Your Favorite Devy Running Back is Too Small. Now What?

by | May 11, 2020

Since 2007 (a cutoff point that doesn’t mean anything other than being how far back my prospect database goes), there have been 115 instances of running backs weighing less than 210 pounds posting fantasy seasons of at least 10 points per game (in PPR), and 40 instances in the same time frame of sub-210 pound backs averaging at least 15 fantasy points per game. Those are fairly arbitrary thresolds, but that 10 points per game mark sort of represents RB3-level fantasy relevance (it’s right around where guys like Kerryon Johnson, Tarik Cohen, Latavius Murray, and Carlos Hyde performed in 2019), and the 15 points per game threshold is right there on the low-end RB1, high-end RB2 borderline (that’s where Phillip Lindsay performed at as a rookie, and where guys like Chris Carson, Joe Mixon, and Todd Gurley ended up at last season).

(210 pounds is also a fairly arbitrary threshold for “NFL lead back” size, but I do think it’s pretty intuitive. A guy weighing 210 is in the 38th percentile among backs drafted since 2007 as far as size goes, and that weight is right on that borderline where just a few pounds heavier we have probably-big-enough-to-be-a-lead-back type guys like Darren McFadden, Miles Sanders, and Marlon Mack, and a few pounds lighter we see guys like Aaron Jones, Duke Johnson, and Darrell Henderson who exist somewhere on the we-think-this-guy-is-big-enough-and-we-just-hope-his-coach-agrees spectrum. Height and BMI certainly play parts in all of this as well.)

Among that large group of 115 fantasy relevant seasons, 47 individual players make appearances, and among the 40 borderline RB1-level seasons, 22 individual players make appearances; this means that, on average, there are 8.8 sub-210 pound running backs that are fantasy relevant in a given season, with 3.6 of them each year being new entrants into the ranks of useful players, and further, that there are 3.1 RB1-level producers that weigh less than 210 pounds each season, with 1.7 of them being first timers among the ranks of top-end fantasy assets. This last group — the RB1 producers — is made up of as many players taken on day 3 of the NFL Draft (or even signed as UDFAs) as it is of guys selected with early round capital.

I say all of this to say that while it is true that the best bets for high-end fantasy producers at running back are 215+ pounders who run 4.5s and catch passes and posted 30% Dominator Ratings on their way to being first or second round picks, there is value to be mined in the populations of players who do not fit those criteria, particularly among guys who are talented but were not blessed with “workhorse” size. 

For our devy rosters, this means that while much attention should be paid to the Najee Harrises and the Zach Charbonnets, ignoring a huge chunk of the player pool because small guys hit at lower rates than big guys do is akin to ignoring players from mid-major schools because the kids from the blue blood programs more often become high-end fantasy assets. I refuse to prescribe to player evaluation nihilism in regards to “low probability” prospects; we’re not going to magically turn 195-pound scat-backs into 220-pound bell-cows by watching their tape or crunching their numbers and concluding that they are good, but we can acknowledge that the population they belong to is less fruitful while also scouting within it to identify the players with the best odds of becoming the next Austin Ekeler, James White, or Christian McCaffrey at the next level.

Is Your Guy Actually Small?

Vital to determining the kinds of odds that Small RBX, Your Personal Devy Darling has of becoming a usable fantasy asset as a pro is determining whether that guy is actually small or just not big yet. A couple months ago, I looked into historical weight gain data, comparing the listed weights of running backs as high school recruits to their eventual Combine weights (the player pool is backs drafted from 2007-2019). The results of that investigation are as follows (with players binned into weight “classes”):

When I originally did this analysis I used an even lower 205-pound minimum threshold for “could conceivably be an NFL lead back,” but the general takeaways here are applicable whether you want your runners to be 205, 210, or 215. Basically, if Small RBX leaves high school weighing over 200 pounds, he can’t really be considered small in any sort of projection to the pros, as he’s likely to gain right around 10 pounds before his Combine date and has at least a 93.3% chance of weighing at least as much as Christian McCaffrey and Giovani Bernard did when they entered the league. 

