Who are 2016’s Best Workhorse Running Backs?

Over the last few years, Matthew Freedman has written extensively about how running backs who carry a workhorse load in college tend to outperform expectations in the NFL. Today, with his blessing, I’m going to apply his methodology (or something close to it) and some of my own to examine the top workhorse running backs in the 2016 class.

Non-QB Dominator Rating

The gist of non-QB Dominator Rating (NQBDR) is to see what percentage of his team’s rushing production a player accounts for, after you remove quarterback rushing from the equation. Basically, when a team is planning to hand the ball off, who are they handing it off to and how much is that back making of his opportunities? Here is a look at this class’ performance over their final two college seasons.1

RBRush YardsNon-QB Rush YardsNQBDR
Devontae Booker 20151261129597.4
Marshaun Coprich 20142274259087.8
Marshaun Coprich 20151967226786.8
Tyler Ervin 20151601196081.7
Elijhaa Penny 20151174147079.9
Ezekiel Elliott 20151821231378.7
Brandon Burks 20151005127978.6
Devontae Booker 20141512195277.5
Derrick Henry 20152219292375.9
Paul Perkins 20141575208075.7
CJ Prosise 20151032138974.3
DeAndre Washington 20151492202573.7
Kelvin Taylor 20151035140573.7
Jordan Howard 20151213169771.5
Daniel Lasco 20141115157270.9
Kenneth Dixon 20151070151670.6
Ezekiel Elliott 20141878273368.7
Marteze Waller 20141368202767.5
Marteze Waller 2015920137766.8
Jordan Howard 20141587238366.6
Tra Carson 20151165175466.4
Kenneth Dixon 20141299200065
Wendell Smallwood 20151519235864.4
DeAndre Washington 20141103171264.4
Alex Collins 20151577245864.2
Josh Ferguson 2014735114464.2
Johnta Hebert 20141063166963.7
Brandon Wilds 201556789063.7
Kenneth Farrow 2015958153262.5
Darius Jackson 20151078172962.3
Aaron Green 20151272207061.4
Devon Johnson 20141767292460.4
Tyler Ervin 2014888147260.3
Paul Perkins 20151343229358.6
Kenneth Farrow 20141037180057.6
Brandon Ross 2015958168956.7
Johnta Hebert 2015937165656.6
DJ Foster 20141081192256.2
Josh Ferguson 2015708133453.1
Devon Johnson 2015593117450.5
Aaron Green 2014922196247
Elijhaa Penny 2014590134743.8
Peyton Barber 20151017238142.7
Shad Thornton 2014907213042.6
Jonathan Williams 20141190283042
Brandon Burks 2014584139841.8
Byron Marshall 20131038249841.6
Brandon Ross 2014417102540.7
Jhurrell Pressley 20141083275839.3
Derrick Henry 2014990253039.1
Alex Collins 20141100283038.9
Tra Carson 2014581153038
Shad Thornton 201520353537.9
Tre Madden 2013703185837.8
Dwayne Washington 2014697185837.5
Jhurrell Pressley 2015907242737.4
Jonathan Williams 2013900247336.4
Keenan Reynolds 20151373403734
Keenan Reynolds 20141191357333.3
Wendell Smallwood 2014722220932.7
Kelvin Taylor 2014565174032.5
Brandon Wilds 2014570180331.6
Tre Madden 2015452151829.8
Darius Jackson 201429599329.7
Dwayne Washington 201528296229.3
Daniel Lasco 2015331118028.1
Kenyan Drake 2015408245616.6
Keith Marshall 2015350219815.9
Byron Marshall 2014392273814.3
DJ Foster 2015280223512.5
Kenyan Drake 2014112103610.8
CJ Prosise 201412616037.9
Peyton Barber 20145410765
Keith Marshall 2014249002.7

Devontae Booker, Utah – Booker owns two of the best eight NQBDR seasons in this class and accounted for nearly every single non-quarterback rushing yard when he was healthy. Even though he didn’t work out at the combine or his pro day, his 22 bench reps and 219-pound frame support his status as a workhorse. Furthering this idea, Booker is arguably the best pass-catching back in this class by both market share and raw stats. Even if he’s an older prospect, I think of him as a premium player more so than a playground bully.

Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State – The only FCS running back invited to the combine (which is a big deal), Coprich owns two of the best age-production seasons in this class, while also posting two of the best NQBDR seasons on file. He’s got above average speed, and is credited with being a good pass blocker, so there are a lot of positive indicators here. If there’s anything preventing me from being a full-blown Coprich fan it’s how terrible he tested in his agility drills.

Tyler Ervin, San Jose State – The case is mounting for Tyler Ervin to be a potential NFL star. As you can see here, he has a history of being a workhorse, despite being a smaller guy. He was a combine winner. Finally, he has more special teams juju than any other running back in this class, which is a sneaky factor for finding running back upside.

Elijhaa Penny, Idaho – You’ve probably never heard of Elijhaa Penny, and he’s not without his warts, but he has some really interesting data points. For starters, he is 6 feet 1 inch, 244 pounds and he scored 22 rushing touchdowns in his last 23 games. He also has above average agility for his size. Heck, he even returned 15 kickoffs in the last two years, which is almost unfathomable for a 244-pound back. He’s an intriguing deep sleeper, if you ask me. Check him out here:

Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State – What more can we say about Elliott at this point? He is the No. 1 back in RotoViz’s composite rankings. He won the RotoViz running back bracket. Finally, his history of young dominance puts him on track to be an NFL star.

Market Share of Offense

One area where non-QB DR falls short is giving credit to running backs for their receiving production. The following is a look at market share of offensive yards, which accounts for the percentage of running, receiving and passing yards a running back has amassed relative to his team’s total yardage output.

RBScrm YdsTm Scrm YdsMS OFF
Keenan Reynolds 20152623552747.5
Keenan Reynolds 20142034455044.7
Devontae Booker 20151604389141.2
Marshaun Coprich 20152146553338.8
Tyler Ervin 20151935526036.8
Derrick Henry 20152310640636.1
Devontae Booker 20141818504536
Ezekiel Elliott 20152027564335.9
Marshaun Coprich 20142328695433.5
Jordan Howard 20141659518132
Johnta Hebert 20151528488531.3
DJ Foster 20141769575030.8
Brandon Burks 20151309431930.3
Jordan Howard 20151319436930.2
Kenneth Dixon 20141684561130
Johnta Hebert 20141357460629.5
Paul Perkins 20141776608229.2
Kenneth Dixon 20151537541928.4
Marteze Waller 20151071378228.3
Darius Jackson 20151279456028
CJ Prosise 20151340484327.7
Alex Collins 20151672605127.6
Josh Ferguson 2015988357627.6
Ezekiel Elliott 20142098767427.3
Elijhaa Penny 20151401514927.2
Wendell Smallwood 20151679623626.9
Paul Perkins 20151585605726.2
Marteze Waller 20141488568526.2
Devon Johnson 20141888730825.8
Kelvin Taylor 20151185467625.3
Devon Johnson 2015656259825.3
Tyler Ervin 20141194473425.2
Tra Carson 20151376552124.9
DeAndre Washington 20151877753324.9
Daniel Lasco 20141471594224.8
Josh Ferguson 20141162477424.3
Jonathan Williams 20141255527823.8
DeAndre Washington 20141431604923.7
Jhurrell Pressley 20141129479423.6
Peyton Barber 20151129481023.5
Jonathan Williams 2013972428622.7
Kenneth Farrow 20141186538322
Brandon Ross 2015975450021.7
Dwayne Washington 2015597280321.3
Tre Madden 2013904427121.2
Brandon Wilds 2015709336521.1
Alex Collins 20141109527821
Brandon Burks 2014765383519.9
Shad Thornton 20141058531119.9
Shad Thornton 2015203102119.9
Aaron Green 20151389731719
Kenneth Farrow 20151077588418.3
Jhurrell Pressley 2015909504618
Byron Marshall 20131193677717.6
Byron Marshall 20141395820517
Dwayne Washington 2014788470916.7
Elijhaa Penny 2014697416616.7
Derrick Henry 20141123678316.6
Wendell Smallwood 20141048649716.1
Aaron Green 20141088692915.7
Brandon Ross 2014629444514.2
DJ Foster 2015864620613.9
Tre Madden 2015585423613.8
Brandon Wilds 2014713520613.7
Kelvin Taylor 2014565441112.8
Tra Carson 2014659529012.5
Kenyan Drake 2015684553812.4
CJ Prosise 2014642578411.1
Kenyan Drake 201427127739.8
Keith Marshall 201537843488.7
Daniel Lasco 201535540898.7
Darius Jackson 2014443198652.2
Peyton Barber 20145425132.1
Keith Marshall 20142414141.7

