Buffalo Bills NFL Draft

A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating College Running Backs

A general guide on how to evaluate NFL prospects at the running back position

LeSean McCoy will be 31 in July and is one of the highest paid running backs in the league. His production has slowed and we as fans are left to wonder if the Buffalo Bills should consider younger, cheaper options. The most likely option could be a player in the upcoming NFL Draft. The purpose of this article is to teach the everyday fan how to evaluate prospects. It will also teach fans how to spot a breakout/potential star running back. Upon reading this article, fans will be able to pick out traits that are common among draft prospects that have had success in the NFL.

Statistics/Production

To evaluate Running Back prospects, the first place we need to look is college production. Running backs who have rushed for 1000 yards in one season or more are the prototypical stats we, the football fan, would like to see. Double digit touchdowns is important as well. Multiple seasons of 1000 yards or more are fantastic.

However, we need to take these stats into perspective in terms of workload. We want to favor RBs who don’t have too many carries because the more carries they had in college, the more hits their bodies have taken. More hits taken equals more wear and tear. Around 200 or so carries per year over the course of their careers is a sufficient amount. We need to see that they can handle a large workload but not too many carries where it is damaging their bodies. Royce Freeman had over 5500 yards in college and almost 1000 carries. He battled injuries his final season and his first year in the NFL he had injury trouble as well because of the wear and tear on his body.

Also, we need to look at their versatility. If they can catch the football it adds to their value. Prospects who can run and catch are so valuable especially because the NFL is shifting towards a passing league. Being multi-dimensional has meaning. 20+ catches in a season is a solid number that shows pass catching ability. Catching ability can also lead to a 3rd down passing down role in the NFL which is becoming more popular. An example is Tarik Cohen who averaged 25 catches per year in college which has translated to an elite 3rd down pass catching back role.

The Truth About Production

Regardless of big school or small school, production for running backs is important because running back success doesn’t rely on other positions like quarterbacks and receivers are tied to each other. Yes offensive line matters but running backs can still be successful without a great offensive line in college. Since running back success isn’t directly tied to other positions, production is almost a direct result of the true skill of the back and that is why college production is so important.

Injury History

Next, we need to look at games played and injuries. Games played is an essential stat because we need to know that these running backs can stay healthy and play every game. Playing a full schedule is meaningful especially for a running back. Do not be scared of prospects that have had torn ACL’s because they can be fully repaired and healed. Adrian Peterson, Deshaun Watson, Dalvin Cook, Julian Edelman and Tom Brady are all talented players who have fully recovered from an ACL tear and had success after surgery. Be concerned about prospects who have had foot, ankle, and hamstring injuries because they can easily be re-aggravated like Leonard Fournette.

Body Type and Athleticism

Thirdly, college running backs that could translate well to the NFL should have size adjusted speed and athleticism. 4.5 seconds or faster for a 40 yard dash is great speed. 20+ reps on the bench press shows great strength. 35+ inch vertical leap and 10+ feet broad jump shows explosiveness. Under a 7 second cone drill shows extraordinary quickness and agility.

Under 200 pounds is a huge concern for injury risk (Matt Breida). Over 240 pounds is very large and the runner might not be able to move well (LeGarrette Blount). Small and fast or big and slow are body types that usually do not perform well in the NFL. We want to find backs who have great size who are also fast and athletic at that size.

Prospects in the 215-230 pound range with great speed and agility to match it are usually the top prospects. Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley are both 230 pounds but run under 4.5 second 40 yard dashes. Stay away from prospects who don’t have speed, stay away from backs who rely on trucking and tackle breaking and stay away from backs 200 pounds or under. Having tackle breaking as a top skill does not translate to the NFL because it is much harder to break tackles from NFL defenders than it is from college defenders.

Exceptions

Not every RB gets a fair shot to showcase their skills in college due to elite teammates, not meeting some of the above criteria or other factors such as coaching decisions. Take Alvin Kamara for example. At 215 pounds he has elite athleticism but got over looked because he wasn’t the primary workhorse at his school. Nobody knew how good he was because he didn’t get many opportunities. Some players for reasons unknown aren’t used as primary workhorse starters in college. They lack the opportunity needed to show their talent. These reasons cause prospects to be overlooked.

Also, some prospects are overlooked due to having elite teammates. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb could have been even higher touted prospects with more touches. But because they were on the same team they limited each others opportunities. James White was stuck behind Melvin Gordon in college for another example.

When analyzing these kinds of prospects, look for athleticism, yards per carry, and catching ability. These three things show that running backs who don’t get as many opportunities can be efficient with the touches they do get. Efficiency goes with production as a good measure of talent.

Conclusion

Prospects that have produced in college who have size adjusted athleticism are rare. But, they are usually the most successful NFL backs. Combining efficiency, size, and speed is the formula for an elite running back prospect. Watch film, do research, and use this article to pick out the better prospects in this years draft. This article will not list who we think Mccoy’s replacement could be but simply a model to allow fans to create educated opinions for themselves.

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