For someone who played quarterback and wide receiver throughout his entire football career, I’ve strangely fallen in love with analyzing the running back since I’ve started writing here. I think part of it is knowing how completely wrong I was on the first article I wrote on Over The Cap and then digging deeper to rectify it led me to really appreciate the complexity of the position during a time where we’ve, wrongfully (myself included at one point), begun to devalue an important position.
In my first article running backs article, I discussed how out of whack the Vikings spending was in 2013, which is true, but which was an outlier compared to league-wide spending at the position. I did have some good points like the incredible value of the Patriots backfield in 2013 compared to the Vikings, and that kind of thinking is something I’ll explore below. I did finish the article with the right idea, what’s the next big trend?
In my second article on the position, I discussed my theory on the running back position being that a team should draft their running backs as that’s the best way to construct a backfield. I argued against signing running backs to multi-year deals in free agency, but as we’ve seen this year, that’s still a tactic that’s in place and, of course, it should be as most great running backs play well until they’re 30 and if you have a chance to get a great running back, you should.
I cited Bill Brandwell’s Grantland article explaining the horrible investments in running back the last few years, but I do think that this year’s class has some young guys with a lot left in the tank like DeMarco Murray, Shane Vereen, Ryan Mathews, and CJ Spiller to name a few. I’m in love with what the Eagles did this offseason, so I am not 100% committed to drafting your backfield because for what Chip Kelly wants his offense to do, he set his team up perfectly. When you look at the percentage of the cap that the Eagles backfield takes up and what Kelly’s 2012 Oregon Ducks running backs did, I see and understand his vision for the 2015 Eagles and it really excites me as an NFL fan, it should be a lot of fun to watch.
In writing Caponomics, I’ve come across a new valuation system that I’m trying to create. It’s very, very simple; I take the amount of yards a player generates and then divide it by their cap percentage, the solution will be the value created per 1% of cap used. I don’t know if it will end up being something we can use, but I do think there’s a major evaluation opportunity in creating a stat for “per 1% of cap.”
I use yards because they’re the simplest statistic we have and in my opinion, you can’t score over the course of 16 games and the playoffs if you don’t move the football on offense. It’s very rudimentary, but for my statistical analysis and valuations, I’m trying to start simple rather than dive into new age stats because I don’t want to distract myself, or you guys, from the salary cap. That’s at the core of what we do here and that’s what I’m better at.
In analyzing quarterbacks, I don’t see a widespread use for a “per 1% of cap” stat against yards because there were about 15 quarterbacks who threw between 3500 and 5000 yards this season. Plus, the value of a quarterback isn’t just in yards, it includes not turning the ball over, managing the offense, elusiveness, escaping sacks, running for first downs, leadership and so much more. Of course, the value of a running back isn’t just in yards, but I feel it could be a large indicator in the value of a running back or a running back group on a team, football teams need to move the ball to win a Super Bowl and, especially late in the season and the playoffs, running backs have consistently been a major part of it.
Football is such a difficult sport to valuate individual players in because it’s the ultimate team sport. A lot of statistical companies are out there trying to find the true value of individual players, which is really critical work and it’s why we’re trying to figure out something to evaluate these individual players against their salaries.
Speaking of Murray, the Cowboys may have given us the best example of how to build an NFL backfield in 2014. When you construct a great offensive line, you have made it so you’re not heavily reliant on one player for your rush offense, but rather a unit where no one player’s injury can completely disintegrate the unit. It’s a kind of risk management and if you have a great, versatile sixth lineman like Mackenzy Bernadeau who the Cowboys had in 2014, then you’ve really decreased your risk.
The new Cowboys under Stephen Jones leadership are much more fiscally responsible than the Jerry Jones Cowboys, something we saw on display this offseason. Rather than chase after Murray at a cap number that they didn’t want him at, they seemed to have stuck to their valuation of him heading into the offseason and let him go to a division rival, which I’m sure wasn’t easy for them. They have since signed Darren McFadden on a very team friendly contract for someone who has shown immense talent, but has been injured too often to invest heavily in. I also see them drafting their long-term solution in a running back rich draft in May, which is, again, a very intelligent move. It’s smart because it takes advantage of their offensive line by saving money at running back.
