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Visualizing the Careers of 2015 NFL Draft Running Backs

For a long time, the RotoViz tagline was seeing is believing.

From a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realized that showing can be a lot easier than explaining, so that’s what I’m going to do here.

Continuing with the groundwork laid in the visualizing the careers of 2015 NFL Draft receivers article, here is a series of images that shows how the top 2015 NFL Draft running backs progressed throughout their career. Note that these 31 were derived from Play The Draft, which is a stock market for prospects, so the players you see here are the ones with the highest current market value. As far as the tiers, they’re just in hierarchical groups of five and represent the “market’s value”, not mine. Tier 6 was modified to include a few of my favorite sleepers.

As for the trend line, that was created by plotting the college careers of running backs drafted since 2000 who rank in the top 25 of career approximate value (via PFR). The trend line represents what those guys were doing in college in terms of age and rushing yards per game, both of which have tested as significant variables in my RB projection models.

All ages are pulled from the 2015 NFL Draft Age Database.

Tier 1

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 1

Before we go any further, note the equation in the top right corner. The “20.06x” basically means that, as a general guideline, college running backs should be improving by 20 rush yards per game as they advance through their career. Moreover, we can see that the trend line crosses the 100 yard threshold between age 20 and 21. Putting this into a nice little rule of thumb, an elite prospect should have about 100 rush yards/game in their age 20 season and for every year forward or backwards of that, we should make adjustments of 20 yards per year.

My interpretation

Todd Gurley was the most productive runner at age 18, 19, and 20 and will probably be my top ranked back for the 2015 Draft. Even if his age 21 season (2015) is a red shirt rookie year while he recovers from an ACL injury, he’ll still make his NFL debut at a comparable age to everyone else in the tier. If you can get past the injury concern, which Dr. Jeff Budoff discussed on Rotoviz Radio, then Gurley as RB1 shouldn’t be too complicated. Ameer Abdullah looks great from an age-production perspective, with three outstanding seasons, and he also kicked ass at the Combine. The fumbles concern me, but basically nothing else does. Physically, Jay Ajayi is almost identical to Melvin Gordon, but his production profile isn’t quite as good. Although people generally put Gurley and Gordon in tier 1 and then everyone else in a distant tier 2, I actually think Ajayi isn’t too far behind. Speaking of Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman, I just recently examined their performance against shared opponents and concluded that Tevin Coleman is a discount Melvin Gordon, at worst.

Tier 2

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 2
My interpretation
Duke Johnson was easily the most accomplished from an age-production perspective, with all three of his seasons above the trend line. However, he was underwhelming at the Combine and raised a red flag by skipping the agility drills. He looks the part to me, but the workout numbers don’t match up. David Cobb was late to the party, but performed spectacularly in his final two seasons. Even though he got hurt at the Combine while running the 40, his expected speed score of 110 and his production profile leave me thinking he’s tremendously undervalued at this point. TJ Yeldon started his career with a bang, but saw a significant decline in 2014. Was he hurt? Despite the Alabama RB stigma, I’m plenty interested. South Carolina’s Mike Davis is a similar story to Yeldon, where you have to go back to 2013 to see him at his best. Finally, we arrive at Combine slayer David Johnson, who was never quite there with his production, but his athleticism and receiving ability have me excited.

Tier 3

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 3
My interpretation
You’ll notice that both the Tier 3 and 4 graphs shift to accommodate players older than 24. Overall, there’s not much to see here, but I suppose if you squint hard and tilt your head in a certain way, Jeremy Langford could be interesting. He was the best at age 22 and 23 and Michigan State has been on a decent run of cranking out NFL talent with Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and Javon Ringer. Javorius Allen and Cameron Artis-Payne are productive enough and athletic enough to be rosterable, but I’m skeptical they’ll ever be more than role players. Honestly, I have no idea why Marcus Murphy or Terrence Magee are in this tier on Play The Draft.

Tier 4

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 4
My interpretation
If you’re wondering “who is Malcolm Agnew?” his story goes something like this: get recruited to Oregon State, accumulate 700+ yards from scrimmage in two seasons, transfer to Southern Illinois and post consecutive 800 rushing yard seasons. Standing about 5’9 205 pounds, Agnew didn’t receive a Combine invite, but has an age-production profile worth monitoring. Speaking of transfers, Michael Dyer was interesting three years ago, but I can’t help but think his window for being a legitimate prospect might have closed. As for WVU’s Dreamius Smith, his age 20 season at Butler Community College was pretty good, but his limited production at the FBS level leaves me wanting more. Nothing to say about Dominique Brown or Corey Grant. I promise, there are reasons to keep reading.

Tier 5

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 5
My interpretation
Ball State’s Jahwan Edwards was the most productive of this tier at age 19, 20 and 21, which is great. I also like his 5’9 220 pound frame, but the problem was that he tested horribly at the Combine. I’m inclined to think his MAC success was a product of him just being physically bigger than everyone else, which won’t be enough to get by in the league. Personally, I’m really fascinated by the physical attributes of Malcolm Brown and Karlos Williams, almost to the point of being able to look past their minimal production, but buyer beware. Dee Hart and Josh Robinson both have SEC pedigrees but were late bloomers on high-powered offenses in 2014. That said, I wonder if you could have just plugged anyone into those situations and seen similar results.

Tier 6

visualizing 2015 rbs tier 6
My interpretation
Finally, we arrive at the best running back prospect you’ve never heard of, Terrell Watson. Say what you want about his level of competition, but the important thing to remember is that he dominated them like he should have. Stay tuned for his March 9 pro day. Gus Johnson is in a similar boat as David Cobb in that, if you correct his 40 time, he actually has an above average speed score. Couple this with the strong age-production profile and the fact that he had a good 3 cone for his size (7.09 at 215 pounds) and it’s easy to get excited about him as a sleeper prospect. Thomas Rawls was originally recruited to Michigan before transferring to CMU for his 2014 campaign. Interesting player but a lot of off-field question marks. John Crockett is another small-school name to know. He grabs my attention with a respectable 2014 and an expected speed score of 108; his agility was solid too. Not much interest in Matt Jones or Kenny Hilliard, other than the fact that they’re both 225+lbs with SEC pedigrees.

If you’re interested by my inclusion of age in this article and want to learn more, shoot me an email at TheCFX@gmail.com. I’m currently researching age-adjusted production for offensive and defensive players with the goal of publishing an ebook around mid March. Shoot me an email and I’ll let you know when it’s ready for your enjoyment.

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.

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