For decades, NFL and college teams have over-complicated the running game. Running the ball isn’t so much about physically overpowering an opponent, instead, it is a math problem. If an offense has seven blockers in the formation and the defense is showing just six defenders in the box, the offense should theoretically be at an advantage and vice versa. Teams should only run the ball when it is advantageous for them.
But for some reason, teams at every level haven’t used this philosophy despite the overwhelming amount of data we have at our disposal. Take the NFL in 2017 for example. We know that running against a crowded box (eight or more defenders in the box) is a losing proposition, but teams still continue to do it anyway.
This year, the NFL ran the ball nearly 29 percent of the time against eight or more defenders in the box, averaging less than four yards per carry. But when a team runs out of 10 or 11 personnel, forcing defenses to put sometimes just five or six defenders in the box, then we see the benefits of running the ball.
Despite all of this data, we rarely take this into account when scouting the top running backs every year for the draft. Instead, we just look at the raw statistics, such as rushing yards and yards per carry, which all lack context, to prove who are the top running backs of the class.
Theoretically, a running back that plays on a spread offense that only sees an average of six defenders in the box should put up better statistics (and some would argue better film) than a runner who is in more of a traditional offense that sees nearly eight defenders in the box on every carry. But that kind of data hasn’t been readily available to the casual draft fan, until now.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at my top-five running backs in this class and how they stack up to one another by our charting. In full disclosure, not every carry was charted from the 2017 season due to time constraints. Instead, each player has at least six full games charted and each runner has well over a 100-carry sample size. Let’s dive into the numbers.
No. 1 - Saquon Barkley, Penn State
(Games charted - Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Washington, Pittsburgh, Georgia State, Nebraska, Rutgers)
Average number of defenders in the box- 6.29
Average number of blockers in the box - 5.78
Before we begin, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Saquon Barkley is the best running back in the 2018 draft class. He is one of the best overall talents the position has seen in years. However, that does not mean his game is without flaws. Charting his 2017 season showed that there are some reasons to be concerned about him going forward.
Of the five running backs that were charted, Barkley saw the least number of defenders in the box on average. He saw six or fewer defenders in the box on nearly 69 percent of his runs. That’s not something that is likely to translate to the NFL, especially if he is drafted to be the focal point of a team’s offense.
A big reason as to why he saw so many light boxes was due to the fact that more than 81 percent of his runs came out of 10 or 11 personnel, as it forced defenses to be in nickel or dime. This isn’t to criticize Barkley or Penn State, because rushing out of 10 and 11 personnel should be the norm in both college and in the NFL. And to Barkley’s credit, he dominated teams out of 10 and 11 personnel, averaging an insane 6.2 yards per carry. But when he was asked to run out of any other type of personnel grouping, Barkley's yards per carry dropped all the way down to 3.01 yards per rush.
Due to the amount of time Barkley ran out of 10 and 11 personnel, he rarely faced loaded boxes at the collegiate level. Of his 151 charted runs, Barkley faced eight or more men in the box just six times, averaging two yards per carry. Even against seven-man fronts, Barkley averaged just 4.6 yards per carry on 41 carries, but those numbers are somewhat skewed due to one 65-yard run. Barkley lost yardage on nearly 22 percent of his runs when facing seven defenders in the box. His offensive line deserves quite a bit of the blame, but he isn’t faultless either, as he often bounced runs outside for losses that should have produced moderate gains. Running against loaded boxes just wasn’t something Barkley did well last season, and it’s fair to wonder if that will be a weakness of his entering the NFL.
Barkley isn’t going to be a player that you are going to want to play smash-mouth football with. He’s a high-variance runner who might lead the league in negative runs (more than 16 percent of his runs over the last two years lost yardage). However, he is a threat to score anywhere from the field from any formation.
If Barkley can find himself in a spread offense with a good quarterback, he would be a threat to put up 2,000 yards from scrimmage in his rookie season. However, if he is miscast as a work-horse back who is forced to carry the ball 20 times against crowded boxes (such as what Leonard Fournette was asked to do in Jacksonville last season), he may disappoint early.
No. 2 - Derrius Guice, LSU
(Games charted - Alabama, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Missouri, Florida)
Average number of defenders in the box - 7.25
Average number of blockers in the box - 7.10
Of the five running backs charted, LSU’s Derrius Guice saw, on average, the most defenders in the box as well as the most blockers in the box. Defenses loaded up to stop Guice, as he was the team’s best weapon and needed to be accounted for on every snap. However, LSU also played a part in creating stacked boxes for Guice, as he rarely ran out of 10 and 11 personnel. Guice played in what we would call a traditional “NFL-offense,” as LSU used a ton of 12 and 21 personnel to run the ball.
