As the 2012 NFL Draft fades into the background and early drafters begin assembling rosters for the upcoming season, I’m intrigued by the relative average draft position (ADP) of two players who are forever linked as 2009 Heisman finalists. Toby Gerhart has lapsed into relative anonymity behind Adrian Peterson, while Mark Ingram is expected to eventually emerge as the bell cow in New Orleans’ high-powered offense.
Ingram was a fourth-round fantasy pick in 2011, while Gerhart often went undrafted. In early drafts for 2012, Ingram is being selected at No. 68 and Gerhart No. 192. Despite the further emergence of Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, enthusiasm for the former Crimson Tide back hasn’t waned as much as you might think. On the other hand, Gerhart’s strong play at the end of last season hasn’t encouraged drafters who shouldn’t expect to see a fully healthy Adrian Peterson until midseason.
The following is a step-by-step look at the two backs to see if we can find any argument in favor of Mark Ingram.
|Year||Name||Weight||40 Yard||Vert Leap||Broad Jump||Shuttle||3Cone||Agility Score|
This is about as unequivocal as it gets. Gerhart’s size/speed ratio is quite impressive. Based on his measurables, Gerhart projects as an above average NFL starter. Ingram’s numbers suggest someone who should have endured a Chris Polkian slide. Purely as an athlete, Gerhart is bigger, stronger, faster, and quicker than Ingram, and by a wide margin. (It’s also worth noting that Gerhart’s Agility Score is significantly better than Adrian Peterson’s.)
Of course, as the scouts are fond of saying, it’s what happens on the football field that counts. So let’s go to the field.
These numbers give us a better sense of why Ingram is highly regarded. You don’t win a Heisman trophy without excelling statistically in college. But if college success is a good predictor, we’d also have to like Gerhart’s potential as a bell cow back since he logged more carries, ran for more total yards, and scored more total TDs.
Ingram was more effective on a per play basis in college, begging the question of how that should be weighted. It’s virtually impossible to adjust for offensive line strength and opponent defense in college football. It is worth noting that during Ingram’s time at Alabama he averaged 5.7 ypc in a timeshare. The backs he shared time with – Glenn Coffee and Trent Richardson – averaged 5.8 ypc.
Gerhart averaged 5.2 ypc at Stanford, during which time his top running back partners averaged 4.9. In Ingram’s final two years Alabama went 27-3. Gerhart played at Stanford before the Harbaugh/Luck era had taken full effect. His final two years the Cardinal managed a 13-12 record. We could decide Gerhart was less capable than Ingram of carrying his squad, or we could assume Ingram was playing with far superior teammates.
Okay, so we have two guys who were dominant in college. One is a plus athlete, the other is a borderline athlete. Let’s look at their 2011 NFL seasons. In order to give context, I’m going to include Adrian Peterson and Pierre Thomas. We’ll start with PFF’s signature Elusive Rating that helps strip away the effects of offensive line play and looks at what running backs do after contact.
|Attempts||Rec||Yco/Att||MT Rush||MT Rec||Elusive Rat.|
Despite excellent overall athleticism, Gerhart has the reputation as a plodding, straight ahead runner. His 2011 performance begs to differ. Adrian Peterson is at or near the top of the yards after contact leaderboard every season, but Gerhart was not far behind in 2011. Moreover, because his percentage of broken tackles was actually superior to AP’s, Gerhart has a better Elusive Rating.
By contrast, Ingram posted one of the worst Elusive Ratings in the entire NFL. Some of this can be explained away by his usage in short yardage situations but certainly not all of it. Ingram’s tackle-breaking ability as a rookie would put Reggie Bush to shame.
|Attempts||Yards||15+ Runs||15+ Yards||Breakaway %|
Peterson’s slight edge in Breakaway Percentage helps explain his yards after contact advantage, but Gerhart is right with him. Again, this supports his Combine numbers which suggested he had the agility to find the hole and the long speed necessary to exploit those opportunities.
Neither Saints runner showed great downfield explosiveness, but Ingram’s three long runs in 122 carries is especially poor.
The passing game was one of the biggest areas where Ingram had an advantage over Gerhart in college. That advantage has since disappeared.
I’ve written before that Peterson’s pedestrian Agility Score, low number of Vision Yards, and receiving struggles are probably linked. That’s illustrated again here. Despite running more routes, Peterson recorded fewer receptions and receiving yards than Gerhart. Conversely, Ingram was not used in the passing game much at all. Everyone knows about Darren Sproles as a receiver, but only Arian Foster was more efficient than Pierre Thomas a season ago. Ingram may have the skill to perform well out of the backfield, but he’s unlikely to make much of an impact behind Sproles and Thomas.
Overall Profile and Carry Splits
|Avg.||YBCo/Att||YCo / Att.||Rec.||TTD|
True Believers in the Purple Jesus will rightly point out that defenses approach the Vikings differently when Gerhart is in the game. It’s still impressive that Gerhart posted a better per carry average than Peterson. In fact, it was better than Peterson has posted in any of the last four years.
Sean Payton assured critics that Ingram could have easily won Offensive Rookie of the Year had they simply used him differently. If that’s the case, they should have used him a lot differently. There is nothing in his profile that suggests Ingram would have excelled last year in any capacity. In fact, the current skill gap between Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram is vast and cuts across every facet of NFL running back play.
Ingram apologists will point to his heavy usage in short yardage packages, a factor that should significantly deflate your per carry averages. Unfortunately, his before and after contact splits do not bear that out. Backs who see their total ypc hurt by short yardage and goal line touches usually get almost two-thirds of their yards after contact.
This analysis would have been far different if we had compared Ingram’s 2011 season to Gerhart’s struggles as a rookie. While Gerhart was the far better player in 2011, first round runners often take a big jump in the second year. (Of course, runners selected that highly are usually much better athletes than Mark Ingram. The last first-rounder loved by scouts but with a similarly weak athletic profile was Knowshon Moreno.)
It’s also possible that Ingram completed the 2011 Combine at far less than 100%. However, Ingram’s frequent trips to the training room can’t be considered a point in his favor. Ingram recently underwent another mild knee surgery and isn’t expected to be full strength at the beginning of training camp.
Toby Gerhart is simply better than Mark Ingram.
The great thing about football is that we can’t know for sure. Football isn’t a series of one-on-one battles between pitcher and hitter. Maybe all of the stats are skewed because of game context. It’s always possible Pierre Thomas will get hurt, and Ingram will carry 250 times for 1500 yards and 20 TDs. Because Ingram plays in the Saints offense, anything is possible.
But today, without knowing what the future holds, every piece of data we have says Gerhart is better. A year ago, I predicted that Ingram would be a bust as a rookie, and his outlook has worsened considerably since then.