Does athleticism correlate to NFL success for running backs?

Last Updated 8/17/2019

The 2017 NFL Combine showcased the elite athleticism of Christian McCaffrey, who would go on to be drafted 8th overall by the Carolina Panthers. McCaffrey wasn’t the only top flight athlete present, as new Indianapolis Colts draftee Marlon Mack and Packers late round pick Aaron Jones also put on a show. The general consensus for top backs were Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, but with one doing alright and one doing terribly at the combine their draft stocks went in different directions. We’ve already looked at how Relative Athletic Scores correlates to draft selection, but what about NFL success?

First we’ve got to determine our variables here. Our easy start is noting what levels of athleticism we’re going to cover. As will become standard on this site, we’ll be looking at players who measured below average (below 5.00 RAS), above average (5.00+ RAS), and elite athletes (above 8.00 RAS). When reviewing the percentages, it’s important to note that 50% of players are above and below 5.00 RAS, but only 20% are above 8.00 in that elite tier.

Next we have to determine what constitutes success. For this study, I’ve looked at every season from 1987 to 2019 and rather than deciding upon a single measure of success I looked at several. We’re going to look at pro bowls, rushing yardage at multiple thresholds, and all purpose yardage with multiple thresholds. Because not every rusher is expected to carry a team, we won’t just be looking at the elite seasons, but also seasons that we might consider acceptable for a running back by committee.

Does Athleticism equate to pro bowls?

There have been 72 RBs that have made a pro bowl since 1987 who qualified for RAS. Of them, 62 measured above 5.00 (86.11%) and only 10 measured below average (13.89%). Even more notably, more than half of pro bowl running backs measured above 8.00 RAS (43 of 40, 59.72%). The short answer looking at those numbers is yes, it has shown to directly correlate to being a pro bowl caliber running back.

John Stephens 10 Rudi Johnson 8.33
Edgerrin James 10 Doug Martin 8.27
Deuce McAllister 9.97 Chris Warren 8.24
Saquon Barkley 9.97 Ray Rice 8.18
Jonathan Stewart 9.87 Alvin Kamara 8.08
Robert Smith 9.85 Chris Ivory 8.07
Latavius Murray 9.84 Thurman Thomas 8.04
David Johnson 9.84 Travis Henry 7.99
LaDainian Tomlinson 9.79 Brian Westbrook 7.94
Ahman Green 9.74 Marshawn Lynch 7.81
Ricky Williams 9.73 Michael Turner 7.66
Matt Forte 9.71 Gaston Green 7.45
Adrian Peterson 9.64 Maurice Jones-Drew 7.4
Chris Johnson 9.57 Harold Green 7.31
Jerry Azumah 9.56 Darren Sproles 7.28
Richie Anderson 9.55 Sam Gash 6.38
Steven Jackson 9.55 LeSean McCoy 6.2
Dorsey Levens 9.46 Priest Holmes 5.99
Dante Hall 9.42 Phillip Lindsay 5.77
Ronnie Brown 9.38 Frank Gore 5.65
Barry Sanders 9.35 C.J. Anderson 5.49
Curtis Martin 9.35 Jordan Howard 5.42
Ryan Mathews 9.27 Ricky Watters 5.37
DeAngelo Williams 9.21 Kareem Hunt 5.16
Fred Mcafee 9.18 Arian Foster 5.14
DeMarco Murray 9.18 Terrell Davis 5.04
Michael Bennett 9.17 Leon Washington 4.93
Joseph Addai 9.07 Alfred Morris 4.58
C.J. Spiller 8.93 Eddie Lacy 4.58
Cedric Peerman 8.88 Dave Meggett 4.42
Le’Veon Bell 8.88 James Conner 4.34
Melvin Gordon 8.75 Justin Forsett 4.18
Tiki Barber 8.7 Mark Ingram 2.57
Ezekiel Elliott 8.66 Devonta Freeman 2.34
Jay Ajayi 8.63 Johnny Bailey 2.13
Jamaal Charles 8.56 John Settle 0

We all know the Pro Bowl isn’t everything, though. Fred Taylor (who didn’t qualify for RAS) only ever made one pro bowl despite amassing seven 1,000 yard seasons on his way to more than 11,000 total yards, and you can certainly point to that as having been successful in the NFL.

1,000 Yard Rushing Seasons

It takes a lot of things to make a 1,000 yard season happen. It takes a dedication to the run game, a strong offensive line, and of course a good enough running back with strong enough ball control to make such a season happen. Since it’s the running back part we’re focusing on, I looked at every season from 1987 to 2019, where there were 101 running backs who put up 1,000 yards on the ground.

Of those 101 rushers, 90 of them (89.11%) measured above average for RAS. Over half, 59 out of 63 or 58.42%, measured above 8.00 RAS.

