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4 RB Sleepers to Watch and 1 Early Pick Who’s Better Than You Think: 2019 Backfield Dominator Ratings

 

Last offseason I introduced a metric I called Backfield Dominator Rating (BDR). BDR measures the percentage of running back production that a college RB accounts for in his offense. In other words, it adjusts for offensive systems or for quarterbacks who, for whatever reason, don’t utilize RBs in the passing game.1

Although raw receiving production can tell us a lot about a RB’s receiving ability, often raw receiving production is stifled for reasons having little to do with a RB’s actual skill in the receiving game. Devonta Freeman caught barely more than one pass per game during his career at Florida State, but in his final junior season, he accounted for nearly 75% of FSU’s RB receiving yards. During his NFL career he’s averaged more than three catches per game.

Darren Sproles caught fewer than 1.5 passes per game at Kansas State, but in the NFL he’s amassed more than 70 receptions and 600 yards receiving in three separate seasons. He accounted for a full 100% of KSU’s RB receiving production in his senior season,2 which should have been a clue that his raw career receiving stats were underrating his true receiving ability.

What BDR helps us figure out is to what extent a college RB is a member of a committee. Did his team trust him to be on the field in passing situations and to handle whatever RB receiving work they had (even if it wasn’t much)? Or did they pull him off the field when they wanted a RB who could catch the ball? The table below shows BDR and its components for the 2019 RB class. Below the table I’ll offer a few thoughts on the backs who fare best in this metric.

One note on method: I’ve made two significant changes to the calculation this year. First, I’m incorporating a player’s share of backfield receptions. One reason for this change is that some work has shown that the number of receptions a college RB gets in his final season is predictive of his NFL outlook. The other reason is to mitigate the effects of the second major change: I’m excluding a back’s share of receiving touchdowns from the calculation only if his team threw no receiving touchdowns to any RBs. Last year I gave players a 0% share of receiving TDs if their teams did not throw a receiving TD to RBs. But that penalizes players for playing on teams that don’t utilize RBs in the receiving game, which is the opposite of what the metric is intended to do. And anyway, the new calculation is perhaps a more mathematically accurate way to calculate BDR, since zero divided by zero is not, in fact, zero.

PlayerCollegeNFL TeamDraftBDRShare of Backfield Rushing YardsShare of Backfield Rushing TDsShare of Backfield ReceptionsShare of Backfield Receiving YardsShare of Backfield Receiving TDs
Patrick LairdCaliforniaMiamiUDFA85.90%79.46%71.43%89.29%89.34%100.00%
Trayveon WilliamsTexas A&MCincinnati18282.43%77.84%90.00%71.05%73.28%100.00%
Nico EvansWyomingPhiladelphiaUDFA81.96%71.01%66.67%87.50%84.62%100.00%
Ryquell ArmsteadTempleJacksonville14076.87%84.53%92.86%66.67%63.41%
Dexter WilliamsNotre DameGreen Bay19476.69%87.67%100.00%84.21%61.57%50.00%
David MontgomeryIowa StateChicago7376.27%85.70%92.86%64.71%61.81%
Benny Snell Jr.KentuckyPittsburgh12275.63%69.79%71.43%80.00%81.30%
Alexander MattisonBoise StateMinnesota10275.37%81.31%88.89%65.79%65.50%
Miles SandersPenn StatePhiladelphia5368.71%72.34%47.37%80.00%75.14%
A.J. OuelletteOhioNew OrleansUDFA67.65%54.74%60.00%75.00%81.85%66.67%
Alex BarnesKansas StateTennesseeUDFA64.11%86.03%92.31%71.43%70.80%0.00%
Travon McMillianColoradoPittsburghUDFA61.29%71.31%63.64%73.68%64.48%33.33%
Myles GaskinWashingtonMiami23457.94%61.33%60.00%44.68%23.69%100.00%
James WilliamsWashington StateKansas CityUDFA56.90%57.80%60.00%57.64%59.06%50.00%
Kerrith Whyte Jr.Florida AtlanticChicago22256.61%37.13%26.67%53.85%65.38%100.00%
Josh JacobsAlabamaOakland2452.78%27.57%45.83%39.02%51.48%100.00%
LJ ScottMichigan StateBaltimoreUDFA51.41%75.80%0.00%64.29%65.54%
Nick BrossetteLSUNew EnglandUDFA50.79%58.93%63.64%46.67%33.91%
Jalin MooreAppalachian StateNY JetsUDFA48.30%55.26%83.33%55.56%47.37%0.00%
Darwin ThompsonUtah StateKansas City21448.27%48.54%50.00%46.00%56.80%40.00%
Darrin HallPittsburghClevelandUDFA47.32%45.65%47.62%51.72%44.30%
Qadree OllisonPittsburghAtlanta15245.76%48.44%52.38%37.93%44.30%
Bryce LoveStanfordWashington11244.36%67.83%54.55%58.82%40.57%0.00%
Devine OzigboNebraskaNew OrleansUDFA44.13%59.94%75.00%43.40%42.29%0.00%
Devin SingletaryFlorida AtlanticBuffalo7441.95%55.63%73.33%46.15%34.62%0.00%
Darrell HendersonMemphisLA Rams7040.27%53.37%51.16%24.05%29.89%42.86%
Travis HomerMiamiSeattle20436.31%49.32%25.00%51.35%55.86%0.00%
Justice HillOklahoma StateBaltimore11335.14%55.59%60.00%39.39%20.73%0.00%
Mike WeberOhio StateDallas21834.88%48.43%31.25%38.18%23.19%33.33%
Karan HigdonMichiganHoustonUDFA34.75%59.78%71.43%23.33%19.20%0.00%
Damien HarrisAlabamaNew England8733.58%32.39%37.50%51.22%46.80%0.00%
Aeris WilliamsMississippi StateIndianapolisUDFA33.46%38.74%42.86%26.47%34.25%25.00%
Tony PollardMemphisDallas12831.56%14.55%13.33%47.50%44.94%37.50%
Damarea CrockettMissouriHoustonUDFA25.53%34.63%35.00%20.00%13.04%25.00%
Jordan ScarlettFloridaCarolina15420.27%32.95%35.71%17.86%14.81%0.00%
Elijah HolyfieldGeorgiaCarolinaUDFA19.81%41.50%35.29%11.63%10.64%0.00%
Ty JohnsonMarylandDetroit18619.33%27.20%18.75%35.29%15.38%0.00%

