Running the Numbers: Speed a Strong Indicator of RB Success
At DallasCowboys.com, I wrote about why the lack of speed at the running back position in the 2013 draft class is worrisome.
It’s common to hear that running backs need to be “quicker than fast,” meaning how fast they can run long distances doesn’t matter as much as how quickly they can move in short areas. Smith was a “quicker than fast” running back, and he obviously thrived with his ability to maneuver in traffic. While I’m not at all debating the fact that running backs do indeed need to possess short-area quickness, it’s also true that the fastest running backs, as measured by the 40-yard dash, have had the most NFL success.
To the right, I charted the approximate value per season for running backs drafted from 2005 to 2009 (allowing a three-season gap to accurately assess value). I broke down the players according to their combine 40-yard dash times.
The results are obvious: speed kills for running backs. Of the running backs I charted, those who ran a sub-4.40 at the combine have produced at over six times the rate of those backs who ran 4.50 or worse. Five of the six backs to run sub-4.40, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles, Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew, have produced at a high level at some point during their careers, with just one player, undrafted Anthony Alridge, failing to find success. Jones-Drew was drafted in the second round and Charles didn’t go until the third.
As with many positions, there appears to be a cutoff point that players must cross to have the necessary explosiveness to perform at a high level in the NFL. For running backs, that point seems to be in the range of 4.50. During the period I analyzed, only one running back, Frank Gore, ran below 4.50 and still posted an AV per season of at least seven. The second-best running back to run over 4.50 was Ahmad Bradshaw, a steep fall.
Meanwhile, the success rate of running backs in the 4.40-4.49 range has been far higher than those below 4.49. In that range, we’ve seen explosive backs like Adrian Peterson (4.40), Ray Rice (4.42), Matt Forte (4.44), and Marshawn Lynch (4.46) continually rank among the league-leaders in rushing during their time in the league. It’s worth noting that the 40-yard dash also seems to predict running back success better than other drills such as the short shuttle and three-cone drill.
The whole article is over at the team site.