2016 NFL Combine Day 1 in Review – Running Backs

There are fewer things more satisfying than seeing someone trying to do something good, and succeeding.

0ap3000000638826_video_rhr_210Perhaps not everyone thinks the same way on that, but I do take great joy in watching others’ successes, no matter what their field is. When I see my students succeed at the risks they took in my theatre classes, when they actively work on community building with each other and congratulate each other, I feel glad. When a person drops their gloves while fumbling with their wallet and someone picks them up and runs to give them back, I feel genuinely glad. When the barista at the coffee shop say to someone who just finished their transaction – with no hint of sarcasm and genuine enthusiasm – to “have a nice day”, I feel glad.

This may seem unrelated to the titular topic of this article, reviewing the NFL Combine performances by running backs, but it is. I didn’t get to see the live video of the Combine yesterday, but I watched after the fact as these young men – some whose games I’m very familiar with, others not so much – had a pretty great day for their futures, all things considered. The stars were out for sure, as Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott stole the show, but Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon also showed up in a big way, as did San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin. I just want to take a moment to break down their performances, as well as how their numbers in the metrics columns line up.


The Dudes

Cal running back Daniel Lasco came into the Combine fairly unknown, but showed soft feet and good body torsion in the positional drills early on. He also showed up pretty well in the spreadsheet, but we’ll get to that later…. Georgia’s Keith Marshall looked stiff in the change-of-direction drills, and he did not actually participate in the three-cone or short shuttle drills later on. Likely, he wants to run them on familiar footing at Georgia’s pro day, but I have some big questions about his agility…. Even though he’s a long 6’0″ tall, Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise looked fluid in change-of-direction work, getting low in his run to keep balance. He’s also going to have to prove that he’s not just a straight-line burner…. West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood had excellent foot frequency in change-of-direction drills, and looks comfortable sustaining speed through his cuts…. Northwestern’s Dan Vitale might not be horrendously interesting to fantasy owners, but he had an impressive day’s work in Indy, and he looked good – if not tremendously smooth – in the change-of-direction drills. He could end up a Marcel Reece/Charles Clay-esque H-back in the NFL somewhere.

Arkansas’ Alex Collins, Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, Dixon, and Ervin both looked natural as out-of-the-backfield receivers on the flat routes. Collins had an aware (maybe mistaken) one handed double-catch that was thrown behind him, but he managed to convert in the Texas drill, and Drake really excelled tracking the over-the-shoulder pass. Elliott let his first chances clang off of his hands in the short receiving drills, though, and looked visibly frustrated. This will be something to watch at his pro day, and something I want to go back and look for in his game tape. Henry looked surprisingly solid as a pass-catcher for someone with so little college experience receiving.


The Data

This is where things start to get fun. You know that we’ve put together metrics based on Combine data – the Speed Score, Agility Score, and Catch Radius – that combine to calculate an “RB Score”, and when we apply the data we’ve gleaned this weekend, we get a good picture of our running back rookies-to-be.

Unfortunately for us, only nine running backs performed in all of the drills and gave us a clear RB Score from the Combine. For others, we can look at comparisons via MockDraftable.com and project the missing drill times or distances until their pro days.

Derrick Henry CombineBy far, the best performer this weekend of the “Power Nine” was Derrick Henry of Alabama (112.5 RB Score). Despite subpar values in the 3-cone and short shuttle drills (7.20 and 4.38, respectively), when adjusting for his whopping size (~6’3″, 247 pounds) in our Agility Score, he put up a ridiculous 113.6. To put that in context, the striking David Johnson put up 6.82 3-cone and 4.27 shuttle at 6’1″, 224 pounds for an Agility Score of 111.6. Even if the raw numbers weren’t impeccable, Henry’s relative performance was impressive.

South Carolina’s Brandon Wilds, Kenyan Drake, and Wendell Smallwood were the next three players to have done all the drills and in their own tier. Wilds is the least-impressive name in the group, and he appeared very stiff and effortful in all of the positional drills on the field. That said, with a 6’1″, 220 pound frame that generated a 103.8 Agility Score, he’s worth looking into on tape. Kenneth Dixon is near this tier, but slightly below due to an unimpressive 97.7 Speed Score; a 4.58  40-yard dash isn’t fantastic at his size. If he can improve that slightly, he would leap up. That said, he’s still well within a very good range for productive NFL backs. He and Lasco compare favorably to Charles Sims in their RB Scores.

Ezekiel Elliott CombineAs for what we could see in the future? Chris Polk is a somewhat close comparison to Ezekiel Elliott, and he ran a 7.13 3-cone and 4.21 shuttle. If we even project Elliott for these middling (compared to previous expectations) scores, he would have a strong 108.0 Agility Score and a 109.1 RB Score – second-best in the class. Henry gets the edge because of his size, but he’s clearly in the same stratosphere metrically as Alabama’s former big man – and probably still better based on tape.

Tyler Ervin favorably comps to David Wilson, and Wilson ran a 7.09 3-cone and 4.12 shuttle. If Ervin turns in those numbers at his pro day, he would still be one of the lower backs in the class based on RB Score. Based on his small size (5’10”, 192 pounds), he would need to blow those drills out of the water to truly impress.

UCLA’s Paul Perkins compares closely to Tim Cornett, who ran a 7.01 3-cone and a 4.26 short shuttle. Perkins could put up those numbers and be closer to Ervin than Elliott in terms of RB Score. His 1.62 10-yard split severely underwhelmed, so look for him to try to best that on his pro day.

C.J. Prosise also skipped the change-of-direction drills, but he compares well to Jeremy Langford, who ran them in 7.22 seconds and 4.32 seconds, respectively. Those aren’t great numbers at all, but even if he puts in that performance at Notre Dame’s pro day, he would just barely be the third-best back in the class by RB Score (104.1). If he can best those numbers, he’ll have cemented his status in the top-tier of this draft class.