We can start to consider Small RBX a legitimately small running back if he weighs less than 200 pounds as a high school recruit, but he certainly qualifies if he weighs less than 190, as the heaviest in that cohort have just a 71.4% chance of being a Gio Bernard-sized player in the NFL, and guys on the lighter end of that spectrum (sub-180 pounds recruits) are very unlikely to look anything close to a high-volume runner in a pro backfield. 

What would be additionally helpful is historical weight gain data based on size as a freshman, size as a sophomore, etc.; I have so far been unsuccessful in finding year-by-year listed weights for past players though, as they are often just listed on online rosters as whatever they were listed at during their final college season, which isn’t super helpful for making projections for guys early in their careers as devy options. We can, however, consider a player’s college listed weight subjectively in context with historical data in order to better make projections about their size when they eventually reach the NFL. Kenneth Walker was listed at 191 as a high school recruit but is now listed at 200 on the Wake Forest website; recruits weighing 191 would be expected to weigh 207 at the Combine based on historical data, and Walker is over halfway there after one season in college, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly. 

As I mentioned before, height is also a factor in determining whether a running back is fit for a large workload in the NFL, insofar as it is part of how densely and compactly built he is. Most small backs who become big-time fantasy producers are of the short-and-stout variety: your Aaron Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Brian Westbrook types (Clyde Edwards-Helaire falls into this category); guys like this are technically small, but they are just as solidly built (from a pounds per inch standpoint) as bigger players like David Johnson, Jay Ajayi, or Latavius Murray.

Conversely, by my count there are only nine running backs drafted since 2007 who have gone on to be fantasy relevant (according to our original points per game thresholds) after weighing less than 210 and measuring in at at least 5’10 at the Combine. Ronald Jones, Bilal Powell, and Raheem Mostert have all performed at an RB3 level for seasons at a time, Jahvid Best was a low-end RB2 for a year, and Tevin Coleman has performed at around that level for his whole career, while 11 out of the 12 RB1-level seasons from (relatively) tall and skinny backs have all come from players named Christian McCaffrey, Jamaal Charles, or Chris Johnson (the other season there was CJ Spiller’s career year in 2012).

Going back to our weight gain data, I would say the following devy running backs qualify as small guys who are talented but who we should evaluate with the reality in mind that small guys are less likely to hit than big ones (this list is far from comprehensive; heights/weights shown are first as recruits and second as currently listed on school website):

  • Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss (5’10/200, 5’9/180)
  • Max Borghi, Washington State (5’10/195, 5’10/197)
  • Jaret Patterson, Buffalo (5’9/195, 5’9/195)
  • Eric Gray, Tennessee (5’9.5/194, 5’10/200)
  • Tyler Goodson, Iowa (5’10/192, 5’10/190)
  • Kenneth Walker, Wake Forest (5’9.5/191, 5’10/200)
  • Zonovan Knight, N.C. State (6’/190, 6’/197)
  • Cam’Ron Harris, Miami (5’9.5/190, 5’10/200)
  • Javian Hawkins, Louisville (5’9/185, 5’9/196)
  • Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (5’11/185, 5’11/183)
  • Kenan Christon, USC (5’10/185, 5’10/185)
  • James Cook, Georgia (5’11.5/181, 5’11/190)
  • CJ Marable, Coastal Carolina (5’9/180, 5’10/190)
  • Pooka Williams, Kansas (5’9/175, 5’10/170)
  • Wan’Dale Robinson, Nebraska (RB/WR; 5’9/175, 5’10/190)
  • Ronnie Rivers, Fresno State (5’8/168, 5’8/183
  • Sincere McCormick, UTSA (5’9/187, 5’9/200)

