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Late round and undrafted RBs who have succeeded in the NFL

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Of the top 25 RBs in the NFL last season, 4 went undrafted and 2 were taken in the 5th round or later. Are there any similarities or traits that might tie these guys together? Is there some way to know if a late round/CFA RB is going to do well in the NFL? Read on to find out what I learned when I asked these questions.

CJ Anderson on one of his very limited regular season carries in 2013
CJ Anderson on one of his very limited regular season carries in 2013
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The first round of the draft is complete, and for the second straight year, no one took a running back. Take it as a combination of the lesser importance of the position across the NFL and the increased ability for teams to find production in later rounds.

As the Broncos enter Rounds 2 and 3 today, let's look at the history of late-round running backs and see if any of them translate to some of the later round prospects this year.

First off, this is not about finding the next Terrell Davis. He is like the Highlander; there can be only one. With that said lets look at the past 10 years in the NFL. Going off of Bleacher Report (which can be a dubious thing), here are the 6 backs from the top 25 in the NFL last season who were late round picks (5th or later) or undrafted out of college:

  • Arian Foster (UDCFA)
  • Lagarrette Blount (UDCFA)
  • Pierre Thomas (UDCFA)
  • Danny Woodhead (UDCFA)
  • Alfred Morris (6th rnd)
  • Zac Stacy (5th rnd)

If you go back over the past ten seasons and use total yards per game for their career, then some other guys show up:

  • Andre Ellington (6th rnd)
  • Ahmad Bradshaw (7th rnd)
  • Vick Ballard (5th rnd)
  • Michael Turner (5th rnd)
  • James Starks (6th rnd)
  • Ryan Torain (6th rnd)
  • Fred Jackson (UDCFA) - eligible for the 2003 draft but didn't make an NFL roster until 2006

All of the backs in that second list have >50 total yds/game for their NFL career's. If you dig a little deeper, you find two more guys, Daryl Richardson (7th rnd) and Rashad Jennings (7th rnd), who average more the 40 total yards per game for their careers.  That brings our total to 15 RBs in the last 10 drafts who have been hidden gems; so there are 1 or 2 hidden gems at RB each draft. Of those 15 only 4 played below the BCS level (Jennings, Woodhead, Jackson played FCS and Richardson played D3). Of the 11 guys from BCS schools, only Blount and Ellington came from football programs that would be considered "winning" programs (Oregon and Clemson). The remaining 9 guys came from mid-to-low-level BCS teams that don't have much history of football success (at least at the BCS level)

  • Florida Atlantic
  • Vandebilt
  • Marshall (had a lot of success at the FCS level but not much at the BCS level)
  • Miss. St
  • Northern Illinois
  • Buffalo
  • Az St.
  • Tennessee
  • Illinois
Of these 15 RBs most got an invite to the combine (only Woodhead, Thomas and Jackson did not). Some declined because of injury (Foster), but the rest had worse-than-expected combine workouts (Blount, Ellington, Stacy, Morris, Starks).  So is that the common theme - poor to pedestrian combine results - or is there some other connection?

Let's look at all of these guys in terms of comparative combine measurables (I could find no pro-day data on Fred Jackson who was not invited to the combine)

Player Height Weight 40 time 10-yd split Bench Vert Broad 3-cone 20-yd sh.
Alfred Morris 5-10 219 4.63 1.60 16 35.5 117 7.01 4.19
Zac Stacy 5-8 216 4.55 1.59 27 33.0 122 6.70 4.17
Andre Ellington 5-9 199 4.61 1.56 34.0 122
Ahmad Bradshaw 5-10 198 4.55 1.59 34.0 112 6.70 4.09
Vick Ballard 5-10 219 4.65 1.55 23 33.0 115 7.03 4.19
Michael Turner 5-11 237 4.49 1.56 22 31.0 114 7.54 4.21
James Starks 6-2 218 4.50 1.55 15 36.0 119 6.89 4.23
Ryan Torain 6-1 222 4.61 1.58 21 34.0 120
Rashad Jennings 6-1 231 4.59 1.53 29 34.0 120 6.86 4.20
Daryl Richardson 5-10 192 4.46 1.57 16 40.5 135 7.07 4.36
Arian Foster 6-1 226 4.69 1.62 23 32.0 115 7.09 4.53
Danny Woodhead 5-8 197 4.38 1.44 20 38.0 121 7.03 4.20
Lagarrette Blount 6-1 241 4.70 1.52 18 35.0 117 6.85 4.49
Pierre Thomas 5-11 209 4.65 1.57 21 35.5 119 7.12 4.31
Average RB 99-14 5-11 213 4.56 ? 19.7 34.6 117.4 7.07 4.25

Just scanning the 40 times at the combine you can see why Ellington, Ballard, Torrain, Foster and Blount fell in the draft. Going back to 1999, the average 40 time run by a RB at the combine is 4.56. Anything worse than that is a red flag, particularly for smaller backs. Turner's vertical and 3-cone caused him to slip. Foster's 20-yd shuttle probably didn't help him.

