru Bill Connelly is one of the best writers covering college football, and you should check him out on RotoViz Radio with Jon Moore and Matt Freedman. He’s again made the Highlight Yard numbers available for college backs.1 The highlight yards number tells us about a running back’s ability to create big plays when he breaks into the open field.

I’m including extended thoughts on the highlight yard stat at the bottom of the article. Right now it’s important to know that the “opportunity rate” is the number of running plays where the back gained more than 5 yards. The “team opportunity rate” is the percentage of plays for the entire team that went over that number.

Before we dive into the 2015 draft class, let’s look at last year’s runners for some context.

2014 Draft Class – Highlight Yards

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Opps Hlt Yds Hlt/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Andre Williams 355 2177 133 1064 8.0 37.5% 38.1%
Jeremy Hill 203 1401 92 628 6.8 45.3% 42.6%
Charles Sims 208 1095 72 471 6.5 34.6% 34.9%
Storm Johnson 213 1139 75 477 6.4 35.2% 37.9%
Devonta Freeman 173 1016 73 426 5.8 42.2% 47.5%
Bishop Sankey 327 1866 138 751 5.4 42.2% 41.9%
Carlos Hyde 208 1521 119 598 5.0 57.2% 55.7%
Tyler Gaffney 329 1700 123 598 4.9 37.4% 39.4%
Branden Oliver 310 1535 120 542 4.5 38.7% 37.2%
Ka’Deem Carey 350 1889 143 636 4.5 40.9% 42.7%
Tre Mason 317 1816 140 600 4.3 44.2% 48.4%

A few rules of thumb.

  • We’re generally looking for a number above 6.5 HL/Opp as an indicator of elite on-field explosiveness.
  • Any number below 5.0 HL/Opp might be a red flag.
  • The higher the “opportunity rate” the better, preferably something above 42 percent, although the quality of offensive line versus quality of opponent will have an impact.
  • If the “team opportunity rate” is higher than the individual player’s opportunity rate, that’s also potentially a red flag.

These results were encouraging for Andre Williams and perhaps foreshadowed Jeremy Hill’s emergence. Among top prospects, Tre Mason carried the most red flags. His rookie season results have been exaggerated, leaving Mason as a potential trap player in MFL10s.

Now that we have a little context, let’s dive into the 2015 rankings. In creating these rankings, I’m using the results for the last two seasons so that we can get a larger sample. In an attempt to make this as apples-to-apples as possible, I’m focusing only on workhorse runners in this particular analysis. Most of these runners have 400-plus carries over the last two seasons. Todd Gurley stands out with a much lower carry total, a red flag I mentioned in the original RB Prospect Lab Rankings. His attempts/game number remains high.

1. Tevin Coleman – 10.4 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Tevin Coleman 401 2994 1658.2 159 10.43 40% 41%

Coleman’s highlight yards are simply insane. Last season Andre Williams led all carriers at 8.0 (minimum 200 attempts). Coleman only carried 131 times in 2013, but his highlight yards per opportunity stood at 12.0. He came back this season and averaged 9.8 on a whopping 270 carries. Much has been made of Coleman’s boom or bust nature, but he managed highlight runs on 42 percent of his 2014 attempts despite playing for an offense that threw 7 passing touchdowns. That’s a lot of boom for the bust.

I’m sympathetic to arguments that Coleman is very poor at generating successful runs when the big play isn’t available. One has only to have owned Chris Johnson any time since his record-breaking 2009 season to know how frustrating that can be. On the other hand, Jon Moore looks at the Indiana product versus Melvin Gordon in games against common opponents and points out that Coleman had better results.

2. Melvin Gordon – 8.4 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Melvin Gordon 551 4215 2212.3 264 8.38 48% 46%

Gordon averaged 9.3 high/opp in 2014. In 2013 he averaged 7.1, but a hard to fathom 53 percent of his runs that season were of the highlight variety. By comparison, teammate James White only averaged a highlight run on 43 percent of his.

Gordon is another player who, while generally very well liked by scouts, sometimes sees his explosive ability cast as a negative. You will often hear that he “stops his feet” behind the line of scrimmage and that this tendency could lead to an avalanche of negative runs at the professional level. I doubt this is the case, but I’m also not sure it matters.2 Gordon isn’t just one of the most explosive runners we’ve seen in a long time, he’s explosive with incredible consistency. His 48 percent opportunity rate is the highest of the group. Much like Coleman, he did it despite seeing a huge number of carries and facing extreme defensive attention on a per play basis.

3. Duke Johnson – 6.9 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Duke Johnson 387 2572 1173.9 170 6.91 44% 43%

Although Johnson was one of the most disappointing backs at the Combine, his highlight yards tell the story of an explosive back.  I haven’t seen any real decline in Johnson’s rookie ADP since his discouraging workout, but I’d be ready to pounce if he does drop.

4. Todd Gurley – 6.2 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Todd Gurley 288 1900 815.3 132 6.18 46% 42%

Gurley is an interesting case. It’s tempting to argue that highlight plays are more difficult to generate in the SEC due to the level of athlete in the defensive secondary, but we’ve seen good numbers from SEC backs in the past. Jeremy Hill averaged 6.9 last season. Two of this year’s disappointments – Mike Davis and T.J. Yeldon – were both over 6.0 in 2013.

