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Just The Sports: Three First Round Running Backs

Just The Sports

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Three First Round Running Backs

Three running backs, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, and Jahvid Best, were drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, meaning the Buffalo Bills, the San Diego Chargers, and the Detroit Lions all think they now possess a franchise running back for the future. Whether or not they are right remains to be seen, but based on these running back's college numbers, we can get an idea of the type of running back each player is. In order to gauge the profile of the running backs, I used Football Outsiders' success rate formula for running backs (40% of yardage on 1st down; 60% of yardage on 2nd down; 100% on 3rd and 4th downs) with a minor tweak of my own, which is that when a team goes for it on fourth down, I count a successful run as a run where the running back gains 80% of the necessary yardage. Using the success rate formula, I can get a good idea of how consistent and explosive these players are.

First, let us examine C.J. Spiller. Even before the draft, he was widely acknowledged as the best running back in the draft so it was no surprise when he was selected ninth overall by the Bills. Such a high draft pick indicates the Bills plan to use him in a workhorse running back role or at least expect him to play a large role in their offense, but Spiller has nothing in his background that says he would be able to handle such a heavy load. Actually, Spiller is the running back with the least impressive college resume of the three.

In order to maximize Spiller's abilities, the Bills should be extremely careful how they use him. He is not a running back who can be given the ball twenty times a game and be expected to produce at a very high level. Spiller's success rate of 50.6% makes him the least consistent of the three runners so he will not grind out yards on a consistent basis. Instead, he is just as likely to stifle the offense by only gaining one or two yards when the team needs him to get four or five.

Spiller's low success rate combined with his average of gaining an extra 7.1 yards per successful run and his average of falling short by 3.6 yards per unsuccessful run make Spiller a quintessential boom or bust running back. These running backs are best used in a secondary running back role as they cannot be depended upon game in and game out to gain the necessary yards. For every great game a boom or bust running back has, he will mix it up with a real stinker of one. While Spiller does exhibit above average explosiveness, I fear the Bills are drafting him to be a player he is simply not cut out to be.

Ryan Mathews was the second running back taken, going twelfth overall to the San Diego Chargers after they traded up to draft him. By drafting Mathews, the Chargers have a prototypical workhorse running back who will make Chargers fans forget all about LaDainian Tomlinson. Even though Mathews carried a far heavier load per game (17.2 rush attempts per game compared to Spiller's 11.7 rush attempts per game and Best's 11.7 rush attempts per game), Mathews was still by far the most consistent runner with a success rate of 56.2%. As his 6.5 extra yards per successful run indicate, Mathews is also able to break up a few long runs, too, in addition to being able to churn out the tough yards and keep the Chargers offense in manageable downs and distances. The fact he only comes up short by 3.1 yards per unsuccessful run is another bonus as it shows even when he does not have a successful run, he does not come up short by too much.

Out of this first round stable of running backs, it is the Chargers that got the most complete runner.

With the thirtieth pick in the draft, the Lions acquired the most explosive runner out of these three in Jahvid Best. Best's 9.7 extra yards per successful run is spectacularly sublime and blows away both Mathews and Spiller. His ability to break long runs is without a doubt his greatest attribute, but he is also a pretty consistent runner with a 52.7% success rate on his runs. He comes up 4.1 yards short per successful run, but when taken into context with his successful runs, there is nothing to worry about. If the Lions pair Best with another running back so that the two of them can share the offensive burden equally, he will reward them by being a very productive and exciting player.

Since the Chargers have the most complete running back in Ryan Mathews and the Lions have the most explosive running back in Jahvid Best, it looks like the Buffalo Bills and C.J. Spiller are left out in the cold. Compared to two running backs with superior numbers, Spiller's high draft selection looks as if it is more a result of hype than his true production, hype he may not be able to live up to. The Bills will just have to hope that Spiller can make up for his lack of elite running back ability with great contributions in the kick return game. As for the Chargers and the Lions, they have to be quite pleased with their additions to their backfields.



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