Does athleticism correlate to NFL success for running backs?

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 1999 to 2016 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 40 RBs that have made a pro bowl since 1999 who qualified for RAS. Of them, 31 measured above 5.00 (77.5%) and only 9 measured below average (22.5%). Even more notably, more than half of pro bowl running backs measured above 8.00 RAS (21 of 40, 52.5%). The short answer looking at those numbers is yes, it has shown to directly correlate to being a pro bowl caliber running back.

Jonathan Stewart 9.95 Jay Ajayi 8.04
Latavius Murray 9.91 Doug Martin 7.81
David Johnson 9.83 Ray Rice 7.68
Marion Barber 9.77 Chris Ivory 7.28
Chris Johnson 9.67 Rudi Johnson 7.15
LaDainian Tomlinson 9.65 Michael Turner 6.34
Matt Forte 9.62 Marshawn Lynch 5.95
Adrian Peterson 9.47 Darren Sproles 5.89
DeAngelo Williams 9.32 Maurice Jones-Drew 5.81
Steven Jackson 9.21 Brian Westbrook 5.75
Ryan Mathews 8.97 LeSean McCoy 5.43
Joseph Addai 8.95 Jordan Howard 4.32
DeMarco Murray 8.85 Frank Gore 4.13
C.J. Spiller 8.76 C.J. Anderson 4.07
Michael Bennett 8.77 Arian Foster 3.44
Jamaal Charles 8.63 Eddie Lacy 3.19
Ronnie Brown 8.54 Alfred Morris 3.13
Le’Veon Bell 8.53 Justin Forsett 2.93
Melvin Gordon 8.13 Mark Ingram 1.34
Ezekiel Elliott 8.07 Devonta Freeman 1.21

We all know the Pro Bowl isn’t everything, though. Fred Taylor 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 1999 to 2016, where there were 63 running backs who put up 1,000 yards on the ground.

Of those 63 rushers, 44 of them (69.84%) measured above average for RAS. Just under half, 30 out of 63 or 47.62%, measured above 8.00 RAS.

Justin Fargas 10.00 Chris Ivory 7.28
Jonathan Stewart 9.95 Rudi Johnson 7.15
Latavius Murray 9.91 Michael Turner 6.34
David Johnson 2015 9.83 Olandis Gary 6.05
Reggie Bush 9.70 Marshawn Lynch 5.95
Chris Johnson 9.67 Maurice Jones-Drew 5.81
LaDainian Tomlinson 9.65 Brian Westbrook 5.75
Matt Forte 9.62 Ryan Grant 5.60
Darren McFadden 9.58 Knowshon Moreno 5.58
Tatum Bell 9.56 LeSean McCoy 5.43
Adrian Peterson 9.47 Steve Slaton 5.39
Lamar Miller 9.39 Peyton Hillis 5.28
DeAngelo Williams 9.32 Stevan Ridley 4.84
Steven Jackson 9.21 Jordan Howard 4.32
Julius Jones 9.12 Frank Gore 4.13
Ryan Mathews 8.97 Anthony Thomas 3.63
Joseph Addai 8.95 Shonn Greene 3.60
DeMarco Murray 8.85 LeGarrette Blount 3.55
Rashard Mendenhall 8.83 Arian Foster 3.44
Michael Bennett 8.77 Cedric Benson 3.43
C.J. Spiller 8.76 Eddie Lacy 3.19
Jamaal Charles 8.63 Alfred Morris 3.13
Beanie Wells 8.59 Justin Forsett 2.93
Ronnie Brown 8.54 Chester Taylor 2.84
Le’Veon Bell 8.53 Ahmad Bradshaw 2.17
Ladell Betts 8.30 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2.14
Brandon Jacobs 8.09 Reuben Droughns 1.50
Ezekiel Elliott 8.07 Jeremy Hill 1.46
Jay Ajayi 8.04 Mark Ingram 1.34
Cadillac Williams 8.00 Devonta Freeman 1.21
Doug Martin 7.81 Domanick Williams 1.08
Ray Rice 7.68

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. Around half or more players rate above 8.00, 70% 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 Redskins who may be leaning heavily on Dalvin Cook and Samaje Perine 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
1500 3 12 8 80.00%
1000 19 44 30 69.84%
750 29 64 40 68.82%
500 46 109 66 70.32%

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.

Yards from Scrimmage

I jumped straight to the top to start this one off, looking at players since 1999 who have had 2,000 total rushing and receiving yards. It yielded very similar results to the 1,500 rushing yards, likely because it included many of those players. Still, looking at any non-extreme measure of total yards in a season we end up with almost identical results as we had for rushing yards alone.

Yards <5 >5 >8.00 %>5
2000 2 10 7 83.33%
1500 11 28 17 71.79%
1200 18 51 29 73.91%
1000 30 70 40 70.00%

Once again we’re looking essentially at a ratio of 40-50% of successful running backs falling into that elite range and about 70% rating above average. So once again if you’re looking for an impact player in the run game who can assist in the passing game, you’re better off with the better athletes.

Conclusions

In RAS, there are almost exactly the same number of players between any identical range, 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 40-50% 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 70% of all successful players measuring above average and only around 30% who rated below.

I found it interesting that those numbers remained almost the same no matter what your threshold of success was. Unless you pushed it to the very extreme levels of success or set the bar so low you could hardly call it success in the first place, the numbers stayed pretty much the same. 40-50% elite, 70% above average, 30% below average. For RAS and success for running backs, that’s your range, and it likely remains that range no matter what you’re using to factor in success.

One thought 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.

    Like

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