Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Is it possible that scouts have this year's list of running back prospects completely upside down? That's the implication of Football Outsiders' Speed Scores, which rate a number of likely undrafted free agents as strong NFL prospects while suggesting that one of this year's most highly regarded prospects could be among the biggest running back busts ever.
Introduced on ESPN Insider back in 2008, Speed Score is Football Outsiders' metric for evaluating running back prospects. It's built on the simple idea that, because smaller backs tend to run faster than larger backs, we should be more impressed by a 4.5-second 40-yard dash from a 220-pound back than the same clock reading from a 170-pound back. As such, Speed Score incorporates a back's official time in the 40-yard dash with his weight to produce a measure of his speed given his size, using this formula: (Weight x 200)/(40 time^4).
The average running back who makes it to the NFL will have a Speed Score of about 100, with most running back prospects falling between 85 and 110. (Since there are more running backs in the prospect pool each year than there are spaces in the NFL, there are more running backs each year under 100 than over 100.)
Obviously, Speed Score is not a perfect measurement. It doesn't account for a back's agility, or his ability to read holes, or his receiving ability. Nonetheless, it's been a good guide as to which running backs are more or less likely to have success in the NFL based on their draft positions -- and it gives us an idea of potential sleeper and red-flag prospects in this class.
Which prospects had the best Speed Scores this year?
How does Clowney compare?
Football Outsiders' Speed Score system was designed to be used simply to look at running backs entering the NFL draft. It isn't supposed to say anything about other positions, and we have other projection systems we use to look at quarterbacks, wide receivers and edge rushers. Nonetheless, we couldn't help but be curious about Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous 4.47-second 40 time. If you plug Clowney into the Speed Score system at 266 pounds, he ends up with a Speed Score of 133.3, which would blow away the all-time record.
Goal-line carries, perhaps?
The top 2014 Speed Score belongs to Damien Williams of Oklahoma, who weighed in at 222 pounds with a 4.45 40, giving him a Speed Score of 113.2. But go to Scouts Inc.'s list of the top-rated prospects in this year's draft, and you have to scroll all the way down to find him as the 26th player listed. The other players in this year's top four in Speed Scores are nearly as unheralded: Jerick McKinnon of Georgia Southern (No. 18, 110.5 Speed Score); Tyler Gaffney of Stanford (No. 15, 108.3 Speed Score); and George Atkinson III of Notre Dame (No. 31, 108.2 Speed Score).
Why don't scouts rank these players highly, in a position that would match their Speed Scores? I asked Football Outsiders' resident college scouting writer, Matt Waldman, for his thoughts on each of them.
Williams is a one-cut runner who is technically sound, with good straight-line speed and acceleration. He's a good receiver and a better blocker than most rookie backs. So why is he not considered a top running back prospect? Character is the biggest issue. Williams was suspended by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops last season, and was then kicked off the team a couple of weeks later for various violations of team rules. (The specifics of the violations have never been made public.) There are also questions about his strength and power, although Speed Score may be an indication Williams has worked on those issues. Williams was listed at 208 pounds during the season, so he's put on more than 10 pounds of muscle preparing for the combine. If he can learn to use his increased size to run through hits with more authority, he could be a big sleeper.
What about our other top Speed Score backs? Well, McKinnon is a sleeper because he still doesn't know everything about playing the position; he was an option quarterback until 2013. Atkinson struggles with the elements of the game least measured by Speed Score: He is dangerous in space but doesn't break tackles or have strong vision to find holes. Gaffney is a short strider who plays slower than his timed speed, and it can be tough to scout what he'll do in an NFL offense. According to Waldman, "He plays in an offense with line splits so tight that analyzing him is like reading an old dime-store novel with tiny fonts."
Just as surprising as the names at the top of this year's Speed Score list are the names at the bottom. The one that stands out the most is Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona, the second-rated running back on Scouts Inc.'s list of running back prospects. Carey weighed in at 207 pounds and ran his 40 in 4.70 seconds, which leads to a terrible Speed Score of 84.8. (Other websites seem to be listing Carey with slightly faster times, but 4.70 is the time listed on the NFL's own site, so we'll go with that.)