One guy who isn’t necessarily “small” but who might be on a trajectory to fit into the slimmer Tevin Coleman, Ronald Jones body type is Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard (6’1/190, 6’/201). He’s obviously very talented, and this is mostly a story for another time, but if he is actually 6′ or 6’1, even if he gets up to 215 for the Combine, he’ll be built with a similar pounds-to-inches ratio as highly drafted but dubiously successful/durable skinny backs like Kerryon Johnson (6’/213 at the Combine), Darren McFadden (6’1/211), Melvin Gordon (6’1/215), and Kevin Smith (6’1/212). It wouldn’t be a death sentence, as guys like Adrian Peterson (6’1/217) and Matt Forte (6’1/218) have been great players who came out of college with comparable builds (though Hubbard is more than 15 pounds away from those guys right now, presumably just a year out from his going pro), but it’s generally not ideal to be below that 3.00 pounds per inch mark.

To be clear, the career arcs of all the above guys have been objectively positive on the grand scale, so Hubbard turning out to be Darren McFadden wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But with the esteem that he is currently held in (typically right there with Travis Etienne as a top-2 back in next year’s class), I think the NFL and fantasy resume of any of those first four backs as a career outcome for Hubbard would be viewed as a disappointment (perhaps with the exception of Melvin Gordon’s career, though I think consensus has Hubbard as more talented than him as well).

Alright, So Your Guy is Actually Small

Now that we’ve established that Small RBX is indeed a small running back, how do we know if he has any shot of being one of those guys who ends up as a useful fantasy asset in the NFL? In order to assess this, let’s take a look at the RB1-level performers from our original sub-210 pound group to see if they have anything in common that we could establish as benchmarks to hold future players up against. We will shoot for the moon with our high standards for small running backs, so even if we miss we will land among the stars (or at least among the best ball plays and flex options in the RB3-level cohort).

The repeat RB1 offenders (using players with more than one RB1-level season to weed out JAG types who rode fleeting opportunity to short-term fantasy success, since trying to identify players who fit a mold established by those players is a fool’s errand given that nearly any running back can succeed if they just fall into volume for a season) from that first group are:

  • Christian McCaffrey
  • Jamaal Charles
  • Chris Johnson
  • Brian Westbrook
  • Ray Rice
  • Devonta Freeman
  • Reggie Bush

The most striking similarity between these seven players is their ability to contribute in the passing game. The lowest receptions total among them in these RB1-level seasons are the 40 catches that Jamaal Charles posted in 2009 and 2014, and they collectively average 67.1 receptions per sixteen games during the seasons in question. Contrast that receiving production with the existence of low-reception total RB1-level seasons from bigger backs (at least 210 pounds) during the same time frame, like Thomas Jones’ 10-catch 2009 season, Adrian Peterson’s 19- and 21-catch seasons in 2007 and 2008, Ezekiel Elliott’s 32-catch campaign in 2016, and Mark Ingram’s 26-catch season just a year ago. Big backs with multiple post-2007 15.0+ points per game fantasy seasons collectively averaged 54.7 receptions per sixteen games in those seasons, almost 13 catches below the pace of their smaller counterparts, and almost a quarter (24.3%) of their RB1-level seasons saw them haul in fewer receptions than the 40 that Jamaal Charles caught in the low-mark catch seasons for sub-210 pound runners. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but the numbers back up conventional wisdom that it is vital that smaller running backs are able to catch passes — even more so than it is for backs with traditional workhorse frames — if they are to be high-level fantasy producers.

That receiving skill criteria holds true even for diminutive tailbacks who provide RB3-level value. As demonstrated above, it’s possible for large runners to post RB1 seasons with low receptions totals, but since 2007, on only two occasions — Raheem Mostert in 2019 and Tre Mason in 2014 — has a sub-210 pound runner been a flex-level fantasy option while catching fewer than 20 passes over the course of a season. Small running backs since 2007 have averaged 47.8 receptions per sixteen games in their RB3-quality seasons — just seven receptions fewer than bigger backs in their RB1-level campaigns. 