Football Outsiders have the Cowboys as the NFL leaders with 4.39 adjusted line yards, which is a huge indication that no matter who they put behind them, the running back will be successful. It’s worth noting that the Cowboys were second in their open field rank, but that’s nothing they can’t overcome with a good combination of running backs.
Murray averaged 4.7 yards per carry, Joseph Randle 6.7, and Lance Dunbar 3.4, while my father and I have loved the way Murray runs the ball back to his days at Oklahoma and thought he’d be a big star in the league earlier than 2014, the Cowboys made the right move letting him go considering how cap-strapped they are.
The Cowboys are going to have a top rushing attack with McFadden, Randle and whoever they draft in the early rounds of this years draft. As of now, the Cowboys only have 2.81% of the cap invested in the running back position and it won’t be more than 5% heading into the season even if they draft a running back in the first round, which is a huge cap saver as they’ll get production out of the position that will far exceed the low cost.
Behind that great line in 2014, Murray ran for 1845 yards, while taking up 1.20% of the cap, which means he had a value of 1538 yards per 1% of cap. By comparison, LeSean McCoy took up 7.29% of the cap and his 1319 yards are valued at 181 yards per 1%. By going low-cost at running back, the Cowboys give themselves money to spend elsewhere, while they will still have a great running game because of the great offensive line. By the Eagles getting rid of McCoy, they’ve actually gotten a less expensive and better lead running back this year in Murray, with a deeper backfield to support the offense they want to run.
What we have with the Cowboys letting Murray go and his signing with the Eagles is two teams who both know who they are and have made decisions that will make them both better teams. As I’ve seen in my cap research is that it’s vital that an organization knows who they are and what they need to succeed, this is why the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Packers have been so competitive for so long. Every year that I look at their roster, I see the same kind of players on it.
The Cowboys recognized that with a great line, you don’t need to have DeMarco Murray at $5-9 million a season because the line allows you to put just about anyone back there and they’ll run for at least 4 yards a carry, which is about the NFL average. They can spend the money they saved on improving their defense, which they have already by signing Greg Hardy and spending some of that money on offense on well to improve their passing game.
The Eagles are structuring their team a lot like Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams with multiple running backs to throw at you, each of them with their own strengths and another set of fresh legs to run down your tired defense in the fourth quarter with that hurry up offense.
While the Cowboys have realized they don’t need to spend big money on running backs, the Eagles realized they do, but they need to do it with multiple backs like Kelly had at Oregon. Because Oregon is a spread team, so often we forget that they’ve been a dominant rushing team for about a decade because we associate spread offenses with passing the football.
Down the stretch in the three years before Kelly left for the NFL, he had an incredible three-headed attack in the backfield each year. This is what he’s recreated in Philadelphia and it’s a great example of the way that the best organizations are building a roster to what they need.
In 2010, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Remene Alston combined for 2638 yards rushing, 345 receiving and 37 total touchdowns. Quarterbacks Darron Thomas and Nate Costa added 624 yards and seven touchdowns, while current Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff added another 214 yards rushing and two touchdowns with an astounding 17.8 yards per on his 12 carries. As a team, they averaged 286.2 yards per game rushing, 3.2 rush touchdowns per game and 5.9 yards per carry.
In 2011, they stepped up with James back carrying the load, but Kenjon Barner, who is currently on the Eagles practice squad almost running for 1000 yards of his own, De’Anthony Thomas was the third back, playing the role Darren Sproles’ in now and was remarkable. Together, the three of them ran for 3339, added another 999 yards receiving and had 49 offensive touchdowns, which are some remarkable statistics from a three-pronged backfield. The team averaged 299.2 yards rushing at 6.7 yards a clip, and 3.0 touchdowns per game. Quarterbacks Thomas and Brian Bennett combined for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Fourth and fifth running backs Tra Carson and Ayele Forde had 400 rushing yards and three touchdowns, just a stacked backfield.
In 2012, Kelly’s last year in Eugene, they had their best year rushing with Barner, Thomas and Byron Marshall totaling 2915 rushing, 715 receiving and 43 offensive touchdowns. It was Mariota who put them over the top with 752 rushing and Bennett added another 165 before transferring to Southeastern Louisiana, they had 11 touchdowns rushing. As a team, they averaged 315 rush yards per game at 6.0 per carry and 3.7 rush touchdowns per game.