Note that many of the same names who lead the first metric also score well here. To expand the conversation, I’m going to look at some additional players not previously discussed.

Keenan Reynolds, Navy – Reynolds kind of cheats the system here, considering that he was a quarterback in college, but I still think it’s meaningful that he carried his option-offense to this degree. Weighing in at 190 pounds, Reynolds is an average athlete, at best. But the fact that he is the NCAA’s leader in career rushing touchdowns speaks volumes to his ability to get the job done. I have no idea if he has an NFL future, especially coming from a service academy, but he’s undoubtedly a great college player.

Derrick Henry, Alabama – Henry carried his offense unlike almost anyone else in 2015, which paved the way to his Heisman win. Because of how big, athletic and productive he was, it’s incredibly difficult to find comparisons. While Ezekiel Elliott might be the prospect with the higher floor, Henry is almost certainly the highest-upside back in this class. Matthew Freedman thinks he’s worth the 1.01 pick in rookie drafts.

Jordan Howard, Indiana – With one of the most outstanding age-production profiles in this class, I was astonished to see Jordan Howard go as the ninth running back off the board in the RotoViz pre-draft rookie mock. With the exception of his bench press, he tested above-average-for-his-size in every other athletic measurement. I’m amazed at how smoothly he transitioned from carrying the UAB offense in 2014 to carrying the Indiana offense in 2015.

Johnta Hebert, Prairie View A&M – Outside of Tyler Ervin, Hebert is probably this class’ most dominant return man. He led his team in running and receiving in 2015 and ran in his forty in the 4.3s at his pro day. Weighing only 185 pounds, he’s certainly not an every-down guy, but I think he’s probably the best bet to be an out-of-the-blue success story in this class, a la Danny Woodhead.

D.J. Foster, Arizona State – Perhaps forgotten in the wake of his 2015 pseudo-conversion to wide receiver is that Foster was a spectacular do-it-all running back in 2014, accounting for nearly 1,800 yards from scrimmage in that season. In fact, for his career he has 2,355 rush yards and 2,458 receiving yards, showing an incredibly rare degree of versatility. Weighing in at 193 pounds, and with elite agility, Foster has the look of a dynamic third down running back and/or interior receiver.

Brandon Burks, Troy – Finishing his college career with a bang, Burks rushed for 1,005 yards in 2015 on a lousy team. In addition to that, he’s an excellent receiver, hauling in 88 passes for his career. At 208 pounds, he has below-average speed, but tested above-average-for-his-size in every other drill. He’s likely to go undrafted and end up on a practice squad in 2016, but he has a lot going for him. (Unbeknownst to me, Fantasy Douche and I were concurrently writing about Burks. See his take here.)

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

  1. If a player missed a season due to injury, I looked at the last two seasons they played.  (back)
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