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2013 Fantasy Football: Evaluating NFL Rookie Running Backs (Part 1)

Doug Martin 2013 Pro BowlNFL rookie running backs are always intriguing. On the one hand, they’re relatively unknown, so you can often acquire them at a discount relative to their ultimate value during your fantasy football drafts. On the other hand, there’s a significant degree of risk involved in drafting a rookie running back with an early pick because of that unknown. When you draft a rookie RB in fantasy football, you’re hoping for Doug Martin, but fearing a Mark Ingram. In 2011, as a rookie out of Alabama, Ingram required a fourth round pick, and tanked many a fantasy owner’s season. In 2012, savvy owners used a third round pick on Doug Martin and rode him to the championship.

Of course, in hindsight it was pretty easy to predict both Doug Martin’s success and Mark Ingram’s failure, based on each of their physical measurables, without even considering projected usage. You see, to succeed in the NFL, running backs require a certain level of athleticism, which we can break into two categories: speed (the ability to accelerate to the hole) and agility (the ability to quickly cut laterally to avoid tacklers).

For example, as Jonathan Bales of the excellent has shown, speed is directly correlated with RB success.

RB 40 times

Consider Doug Martin: using the below chart generated by, we can see that Dougie has some relatively elite measurables that compare well to other NFL players and prospects. (Click the second tab to see comparable NFL players as well as percentile measurements.)

(Spoiler alert: did you notice Zac Stacy as one of Martin’s comps? Keep in mind, however, that Stacy, the closest comparable NFL player, is only 79% comparable to Martin, which means that Martin is a very rare physical specimen.) Dougie’s 4.55 speed is generally considered adequate, though not exceptional for a RB, while his agility is really spectacular. However, if we delve deeper into the numbers, we can see some positives that would help predict Dougie’s success. Using the Football Outsider’s speed score, which adjusts for speed based on weight, we see that Martin has an adjusted speed score of 104, which is 4% better than the average starting RB score. Combining Martin’s three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle, we get an agility score of 10.95.

What about Mark Ingram?

Simply put, he’s not as impressive. Ingram's comps include a who's who of NFL busts and nobodies. This means his physical measurements are neither rare, nor unique. In fact, they're not great at all. His 4.62 is generally considered slow, and when you adjust his speed based on his weight, we see that he has a subpar adjusted speed score of 94. Worse, Ingram’s agility score is a disgusting 11.75. (Of course, the inestimable Shawn Siegele wrote the definitive takedown of Mark Ingram before the 2011 draft. Read the whole thing for an extended discussion of many of the concepts briefly covered here.)

So, without knowing anything else, it would have been easy to predict that Martin would be a fantasy football draft day value and that Ingram would be a bust, just based on physical measurables. So how can we apply these concepts to this year’s NFL rookie RBs? I’ll cover that in my next article, so check back tomorrow morning...

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