Top Backfield Dominators in 2019

No back in the class dominated his team’s backfield production the way Phillip Lindsay did last year. Nevertheless, a few RBs were able to command a solid share of the backfield duties, and a few RBs sport surprisingly high BDRs considering their raw production.

Patrick Laird

Laird is one back on this list who doesn’t actually need the BDR adjustment. The redshirt senior out of Cal accumulated just shy of 100 receptions in his final two season. Laird does not have age on his side, as he’ll turn 24 before playing his first NFL snap. But he displayed excellent agility at his pro day, turning in a 6.90 three-cone. And he lands on a depth chart with little star power and a new coaching staff. With over 85% of his college team’s RB production, he looks like the sort of back who could steal work away from those currently ahead of him in Miami.

Trayveon Williams

Early in the offseason, Williams found himself near the top of a lot of draftniks’ boards. He turned in what may have ended up being a disastrous combine performance, with a fifth percentile three-cone time. His speed was slightly above average, but slower than you’d hope for a 206-pound back. But between the combine and the draft Williams could still hope for the outlook of his closest pre-draft Box Score Scout comp, Dalvin Cook.3 After falling to pick 182, Elijah McGuire and Jeremy Langford become his two closest comps.

 

However, it’s Williams’ third comp I find most intriguing. Like Trayveon, Jamaal Williams dominated his college team’s backfield, accounting for over 80% of BYU’s combined rushing and receiving RB production. Trayveon has one advantage in that he enters the NFL after his junior year at Texas A&M, whereas Jamaal was a redshirt senior.4 The hope may be that like Jamaal, Trayveon can stick on an NFL roster long enough earn touches in the event of an injury. Cincinnati appears to have an established bellcow in Joe Mixon and a third-down back in Giovani Bernard. But the fact that they drafted RBs in back-to-back rounds — doubling up with Rodney Anderson in the sixth after taking Williams in the fifth — suggests they may not be entirely pleased with their current personnel.

Nico Evans

Devin McIntyre profiled Evans as a back to watch, and BDR agrees. He only caught seven passes in 2018, but he turned those receptions into 66 yards and a score. In games Evans played, all other Wyoming RBs had a grand total of one catch for 12 yards and no TDs. If ever there were a back that BDR was made for, Evans is it. He landed on an already crowded depth chart and will be competing for touches with second-round pick Miles Sanders, who himself turned in a solid BDR of nearly 70%. If Evans can somehow get the opportunity, he’s shown he can handle a bellcow-level workload.

Ryquell Armstead

Armstead was the top RB in the class according the RB Prospect Lab, which gives a fair amount of weight to rushing and receiving production. So it’s not surprising he stands out in BDR as well. His 4.45 forty at 220 pounds gives him a class-leading speed score of 112, just a few ticks behind new teammate Leonard Fournette. Fournette has not played a full season since his sophomore year at LSU. Armstead will compete for backup duties with Alfred Blue, Thomas Rawls, and Benny Cunningham, and should be considered the favorite to win Jacksonville’s RB2 role. With a chronically-injured starter ahead of him, Armstead could contribute as soon as this season, and looks poised to provide outsized returns to savvy fantasy owners who draft him nearly for free. Until a few days ago he wasn’t even included in Fanball’s player pool.

He’s currently an early fourth-round pick in dynasty rookie drafts on MFL according to our new Dynasty ADP app. I have and will continue to draft him in the third round, and would consider him much earlier if necessary.

Josh Jacobs

Despite failing to standout in a RB class littered with subpar athletes and committee backs, Jacobs was the lone RB drafted in the first round. By the look of things he was almost certainly overdrafted. He has the production you’d expect from a Day 3 pick, and the athleticism to match. The lack of production can be partially explained away by the fact that Jacobs shared backfield duties with other talented players. When you look at Jacobs’ production in that context, he actually looks somewhat accomplished. He accounted for more than half of Alabama’s RB receiving yards, and all of their receiving TDs. Damien Harris actually had more catches than Jacobs, which in a way makes Jacobs’ lead in yards and touchdowns even more impressive. I’m not saying it justifies the Raiders using the 24th overall pick on him. But the fact that Jacobs was actually the most productive player in Alabama’s backfield according to BDR is at least one reason for optimism.

  1. And it also adjusts for teams that tend to use wide receivers in the running game — for instance, on jet sweeps — though this effect is far less pronounced.  (back)
  2. Along with about 95% of their non-QB rushing production.  (back)
  3. Though Cook was slightly faster, slightly quicker, slightly bigger, and slightly more productive. Williams’ best-case scenario was always to become a poor man’s Cook.  (back)
  4. Cook, who still shows up on Trayveon’s post-draft list, was also a three-year player at Florida State. We know early declare matters a lot for WRs, and draft age matters for all positions. Trayveon Williams’ decision to enter the draft early should be a significant positive signal.  (back)
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