A Metrics Look at 2014’s Top Running Backs

Posted on October 22, 2013


Everything comes down to yards per carry when evaluating a running back. Outside of pass protection, the quality of a running back is dependent on inches rather than yards. Most backs can hit an average 4.0 yards per carry easily, but I want to look at those that can turn those extra inches into extra yards and eventually touchdowns. That’s why I wanted to look at some of college football’s biggest game breakers: Lache Seastrunk, Melvin Gordon, and Bishop Sankey. In the piece I’ll nitpick on half a yard here and a few broken tackles there, but those are the difference between average and great.

For Seastrunk and Gordon I’ve hand charted all of their FBS competition games, leaving out the gaudy numbers against FCS teams. I charted 4 games of Sankey’s, leaving out the Arizona/ ASU games. However, I still have a 115 carry sample that seemed like it took forever to chart.

Extra Yardage

Here I’m looking at how well the backs can pick up extra yardage or their elusiveness. YaC is Yardage After Contact. Broken Tackle % is how often a RB breaks tackles, IE 5% would mean the RB breaks a tackle on 5% of his carries. I would urge you not to compare these to other similar metrics, even ones I’ve posted in the past. Some organizations are more conservative with what is considered a “broken tackle” and some more lenient, it’s only worth comparing these RBs to each other.


  • It’s pretty clear that Gordon and Seastrunk are on another level in terms of getting extra yardage. Using a metric to combine YaC and Bkn Tak % (that I’m still tweaking so won’t post) would put Sankey around average and Seastrunk and Gordon in elite territory near Gio Bernard and Johnathan Franklin in last year’s draft.
  • We should note that Seastrunk’s YaC is inflated due to an 80 yard run where he was hit after 6, broke a tackle and then ran 74 yards more for a touchdown. However, even if you take that out – his YaC would still be solid at 2.8. This metric will even out with more games, but big plays like that are part of Seastrunk’s ability, so we can’t discount it totally.
  • What makes Gordon’s yards after contact number particularly impressive is that there aren’t any large outliers influencing it. He just consistently breaks tackles and falls forward for more yardage. The combination of his high yards after contact and broken tackle % tells us that his ability to gain extra yardage isn’t a fluke.

Where Do They Run the Ball?

Here I’ve broken their running down into outside/inside but I charted it by noting what holes they hit, so the actual data goes into more detail than this. At some point I might come back and elaborate on how they did running behind the LG, etc.


  • All three RBs are clearly less efficient running inside than they are outside. However, Seastrunk in particular has managed to still average 8 yards per carry while 65% of his carries have been inside runs. It should be noted that I didn’t have one instance of Seastrunk running on third and short, so a lack of short-yardage situations will lead to a small increase here.
  • 66% of Gordon’s runs were to the outside. This is a combination of loaded boxes (more on that later), TE heavy sets, and those sweep plays that Wisconsin likes to run. However he’s been efficient running it inside as well. Like Seastrunk, Gordon only had 5 total carries on third down so he’s not facing many defenses expecting the run on short yardage situations.
  • Sankey’s 4.12 yards per carry on inside runs is lackluster for a college back. For a spread team that’s routinely facing only 5-6 men in the box, you’d hope for either better blocking by his O-line or better ability to pick up yardage short.

 How Did Defenses Play Them?

The most painstaking part of this all was counting the number of men in the box and noting the location of every blocker for the RB. Some interesting results came of it. The chart below represents the Yards per Carry of each RB against that number of men in the box.


  • It’s easy to say, “But Gordon faced more men in the box!” So let’s break it down like this:
    • Gordon on average faced 7.5 men in the box, but also averaged 7.2 blockers per play.
    • Seastrunk faced 5.9 men in the box and averaged 5.4 blockers per play
    • Sankey faced 6.1 men in the box, but averaged 5.7 blockers per play
  • I don’t know how much validity this holds, but Seastrunk faced the biggest differential of blockers to men in the box with an average of .5 man extra against his blockers.
  • It’s hard to tell why Seastrunk’s average goes down so drastically against 7 men in the box. He faced that 18% of the time, so it’s not a sample size error. It’s possible those situations were heavily weighted against him, IE…goal line situations. It’ll be worth watching more of Seastrunk to see how he does against heavier defenses.
  • At least Sankey is consistent against multiple types of defenses, averaging from 5.4-5.7 yards per carry regardless. I’m still slightly concerned that his inside running and runs against 5 men in the box are in the low 5.0s, despite having a 1:1 blocker ratio. Is it an O-line issue, good defenses, a problem with his vision?

There’s more data that I just can’t fit in here without making this a treatise on running back play. I’ll toss out some of that data on Twitter and maybe use it in future pieces. I’m hoping by charting and working on some of the more prominent RBs early, it’ll let me get to some of the lesser known players during actual draft season. If you have any comments, questions, or requests hit me up in the comments or on Twitter.

Posted in: Running Backs