I’ve seen many debates over whether it’s worth comparing team landing spots, whether we can consistently correctly predict how teams will look, or if it even misleads more than it helps. However, I think we just need a more standardized approach and to refocus what our objectives are.
Last off-season I made my own attempt at doing this and I’ve been quite pleased by the results looking back almost a year ago. Instead of focusing on any one factor such as offensive line, depth chart, or coaching, I incorporated a number of factors with a consistent scoring system.
I also laid out the objectives. Not to predict points added to any running backs that went to a team. Not to predict the success of the running backs at their landing spot. But simply to predict the need of the team and thereby the opportunity that was available and the quality of that opportunity. Or as I originally wrote in the notes of the sheet: “The purpose of this is to find which landing spots are most valuable if a RB lands there. It is not to rate how likely teams are to draft a RB. It is not to rate how good a RB will be depending on where they land. It is only to rate how good the opportunity will be for a RB drafted to each team.“
I laid out a scoring matrix and evaluated each team on each factor independently and then totaled the results.
I kept it to four basic factors: depth, role, usage, and my own modifier for the team’s offense.
Each factor is weighed independently. This must be stressed. If you start considering any of the other factors when answering one you are compromising the integrity of the matrix. Just consider the questions for each factor alone.
Does the team already have a clear starter, or even a clear combination or rotation of a committee? If there are three or more locked in running backs on contract, likely to be get at least limited usage, then there is no depth available. Two to three backs, especially with questionable ability, usage, and contracts? Then there’s room on the bench. No clear back up? Then the backup position is open. And if there’s no clear lead back then the best upside is the primary back.
While defining the most needed role can really help in identifying what kind of back a team may target, more importantly it can identify the kind of back that the team is most likely to utilize. And that’s our focus here. And because a single reception is at least twice as valuable as a carry, I gave satellite backs a higher score.
Also consider, a team may need an All-Purpose back but have two backs entrenched in the depth chart ahead of a rookie (such as Chicago in 2019). All-purpose type backs do not necessarily get 3-down Starter usage or a team’s primary role.
It is important to distinguish this from depth chart. Just because Raheem Mostert was the third running back on the Niners in 2019, likely a bench back with a situational role, does not mean his potential usage was not starter. Also, just because a running back’s usage is a starter it does not mean they are an All-purpose back. I’m looking at you Carlos Hyde.
That said the greatest jump in points given is from situational or committee back to a full starter. Because the most valuable thing to a running back is not only being primary on the depth chart but knowing for certain what their usage is.
This is my own subjective points addition for how RB points friendly the team is, i.e. the Buccaneers need RB but the usage is not good while the Saints don’t need a RB but potential is high for those on the team. You might say, “but Josh there’s way more points for a running back with the Buccaneers because the Saints have Kamara,” but remember, I’m not considering depth chart or usage when I’m answering this question. We all know running backs score points on the Saints when they get the opportunity.
When you bring all of these factors together you get both an all-around picture of the team’s need and what kind of usage and role is available. But you can also add up the points, giving you an objective score for comparison.
So how did this go in 2019? Pretty well. I believe I was generally correct about the situation 78% of the time.
I was only clearly wrong for 7 teams. I note why in each case on the matrix, but it’s usually a combination of under or over estimating a single factor, or me simply not making a good enough observation. Such as Carolina clearly just needing an All-purpose backup in case of injury, instead of needing of a satellite when they have McCaffrey on the field.
For 12 other teams I think I accurately represented the situation and need and in many cases predicted their situation for 2019 season and going into the 2020 NFL draft. Those 12 teams either made free agent moves, trades, ignored their need entirely, or drafted a running back that fit my prediction but simply didn’t work out. Take Houston for example, I predicted they needed a situational satellite back, and that’s exactly what they got when they traded for Duke Johnson.
I accurately represented the team situation and need and the apparent value that opportunity would give to 14 other teams, almost half the league. Not just for the obvious teams, but for other not so obvious situations such as Atlanta or Pittsburgh.
Scoring 2020 Landing Spots
Reviewing the 2019 season has helped me refine a few things as well as provide insight going into 2020. Some team needs from 2019 still exist or have increased, such as Atlanta. Some team’s needs revealed themselves in 2019 such as the New York Giants. Other teams have used free agents to fill needs along with drafting rookies and now have less need for additional running backs in 2020 such as Baltimore.
It’s satisfying that once the scoring is finished and I sort by the highest total score that the teams you would expect to be at the top are there. But we didn’t do this just to tell us what we already knew. Looking at this objectively can help us to see a few situations more clearly. Some stick out to me:
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have the absolute clearest path to full workhorse usage. That does not mean they can’t bring in free agents or multiple rookies or even continue to try to use Gaskins or Laird, it just means there are less strong obstacles at this time than anywhere else. We may not think the offense is good, but they can certainly make improvements and offer volume to a new back.
Kansas City Chiefs: Maybe I need to add a whole new Offense Modifier level of “Amazing” that rewards 5 points for the Chiefs, but even that wouldn’t put them at the top. There are plenty of great locations for rookie backs and some may even offer more work sooner than the Chiefs who still have multiple running backs on the team. A healthy Damien Williams may still be given first chance at starting. I’m not likely moving whatever running back the Chief’s draft to the top of the running back ranks just because he’s a Chief.
Tennessee Titans: The answer to the question “will Derrick Henry re-sign?” is all that matters here. It is a prime, top 3 landing spot for a rookie if the answer is “no.” If the answer is “yes” its worth wondering if Henry’s usage was as much because of his dominance as it was Dion Lewis’ inability.
San Francisco 49ers: File under the category of “I don’t think they will, but it would be great if they did.” The above score represents the best case scenario, but there are plenty of obstacles to a new back in San Fran. Keep an eye on developments of Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and Matt Breida.
New York Jets: There’s always at least one under the radar spot and I think it’s the Jets this year. Head Coach Gase seems displeased they are overpaying Le’Veon Bell and they need a competent backup either way. Drafting a quality back a bit sooner than everyone expects would pressure Bell and set up the ability to release Bell next year.
I could write up scenarios for nearly every team, but these examples are what an exercise such as this helps to make more clear. I will be reviewing and updating all these scores after most of free agency has calmed down, before the NFL draft. After the draft I can quickly input draft picks and locations for each incoming rookie as one more piece in my scoring for rookie ranks.
I don’t think evaluating “best” landing spots for players is useless or misleading at all. In fact, I hope I’ve demonstrated it can be done consistently at a high rate of accuracy. A clear process and improved objectives have helped to turn a largely subjective and reactionary cliche into actionable and useful information and insights.