How bad is a Speed Score of 84.8? Well, since 1999, there has been only a single running back drafted in the first three rounds with a Speed Score below 89.9. That running back was Dexter McCluster, whose speed score was extremely low because he weighs less than 175 pounds, and he was eventually moved to wide receiver in the pros. The lowest Speed Score for a running back taken in the first round belongs to Mark Ingram at 94.4. The lowest for a running back taken in the second or third round, other than McCluster, belongs to Vernand Morency at 89.9. If Carey goes in the first two days of the 2013 draft, he will rank as by far the slowest back taken that high in this century -- at least, in relation to his own weight.
The low Speed Score certainly doesn't damn Carey to a failed NFL career. Andre Ellington of the Cardinals, who had a surprisingly effective rookie year, had a Speed Score of just 88.1 last year. But Ellington was also a sixth-round pick who surprised, not a second-round pick who lived up to expectations.
This year's other top prospects come out as average, which doesn't really suggest that any of them are deserving of a first-round selection. Looking at Scouts Inc.'s top prospects, you have Carlos Hyde at 97.5, Jeremy Hill at 98.8 and Tre Mason at 101.0. The undersized De'Anthony Thomas of Oregon is way down with Carey at 84.9. The players who best combine both high scouting accolades with a high Speed Score are Washington's Bishop Sankey (No. 5, 102.8 Speed Score) and Boston College's Andre Williams (No. 7, 106.4 Speed Score).
The other player who really stands out this year is Kent State's Dri Archer, who nearly broke Chris Johnson's combine record with a 4.26. Archer weighs only 173 pounds, and you have to be really, really fast to have a reasonable Speed Score despite being that light. Archer is in fact really, really fast, which gives him a Speed Score of 105.1. That doesn't quite match the ridiculous Speed Score of 121.9 that CJ2K put up in 2008, but it does provide further evidence for those who believe that Archer can be an effective weapon in the NFL despite his diminutive size.
2014 Speed Scores
Name School 40 Dash Wt. Speed Score
Damien Williams Oklahoma 4.45 222 113.2
Jerick McKinnon Georgia Southern 4.41 209 110.5
Tyler Gaffney Stanford 4.49 220 108.3
George Atkinson III Notre Dame 4.48 218 108.2
Andre Williams Boston College 4.56 230 106.4
Charles Sims West Virginia 4.48 214 106.3
Terrance West Towson 4.54 225 105.9
Dri Archer Kent St. 4.26 173 105.1
Lorenzo Taliaferro Coastal Carolina 4.58 229 104.1
Tim Cornett UNLV 4.48 209 103.8
Bishop Sankey Washington 4.49 209 102.8
Isaiah Crowell Alabama St. 4.57 224 102.7
Tre Mason Auburn 4.50 207 101.0
Henry Josey Missouri 4.43 194 100.7
Jeremy Hill LSU 4.66 233 98.8
LaDarius Perkins Mississippi St. 4.46 195 98.6
Carlos Hyde Ohio St. 4.66 230 97.5
Lache Seastrunk Baylor 4.51 201 97.2
Alfred Blue LSU 4.63 223 97.1
Devonta Freeman Florida St. 4.58 206 93.6
James White Wisconsin 4.57 204 93.5
Storm Johnson Central Florida 4.60 209 93.4
David Fluellen Toledo 4.72 224 90.3
Kapri Bibbs Colorado St. 4.67 212 89.1
Silas Redd USC 4.70 212 86.9
De'Anthony Thomas Oregon 4.50 174 84.9
Ka'Deem Carey Arizona 4.70 207 84.8
Antonio Andrews Western Kentucky 4.82 225 83.4
James Wilder Florida St. 4.86 232 83.2
Timothy Flanders Sam Houston St. 4.75 207 81.3
Jerome Smith Syracuse 4.84 220 80.2