Modeling success for running back draft prospects

Kevin Cole builds a running back prospect model to find the most relevant collegiate stats for NFL success.

| 7 months ago
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Modeling success for running back draft prospects


Recently, I wrote a couple posts on a pre-combine NFL success model for wide receiver prospects, detailing the methodology and results for the 2016 class. Some consensus top prospects – like Laquon Treadwell and Michael Thomas — fared poorly in the analysis, while receivers further down early draft boards found themselves near the top — such as Leonte Carroo and Hunter Sharp. The model wasn’t meant to give you definitive rankings, but instead inform you of how similar receivers from the 2016 class are to prior prospects that found early success in the NFL.

This post is going to use a similar methodology to develop a NFL success model for running back prospects. Again, we’re going to use a logistic regression model that aims to answer a binary questions: Will a particular prospect find early NFL success?

You can define success many ways, but I’m choosing to use a top 12 fantasy point season (PPR) for running backs. The model’s dependent variable of early NFL success is whether or not a player had a top-12 season within his first three years in the NFL.

Since this is pre-NFL combine model, we only used age and production data to train and test the model. The model used 330 running back prospects that entered in the NFL from 2000-2013, splitting the data roughly 2-to-1 into training and testing sets.

After plugging plugging more than a dozen different production statistics into the model and slowly taking away, one-by-one the least statistically significant, we were left with three that provide the most explanatory and predictive power:

1. Draft age

2. Final season rushing touchdowns

3. Final season receiving yards

As you’d expect, the model favors younger prospects, and those with lots of rushing touchdowns and receiving yards. This might seems like a an overly simplistic model, but simplicity should be the goal of every model, as long as you’re not severely compromising accuracy. The model’s accuracy rate for correctly predicted early NFL success or failure on the test set was nearly 85 percent, roughly equal to using NFL draft position as the independent variable.

Here are the top 10 prediction scores for the entire 2000-2013 data set.

Name College Year Draft Position Age Rush TDs Rec Yds Top-12 Predict
Steven Jackson Oregon State 2004 24 21 19 470 1 0.79
Brian Calhoun Wisconsin 2006 74 22 22 571 0 0.79
Ray Rice Rutgers 2008 55 21 24 239 1 0.74
Kevin Smith Central Florida 2008 64 22 29 242 0 0.72
Reggie Bush USC 2006 2 21 16 478 1 0.71
LeSean Mccoy Pittsburgh 2009 53 21 21 305 1 0.71
Kerwynn Williams Utah State 2013 230 22 15 697 0 0.70
Ronnie Hillman San Diego State 2012 67 21 19 270 0 0.62
Rashard Mendenhall Illinois 2008 23 21 17 318 0 0.60
Trent Richardson Alabama 2012 3 22 21 338 1 0.55

The “Predict” column gives the model score (between 1 and 0) for each prospect indicating the likelihood of a top-12 PPR season in a prospects first three years, and the “Top 12″ column indicates whether or not the receiver actually had a top-12 PPR year in his first three seasons. Draft position is listed in the table only for reference; it was not part of the model.  

The 50 percent hit-rate for the top-10 backs isn’t overwhelming, but impressive when you consider that draft position wasn’t part of the analysis. The draft positions for our top-10 backs range from 2 to 230, with a median of 54 (roughly the late second round). Opportunity is one of the keys to early NFL success for running backs, and opportunity is certainly highly correlated with how much draft capital was spent on a prospect. So, we shouldn’t expect our draft-agnostic prediction scores to align perfectly with early NFL success.

Brian Calhoun is an interesting name to be tied of the highest prediction score. The undersized collegiate workhorse was drafted by the Lions in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft, tore his ACL during his rookie campaign, and then wasn’t heard from again. Calhoun’s disappointing NFL career adds to the failure narrative surrounding Wisconsin running back prospects, including Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and, perhaps, Melvin Gordon.

There aren’t many high-profile busts near the top of the prediction scores – even Trent Richardson had a productive rookie season. The model correctly identified a few running backs that ended up having much more than a single top-12 season, like Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy. None of these three backs were particularly high drafts picks (23 backs in the 2000-2013 pool had even a better draft position than Jackson), but all were young, extremely productive in college, and brought passing game ability to the NFL.

Kevin Smith had had one of the greatest statistical seasons in college football history, accumulating 2,567 rushing yards (third most in history) 29 rushing touchdowns and another 242 yards receiving. Smaller-school status likely led NFL scouts to grade Smith’s production on a curve, as he wasn’t selected until the third round of the NFL draft. But, Smith was instantly productive at the next level, with nearly 1,200 yards for scrimmage and eight touchdowns his rookie season (finished as the RB16 in PPR formats, just outside the top-12).

Kerwynn Williams and Ronnie Hillman are currently in the NFL, but only Hillman has sustained success for even a partial season. For Williams, who was productive in limited touches the last couple years (averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 80 attempts), his seventh-round draft position may have been a bigger obstacle to NFL productivity than a lack of talent.

Now that we have our pre-combine, pre-draft model for predicting success in place, in the next article I will apply the model to 2016’s running back draft class.

In the meantime, below is a sortable database that you can explore and see how all the running backs who entered the NFL from 2000-2013 fared in the model.

Kevin Cole is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Cole_Kev

NameCollegeYearDraft PositionAgeRush TDsRec YdsTop-12Predict
Brian CalhounWisconsin200674222257100.79
Steven JacksonOregon State200424211947010.79
Ray RiceRutgers200855212423910.74
Kevin SmithCentral Florida200864222924200.72
Lesean MccoyPittsburgh200953212130510.71
Reggie BushUSC20062211647810.71
Kerwynn WilliamsUtah State2013230221569700.7
Ronnie HillmanSan Diego State201267211927000.62
Rashard MendenhallIllinois200823211731800.6
Trent RichardsonAlabama20123222133810.55
Lendale WhiteUSC200645222421900.53
Ahmad BradshawMarshall2007250211912910.47
Bernard PierceTemple20128422275200.47
Brock ForseyBoise State2003206232628200.46
Jacquizz RodgersOregon State2011145211428700.46
Javon RingerMichigan State2009173222219000.43
Knowshon MorenoGeorgia200912221639200.43
Jason WrightNorthwestern2004NA222025100.42
Steve SlatonWest Virginia200889221735010.42
Chris JohnsonEast Carolina200824231752810.4
Darren McfaddenArkansas20084211616410.4
Marshawn LynchCalifornia200712211132810.4
Toby GerhartStanford201051232815700.4
Demarco MurrayOklahoma201171231559410.39
Giovani BernardNorth Carolina201337221249000.39
Kevin JonesVirginia Tech200430222116110.37
Dion LewisPittsburgh2011149211321600.36
Matt ForteTulane200844232328210.36
Jahvid BestCalifornia201030211221300.32
Jamaal CharlesTexas200873221819910.31
Dexter McclusterMississippi20103622852000.29
Ladainian TomlinsonTexas Christian2001522224010.29
Thomas JonesVirginia20007221623900.29
Alex GreenHawaii201196231836300.28
Chris PerryMichigan200426231836700.28
Jordan TodmanConnecticut201118321149400.28
Quentin GriffinOklahoma2003108221526400.28
Eddie LacyAlabama201361221718910.27
Shaun AlexanderAlabama200019231932310.27
Felix JonesArkansas200822211117600.26
Donald BrownConnecticut200927221812500.25
Latavius MurrayCentral Florida2013181221523110.25
Chester TaylorToledo2002207232024200.24
Jonathan StewartOregon200813211114500.24
Mark IngramAlabama201128221328200.24
Stepfan TaylorStanford2013140221328700.24
Cj SpillerClemson20109231250310.23
Jonathan DwyerGeorgia Tech2010NA21143700.23
Laurence MaroneyMinnesota200621211017000.23
Michael TurnerNorthern Illinois2004154221423000.23
Joseph RandleOklahoma State2013151221422400.22
Chris BrownColorado20039322194000.21
Lance DunbarNorth Texas2012NA221035000.21
Ron DayneWisconsin2000112220900.21
Ricky WilliamsTexas Tech2002NA241461700.21
Tj DuckettMichigan State20021821128000.21
Clinton PortisMiami (FL)200251211012510.2
Lee SuggsVirginia Tech2003115232212600.2
Garrett WolfeNorthern Illinois200793231824900.19
Shane VereenCalifornia201156221320900.19
David WilsonVirginia Tech20123221912900.18
Jj ArringtonCalifornia200544221512100.18
Jamal LewisTennessee2000521719310.18
Tony HuntPenn State200790221125900.18
Cedric BensonTexas20054231917900.17
Darius WalkerNotre Dame2007NA22739100.17
Lamichael JamesOregon201261231821000.17
Larry JohnsonPenn State200327242034910.17
Montee BallWisconsin20135823227200.17
Noah HerronNorthwestern2005244231435100.17
Robert TurbinUtah State2012106231917100.17
Ryan WilliamsVirginia Tech20113821910900.17
Antonio PittmanOhio State2007107221412700.16
Doug MartinBoise State201231231625510.16
Darren SprolesKansas State2005130221122300.16
Peyton HillisArkansas200822722253710.16
Reno MaheBrigham Young2003NA23177100.16
Brandon JacksonNebraska20076322831300.15
Lamar MillerMiami (FL)2012972198510.15
Mewelde MooreTulane200411922540800.15
Musa SmithGeorgia20037721810700.15
Jamie HarperClemson201113022732800.14
Kenjon BarnerOregon2013182242125600.14
Mike GoodsonTexas A&M200911122538600.14
Mikel LeshoureIllinois201157231719600.14
Marcel ReeceWashington2008NA23076100.14
Ryan MathewsFresno State201012231912210.14
Stevan RidleyLSU20117322156100.14
William GreenBoston College200216231526000.14
Alvin PearmanVirginia2005127231040200.13
Adrian PetersonOklahoma20077221213610.13
Chris PolkWashington2012NA231233200.13
Jerome HarrisonWashington State2006145231620600.13
Mike JamesMiami (FL)201318922634400.13
Quinton GantherUtah200624622731400.13
Theo RiddickNotre Dame201319922537000.13
Zac StacyVanderbilt2013160221020500.13
Chris WellsOhio State2009312184700.12
Isaiah PeadCincinnati201250231231900.12
Joe BurnsGeorgia2002NA231424900.12
Rudi JohnsonAuburn200110022137000.12
Ryan MoatsLouisiana Tech200577231811600.12
Vick BallardMississippi State2012170221018700.12
Deangelo WilliamsMemphis20062723187810.11
Gartrell JohnsonColorado State2009134231229500.11
Justin ForsettCalifornia2008233231520200.11
Michael WileyOhio State2000144221015300.11
Shyrone StithVirginia Tech200024322134800.11
Travis MinorFlorida State20018522533300.11
Chris OgbonnayaTexas200921123454000.1
Deuce McallisterMississippi200123231419010.1
Zach LineSMU2013NA231322900.1
Cyrus GrayTexas A&M2012182231223900.09
Chris HenryArizona20075022719700.09
Edwin BakerMichigan State20122502156000.09
Frank MoreauLouisville2000115241728500.09
Glen CoffeeAlabama200974221011800.09
Jonas GrayNotre Dame2012NA22123800.09
Jalen ParmeleToledo2008176231415700.09
Kendall HunterOklahoma State2011115231610100.09
Keith TostonOklahoma State2010NA231126100.09
Lamont JordanMaryland200149231128700.09
Phillip TannerMiddle Tennessee2011NA231319400.09
Travis PrenticeMiami (OH)200063241727000.09
Ciatrick FasonFlorida2005112231026600.08
Derrick ColemanUCLA2012NA22112400.08
Dimitri NanceArizona State2010NA22621600.08
Daniel ThomasKansas State201162241917100.08
Joe McknightUSC201011222814600.08
John SimonLouisiana Tech2002NA24274300.08
Jonathan WellsOhio State200299231511700.08
Kevan BarlowPittsburgh20018022813400.08
Marcus ThomasTexas-El Paso2008166241626800.08
Tatum BellOklahoma State20044123166000.08
Trung CanidateArizona200031231125300.08
Tony HollingsGeorgia Tech2003122113600.08
Anthony ThomasMichigan200138241623900.07
Chad MortonUSC200016623157900.07
Dantrell SavageOklahoma State2008NA23925900.07
Frank GoreMiami (FL)20056522810610.07
George WinnCincinnati2013NA231312800.07
Jeff DempsFlorida2012NA22617200.07
Avon CobourneWest Virginia2003NA241714600.06
Anthony DixonMississippi State2010173231212300.06
Bilal PowellLouisville2011126231115800.06
Clifton SmithFresno State2008NA23535200.06
Charles StackhouseMississippi2002NA22517200.06
Johnathan FranklinUCLA2013125241332300.06
Johnny WhiteNorth Carolina201113323728800.06
Lorenzo BookerFlorida State20077123442000.06
Shonn GreeneIowa20096524204900.06
Bj AskewMichigan20038523628000.05