The second thing that small RB1s do is run the ball efficiently. My running back model uses team-, line-, and volume-adjusted efficiency metrics to generate percentile-based scores on a 0-100 scale that identify which backs provide the most value per carry above and beyond what their offensive situation gives them and what other backs in that situation provide. By that method, the rushing efficiency scores of our small fantasy studs are as follows:

In recent history, only Reggie Bush has been a small running back who performed as an RB1 over multiple seasons while contributing at a level below the 62nd percentile (let alone below average) in the running game; contrast that with the non-elite rushing performances of some bigger repeat-RB1s:

There’s simply a larger burden of proof on smaller backs to show they deserve volume than there is for workhorse-sized guys; Reggie Bush was able to perform at a slightly below-par level and maintain a large role in his offense because he was an excellent receiver whose value to his team was insulated by their investing the second pick in the Draft on him; as the only sub-220 pound runner to be selected that high since Marshall Faulk in 1994, quite literally no other player in the last quarter of a century has had that confluence of factors keeping his head above water despite a relatively poor contribution to the running game.

Assuming they weren’t the second overall pick, it’s important that our small running backs be able to do both of the above things; a 200-pound player who catches passes but doesn’t provide value as a ball-carrier has a chance to fit nicely into that RB3-RB2 range for fantasy: your Nyheim Hines, Theo Riddick, Jerick McKinnon, and Patrick Laird-types live here as fine options in best ball leagues and as desperation flexes, and James White is their top-of-the-range-of-outcomes king, but we’re looking for more.

The flip side is arguably worse; the efficient-small-runner-with-marginable-passing-game-chops archetype is exemplified by guys like Corey Grant, Kerwynn Williams, Ronnie Hillman, and Kendall Hunter. The top end of this spectrum is represented by Phillip Lindsay, with Tevin Coleman and Ronald Jones as the classic examples of talented players who might never reach their raw potential because they lack ideal size and the top-end receiving capability to make up for it. You don’t want to pick a guy who ends up in tweener purgatory. 

We’ve now established some baseline criteria with which we can judge Small RBX and his odds of fantasy RB1-ness. They’re nothing earth-shattering, but equipped with a data-infused compass, we can direct our search for the next Christian McCaffrey, Ray Rice, or Jamaal Charles more truly: 

Search points: 

  • Draft capital-insulated opportunity
  • High per-touch efficiency on the ground
  • Elite passing game chops

Given those basic criteria, let’s go back to our list of current devy runners and parse through who has the best chance of joining the ranks of the elite small back fantasy producers: 

Path to Draft Capital

We obviously don’t yet know when any of these devy guys will eventually be taken in the NFL Draft, but we can make our best guess by taking a full-picture look at their production profiles to date (I touch on the value of looking at collegiate production, as well as on my process in generating Production Scores for devy runners, in this article). Our previously listed devy runners rank like so from a production point of view:

Production Score is the best predictor I have of draft capital, but it’s not the only factor, so while I think Gainwell has a good shot of going in the top three rounds when he eventually comes out, I also believe Borghi is a day two talent; Patterson and McCormick are small school studs with legitimate resumes, and darkhorse underclassmen like Walker, Harris, and Gray can boost their stock with bonafide breakouts in the coming seasons. The bottom line is that none of these guys will end up with Reggie Bush-level investment from an NFL franchise, but it’s important to keep in mind how good they’ve been in college relative to the entire pool of drafted runners going back the last decade plus, as that’s what most heavily influences the opportunity they come in with at the next level.

Now let’s dive in to the more on-field impact elements of these guys’ profiles; we’ll start with those players who need to improve as both runners and receivers, then look at the efficient runners who have yet to contribute heavily as pass-catchers, then at the purer satellite backs who haven’t shown high-level efficiency on the ground, and finally hype ourselves on the devy darlings who excel in both areas.