While we know Sam Bradford is no running quarterback, I still contend that I wouldn’t put it past Kelly to try to trade into position to draft Mariota, I stand by the fact that when a coach can get the quarterback that he knows he wants to lead them into the future, he has to go out and get him. Considering how Kelly feels about Mariota, I still think he’s going to attempt to get him.
What this rushing attack of Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles will allow Kelly to do is have an offense like the one at Oregon, where he can run the no huddle, spread attack offense and just wear you down with a new running back every other play. In the fourth quarter, when your defense is tired, Ryan Mathews will be taking his fifth or sixth carry of the game. They’ve still got depth beyond those three with Chris Polk as the fourth back, which was always used in a Kelly Oregon team.
I keep saying it in articles, but what I see with the analysis I’m doing of past Super Bowl champions and great organizations is that these teams know what they need to succeed. This is why it was so important for Chip Kelly to become the de facto general manager and why the best teams have this same structure with Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick in charge.
Looking at the Patriots, like I said in “The Patriot Way” article I wrote during the season, for years, they’ve been getting the same kinds of players at positions for years now. At running back, there’s always been a pass-catcher like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, or Shane Vereen and a bigger, more powerful lead back like Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steven Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount. They’ve always had a short, quick slot player like Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman. And speking of those Patriots running backs, they have the same strategy as Kelly, they’ve just done it less expensively.
The Ravens signing Justin Forsett was the perfect player to back-up Ray Rice and it paid off big-time this season when Rice went down. He was a very similar player to Rice, which means he fits into what the Ravens do as an offense and that’s what you want in a back-up, especially when it’s questionable if the starter is on the downtrend with their career. The Ravens also have had similar players at tight end like going straight from Todd Heap to Dennis Pitta, having physical receivers who can block well like Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, then Steve Smith this year. Drafting CJ Mosley in the first round this year, one year after Ray Lewis’ retirement. Always having fantastic edge rushers.
Ozzie Newsome is one of the best general managers in the league, largely because he’s always worked well with the head coaches he’s had., it helps that he’s a former player for the Browns, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
What happens when you put the right people in charge of these organizations is that they do things that we at Over The Cap get fired up about! It’s exciting to see teams making smart decisions, making moves that make real sense for what has worked for them in the past!
There’s a reason why the Ravens have never had a great WR3, it’s because they don’t need anything more than a Jacoby Jones type player who can do big things in key spots, but isn’t going to give you 1000 yards receiving, that’s not what their offense needs to succeed. There’s a reason Chip Kelly made so many crazy moves the other week because he knew that McCoy wasn’t the guy he wanted at running back and he wanted to go out and get a stable of backs. Now he’s got the best RB from 2014, a first rounder from 2010 who I LOVED coming out of college and has shown flashes when healthy and Sproles who fits the pass-catcher role he needs. By having three backs, he’ll also lessen the load on them, which will allow them to stay healthy and effective longer.
Ozzie Newsome said something very poignant after they let Anquan Boldin go to San Francisco for a sixth rounder after the 2012 season. The Ravens did not plan on going for broke in pursuit of a second straight title in 2013. They were more concerned with remaining competitive for the long-haul, because if you’re in the tournament every year, like Baltimore was from 2008 to 2012, you’re bound to win one eventually.
That’s the attitude great organizations take into every offseason, free agency, the draft and the season. They have created a structure, a plan, and they create a team for the long-haul based on that plan. Rejoice Cowboys and Eagles fans, your organization is acting like great organizations, now you and Giants just get to beat up on each other as three great organizations going up against each other six times a season altogether. The NFC East is going to be a pleasure to watch for the next half decade at minimum.
I wanted to give you guys a heads up to a new podcast from Joe DeFranco of the DeFranco’s Gym at the Onnit Academy! I’m helping him with his “Industrial Strength Show,” and he’ll be having on New York Giants’ great and DeFranco’s Disciple, David Diehl, on the show next week and I wanted to let you guys know to tweet me @ZackMooreNFL or tweet Joe, @DeFrancosGym, with any questions you may have for the New York Giant great and current Fox Broadcaster! Here’s a link to Joe’s podcast if you want to download and subscribe! Last week’s podcast with his father George, hit #1 on the Fitness and Nutrition charts this week!
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