2022 Commanders Backfield Breakdown: Pump-and-Dump

by Noah Hills · Draft Strategy

The 2022 Commanders Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and use that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with a low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with a high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures the degree of volatility, not the quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

The Washington Football Team finished No. 10 in the NFL in rushing attempts last season with a total of 477.  This was 24 more than the league average. That finish represented a stark reversal from their rushing volume in the first year of the Ron Rivera era in 2020.  In that year their 400 attempts came in at No. 25 in the league.

The Football Team was actually completely average from a situational rushing perspective last season. According to rbsdm.com, Washington was No. 16 in the NFL in early-down run rate in neutral game script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent) in 2021. They were also No.16 in the same metric in 2020. This suggests that the difference in raw rushing volume in the two seasons might have been due to in-game situational factors more than it was due to a philosophical shift in pass/run ratio. Washington did score fewer points per game in 2021.  They did this while playing in one extra game during the 2021 season. It’s not like they were a much stronger team. Who knows.

Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner will be with the team again in 2022. However, a major change will come with the newly-acquired Carson Wentz presumably starting at quarterback in place of Taylor Heinicke. That change doesn’t obviously portend a change in rushing volume for the team now known as the Commanders. We shall see.

Efficiency Numbers

Antonio Gibson was the clear lead guy on the ground in Washington in 2021. While JD McKissic was also useful in fantasy, it was actually Jaret Patterson who saw the second-most rushing attempts on the team. Besides those three, Jonathan Williams and the unfortunately-surnamed Wendell Smallwood also saw light work. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of those five backs:

Antonio Gibson

Gibson is a controversial figure in dynasty these days.  He has been efficient in his first two NFL seasons after converting from wide receiver at Memphis. His Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating was the No.11-highest mark among lead backs last year. This came in higher than those of guys like Joe Mixon and Nick Chubb. He was even more impressive in that area in 2020, with a BAE Rating of 125.0-percent.

Despite quality overall efficiency, Gibson has been less than stellar in producing positive outcomes on a consistent basis relative to his teammates. His Relative Success Rate in 2021 is just a 45th-percentile mark, and it follows up a 55th-percentile showing in the same metric in 2020. The contrast between his BAE Rating and RSR numbers has meant that Gibson has been one of the most volatile high-volume runners since entering the league. That makes sense given his wide receiver background, as you might correctly assume based on that history that Gibson is a dynamic athlete who is still raw as a pure runner.

The Best of the Rest

Patterson was not good in his rookie season, providing neither positive efficiency nor consistent output.

McKissic, on the other hand, provided both of those things in addition to his contributions as a pass-catcher. Barring one- and three-carry seasons with the Seahawks in 2016 and 2018, respectively, McKissic has posted BAE Ratings above the 100-percent mark and positive RSR numbers in every season of his career. He is one of the best role-playing backs in the league.

Smallwood didn’t touch the ball enough for his numbers to be conducive to legitimate evaluation. Williams didn’t get much work either, but his Composite Efficiency Score of 94.5 was lower than the scores of only Najee Harris and Deebo Samuel last season.

So Now What?

The biggest change in this backfield is the addition of rookie runner Brian Robinson in the third round of the NFL Draft. Gibson is still the best player in this running back room, and while Robinson lacks dynamism, he is a steady runner who will make good decisions and get what is blocked. That skillset is a positive real-life complement to the things that Gibson does well. However, the addition of another role player likely results in a flatter distribution of carries (and, therefore, fantasy points). This doesn’t bode well for the maximization of Gibson’s individual productivity.

At this point, I’m not very excited about any of the players in the Washington backfield. Gibson was found money for savvy drafters in the second round of rookie drafts back in 2020. He’s miscast as a bell cow runner and will likely never reach the David Johnson-type upside that many envisioned for him. According to DLF, he’s currently going in the mid-4th round and as the RB17 in dynasty startups. I’d much rather have guys like Kenneth Walker, Travis Etienne, or Leonard Fournette in that range.

McKissic could once again provide fantasy utility as a PPR machine in a satellite back role, but the addition of Robinson makes this backfield messier for everyone. I’m also not particularly interested in Robinson himself.

The other backs under contract are Patterson, Williams, and Reggie Bonnafon. None of them are worth rostering.

Final Word

Gibson truthers are like GameStop stock bros circa mid-February 2021. It was fun for a while. You got some legitimate value out of your investment. Now, it’s time to grow up if you’re still hoping for more.

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