John Stephens 10 Christian McCaffrey 8.53
James Stewart 10 Rudi Johnson 8.33
Edgerrin James 10 Doug Martin 8.27
Justin Fargas 10 Chris Warren 8.24
Deuce McAllister 9.97 Ray Rice 8.18
Saquon Barkley 9.97 Ryan Grant 8.15
Jonathan Stewart 9.87 Chris Ivory 8.07
Robert Smith 9.85 Thurman Thomas 8.04
Latavius Murray 9.84 Leonard Fournette 8.04
David Johnson 9.84 Travis Henry 7.99
Antowain Smith 9.79 Brian Westbrook 7.94
LaDainian Tomlinson 9.79 Christopher Carson 7.93
Tatum Bell 9.75 Marshawn Lynch 7.81
Ahman Green 9.74 Adrian Murrell 7.7
Ricky Williams 9.73 Michael Turner 7.66
Lamont Jordan 9.71 Napoleon Kaufman 7.48
Matt Forte 9.71 Gaston Green 7.45
Adrian Peterson 9.64 Maurice Jones-Drew 7.4
Reggie Bush 9.63 Harold Green 7.31
Darren McFadden 9.59 Edgar Bennett 7.07
Chris Johnson 9.57 Steve Slaton 6.95
Steven Jackson 9.55 Brandon Jacobs 6.86
Dorsey Levens 9.46 Knowshon Moreno 6.77
Joe Mixon 9.46 Peyton Hillis 6.76
Ronnie Brown 9.38 Anthony Thomas 6.72
Lamar Miller 9.38 LeSean McCoy 6.2
Kevin Jones 9.37 Priest Holmes 5.99
Barry Sanders 9.35 Stevan Ridley 5.85
Curtis Martin 9.35 Phillip Lindsay 5.77
Julius Jones 9.35 Chester Taylor 5.69
Ladell Betts 9.32 Anthony Johnson 5.65
Ryan Mathews 9.27 Frank Gore 5.65
Beanie Wells 9.26 C.J. Anderson 5.49
Kevan Barlow 9.22 Jordan Howard 5.42
DeAngelo Williams 9.21 Ricky Watters 5.37
Raymont Harris 9.2 Kareem Hunt 5.16
DeMarco Murray 9.18 Arian Foster 5.14
Michael Bennett 9.17 Leonard Russell 5.1
Tyrone Wheatley 9.11 Cedric Benson 5.1
Cadillac Williams 9.09 Shonn Greene 5.05
Olandis Gary 9.08 Reuben Droughns 4.88
Rashard Mendenhall 8.95 LeGarrette Blount 4.86
C.J. Spiller 8.93 Alfred Morris 4.58
Le’Veon Bell 8.88 Benjarvus Green-Ellis 3.89
Derrick Henry 8.78 Ahmad Bradshaw 3.85
Melvin Gordon 8.75 Domanick Williams 3.21
Tiki Barber 8.7 Mark Ingram 2.57
Ezekiel Elliott 8.66 Devonta Freeman 2.34
Jay Ajayi 8.63 Jeremy Hill 2.29
Jamaal Charles 8.56 Gary Brown 0.88
John Settle 0

If we raise the threshold for rushing yards all the way up, we run out of low RAS players eventually (1700 yards and up only have a handful of players, all above 8.00 RAS). The percentages otherwise stay pretty steady. More than half of players rate above 8.00, 80% or so of them rate over 5.00. That’s a good sign for teams like the Bengals and Colts, who drafted Joe Mixon and Marlon Mack fairly high, but not as good of a sign for the Vikings or Bills who may be leaning heavily on Dalvin Cook and Devin Singletary respectively. Enough low RAS players have made it to be able to point to outliers, but if you’re looking at likelihood it’s pretty clear where the odds lie.

Yards <5 >5 >8.00 %>5
1250 2 45 29 95.74%
1000 12 90 59 89.11%
750 24 122 80 83.56%

So even if you’re just looking for a complimentary piece at running back, your odds are generally higher if you take the more athletic prospects. What about looking at total yards from scrimmage? Darren Sproles wasn’t a great player because he had 1,000 yard rushing seasons, but because he could do equally damaging work in the passing game. LaDainian Tomlinson’s top tier rushing seasons are great, but made even more impressive by how well he worked as a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Conclusions

In RAS, there are almost exactly the same number of players between any identical range in any given year, so the number of players between 8-10 is close to 4-6. In each instance, it’s about 20% of the total number of players. If athleticism didn’t matter for this position, you would expect a similar rate for players between similar ranges, so you’d expect close to the same number of players from 8-10 as you would have 0-2, 3-5, etc. That isn’t the case, however, as we end up with a very clear disparity that favors the more athletic players.

With only 20% of all running backs measuring in the 8.00 to 10.00 RAS range, they manage to comprise 50-60% of any list of successful players regardless of what you use to call someone successful. Elite athletes simply find success at a higher rate for running backs than players who rate below average.

With an almost equal number of players above and below average for RAS (close to 50% a piece), it’s easy to spot any difference. If athleticism didn’t matter, you’d have close to half of all successful players measuring above and below average. Instead, we see around 80% of all successful players measuring above average and only around 20% who rated below.

4 thoughts on “Does athleticism correlate to NFL success for running backs?

  1. IMO it stands to reason great athletes will achieve greatness on a higher percentage to others. In a sport requiring athleticism to execute more athleticism is a clear advantage along with size.

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  2. Of the players that excel that don’t have a high overall RAS, are in the near 90% in one specific area. Guys with a low center of gravity get dinged by height and long range speed but have an exceptionally change of direction – 3 cone.

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      1. I guess I was wondering if there were a subset of guys with a RAS under 5 that we could tell using analytics if they had a better chance at succeeding due to a compact nature giving them a lower center of gravity and hence a better change of direction. Seems like the guys hurt by Height and weight have a high three cone but can’t tell for sure? Atleast that’s what stuck out just looking at the names of guys with low RAS who have succeeded. Like how you have agility scores, I am wondering if weight to height ratio is more important for a RB, since height is probably more of a hindrance than a benefit for this specific position?

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