Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Analyze This! Running Backs and the NFL Draft

There’s a writer I particularly like on a different sports opinion site (which you should never, ever read). Like the Football Outsiders guys (with whom he was affiliated), he’s trying to bring the equivalent of sabermetrics to pigskin. But I’m starting to wonder if he’s analyzing himself right out of a job.

Take a look at his breakdown of running backs from the 2008 draft class. While a lot of this supports conventional wisdom – Carolina’s Marty Hurney was an epically terrible General Manager; the Broncos just pull RB names out of a hat – the conclusion is surprising:

The class of 2008 was star-studded. We were just looking at the wrong stars.

The highest value RB picks in 2008 were all outside the first round. Though Matt Forte was barely a second-rounder (he went 44th overall), that’s still a big difference in money under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Jamaal Charles (3rd round) would be a bargain at any price, and Justin Forsett (7th round) might end up being the biggest bargain of all.

But here’s the thing: That doesn’t take undrafted players into account. It also doesn’t analyze the impact of players like Steve Slaton (3rd round) and Peyton Hillis (7th round). Think about it Moneyball-style: Would you rather have two years of Steve Slaton at a third-rounder’s salary, or two years of Rashard Mendenhall at a first-rounder’s?

Barnwell himself makes these kinds of comparisons all the time. But he doesn’t follow through on his most striking conclusion:

In so many cases, the difference between a star running back and a mediocre one is opportunity, not ability.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t there be some soul-searching among NFL talent evaluators? Why aren’t these guys getting carries? For that matter, why are many of them not even getting drafted? Every team in the league had six shots at Forsett, and seven shots at Arian Foster and Priest Holmes (those guys turned out ok). Why isn’t there a reevaluation of the RB scouting process?

Analyze This! Running Backs and the NFL Draft

If anything, the arrow seems to be pointing the other way. The “carrier-by-committee” / “hot hand” approach that makes fantasy football such a headache presumes the essential fungibility of running backs. As Gregg Easterbrook writes (at another site you shouldn’t read), running back has gone from football’s premiere position to a near-afterthought in the age of the spread offense. But Barnwell’s column shows that’s not really true. Teams with a solid “feature back” do quite well — it’s just that the “feature back” isn’t who you’d expect him to be based on draft position. So why aren’t teams doing everything they can to find those guys in the lowest possible round? Or, for that matter, in free agency?

Part of the answer may be those pigskin sabermetrics. Barnwell’s piece touts his “speed score” metric, which tries to evaluate backs’ relative speed versus their weight, based on his conclusion that a back’s 40-yard dash time at the combine “was the single most indicative measure of a running back’s future success.” But his 2008 draft analysis actually argues against this. Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson were that class’s blazers, but neither is anything close to a Hall of Famer. You could make a case for injuries in McFadden’s case, but Barnwell’s comment on Chris Johnson is revealing:

Johnson was so fast and knew just enough about reading his blocks that he could get by early in his career, but once he lost a tiny bit of that top speed, like [Felix] Jones, he wasn’t the same guy.

This is especially true over five years. Guys like Johnson and Jones fell off, while players like Ray Rice and Peyton Hillis – speed scores of 99.7 and 103.6, respectively – came on, picking up way more yardage than the first two. The “speed score” metric probably would’ve bumped Jamaal Charles up, but maybe not – Barnwell has him at 108.7, slightly below Matt Forte (109.7) and well below Jonathan Stewart (116.7) and Rashard Mendenhall (114.8). Indeed, he’s further away from Mendenhall (6.1) than Hillis is from him (5.1). Maybe Hillis should’ve been the third-rounder and Charles should’ve gone in the seventh.

I’m not a psychiatrist*, but if the difference is opportunity, not ability, then by elimination something mental is being overlooked on somebody’s part. Barnwell commonsensically suggests that Chris Johnson and Felix Jones were over-reliant on their speed; they didn’t develop any complimentary skills, so when they lost a step, they went from being feature backs to contractual albatrosses. They played in offensive systems designed around burners, which they no longer were. Meanwhile, Jamaal Charles was able to accept his place in a one-two punch, and guys like Foster and Holmes were forced to become complete backs just to make the team.

Teams should reevaluate their scouting process based on a back’s psychological profile. I’m under the impression that having a “team shrink” got a bad rap in the Seventies, but like many of that decade’s fads, it deserves a second look.** Though “sports psychology” is a burgeoning field – the American Psychiatric Association called it a “hot career” in 2012 – it’s focused on player training, not evaluation. (It turns out that the Chiefs actually have a preferred sports psychologist, though again, he deals with training, not scouting). A quick trawl through Google Scholar shows slim pickings in terms of lab research. For elite athlete psychology in general, there’s the Morgan Iceberg Profile, and, well…that’s about it, unless you consider the Wonderlic a sophisticated investigative tool. Can a potential draft pick handle being a role-player in a system? Does he understand his limitations? Draft those guys first, then take a flyer on a sprinter in the seventh round.



*Full disclosure: My wife is, but she didn’t help with this piece, and has no sports-psych affiliation. Plus, like me, she’s a Texans fan, so you can definitely question her own mental health.

**Seriously. Disco is fun music.


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