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Dallas Cowboys 2015 Draft: Looking For Impact Running Backs

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The conventional wisdom is that the running back class is exceptionally deep this year, and that a team can find a very good running back just about anywhere. But is that really a realistic assessment?

Ameer Abdullah's athleticism is without question.
Ameer Abdullah's athleticism is without question.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following the departure of DeMarco Murray, the Dallas Cowboys are going to be looking for a running back in the draft to help replace his league-leading production. The current group of running backs on the roster offers some hope, but the team will need a lot more to be really confident in the running game that has become so key to the offensive plan under Scott Linehan.

The good news is that this is a great year to be looking for a running back in the draft. It is very deep RB class, and there were no fewer than 25 running backs in NCAA division 1 that exceeded 100 yards per game on average (not all of whom are draft eligible). Add in the lower divisions, and there are bunch of running back prospects that have impressive resumes.

But is it really true that a team can wait until late in the draft and plug in a running back that will automatically lead to success? The Cowboys have a tremendous advantage in the human bulldozers that comprise their offensive line, but it still is not a given that a player that succeeds at the college level is going to just keep on keeping on in the NFL.

The always analytic OCC has just taken a look linebacker prospects in which he considers both demonstrated playmaking ability and athleticism to try and identify who the best potential draftees are. With the interest in running backs, I wanted to take a similar look at the top running backs in the draft.

One key difference was that where OCC has developed a set of criteria to determine productivity for linebackers, there is not really a similar approach for running backs. However, in discussing this idea with me, OCC suggested that a good way to compare productivity for backs is yards per carry. This is a rough yardstick since it does not show how good a line the player ran behind or whether there was an effective passing game or not to take pressure off the running attack, but it does let us at least get some idea of how players compare whether they had a small or large number of carries per game.

As OCC did, this comparison uses the numbers designed to emulate Nike's SPARQ metric compiled by Zach Whitman at our sister blog Field Gulls. Below is the running back table he has published at 3sigmaathlete as part of his overall set of numbers. He calls his number pSPARQ, with the "p" indicating that these were numbers derived post-combine and he used the numbers from the Combine to get a consistent set of measurements on all the candidates. (You can see OCC's article on linebackers here for an explanation of how these numbers are derived, at least as far as we can tell with a system where the actual methodology is not being divulged by any of the people doing this.)

RBSPARQ

Unfortunately, not all players participated in the combine drills, including notable players Todd Gurley and Tevin Coleman, who are both recovering from injury. However, they will be included, since they are both going to be part of the equation for teams looking for running backs.

The following table looks at the 16 top running backs in the draft as rated by CBS Sports in their draft big board who also participated in the combine, giving them a pSPARQ score. If the board is close to accurate, these are roughly the backs that will most likely be taken in the first seven rounds of the draft. CBS Sports was also the source for the yards per attempt (YPA) numbers. The pSPARQ number is given, along with the percentile rating that shows where the players rank compared to running backs currently in the league. (I have also included Gurley, Coleman and David Cobb, the three top 100 backs who did not have pSPARQ scores, to show how they fall. After 100, there are more and more players who did not attend the combine or did not test, so they were not included from that point to keep from cluttering the chart up.)

Running Back Comparison
Player School CBS ranking 2014 YPA pSPARQ NFL %
Todd Gurley Georgia 18 7.4 N/R N/R
Melvin Gordon Wisconsin 22 7.5 125.7 63.9
Jay Ajayi Boise St. 41 5.3 127.6 69.2
Ameer Abdullah Nebraska 48 6.1 142.5 95.6
Duke Johnson Miami (Fla.) 57 6.8 124.9 61.2
Tevin Coleman Indiana 62 7.5 N/R N/R
David Johnson Northern Iowa 65 5.4 139.7 93.1
Jeremy Langford Michigan St. 79 5.5 116.7 35.6
T.J. Yeldon Alabama 86 5.0 118.2 40.1
David Cobb Minnesota 90 5.2 N/R N/R
Mike Davis S. Carolina 101 4.9 117.2 37.0
Javorius (Buck) Allen S. California 119 5.4 118.8 42.0
Cameron Artis-Payne Auburn 129 5.3 116.5 34.9
Karlos Williams Florida State 168 4.6 112.9 25.0
Malcolm Brown Texas 181 3.9 118.8 42.0
Matt Jones Florida 186 4.9 112.4 23.7
Josh Robinson Mississippi St. 220 6.3 107.8 13.8
Trey Williams Texas A&M 239 6.9 116.7 35.6
John Crockett North Dakota St. 279 5.4 125.4 62.9

Something that jumps out is that there is a clear fall off after the top seven players here. Everyone of the top seven backs who participated in the combine drills ranks above the 50th percentile, or in the top half of athleticism as far as NFL running backs are concerned. (Although Gurley and Coleman do not have pSPARQ scores, they would likely have been above the 50th percentile if they had tested, and probably by a good bit.) And the players above that line are solidly above it, with Duke Johnson the closest to it and still 11.2 percent above the average. Likewise, all but one of the lower-rated players are all a noticeable margin below it.

And there is a similar difference in YPA, with the exception of Jay Ayaji and small school player David Johnson. The handful of other players above that 50th percentile all had over six yards per carry while only two of the lower-rated players could reach that level. This table appears to break into two distinct tiers, with David Johnson sitting on the margin between the two.

Based on the figures here, the Cowboys may want to be looking exclusively at those first seven names, which means that the team would have to be prepared to use a first or second round pick on a running back. Waiting any longer runs the risk of getting a back who is not nearly as productive or athletically talented as the team would want. The "plug and play" argument is much more believable when applied to the players in the top part of this chart. The lower part of this table contains players whose productivity and athleticism are much more of a hit or miss nature.

We can take this one step further and graphically visualize who the top running backs in this draft are (if you're going by college production and athletic potential):

RB SPARQ V1

If you are not going to draft one of the elite backs in the A quadrant (and again it is assumed Gurley and Coleman would also fall here), you probably would want to look next at the ones in the B quadrant. High yards per carry could be a result of limited use in a predominantly passing offense, which is likely the case with Trey Williams. John Crockett sticks out here, with his high pSPARQ score and low YPA. It might be wise to spend some extra time on his film to see how he was used and what other elements might have held that YPA down, since he is one late-round prospect that may have the high level of athleticism to excel. If he was misused or just didn't have enough help on the field, he could be a late-round steal.

The draft is indeed deep in running backs, but just because a player is draft eligible, and one of the top 100 or so players according to talent evaluations, it does not mean that he is going to succeed in the NFL. It certainly does not mean that he is guaranteed to be able to step in and provide a significant help to the Cowboys in replacing what they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the form of DeMarco Murray. It may be time to take a closer look at the whole idea of taking a back anywhere in the draft if you really want to find a productive one.

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