Now that contracts have kind of slowed down I wanted to get back into doing positional valuations, this time with a focus on Running Backs. As is usual the raw data comes from Pro Football Focus with the analysis of numbers being somewhat unique. In general I want to grade running backs on 3 categories: Yards After Contact, Player Generated Yards Before Contact, and Player Generated Yards Per Target.
Yards After Contact
I think this is pretty simple and straightforward. Once touched whatever yards a runner gains are essentially all due to his effort. The average in the league last year was around 2.5. Of runners with more than 50 attempts the best average was actually Justin Forsett, now of the Jaguars, with 4.11 YAC per attempt. Adrian Peterson was second at 3.93 and CJ Spiller third at 3.58. The bottom three were Beanie Wells, Danny Woodhead, and Bilal Powell. This is the one pure PFF stat.
Player Generated Yards Before Contact
Running the rushing numbers for all teams we can determine just how many rushing yards are attributed to an offensive line keeping hands off a player. Last season the top 3 were the Chiefs (2.59), Titans(2.23), and Seahawks(2.15) while the Panthers pulled up the rear (0.98). I adjusted each teams numbers to exclude the specific runner in question which allows us to determine just how many yards before contact that player generates compared to all other runners on the team. In essence this tells us if a player is hitting the hole faster than others and determining yards before contact that are attributed to the runner as much as the up front blocking. The top 3 in this category were Chris Johnson (1.74), Jamaal Charles (1.36), and Maurice Jones-Drew (1.15). The worst three were Peyton Hills (-1.71), Rashad Jennings (-1.21), and Fred Jackson (-0.98).
Player Generated Yards Per Target
The average YPT last year among runners was about 6.19. With that in mind we can calculate how many additional yards a player generated on pass routes than an average running back. On a per catch basis the best players with at least 20 targets were Isaac Redman(6.0), Ahmad Bradshaw(3.7), and Danny Woodhead(3.42).
By adding those numbers up we can calculate how many additional yards a player generated for his team last season as well as his average Yards Per Touch. It should come as no shock that Adrian Peterson comes in first with 1504.9 credited yards. Quite simply Peterson carried that team in a manner few other players could. He generated close to 600 yards of additional offense compared to a regular player. The next closest player was Alfred Morris at 1069.6 yards but he only generated around 185 yards of additional offense.
That being said the most interesting number might be that of the Bills CJ Spiller. Spiller only touched the ball 250 times last year but in doing so generated 1019 additional yards. At 4.08 YPT he actually rates even higher than Peterson, who was second at 3.88. This is based primarily on the fact that Spiller is a terrific receiver while Peterson is below average. On a Yards Per Run basis Peterson outpaced Spiller 4.55 to 4.35. While it is certainly questionable that Spiller can carry the ball as much as Peterson and continue to hold up those two are so far and away the best in the NFL that nobody should even debate anyone else at this point as being the best two backs. Of course you cant pay Spiller at that level until he proves he can handle the ball as much as some of these other players, but he’s deadly.
When you look for “cross your fingers” high upside players, Mike Goodson and Justin Forsett come to mind. Both barely made the 50 touch minimum cutoff but both put up good numbers in limited showings. Montell Owens and Isaac Redman were also surprising high finishers. Owens is a limited showing guy while Redman is strictly from his efforts in the passing game last year. I was also shocked o see DeAngelo Williams in the top 10. Maybe his team being so bad up front and his lack of usage has more to do with how poor his regular numbers are moreso than his play.
On the opposite end of the spectrum come names like Shonn Greene who was below average in every category but got tons of touches to create decent overall numbers. Still he was far better than Darren McFadden, a high priced bust on the Raiders who should be let go based on his numbers while Trent Richardson was an absolute disaster as a rookie averaging just 1.19 player generated yards per touch.
I wanted to create a matrix that would re-distribute the dollars that are currently being spent on the NFL players that made my 50 touch cutoff. To do this I added up all the APY values for the players in the current NFL season to create the “runners market”. For those players who are without deals I just assumed they would be replaced by a UDFA making an average of $495,000 per year. The average APY is around $2.692 million and total value just under $210 million.
Originally I just planned to determine a players total yards generated above the average and use that as his value above the baseline of $2.692 million. Great, except immediately I realized how badly that was overstating players values who got a lot of use (Greene, Richardson, Steven Jackson, etc…) to inflate their yards despite the fact that it was not productive use. Now that does not mean that you simply look at a category like Yards per Touch to determine value either. Some credit needs to be given for a player who is capable of shouldering a load even though the numbers are so bad. My gut feeling tells me that their numbers would likely be better if used less and maybe that is something for teams to consider when signing such players. I tend to think that was the feeling the Titans had with Greene.
To best compensate I calculated the players yards and compared it to the expected yardage of an average player. If the ratio was below 1 I penalized the player. For example Richardson only gained about 70% of the expected yards so I considered his 379 yards to be equivalent to paying for 265 yards. With those adjustments in place I was able to redistribute all the league dollars based on performance above or below the average score.
Not surprisingly the numbers work out that the upper echelon of the market is hyperinflated, which is certainly no surprise. Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson are both position busters and could almost never do anything to justify the salary they receive. Peterson had arguably the best season a back has ever had but there are enough good backs and ultra low salaries that the value just is not there at the high end. Peterson’s salary under this formula would be just under $11.4 million, a 19.8% decrease from his current APY.
I have 15 backs in my actual salary database that make over $5 million a year and of those 15 this metric indicates that only CJ Spiller, Jamaal Charles, and Marshawn Lynch are underpaid. Most of the others are grossly overpaid. McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jonathan Stewart should have their salaries reduced by over 70% each. The big money jumpers would obviously be the rookies, with Alfred Morris leading the way giving you an $8 million or so performance on an APY less than 600K a year. The Redskins are getting absolutely incredible production from Morris and fellow rookie QB RGIII for pennies which is how they survived last year despite major salary cap problems.
Of those players unsigned, Ahmad Bradshaw and Michael Turner should be able to give a team something significant and Felix Jones would also be an interesting player. In some ways its hard to believe they are not signed. In Turners case it probably needs to be the right situation in that he likely benefitted from an explosive offense making some situations a bit easier. Bradshaw and Jones have to have the injuries scaring teams off, Bradshaw in particular. Bradshaws numbers are all very good but he is injured a lot. It is difficult for teams to prepare when you have a player constantly coming in and out of the starting lineup. Still if he performs as he did last year he will give you around $5 million in value for probably the veteran’s minimum. If you make certain your offense is never in a position to over-rely on his presence you can mitigate the injury risk.
There were a handful of players whose projected salaries were so low that they don’t belong in the NFL anymore. They were Curtis Brinkley, Peyton Hills, Rashad Jennings, Ryan Williams, Shaun Draughn, Tashard Choice, and Toby Gerhart. Hillis was arguably the worst back in the NFL last season. Other players who would be close are Fred Jackson, whose projection probably does not meet his minimum salary, and Cedric Benson.
Here is the full list of players: All headers should be sortable. Please note that players like Bradshaw have their salary change based on a rookie FA salary.