Checking Boxes: Not Quite There Yet

Given the benefit of the doubt that is not given to small running backs, I’m defining a “box checked” as a player having a score above the 60.0 mark (on a 0-100 scale) in my model’s composite categories. Anything above a 50.0 essentially means a guy is as good or better in that area as half of all running backs drafted since 2007, but if you’re a 50th-percentile talent at 198 pounds, you’re not getting much run in the NFL. Here are the dudes that don’t crack that 60.0 threshold as runners or receivers (guys are listed with range-of-outcomes archetype comps based on projected pro measurables and to-date collegiate profiles):

Eric Gray

Tennessee’s Eric Gray is one of the guys in this group who has a good chance of ending up as something more than a “small” back, and though he doesn’t yet check rushing efficiency and pass-catching acumen boxes, grading those things on an age curve suggests that the soon-to-be sophomore is on his way to being a full skill-set player by the time he leaves for the NFL.

As a true freshman, he posted an impressive 14.7% Dominator Rating on an SEC squad, all while averaging 0.74 yards per carry more than his backfield mates and being — while not efficient (he caught only 61.9% of his targets) — at least involved in the passing game as a young player, hauling in 13 passes on a 5.8% target share.

There are film analysts I respect who are high on Gray, so I’m inclined to believe that his continued development — especially given that he is already solid in most areas — will see him become a legitimate three-down player.

Cam’Ron Harris

Miami Hurricane Cam’Ron Harris also could easily find himself over that 210-pound threshold by the time he leaves school, but how you feel about him likely in part depends on how you feel about recent backs out of The U like Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas; there just aren’t many guys who’ve sat for two years behind non-elite teammates before breaking out at a tier two program and then gone on to NFL stardom.

Harris has been a solid runner thus far, outpacing other Miami runners in 10+ yard run rate by 3.70% (a 77th-percentile mark), but he’ll simply need to make significant strides as a junior to suggest he’s anything more than the next in line of decent but, ultimately, replacement-level backs out of Miami.

Javian Hawkins

Louisville’s Javian Hawkins was an absolute monster on the ground as a redshirt freshman last season, as he rushed for over 1500 yards while converting 44.19% of his trips to the second level of the defense into 20+ yard breakaway runs (a 94th-percentile display of open-field running), all en route to outpacing his teammates by 1.09 yards per carry. 

The Jerick McKinnon comparison isn’t a particularly clean one given that Hawkins is already a much more efficient runner than McKinnon ever was in college, but unless Hawkins adds substantial weight or vastly increases his involvement in the passing game (he caught just four passes in 2019), his ceiling in the NFL will be capped at a complimentary role. 

Zonovan Knight

NC State’s Zonovan Knight is sort of like Javian Hawkins, but he’s taller, skinnier, and is a bit different as a runner. Where Hawkins made his hay on big plays, Knight averaged 0.88 yards per carry more than his teammates by successfully navigating the line of scrimmage and making linebackers miss on his way to an 83rd-percentile Chunk Rate+ (10+ yard run rate vs. team rate) mark of 4.94%. 

Knight was also straight up bad as a receiver, catching only seven passes on per target efficiency that ranks in the 8th percentile. To date, he’s a meh producer at a non-elite program who doesn’t add value in the passing game and, while a decent runner, doesn’t have the frame of a high-volume ball-carrier; something’s gotta give in the next few years for him to look anything like a quality NFL player.

His current range of outcomes spans from reserve player with situational utility to complete non-factor.

Sincere McCormick

The low composite scores in rushing efficiency and receiving chops for UTSA’s Sincere McCormick speak more to the high burden of proof on small school players than it does to McCormick’s inability to contribute in either of those areas. 

As a true freshman, he rushed for nearly 1000 yards while posting a 30.2% Dominator Rating, catching 24 balls on 72nd-percentile per-target efficiency, and impressing on a per-touch basis on the ground, with a yards per carry+ (average vs. team average) of 1.16 and a Breakaway Conversion Rate of 46.15% (75th- and 96th-percentiles, respectively).

After one year, McCormick looks like a good candidate to be the next Aaron Jones-type small school superstar. He just needs to continue getting better. 

Jaret Patterson

Jaret Patterson of Buffalo has a similar overall profile to McCormick, but he’s a year ahead in his development, having posted a 2000 all-purpose yard and 39.9% Dominator Rating season as a true sophomore in 2019; the other difference is that Patterson has been much more lightly used in the passing game so far in his career, with just 20 receptions through two seasons. When he’s been asked to run routes, though, he’s been dynamic, with yards per reception and yards per target marks that each rank in the 97th percentile. 

The drop-off between the Ray Rice comp at the high-end of these guys’ ranges of outcomes and the Benny Cunningham, Kapri Bibbs-types at the median level is huge; there simply aren’t many guys who fit this particular archetype, and Rice is the most successful one who wasn’t a great pass-catcher in college. Hopefully the Buffalo coaching staff allows Patterson to prove he is that with more volume going forward.

Checking Boxes: Efficient Runners

The guys in this group have all proven to be dynamic on the ground thus far in their college careers, and most of them happen to be close to checking the “receiving chops” box as well. I’m generally excited about the prospects of this cohort:

Kenan Christon

USC Trojan Kenan Christon is one of the bigger projections in this group given that his true freshman numbers were posted in just a 7-game season, but he was absolutely electric in that partial 2019 campaign.

The Olympic hopeful (he runs 10.3 in the 100 meters) translates his speed well to the football field, with a Chunk Rate+ of 2.09% and a Breakaway Conversion Rate of 44.44% (62nd- and 95th-percentiles, respectively) on 68 carries last year. He also contributed well in the passing game, averaging 9 yards per target on 11 receptions (though his full-season pace was for an impressive 19).

It’s vital that the 185-pound Christon bulks up and remains healthy in order to a) meet minimum size thresholds for high-touch NFL contributors, and b) legitimize his low-volume efficiency with more work.

James Cook

Georgia Bulldog James Cook is relatively tall and skinny at 5’11, 190, but he has been absolutely electric in limited work as an underclassman. 

He’s reached the second level of defenses at a 4.53% higher clip than an extremely talented group of backfield teammates through two years, and has converted those chunk gains into breakaway runs at a 50.00% clip (those marks are in the 80th and 98th percentiles, respectively). His 16 receptions from a year ago are impressive given the overall size of his role in the Georgia offense, and he was efficient in that area as well, as his 7.8 yards per target are a 78th-percentile mark. 

His lack of production and especially his slight frame cap his upside, but there’s an argument to be made that he’s the best pure runner of any of the devy guys covered in this article.

Jerrion Ealy

Assuming Ole Miss’ Jerrion Ealy approaches the 205-pound mark by the time he turns pro (which, to be fair, is a substantial assumption at this point given his 180-pound listed weight), there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a dynamic contributor in some fashion in the NFL. 

The dude is a 5-star recruit who did nothing as a true freshman but legitimize that pedigree. He caught 20 balls and ran for 700 yards on efficiency numbers that rank in the 75th-90th percentile range across the board, all in the toughest conference in college football. 

He’s better than Jerick McKinnon, and his upside is limited only by how big he ends up being. The real fear is that he ends up playing professional baseball.

Tyler Goodson

I don’t know what I’m missing with Iowa’s Tyler Goodson; he posted a 16.0% Dominator Rating as a true first-year guy (64th percentile), caught 24 passes, and was tremendous in the open field, buoying a 3.52% Chunk Rate+ (75th percentile) with a Breakaway Conversion Rate of 42.11% (90th percentile).

Guys with his kind of complete skill-set simply carve out roles in the NFL, even at his projected less-than-ideal size, and yet Goodson doesn’t even come off the board until after the first 115 picks in devy drafts. 

Beyond recruiting pedigree, Goodson has a similar collegiate resume to guys who get drafted dozens of slots before he does (Jerrion Ealy being one; Goodson is also a more complete player than Javian Hawkins or Kenneth Walker at this point). The upside is there for the taking. 

Kenneth Walker

Wake Forest’s Kenneth Walker, perhaps more than any player addressed in this article not named Pooka Williams, has tape that absolutely pops off the screen. He’s incredibly patient at the line of scrimmage before exploding into his reads and making decisive and sudden cuts to evade tacklers, and those attributes have seen him post efficiency numbers that are just silly. 

He outperformed his teammates in yards per carry by 2.04 (a 93rd-percentile mark), excelling against every level of the defense as exemplified by his 5.47% Chunk Rate+ (87th percentile) and his Breakaway Conversion Rate of 50.00% (98th percentile). 

Walker is a dynamic but unique player for whom there are currently no clean comps; guys his size with his talent on the ground who go on to play in the NFL either produce, catch the ball, or both, and if they can’t manage either they just don’t make it to the league. Walker has shown enough early on to be excited about, but there are holes in his profile that will need to be filled before he can be taken seriously as a prospect.

Checking Boxes: Quality Pass-Catchers

There are generally clearly defined roles in the NFL for smaller running backs who are good receivers, but this group in particular is probably not quite as talented as many of the players listed above:

CJ Marable

Torrance “CJ” Marable of Coastal Carolina is a small school late bloomer and, therefore, doesn’t really fit any sort of established archetype for successful NFL prospects. 

He’s been fairly prolific through the air with a combined 53 receptions in the last two seasons, but he’s not an incredible big play guy (his Breakaway Conversion Rate of 22.92% is a 17th-percentile mark) and boasts only decent efficiency on the ground overall, outpacing his Sun Belt-quality backfield mates by 0.85 yards per carry and 2.16% in Chunk Rate, each just above the 60th percentile.

I’ve talked about the burden of proof being large for small running backs and for small school running backs, and as an occupant of the center of that Venn Diagram, Marable hasn’t done enough to really separate himself. He’ll be a fifth-year senior in 2020 and will need a huge year to show his talent warrants a role in the NFL. Here’s to hoping we get a 50.0% Dominator Rating performance with some Aaron Jones-at-UTEP-level efficiency from a fun player in the coming year.

Ronnie Rivers

Fresno State’s Ronnie Rivers is a more pure satellite back than most of the guys I’ve discussed, and his projection as a potential NFL contributor there is pretty solid. His per game reception totals rank in the 91st percentile, and while he’s not an incredibly dynamic downfield threat, his per target numbers are above average. 

Rivers has also been a decent runner and producer, averaging 1.13 yards per carry more than his teammates (though getting outpaced in Chunk Rate by 1.32%) and increasing his volume and market share statistics in each of his three seasons. There typically isn’t a lot in the numbers in prospect profiles that differentiates between the eventual success enjoyed by a Nyheim Hines or Theo Riddick vs. the obscurity suffered by Taquan Mizzell or James Williams, but Rivers is as fine a pass-catching prospect as most solid contributors in that role. 

Wan’Dale Robinson

Nebraska Cornhusker Wan’Dale Robinson is a fun evaluation because he might not even be a running back (he’s actually listed as a wide receiver on the team website). 

He’s certainly a weapon in the passing game, as evidenced by his 48-reception full-season pace (98th percentile) in 10 games as a true freshman, as well as by his yards per target and yards per reception marks that each rank above the 70th percentile. 

What’s confounding is the gap between his electricity on film and his utter lack of on-field efficiency as a rusher, an area in which he ranked in only the 4th percentile in both YPC+ and Chunk Rate+, and wasn’t even extending runs into the secondary at a high rate, at just 25.00% (27th percentile).

Checking Boxes: All the Above

After accounting for their below average size (and perhaps even in spite of it), I believe the guys in this group are relatively high-probability plays as devy options looking toward fantasy usefulness in the NFL. Players who a) produce at even an average level, b) run with upper-percentile efficiency, and c) are prolific through the air, more often than not end up as quality producers as pros. Filtering my prospect database to include sub 210-pound guys whose composite scores in Rushing Efficiency and Receving Chops each meet the 60.0 mark, and whose composite Production Scores hit at least 40.0, produces this group of players:

This set of fifteen contains six RB1-level producers according to the parameters laid out in the beginning of this article, four RB2-level producers by the same criteria, two consensus top-5 rookies in one of the best running back classes we’ve seen, and three busts (and that’s if you count Chase Edmonds as a bust despite his having been a solid player when on the field). That’s an RB2-level hit rate of 76.9% in a cohort made up completely of undersized running backs. This group also doesn’t contain Jamaal Charles, who, despite fitting the spirit of the parameters, falls just outside the Receiving Chops threshold with a score in my model of 59.0.

