Unlocking NFL Athleticism: 2015 Running Backs

by Samuel Feldman ·

It seems obvious that the most successful football players will usually be relatively athletic.  While being the most athletic player on the field does not guarantee success, it certainly improves the odds that a player will be successful.

The PlayerProfiler Terms Glossary outlines two ways to evaluate how athletic a player is. The first, SPARQx – an approximation of Nike’s SPARQ (Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness) rating, is a standardized test for athleticism.  SPARQ input factors are 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and the power ball throw.  Because Nikeʼs SPARQ formula is not public, we compared publicly available SPARQ scores to their related input factors, reverse-engineered an approximation of the SPARQ formula, and then applied the formula to each playerʼs workout metrics.  For calculation purposes, power ball throw was converted into bench press so all input factors align with NFL Scouting Combine events.

The second method of evaluating athleticism is the Athleticism Score, which summarizes a player’s workout metrics and normalizes for size.  It is derived by aggregating each player’s 40-yard dash, Burst Score, and Agility Score, and then factoring in a relevant measure of player size to ensure that big players receive a premium for speed, quickness and explosiveness.  Running backs are afforded a BMI premium, while WRs and TEs are allotted a height and weight premium.

Now we can use athleticism to see why one running back was well-positioned to breakout while another was poised for a career renaissance.

Rookie Freak

David Johnson entered the league this year as a third round pick out of Northern Iowa.  While a school like UNI does not immediately cause one to have confidence in a rookie entering the league, Johnson provides plenty of intrigue.


David Johnson Advanced Metrics Profile

Although David Johnson was less heralded than Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and T.J. Yeldon, he still displayed capabilities similar to theirs.  In addition to being the main runner on his team in college as evidenced from his 40.8-percent (87th-percentile) College Dominator Rating, Johnson bested all these other backs athletically.  Johnson is an athletic freak from his 134.9 (94th-percentile) SPARQ-x score.

Unlike Bishop Sankey‘s failure to use his athletic talents, David Johnson uses his athleticism evidenced by a 30.8-percent (No. 19) Juke Rate.  Johnson now has a chance to be the featured back in Arizona where they have run the 11th most rushing plays this year.  With a low workload so far, Johnson has both the second highest Production Premium and Fantasy Points per touch.  Now Johnson has a chance to show what he can do with a full workload.  His young 19.7 (69th-Percentile) Breakout Age bodes well for his sustained breakout at this level given his newfound status as Arizona’s 3-down workhorse back.  Now is the time for this athletic specimen to show all that he can do.

Dallas Rebirth

While Joseph Randle believed DeMarco Murray left meat on the bone after last year, he is not the back picking up the slack with Murray gone from Dallas.  Without looking further than athleticism, Randle is nowhere near the athlete that Murray is as Randle boasts a 107.4 (26th-percentile) SPARQ-x score compared to Murray’s 125.0 (81st-percentile).  Instead, Darren McFadden is the back replacing Murray.


Darren McFadden Advanced Metrics Profile

We might’ve all overlooked the obvious this summer when we did not strongly consider Darren McFadden the back to own in Dallas.  He only happens to compare most closely to DeMarco Murray.  Although McFadden only has a 119.4 (65th-percentile) SPARQ-x score, he is faster, burstier, and more agile than Murray.   While McFadden is not as productive as Murray was in Dallas, he proved that he was more than left for dead like most believed after seeing him in Oakland.

DeMarco Murray offers more than Darren McFadden as he is bigger and stronger than McFadden.  However, McFadden proved he could handle a workload in college based on his 32.1-percent (66th-percentile) College Dominator Rating in conjunction with a super young 18.0 (100th-percentile) Breakout Age.  While McFadden is not Murray, his success in Dallas this year should not come as a surprise.


DeMarco Murray Advanced Metrics Profile

When it comes to athleticism, sometimes having the most is ideal.  Other times it is good to have a profile like your predecessor.  Either way, David Johnson is about to experience a full-blown breakout, and Darren McFadden should continue to have an impact in Dallas replacing DeMarco Murray.