If I really wanted to start this article by torpedoing all the warm fuzzies you might feel about Utah running back Devontae Booker, I might say something like…
Would you believe that Booker is the just three months younger than Le’Veon Bell?
…which is a totally absurd notion, right? Imagine what Bell would do against Pac 12 defenses this year. He’d beat up on all the little runt defenders like a playground bully who thrice repeated fourth grade. (shit, I actually did start the article with a torpedo).
But before we immediately send Booker to the geriatric ward and discount his prospect status, I think there’s reason to take a long look at Utah’s standout runner. In addition to his age, there are some other unique elements about Booker that I think could make him a valuable asset for both an NFL franchise and your fantasy football roster.
The Elite Pass Catching Ability
In preparation for this article, I asked Twitter who they thought were the most prolific pass-catching running back prospects in recent memory. The list they came up with, which we’ll get to in a moment, will be used to benchmark Booker’s current pace.
This season, Booker has accounted for 21 percent of Utah’s receiving yards, which is almost unheard of for a RB. For perspective, consider that ballyhooed receiver prospect Laquon Treadwell has accountedfor just 25 percent of Ole Miss’ receiving yards and first rounders like Michael Crabtree (22 percent) and Cordarrelle Patterson (20 percent) were in that same range in their final college season. Even if those guys played in more prolific pass offenses, the point here is the receiving burden these players shouldered.
Anyway, back to comparing Booker to the most elite pass catching prospects (according to the Twitter braintrust). Here are the performances in their final college seasons, sorted by market share of yards and accompanied by final season receiving yards per game.
|RB||School||Season||% TM Rec Yards||Rec Yards/G|
|David Johnson||Northern Iowa||2014||19.0||38.3|
|Marshall Faulk||San Diego State||1993||16.8||53.7|
|Maurice Jones Drew||UCLA||2005||14.7||37.8|
|Larry Johnson||Penn State||2002||13.8||26.8|
|Duke Johnson||Miami FL||2014||13.0||32.4|
No matter how you slice it – market share or raw stats – Booker holds his own next to the best pass-catching running back prospects in recent history.
But, Jon, the guy plays running back; what about his rushing performance?
We’re getting there, imaginary reader, but we first need to delve into Booker’s back story to understand why he’s nearly the same age as third-year pro Le’Veon Bell.
Booker graduated high school in 2010 and committed to play football at Washington State. Unfortunately, his academics weren’t up to snuff, so he tried to gain admission to Fresno State, which was denied due to a complication with his paper work. Ultimately, he sat out the 2010 season.
In 2011 and 2012 he played for American River College, a JUCO in Sacramento, where he led the team to the National Championship game in 2012, accumulating 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns in that campaign. Boom! Booker had an offer to play for Utah, but, more complications with his academics. He sat out the entire 2013 season.
Finally arriving in Salt Lake City in 2014, Booker earned first-team all-conference honors in his debut campaign. Debating whether or not to enter the draft, he opted to stay in school, get his degree1 and lead the Utes in a push for the College Football Playoff.
Putting Booker’s two seasons against the career trajectory established by the top career AV2 runners since 2000, here is what we get, represented by age and rush yards per game:
Despite his older age, Booker’s performance has been pretty respectable on an age-adjusted basis. Plotting below the trajectory isn’t a death sentence for his NFL utility, but I think it does speak to the unlikelihood of him ever becoming an elite player. Notice how there aren’t many dots out by him? The majority of the NFL’s most elite running backs who entered the NFL since 2000 were in the league by the age Booker started playing football on the FBS level.
The comparables… sort of
Considering how dominant Booker has been this year, how important his team is in the national race, and his receiving prowess, it’s pretty hard to imagine him falling outside the top 100 picks of the 2016 NFL Draft. If that is the case, here is the group of runners he would join who are within six months of his final season age and also went in the top 100.
|RB||School||Draft||Pick||F Age||Car RuYD/G||Car RecYD/G|
|Larry Johnson||Penn State||2003||27||23.1||61.5||14.2|
|Daniel Thomas||Kansas State||2011||62||23.2||114||17.1|
|Charles Sims||West Virginia||2014||69||23.3||72.2||43.9|
It’s pretty startling that it only took two filters – age and draft stock – to narrow this list down to eight running backs from the past 17 draft classes. On one hand, it’s encouraging that a guy like Larry Johnson, who was a fantasy beast for a few years, makes an appearance. However, besides Johnson, does anyone on this list really move the needle? Shonn Greene and Anthony Thomas both had two top-24 seasons, but were hardly elite.
In closing, I think there’s a case that Devontae Booker is the most valuable running back in college football this side of Leonard Fournette. That said, I think his NFL future is more complicated. He’s an elite pass catching option and a good enough runner to be a serviceable starter in the league, or at least a strong complement in a committee, but I don’t know if I’d count on any more upside than that.
Have a look at Booker in last weekend’s game against Cal, in which he was my workhorse of the week, accounting for 61 percent of Utah’s offensive yards. Thanks to DraftBreakdown for this video. Give it at least two minutes and you’ll see a few real dynamic plays.
If you want to check out other articles in my college prospect series, here is the full offering: