Fantasy: The Contrarian – Agility Scores

| 4 years ago

Fantasy: The Contrarian – Agility Scores

Like the rest of the diehard NFL world, I was transfixed by the NFL Combine. Just as fascinating as the events themselves are the competing theories as to what we should be looking at. Do the times mean anything, or don’t they?

When watching the Combine, most of the time is spent on the 40 yard dash and very little on the short shuttle or 3 cone drill. While many scouts loathe the 40 as well, it’s generally accepted that the sprint has some predictive power at key fantasy positions like RB and WR. However, the agility drills supposedly don’t correlate with NFL success.

While there is much about sports that is counterintuitive, the idea that explosive agility wouldn’t translate to the NFL gridiron is incredibly difficult to rationalize. In my recent article on Vision Yards, I suggested that yards before contact might be just as stable and skill-based as yards after contact. If this is true, we might expect RBs with elite short area quickness to outperform in this area.

In order to see if there was a connection, I went back to 2003 and added the short shuttle and 3 cone times for all runners who participated in both drills. We’ll call this cumulative time the Agility Score. I then checked for a correlation between a runner’s Agility Score and his Vision Yards per attempt. (The sample was non-rookie RBs with at least 100 carries.)

 A Shocking Result

A RB’s Agility Score explained roughly 25% of the variance in Vision Yards. This is a surprisingly high level of correlation when you consider all of the other factors which should cause variance in a RB’s yards before contact: offensive line strength, strength of opposing defenses, offensive scheme, specific play-calling, game environment and usage, other components of RB skill, randomness/luck.

To add context, let’s consider a RB’s Speed Score, the metric popularized by Football Outsiders which has recently correlated fairly strongly with a RB’s NFL success.

Using the same group of runners, I discovered that Speed Score has a small but negative correlation with yards before contact. Moreover, Speed Score has no correlation with yards after contact. (This is not a criticism of Speed Score which was created to measure something different.)

Unfortunately many runners choose not to perform both drills, but the sample includes many high profile runners on both ends of the spectrum. Let’s look at some of the more interesting individual times.

(When combining the time for the short shuttle and 3 cone drills, anything under 11.1 is very strong, while anything over 11.5 is cause for concern. The yards before contact numbers include any carries between 2008-2011.)

Elite Times

YBCo/Att Agility Score
 Jamaal Charles 2.76 11.02
 Darren Sproles 2.34 10.92
 Ray Rice 2.12 10.85
 Felix Jones 1.85 11.09
 Matt Forte 1.81 11.07
 Jahvid Best 1.75 10.92


Mediocre and Poor Times

YBCo/Att Agility Score
 Maurice Jones-Drew 1.65 11.49
 Adrian L. Peterson 1.54 11.49
 Brandon Jacobs 1.53 12.03
 Joseph Addai 1.47 11.58
 Michael Turner 1.32 11.75
 Marshawn Lynch 1.24 11.67


The interesting thing about this second group is that all of them had very good Speed Scores and most of them excel after contact. They need to be powerful at the line, because Peterson, Turner, and Lynch are all limited in their ability to hit a small crease before it closes. For this reason, these backs have all been focal points of my Vision Yards series, and I’ve suggested they are dangerous backs to own at their relative ADPs. If correct, this analysis helps to explain why they are consistently below the elite tier in yards before contact. It could very well be a specific feature of their athletic profiles – and not usage or poor offensive line play – that limits them.

Why We Should Care About Vision Yards

You’re probably thinking that if AP is on the list of players with average Agility Scores, then it can’t be that important. You would be wrong.

With the NFL’s ongoing transition to spread-based attacks, smaller, quicker backs are becoming more important. In 2011 the ten highest scoring fantasy backs in points per game averaged an impressive 2.04 yards before contact.

One of the keys to understanding the fantasy value of yards before contact is to know that Vision Yards are strongly correlated with RB receptions. It therefore makes sense to theorize that Agility Scores are also correlated with receptions, and a quick check confirms it. Both receptions per touch and receptions per snap were correlated with Agility Score and in a nearly identical fashion to the correlation with Vision Yards. (Somewhat surprisingly, the negative correlation between Speed Score and reception rate was even stronger).

In some ways a natural selection bias is at play here, or at least a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The NFL is drafting bigger backs and plugging them into the early down role. Smaller, quicker backs are targeted for 3rd down and change-of-pace duties.

On the other hand, it would appear that both reality GMs and fantasy owners are unfairly devaluing backs with elite lateral explosiveness. Frontline starters with excellent Agility Scores usually see a higher percentage of their touches in the passing game. Runners with such a profile tend to have longer careers while suffering fewer injuries and experiencing less precipitous decline phases.

In Part Two of this article, we’ll look at rookies and second year players whose Agility Scores foreshadow excellent return on your ADP investment.

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