We’re back with our fourth question with Football Outsiders! Every year, FO releases their Almanac that offers all sorts of nuggets for the coming season. And each year, we partner with them to get some questions answered in preparation for the upcoming season. This season, FO writer Bryan Knowles (who also writes for Niner Noise) took some time to answer questions we had.
I try and focus the questions on content in the Almanac, but we sometimes will get out beyond that since there is so much to consider each year. Bryan answered five questions, and we’ll have five posts on his responses. You can purchase a copy of the Almanac here.
Thus far, he has discussed Kyle Shanahan’s strategic tendencies in Atlanta, what the 49ers defensive changes might mean for 2017, and Brian Hoyer’s potential impact. Now, we look at the 49ers backfield. Joe Williams was a guy Kyle Shanahan pushed for, in spite of his departure from his team last season. Shanahan and Bobby Turner sold John Lynch on Williams, and now he is viewed as a potential replacement for Carlos Hyde at some point. Matt Breida came into last week’s game before Williams, but both rookies impressed.
Football Outsiders has something called BackCAST, which is meant to project the likelihood of success for running back prospects available in the NFL draft. It follows Speed Score, which evaluates running backs based on 40-yard dash time and weight. Like Speed Score, BackCAST uses 40-yard dash time and weight in its projections, but it also includes college statistics from each prospect that correlate to NFL success. BackCAST also projects whether each running back is likely to be heavily involved in the receiving game, or is more of a “ground-and-pound” back.
Williams ranked poorly in this metric, ahead of only Oklahoma State’s Christopher Carson and Cal’s Khalfani Muhammad among 23 running backs. I asked Bryan how that poor showing compares with the success Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner have had with middle- and late-round running backs. Here’s what Bryan had to say.
Williams' low BackCAST score is due in large part to his low "AOEPS", or "Attempts Over Expected Per Season". It basically measures how frequently a running back is used in school; the best prospects generally soak up a high volume of their team's attempts right from the very start as their talent shines through. Williams did not have a very typical college career, bouncing from UConn to ASA College to Utah and retiring briefly, so BackCAST throws up a "woah, something's funky here" sign. He had the fourth-lowest AOEPS of any combine-invited back last year, so that goes a long way to explaining his low BackCAST. We want to see backs with a long track record of success, and Williams doesn't have it.
Williams graded out better in other areas. He had the second-highest Speed Score at the combine, only trailing Leonard Fournette. When he did see the field at Utah, he was obviously very successful. So there are plenty of positive signs you can hang your hat on, and chalk up his lack of playing time to his personal issues which sound like they've been taken care of. Only time will tell, and BackCAST doesn't "know" about his struggles with depression and so forth. All it sees is "player didn't play", and it treats all of that the same. So, there's your argument for ignoring it in Williams' specific case, though you should be a little worried about potential one-year-wonderness.
As for the success with mid- to late-round running backs, that goes back to the idea that running backs are fungible. That's not to say you can find an Ezekiel Elliott as a UDFA or anything, but Bobby Turner's system made 1,000-yard rushers out of guys like Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. You can build a decent running game with mid-round picks, assuming you scout them well and put them in a system where they're set up for success. That's the argument against re-signing Carlos Hyde next season, even though he's been phenomenal when on the field.