Brandon BoldenMississippi2012NA22414700.05
Benny CunninghamMiddle Tennessee2013NA231110900.05
Cj AndersonCalifornia2013NA22416400.05
Danny WareGeorgia2007NA22318400.05
Joseph AddaiLSU20063023918010.05
John ClayWisconsin2011NA2314900.05
James DavisClemson2009195231112300.05
Justin GriffithMississippi State200312122219900.05
Jacob HesterLSU200869231210600.05
Jr RedmondArizona State200076231210000.05
Lance BallMaryland2008NA23128800.05
Ladell BettsIowa200256231013700.05
Mike GillisleeFlorida2013164231015900.05
Marcus ThigpenIndiana2009NA23723500.05
Ovie MughelliWake Forest2003134231211100.05
Onterrio SmithOregon200310523127800.05
Pj PopeBowling Green2006NA22417300.05
Ryan TorainArizona State200813922510000.05
Sammy MorrisTexas Tech200015623338600.05
Tyrell SuttonNorthwestern2009NA23630500.05
Verron HaynesGeorgia200216623724200.05
Armando AllenNotre Dame2011NA22213800.04
Adimchinobe EchemanduCalifornia2004208241318500.04
Antone SmithFlorida State2009NA241510100.04
Bryce BrownKansas State2012229210300.04
Brian LeonardRutgers20075223529400.04
Cedric HoustonTennessee200518223818000.04
Christine MichaelTexas A&M20136223124800.04
Cedric PeermanVirginia200918523719300.04
Chris ThompsonFlorida State201315423524800.04
Dennis JohnsonArkansas2013NA23816000.04
Damien NashMissouri200514223717600.04
Jarrod BaxterNew Mexico200213623114900.04
Jameel CookIllinois200117422021800.04
James JohnsonKansas State2008NA241222000.04
Knile DavisArkansas20139622215700.04
Kolby SmithLouisville200714823721700.04
Lawrence VickersColorado200618023915200.04
Owen SchmittWest Virginia200816322412100.04
Steven JacksonOregon State2004242101610.04
Spencer WareLSU201319422123000.04
Shaud WilliamsAlabama2004NA241416100.04
Travis HenryTennessee20015823116510.04
Anthony AllenGeorgia Tech20112252378800.03
Bobby RaineyWestern Kentucky2012NA251336100.03
Brad SmelleyAlabama201224723035600.03
Correll BuckhalterNebraska20011212378500.03
Cedric CobbsArkansas200412823103400.03
Cory RossNebraska2006NA24539200.03
Chauncey WashingtonUSC200821323105900.03
Cierre WoodNotre Dame2013NA2242500.03
Damien AndersonNorthwestern2002NA23810700.03
Domanick DavisLSU200310123713010.03
Dante HallTexas A&M20001532225900.03
Dwayne WrightFresno State2007111241122100.03
Fozzy WhittakerTexas2012NA23614500.03
George LayneTexas Christian200110823615100.03
Justin FargasUSC20039623710100.03
Julius JonesNotre Dame20044323105300.03
Jonas LewisSan Diego State2000NA2225700.03
Jason MckieTemple2002NA2225700.03
James MungroSyracuse2002NA24149400.03
Jeremy StewartStanford2012NA2397900.03
Kevin McdougalColorado State2000NA2385800.03
Mike BellArizona2006NA23519700.03
Michael BennettWisconsin20012723112300.03
Maurice MorrisOregon2002542399900.03
Michael RobinsonPenn State20061002311000.03
Patrick DimarcoSouth Carolina2011NA22014700.03
Ronnie BrownAuburn2005224831300.03
Robert HughesNotre Dame2011NA2226700.03
Sultan McculloughUSC2003NA2386900.03
Tauren PooleTennessee2012NA23516400.03
Terrelle SmithArizona State2000962219500.03
Woodrow DantzlerClemson2002NA2310000.03
Wali LundyVirginia200617023106200.03
Allen BradfordUSC20111872357400.02
Andre EllingtonClemson201318724823200.02
Arian FosterTennessee2009NA23116610.02
Alfred MorrisFlorida Atlantic201217324913910.02
Artose PinnerKentucky200399251326400.02
Andrew PinnockSouth Carolina200322923510600.02
Bradie EwingWisconsin201215723024600.02
Brandon JacobsSouthern Illinois20051102355800.02
Bryan JohnsonBoise State2000NA220000.02
Brandon SaineOhio State2011NA23219500.02
Carey DavisIllinois2004NA23023600.02
Chris IvoryTiffin2010NA220000.02
Chris RaineyFlorida201215924238100.02
