By Bill Barnwell
The Bills’ selection of Marshawn Lynch was a simple one. Buffalo needed a running back after trading the wantaway Willis McGahee to Baltimore. Lynch was, outside of Adrian Peterson, the best running back available in the draft. If only all draft picks could be this easy!
Unfortunately, they’re not, and even though Lynch was the second-best running back in this draft, it’s no guarantee he’ll become a star. My own opinion on Lynch after some pre-draft film study was that he was likely to be a starting running back in the NFL, but was unlikely to become a star; mainly, his 4.46 40-time seemed to be a product of effective workouts as opposed to a speed Lynch actually played at. That’s my only real complaint about Lynch, though. He bounces out of trash very well, he stays low to the ground and gives defenders little to hit, and is a quality blocker and receiver already (if you’ve watched Laurence Maroney come out in passing situations over the last two weeks, you realize the importance of those skills to your playing time). There was one thing I didn’t really take into account when I was looking at Lynch; his college stats.
The running back preceding Lynch at Cal was J.J. Arrington, currently the third-string halfback for the Arizona Cardinals. Arrington was a JuCo transfer who had one gigantic year in a California uniform, when he rushed for 2018 yards on 289 carries, averaging 6.89 yards per carry. In Lynch’s two years as the starter for California, he averaged 6.21 yards per carry. Arrington’s of a similar build to Lynch; Lynch is an inch shorter and weighs about 10 more pounds. His 40 time was 4.49, and his vertical jump 1/2 inch smaller than Lynch’s. They’re very similar, but Arrington’s performance in college was superior to Lynch’s. Does this mean he’s likely to be the better player? Not necessarily.
At Football Outsiders, we’ve begun to scrape the surface on college performance and how it relates to a player’s likelihood of succeeding in the pros. Our first efforts in this arena is the Lewin Career Forecast, named after its researcher and writer, David Lewin. His research (the original essay for which is available here shows that for quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds, a quarterback’s college completion percentage and games started are inextricably linked to his propensity for professional success.
We’re currently working on similar research into the performance of running backs and wide receivers. We’re not there yet in being able to point to a certain stat as immutable proof of quality like we are with quarterbacks, but the predictability of quarterbacks and the reliability of translated statistics across levels in baseball, basketball, and hockey leads me to believe that college statistics for running backs and wide receivers have some predicative value.
This was a topic I examined last year when I was attempting to analyze the selection of Laurence Maroney amongst the broader spectrum of both Big Ten backs and heavily-used ones. Since that essay was written, Maroney’s predecessor at Minnesota, Marion Barber, had an excellent year with Dallas, while Maroney had a good year for the Patriots. The track record of other recent Big 10 backs, though, has been hit-and-miss, and while doing research into college team statistics, I realized one of the reasons why: their statistics are bloated.
When I was compiling college statistics using the NCAA’s database (which covers teams from 2000-2006), I organized them by conference, normalized the teams’ schedules to a 12-game season, and then calculated the average performance each team put up for each year. By doing that, I was able to find the offensive performance of the average team in each conference over the six-year span.
What I found was that the run/pass ratio across different conferences was noticeably different. Run/pass ratio is a simple metric that measures how often a team runs the ball as opposed to passing it; for example, all D-1 teams over the six-year span averaged 1.28 rushing plays for each passing play. If you limit the figures to major conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-10, SEC, Sun Belt, and WAC), the figure is 1.24. The Big Ten and the Pac-10, though, stand on different sides of the divide. Big Ten teams averaged 1.36 rushes for each pass, while Pac-10 teams averaged only 1.08, the lowest figure for any conference.
What this means is that Big Ten rushing figures are likely to be inflated, while the passing statistics of the Pac-10 are likely depressed some. Meanwhile, the opposite is likely to be true for Pac-10 players.
While teams don’t draft based upon college statistics, players who have bigger games do tend to receive more publicity, which results in more exposure, and then potentially, a higher draft slot than would be expected or maybe deserved. What we can do is look at the different players who have come out of these conferences at the respective positions since 2000, and see if NFL teams are potentially overvaluing or undervaluing them.
These backs have not been particularly successful in the NFL. Dayne, Bennett, Duckett, and Perry were all busts — of the first-rounders, only Larry Johnson was a starting running back within his first three years, and while Johnson put up great numbers in 2005 and 2006, few people remember that the Chiefs were ready to cut bait on him in 2004. While I happen to think Maroney will be successful, the jury is still out on him. The real finds have been later picks like Ladell Betts and Marion Barber, but they’ve also only been platoon backs.
The similarity in draft value between these two lists is remarkable: 6844 points of draft value were spent on the Big Ten backs, while 6970 were spent on the Pac-10 backs. The latter has a big bust in Trung Canidate, but the Pac-10 yielded starting running backs in Steven Jackson and DeShaun Foster, the two most promising running backs in football in Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew, and a guy who was some marijuana away from being a starter in Onterrio Smith. The Pac-10 backs aren’t outclassing the Big Ten guys, but they’re the better group of running backs.
What if we take the same look at wideouts?
There are two guys on this list who are useful NFL receivers — Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, both of whom went to Oregon State and were drafted by the Bengals in 2001. They’re much better than useful, actually. No one else on this list has evolved into much of anything except for, perhaps, Dennis Northcutt, who’s a third wideout and returner. The big busts are obvious and almost legendary at this point: R. Jay Soward, Freddie Mitchell, Reggie Williams, and Mike Williams are three washouts and a guy who was inactive in Week 1. On the other hand, that bust list is missing two players…
This is a list of more useful players, short the two big busts, Charles Rogers and David Terrell. I’ve written at length about Chris Chambers’ mediocrity in the past, but even he’s a better player than everyone besides Houshmandzadeh and Johnson on the Pac-10 list. There are almost a dozen Big 10 wideouts from the last six years better than any non-Bengals Pac-10 wideout.
Finally, the same comparison with quarterbacks:
The Pac-10 has notable busts in Tuiasosopo, Harrington, Boller, and perhaps Rodgers, but Palmer and Leinart. The Big Ten doesn’t really have much outside of the miracle that was Tom Brady, sixth-round pick, and Drew Brees. The difference, though, is that the Pac-10 produced multiple first-round picks at quarterback; the Big Ten didn’t have a single one (although Brees was close). There’s a possibility these Pac-10 quarterbacks could be overvalued because of the numbers they were racking up throwing the ball so frequently.
Of course, this isn’t a catch-all saying to never draft Pac-10 players involved in the passing game or Big Ten running backs. It’s merely an interesting data point in Marshawn Lynch’s favor. We’ll be revealing more findings in Pro Football Prospectus 2008, only ten months away!