The point here is that evaluating well is worth it. We don’t have to wave our hands and say “you can’t take him over the guys with workhorse size” or “only if he adds weight” or “he can’t handle a heavy workload” and then dismiss these players because of one aspect of their profile when, despite it being true that bigger running backs typically score more fantasy points, we can identify the small running backs who are likely to be big-time fantasy producers as well. They don’t have to be low probability plays, and they aren’t when you do what we should be doing anyway and focus in on what matters: talent.

These last three guys certainly have plenty of that:

Max Borghi

Max Borghi of Washington State is simply one of the best pass-catching running back prospects we’ve seen in recent history, and he boasts excellent efficiency on the ground to go with his receiving prowess. His per game receptions totals are the highest among any player in my database, and his 13.7% target share in a prolific Cougar offense ranks in the 85th percentile; he’s also run at a level in relatively light work that ranks in the 63rd and 97th percentiles according to YPC+ and Chunk Rate+, respectively. 

My full thoughts on Borghi as a prospect are laid out in this article. I know he’s going to get comped to He Who Must Not Be Named, and I think there’s merit to the comparison, but I also think that guys with Borghi’s college resume end up as contributors in the NFL even at the low end of their range of outcomes. He is a high floor stud and will be fantasy relevant at the next level, very possibly as an RB1.

Kenneth Gainwell

The Kenny Gainwell profile is nealry as robust as it gets. The Memphis Tiger sat out most of 2018 while Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard ran through the American Conference, and then assumed the starting job as a redshirt freshman and immediately was one of the most dynamic players in college football in 2019. 

He checks efficiency boxes emphatically as both a runner and receiver, averaging 2.10 yards per carry more than his teammates (94th percentile) and performing at an 81st-percentile level in both Chunk Rate+ and Breakaway Conversion Rate; he also hauled in 51 balls at 10.0 yards per target, a 90th-percentile figure. He racked up 2069 yards and 16 touchdowns from scrimmage in a 27.9% Dominator Rating season (80th percentile among second year players).

The most worrying aspect of Gainwell’s profile is his frame, as the 5’11, 183 he’s currently listed at is admittedly more Trenton Cannon than it is Christian McCaffrey. I believe he’ll be fine as long as he gets up over 195, with a floor as one of the best satellite backs in the league and a ceiling as one of the best backs, period. 

Pooka Williams

Kansas’ Pooka Williams has the highest bust risk of these final three guys, in large part because he is easily the smallest among them. He’s listed at a Marquise Brown-like 5’10, 170, and that simply won’t fly in the NFL; if he’s near that weight when he comes out, then Tarik Cohen will be his ceiling. 

If he can at least get over 190, he’ll have a better chance of channeling his stellar collegiate play into professional productivity. He was good in 2019 after an incredible true freshman season in 2018, and his career numbers paint a picture of a high-end open field runner and a dynamic receiver. His Chunk Rate+ of 5.38% is an 86th-percentile mark, and he’s converted chunk gains into breakaway runs at an 81st-percentile clip (38.46%); the 60 balls he’s caught thus far mean his per game receptions totals are a 94th-percentile figure, and he’s shown 72nd-percentile efficiency on a per target basis.

With Pooka, it really all comes down to size. He’s as talented, pound for pound, as any runner in college football, but the later it gets in his career that he remains around that 170-pound mark, the more likely it becomes that he’s somewhere between a third down specialist and a punt returner at the next level.

For more devy, dynasty, and prospect-related work, follow me on Twitter at @noahmoreparties.