This year’s “the best back since . . .” was much more explosive if you just focus on 2014’s 7.9 high/opp. On the other hand, freshman Nick Chubb put up identical numbers to the superstar. Not only did they both average 7.9, but they created such plays on 46 percent of their runs.3

Gurley is still the easy No. 1 RB for 2015, but expectations should be tempered. It’s unlikely he becomes a pass-catching version of Adrian Peterson. Even with these caveats,  he’s obviously a back who can create big plays along with his other impressive assortment of talents.

5. Javorius Allen – 6.2 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Javorius Allen 410 2263 987 160 6.17 39% 39%

Allen is something of a forgotten man right now, fading into the third round of numerous rookie mocks. The biggest concern for Allen might be the 39 percent opportunity rate, but USC did face the No. 11 schedule in the country.

His numbers also dropped from 7.8 in 2013 on 134 carries to 5.4 in 2014 on 276 carries. It could be that he wasn’t able to maintain his explosiveness with a heavy workload, or it could just be fluky. Regardless, the HL/Opp numbers bolster his resume as a big back with ability in space, a thesis also supported by his 458 receiving yards.

6. Ameer Abdullah – 6.0 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Ameer Abdullah 544 3308 1393.2 231 6.03 42% 41%

Abdullah’s numbers jumped to 6.7 in his final season, results that aren’t surprising after he posted a 42.5-inch vertical and 10.74 Agility Score at the Combine. He looks like a version of Giovani Bernard with more bell cow ability.

7. Jay Ajayi 5.7 – Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Jay Ajayi 596 3248 1289.5 226 5.71 38% 38%

Ajayi’s highlight yards pale in comparison to some of his peers, but these are very strong numbers for a player of his size and running style. They’re also excellent for a player with 397 touches in 2014. Contrast the total with Carlos Hyde’s number from last season (5.0). Ajayi probably won’t be creating a lot of 30 or 40 yard runs at the NFL level, but if he can consistently scamper for 10 to 15 it will boost his fantasy value.

8. Mike Davis – 5.2 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Mike Davis 402 2165 837 160 5.23 40% 41%

Davis is a player where we see a big difference between his 2013 production (6.3) and his 2014 production (4.1). He did turn in solid agility times for a 217-pound back (11.17 AS), but Davis represents a decent risk going forward.

9. David Cobb – 5.1 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
David Cobb 552 2831 1034.9 205 5.05 37% 38%

The Minnesota product is a grinder, but highlight yard numbers in line with Hyde’s from a season ago show a little more burst than some may have thought. His opportunity rate is very low, but that’s probably to be expected from an offense with such a distorted run/pass split. Cobb’s fantasy value appears more contingent upon destination than others in the class.

10. T.J. Yeldon – 4.8 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
T.J. Yeldon 401 2214 840.9 176 4.78 44% 47%

Most of the scouting reports on Yeldon suggest he’s a glider who plays faster than he times. I’m not sure the numbers bear that out, especially when you consider that Alabama ranked No. 6 in adjusted line yards. It’s also a concern for Yeldon that he was less effective than his teammates. In 2013 Yeldon averaged a highlight opp on 42 percent of his carries. Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry combined to do it on 48 percent of theirs. In 2014 Yeldon averaged a disastrous 3.5 high/opp. Henry averaged 4.6.

I don’t think this necessarily eliminates Yeldon from rookie draft consideration. He’s dealt with injuries. The schedule is brutal. You still have size, receiving ability, and an early breakout all working in his favor. I’ve been generally on the Yeldon bandwagon and selected him in the pre-combine PFF rookie mock. But I also think these results shouldn’t simply be ignored.

11. Jeremy Langford – 4.5 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity

Player Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp Opp Rate Team Opp Rate
Jeremy Langford 568 2944 1060.1 235 4.51 41% 40%

Langford is receiving a nice boost after running the fastest 40 of any runner at the Combine, but the speed doesn’t show up on the field. These numbers are in the Ka’Deem Carey (4.5) range and do not translate well to the NFL. When seen in the context of his poor agility (11.54 AS) and explosion numbers (34.5-inch vert), there’s reason for skepticism about his ability to be more than the third back in a committee.

Do the Highlight Yard numbers mean anything?

While RB evaluations tend to focus on ability in the short yardage area, that effectiveness is a tricky mix of offensive line play and tackle-breaking ability. Most of my research for Pro Football Focus suggests that better tackle-breakers struggle to create pre-contact yardage and fail to create yards/broken tackle at the presumed rate. As a result, runners with above average tackle-breaking ability are frequently unable to translate that skill into the level of yardage efficiency that might seem intuitive. One of the reasons I’ve been able to consistently find breakout RBs with Zero RB is the conscious decision to buy explosiveness instead of paying for broken tackles.

Highlight yards is a descriptive stat, but unlike some other descriptive stats already determined to have little or no predictive value – WR drops and RB success rate, for example – I think there’s an excellent chance it will have a predictive element once the sample is large enough to study effectively. A lot of what we know about a RB’s explosive ability comes from two troubling sources. 1) Scouting observations which are frequently drawn from watching a small sample of plays. 2) Combine 40 times, a number based on only two trials and which may include significant recording error.  The highlight yards stat from Football Study Hall at least gives us an accurate picture of the past even if it we’re not sure what it says about the future.


  1. Highlight yards are the yards not credited to the line by the FSH Line Yardage formula. A back gets credit for half the yards in the 6-10 yard range, and all of the 11-plus yards.  (back)
  2. If you check out the year-by-year numbers for Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson, you’ll see a surprising number of seasons with low yards per carry averages.  (back)
  3. This helps explain why Chubb is the No. 2 ranked devy prospect.  (back)

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