Cecil SappColorado State2003NA25176300.02
Dujuan HarrisTroy2011NA2366600.02
Denard RobinsonMichigan20131352373100.02
Evan RodriguezTemple201211124047900.02
Evan RoysterPenn State201117724620200.02
Greg JonesFlorida State2004552375200.02
Jackie BattleHouston2007NA24151300.02
Javarris JamesMiami (FL)2010NA2368500.02
Jerious NorwoodMississippi State2006792369600.02
Joffrey ReynoldsHouston2003NA241113500.02
Jason SnellingVirginia200724424728200.02
Kahlil BellUCLA2009NA2376500.02
Larry CroomUNLV2004NA23311800.02
Lousaka PolitePittsburgh2004NA23122200.02
Matt AsiataUtah2011NA24819500.02
Malaefou MackenzieUSC200321824236500.02
Najeh DavenportMiami (FL)200213523319000.02
Owen MarecicStanford20111242357500.02
Patrick CobbsNorth Texas2006NA23610600.02
Patrick PassGeorgia200023923225000.02
Pierre ThomasIllinois2007NA2357900.02
Rex BurkheadNebraska20131902359200.02
Tommy BohanonWake Forest201321523120800.02
Tashard ChoiceGeorgia Tech2008122241010700.02
Travis StephensTennessee2002119241016900.02
Thomas TapehMinnesota200416224118600.02
Tyson ThompsonSan Jose State2005NA24523100.02
Vonta LeachEast Carolina2004NA2353900.02
Aaron BrownTexas Christian20091922439500.01
Anthony ShermanConnecticut201113623012700.01
Alfonso SmithEastern Kentucky2010NA232000.01
Baron BatchTexas Tech201123224522600.01
Brock BolenLouisville2009NA2478000.01
Byron StorerCalifornia2007NA2306100.01
Chris PressleyWisconsin2009NA230000.01
Chris TaylorIndiana2006NA2344900.01
Delone CarterSyracuse20111192494500.01
Deandra CobbMichigan State20052012441000.01
Deon DyerNorth Carolina20001172325500.01
Doug EaslickVirginia Tech2004NA24013200.01
Dan HerronOhio State20121912333400.01
Deshawn WynnFlorida20072282465800.01
Heath EvansAuburn20018223210700.01
Henry HynoskiPittsburgh2011NA23017400.01
Joe BanyardTexas-El Paso2012NA2466700.01
John ConnerKentucky20101392324600.01
James FendersonHawaii2001NA25721600.01
James JacksonMiami (FL)20016525115600.01
Jamize OlawaleNorth Texas2012NA230900.01
Kerry CarterStanford2003NA2323600.01
Kevin HouserOhio State20002282305500.01
Keiland WilliamsLSU2010NA2442200.01
Lynell HamiltonSan Diego State2008NA2301400.01
Labrandon ToefieldLSU20031322324100.01
Leon WashingtonFlorida State200611724326700.01
Mike CoxGeorgia Tech2008NA2309200.01
Michael FordLSU2013NA2332900.01
Mike GreenHouston20002132484600.01
Mike KarneyArizona State200415623010600.01
Moran NorrisKansas20011152322600.01
Nick GoingsPittsburgh2001NA23012000.01
Patrick WashingtonVirginia2001NA2304800.01
Quinn JohnsonLSU20091452333300.01
Rock CartwrightKansas State200225723210800.01
Shaun DraughnNorth Carolina2011NA2466200.01
Selvin YoungTexas2007NA24713200.01
Tony FiammettaSyracuse200912823012700.01
Tony FisherNotre Dame2002NA234-400.01
Troy FlemingTennessee200419124026200.01
Vernand MorencyOklahoma State200573251210100.01
Wes OursWest Virginia2001NA24412300.01
William PowellKansas State2011NA234500.01
Ahmard HallTexas2006NA2704200
Chris GronkowskiArizona2010NA2402000
Deon AndersonConnecticut200718524010100
Dee BrownSyracuse2002175241600
Erik LorigStanford2010253240000
Jason DavisIllinois2008NA251000
Kenneth DarbyAlabama200724625013000
Kregg LumpkinGeorgia2008NA2401300
Legarrette BlountOregon2010NA2421300
Michael CoxMassachusetts20132532556300
Madison HedgecockNorth Carolina20052512423500
Mossis MaduOklahoma2011NA2416600
Omar EasyPenn State20021072517000
Richard MurphyLSU2011NA2504400
Stephen TrejoArizona State2001NA2401000
Terry WitherspoonClemson2001NA240000
Willie ParkerNorth Carolina2004NA2402810

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