Digging deeper into the comparative numbers (Speed Score, Quickness Score, Explosion number) here is what we see

Player Weight Quickness Speed Explosion number
Zac Stacy 216 116.0 100.8 70.2
Rashad Jennings 231 115.8 104.1 73.0
Ahmad Bradshaw 198 109.6 92.4 no bench
Lagarrette Blount 241 109.3 98.8 62.8
James Starks 218 106.9 106.3 60.9
Alfred Morris 219 104.4 95.3 61.3
Vick Ballard 219 103.6 93.7 65.6
Michael Turner 237 93.3 116.6 62.5
Arian Foster 226 93.0 93.4 64.6
Danny Woodhead 197 92.9 107.1 68.1
Pierre Thomas 209 91.8 89.4 66.4
Daryl Richardson 192 84.4 97.0 67.8
Ryan Torain 222 no 40 N/A 65.0
Andre Ellington 199 no 40 N/A no bench
CJ Anderson 225 104.6 106.9 58.9

None of these guys had three strikes against them (poor quickness, poor speed and no explosive power). Ellington hurt his hammy on his first 40 attempt at the combine. Torain was also injured. So maybe we should look what these guys to see what red flags they did have. See the table below:

Questions about this player coming out of college?

Player Speed College Production Injuries Off-the-field Level of Competition
Zac Stacy maybe no no no no
Rashad Jennings no no no yes yes
Ahmad Bradshaw yes no no no maybe-CUSA
Lagarrette Blount YES yes no YES no
James Starks maybe maybe no no maybe-MAC
Alfred Morris yes maybe no no maybe-CUSA
Vick Ballard yes no no no no
Michael Turner no no no no maybe-MAC
Arian Foster yes yes no maybe no
Danny Woodhead no no no no YES-D3
Pierre Thomas YES no no no no
Daryl Richardson no no no maybe YES-D3
Ryan Torain yes no YES no no
Andre Ellington yes no maybe no no
Fred Jackson maybe no no no YES-D3

So above you see why each of these guys fell in the draft (or out of the draft) even if they had decent combine (or pro-day) numbers. The most common reason for these guys to drop was a slow 40 time. The guys with a maybe, could have been viewed by some teams as having a problem in that area. The guys with a yes, definitely had questions about their straight-line speed.

Focusing on the Broncos

So now we turn our eyes to CJ Anderson. Why did he go undrafted? Anderson got invited to the combine, but did not do anything to blow anyone away. All of his combine numbers were average or below average for the RBs in the 2013 combine. If you couple that with his limited production in college (less than 200 carries total) you understand how he went undrafted. From the limited action that CJ has seen, he has potential to be a successful NFL back, but so did Mario Fannin and we know how that story ended.

If you assume that Broncos are actively looking at the RBs in this draft - trying to find a hidden late round gem, then who might that be? The best place to start looking would be to look at the guys who ran a slow 40. There were 12 non-fullbacks who ran a 4.60 or worse official 40 at the combine (see below). For perspective, there was an offensive tackle (306 lbs) who ran a 4.71 40 in 2013 combine (Armstead)

Player School Height Weight Off. 40 Time
James Wilder Florida State 6-3 232 4.86
Jerome Smith Syracuse 5-11 220 4.84
Antonio Andrews Western Kentucky 5-10 225 4.82
Timothy Flanders Sam Houston State 5-9 207 4.75
David Fluellen Toledo 5-11 224 4.72
Ka'Deem Carey Arizona 5-9 207 4.70
Silas Redd Southern California 5-10 212 4.70
Kapri Bibbs Colorado State 5-9 212 4.67
Jeremy Hill LSU 6-0 233 4.66
Carlos Hyde Ohio State 5-11 230 4.66
Alfred Blue Louisiana State 6-2 223 4.63
Storm Johnson Central Florida 6-0 209 4.60

Admittedly, some of these guys ran much better at their pro-day. Hill ran a 4.58. Johnson ran a 4.54. Fluellen ran a 4.66 (still horrible). Flanders ran a 4.56 (from horrible to average). Wilder ran a 4.65 (again still, horrible).  Wilder also just arrested for the 4th time in two years so while he might still make it in the NFL, I can guarantee you that it won't be on the Broncos. Let's also throw out the guys who were FCS players and who ran poor 40s (that cuts Andrews and Flanders from consideration). That leaves 9 guys from the 36 RBs who attended the 2014 combine. It's highly possible that all of them fall to the end of draft. Their is also a chance of many of the 9 going undrafted. The average number of RBs drafted over the past 5 years is 19. So that means almost half of the guys who got invited to the combine will NOT get drafted unless we have a repeat of 2011 when 24 RBs were taken in the draft. The only guys on the above table who are locks in my book to get drafted are Hyde, Hill, Johnson and Carey.

Thanks for reading.

Go Broncos!