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NFL Lookahead, Part I: Using Data to Pinpoint Which Running Backs are Primed for Big Seasons

By: Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads

The goal is simple. The process is not.

Stats Perform collects data on every position group in an effort to create a more complete picture of how teams are constructed. Over 30,000 data points are gathered each NFL game and through those hundreds of thousands of points, we can begin to discern how players are performing relative to what is being asked of them.

In previewing the highly anticipated 2020 NFL season, we’ll use that data to break down some of the players who should enjoy productive seasons for both their respective teams and, potentially, your fantasy team.

In the opener, we’re taking a closer look at the running back spot. How do we come to choose these players? Well, it certainly isn’t based on Joe Fantasy Expert’s opinion. It all has to do with the analytics and factors that make a productive back.

1. OFFENSIVE LINE HELP

There’s a reason we put this one first. It’s hard to run behind an offensive line that loses one yard off the line of scrimmage every play, and getting a good push can give a back the consistency of four to five yards per rush.

2. ABILITY TO GENERATE YARDAGE WHEN THE OFFENSIVE LINE LOSES POSITION

Stats Perform collects a data point called Disruptions — when a defender disrupts the design of a running play — and identifies the corresponding offensive player responsible for allowing the disruption. For running backs, we can see how many yards are gained on plays where at least one Disruption occurs. The average running back gains 2.55 yards on such plays.

3. ABILITY TO GENERATE THEIR OWN YARDS 

Whether or not the offensive line does its work, eventually the RB comes face-to-face with a defender. Yards after contact is a statistic that is used often to explain how many extra yards a player generates, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. We collect some extra data on tackling, identifying where the defender and ball carrier first meet. If a defender has a chance to make a tackle at the 30-yard line but doesn’t make contact until the 33 because the ball carrier makes a little move, those three yards are lost in yards after contact. Instead, we can look at Yards Created, which does identify when each defender has a chance to make a tackle.

For rushes, the average ball carrier gets almost exactly two yards per final tackle. That means if a ball carrier first has an opportunity to be tackled at the 30, on average he will reach the 32. We can also measure Pre-Yards, or how many yards a ball carrier is given before he must interact with a defender.

Based on these criteria, here’s are the running backs who are in great situations and should be primed for a big year:

Derrick Henry excels in our Yards Created metric.

DERRICK HENRY, TENNESSEE TITANS

The Titans enter the season with some question marks on the offensive line. The left side is great, but the right side needs to see some development after losing Jack Conklin in free agency. If rookie Isaiah Wilson is the road grader the Titans think he is, then this line could once again provide gaping holes for Henry to plow through.

Henry also generates a lot of his own yardage. On plays with one or more Disruptions, Henry averaged 3.55 yards per rush, a full yard more than average and second in the NFL for ball carriers with 100 or more rushes. Much of that number comes from his ability to gain extra yards on tackles.

He’s not necessarily known for forcing missed tackles, in part because he knows he can plow through defenders and get consistent extra yardage. In two games of charting tackling data, Henry created 4.19 yards per rush, more than double the average running back.

In the following video, the offensive line gets a decent push, and Henry isn’t really contacted until he’s already accrued three yards. But then Henry and his offensive line keep working. The left tackle continues to push the pile downfield while Henry keeps his legs moving and generates an additional four yards from first contact. That’s three Pre-Yards and four Yards Created.

Henry won’t be a surprise pick on draft boards, but what he will be is a consistent top contributor to your fantasy squad with almost no downside.

JOSH JACOBS, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

By our metrics, the Raiders enter 2020 with the third-best pass blocking line in the NFL. However, their run blocking is a little more suspect. Though still in the top half of the league, the Raiders’ tackles, in particular, have a tough time keeping defenders in place on running plays.

Jacobs led the NFL last year in Yards Per Disrupted Rush, gaining a whopping 3.67 yards with a defender in his face. This is important because the Raiders play in the same division as the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, who we project to have top-five run defenses.

In terms of Yards Created, Jacobs generates 3.65 yards per rush, even with defenders being successful on 82% of tackle attempts.

CHRIS CARSON, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Carson gets to run behind an offensive line riddled with question marks heading into 2020. The Seahawks will have new players at LG, RG, and RT. Right guard will be rookie Damien Lewis, a member of the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line at LSU last year. His college data was great, and we think he’ll be fine. Left guard is the biggest concern, which will be some combination of Ethan Pocic and Jamarco Jones, both of whom have a lot left to prove before we consider them starter-caliber.

An underperforming offensive line is something Carson is used to. Last year, Carson averaged 0.00 Pre-yards Per Rushing Play. In other words, on average, he was met by a defender at the line of scrimmage. That’s remarkable considering his quarterback is renowned for being a serious deep ball threat. Carson was just above average at Yards Per Disrupted Run (2.77), but he created 4.27 yards per rush. Additionally, only 73% of tackle attempts resulted in a takedown.

He’s currently coming off the board as the 15th RB in fantasy drafts, behind players with usage question marks like Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake and Austin Ekeler. While he doesn’t have the ceilings of those players, he’s a great player to add in Round 3 if you opt to take receivers and/or tight ends with your first two picks.

The data points to another productive season for Adrian Peterson.

ADRIAN PETERSON, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Washington has one of the best run-blocking right guards in football in Brandon Scherff. In fact, our offensive line baselines name Scherff the top run-blocking guard in all of football, narrowly ahead of Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboys. However, the left side of Washington’s line is where the question marks are and it’s a battle for both blindside spots. Even so, Washington is projected to start the season with the 14th-best run-blocking line in the NFL.

Keeping with the trend of our picks, Peterson was sixth in Yards Per Disrupted Play and created 3.78 yards per rush. Peterson does this using both power and shiftiness. Defenders are successful at bringing down Peterson on just 74% of attempts, and he’s always falling forward for extra yards.

In the next video, No. 52 resets the line of scrimmage and makes hard contact with AP at the Washington 19 (Pre-yards of minus-1). AP shrugs off the tackle attempt and gains another three yards before coming into contact with the next defender, who he jukes out of the play. He’s finally hit hard at the 23, but even then he keeps his feet moving and gets an additional two yards. Peterson turned a potential one-yard loss into a five-yard gain.

While this next play doesn’t count, it’s another good example of how AP can generate extra yards. The run is designed to go off of the TE, but he’s immediately handled by the right-side defensive end. AP cuts in and makes contact with a defender at the 48. He trucks a defender while he’s already being tackled at the opponent’s 48, and gets an additional yard. Another five Yards Created.

Below, AP navigates an arm tackle at the 35, before finding space due to poor gap integrity by the defense. He doesn’t get credit for creating yards when the defense blows a gap assignment, but he does get credit for making the free safety whiff at the 21, and then falling for an extra two yards once he’s finally contacted at the 15. That’s eight Yards Created, and 17 yards lost by the defense.

Scott Turner, Washington’s new offensive coordinator, used a lot of gap scheme runs as interim OC of the Carolina Panthers last season, and Peterson fits that running style. We can see Peterson continuing how he ended last year, when he averaged 15 carries for 71 yards and 0.8 TDs on the ground.

Not bad for the 138th player off the draft board.

 

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