While running out of more traditional boxes may have hurt Guice’s college statistics, it prepared him more for what he is going to see in the NFL. Guice saw eight defenders in the box on nearly 24 percent of his carries, averaging more than 6.75 yards per carry. He saw eight or more defenders in the box on a staggering 31.8 percent of his total rushes, by far the most of the top backs in this class.
The most impressive stats for Guice come when you compare the number of defenders in the box versus the number of blockers in the box. When Guice saw an even box (same number of blockers as defenders) in 2017, he averaged an incredible 8.4 yards per rush on 75 carries. Assuming Guice can find himself on a team that runs a ton of inside zone out of 12 or 21 personnel, he should thrive in the NFL against six- and seven-man boxes.
Guice isn’t the receiver that Saquon Barkley is, nor is he the pass protector, but as a pure runner, you can make the case that his skill set is better suited for the NFL game. He is more likely to be a consistent runner at the next level, as he rarely loses yardage despite the extra defenders in the box.
No. 3 - Ronald Jones, USC
(Games charted - Stanford, Western Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, UCLA, Ohio State)
Average number of defenders in the box - 6.42
Average number of blockers in the box - 5.91
USC’s Ronald Jones is one running back that you can expect to fly up the draft boards after the combine. Jones is a slasher who is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. With teams dying to find dynamic weapons on offense, you can expect Jones’ name to come off the board late on Day One of the NFL Draft.
There are some concerns about his game, however. In the six games that were charted of Jones, he faced eight defenders or more in the box on just nine out of 111 carries (8.1%). On those nine carries, six of them came on goal line situations. For Jones, most of his production came against light boxes in college as USC ran the ball most frequently out of 11 personnel. Out of 11 personnel, Jones averaged five yards per carry on 84 rushes. But out of 12 and 13 personnel, Jones’ yards per carry dipped down to 3.95. That number remained the same when facing seven-man boxes.
His fit will be important in the NFL, as he’s not the battering ram that Ezekiel Elliott or Leonard Fournette were coming out of school. Running him into stacked boxes isn’t likely to yield desired results. Instead, he needs to be the final piece to an offense, rather than the focal point. Jones would be at his best if he can find himself on a spread offense in which he can utilize his speed and quickness to make linebackers miss in the second level.
No. 4 - Sony Michel, Georgia
(Games charted - Alabama, Oklahoma, Appalachian State, Auburn, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky)
Average number of defenders in the box - 6.50
Average number of blockers in the box - 5.98
Like Saquon Barkley, Georgia’s Sony Michel benefited from playing on an offense that used a lot of 10 and 11 personnel to spread the defense out. He was used as Georgia’s “lightning” to Nick Chubb’s “thunder” as Michel provided explosive plays at an impressive clip. However, like Barkley, there are concerns about how he fared against more traditional NFL boxes due to lack of experience.
Michel saw eight or more defenders in the box on just 10 percent of his carries in 2017, averaging four yards per carry. Again, the average in itself is fine, but the lack of reps against loaded boxes may scare off teams from using him as full-time player inside of the tackles. Most of his work (nearly 69 percent of his runs) came against five- and six-man boxes, something he won’t see as frequently in the NFL.
Michel is going to be compared to Alvin Kamara over and over again in this draft process, but that’s OK. That is the type of player he is. Get him into space against favorable boxes and defenses and he can make explosive plays all over the field. He probably will never be the type of player to handle 20 or more carries in a game in a traditional, tight end-heavy offense. But he is going to be a dynamic weapon that any offense would love to have.
No. 5 - Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
(Games charted - Georgia Southern, Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Georgia, Louisiana Monroe)
Average number of defenders in the box - 6.82
Average number of blockers in the box - 6.41
One of the more underrated backs in this class is Kerryon Johnson from Auburn. In his junior season, Johnson rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns, all while averaging 4.9 yards per rush in the best conference in football. Johnson was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and was a huge reason why the Tigers were one of the best teams in college football.
The raw numbers are impressive on their own, but the advanced data supports just how dominant Johnson was. When he faced even boxes, he averaged a stunning 5.93 yards per carry on 121 runs. Even when there was one more defender in the box than blockers, Johnson still averaged 4.75 yards per carry, which led the class in 2017. Against seven-man fronts, Johnson was unstoppable, averaging more than five yards per carry on 87 rushes regardless of how many blockers were on the field. Even against eight-man fronts, Johnson averaged 4.63 yards per carry on 38 attempts. If a defense was ever foolish enough to have fewer than seven defenders in the box, Johnson made them pay by averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
Of all the running backs on the list, Johnson was easily the most impressive, no matter what the situation or criteria is. Depending on how he measures in at the NFL Combine later this month, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Johnson go in the first round. He has everything you want in a workhorse running back and can thrive against any type of box in the NFL.
Special thanks to Travis May, Dalton Miller and Matt Lownes for the help on this project.