The last iteration of “Tracking Translation” focused on receivers and the success indicators we seek. Wide receivers take time to develop in the NFL, so patience is important. While dynasty GMs can afford to be patient with receivers, running backs often have a shorter decision window. We need to know if the 2022 class will contribute early or if we should move the asset to a hopeful GM still riding the hype. This is a delicate balance to strike, and occasionally you may make a hasty decision. The hope is this will help you with some keys to evaluating these rookie backs.
Only six total running backs were drafted on day two of the 2022 NFL Draft. There were ten more RBs drafted in rounds four and five, but only two of them have a real chance to start out of the gate. Even on day two, there was only one back drafted who we know will start: Breece Hall. For the 2022 season, we will track Kenneth Walker III, James Cook, and Dameon Pierce. Breece Hall may make an appearance in this series if his production casts doubt on his future. Additionally, Tyler Allgeier could make an appearance if his participation becomes intriguing. Let’s start with the highest profile of the three: Kenneth Walker III.
Kenneth Walker III
Seattle drafted the Michigan State standout as the second runner off the board. At first, this situation seemed cloudy, but those clouds could be clearing. Chris Carson appears to be retiring, and it is sad to see any player’s career end at the age of 27. The hanging up of Carson’s cleats paves the way for an opportunity, but not just for Walker. Rashaad Penny has probably earned the first crack as the feature back. Not only does he have the offensive knowledge, but he also closed out last season in a big way. In the last five weeks of 2021, Penny had four games with 135+ yards each and six total touchdowns. While the obstacles in Walker’s way are dwindling, Penny is a sizeable obstruction to carries.
What He Brings to the Table
Walker showed out in NerdScore with the second-best RB score. He also earned the ninth-best RB score since the birth of the evaluation system! He scored top five in vision, patience, elusiveness, game speed, quickness, and pad level. His pass protection in NerdScore was a concern as he was bottom of the class. If you have followed any of my content, then you know how I feel about prospects that struggle to block.
A quick pivot to his Running Back Vision profile, Walker scored toward the higher end of the average in Zone runs. ‘Average’ scores do not necessarily mean ‘bad,’ especially given his volume at Michigan State. The profile highlights his specific fit in a heavy Zone scheme that favors the Outside Zone. Seattle ran the 6th-highest percentage of Zone runs with a ~40%-~20% split favoring Outside Zone. We should be able to see his patience, pacing, and burst make the most of this offense.
What Must Translate?
After watching Penny’s tape over the summer, Walker has quite the hill to climb. Walker will need his patience, pacing, and play speed to translate to get on even footing with Penny. Grain of salt: training camp reports indicate his quickness and play speed are translating.
Where his opportunity lies is in the passing game. Penny is serviceable in the passing game, but only in the short areas of the field. Walker showed some pass-catching ability in limited opportunities at Michigan State. His explosiveness and elusiveness in space should intrigue us all. Will Seattle use him this way? If he can separate himself from Penny in this fashion, he should see more opportunities early. He could try to become an effective pass protector, but that seems to be a much steeper hill. If these areas do not translate well enough, GMs of Walker could be waiting for an injury to Penny before he sees measurable usage.
The Houston Texans drafted Dameon Pierce at the top of the fourth round. Day three selections are normally downplayed a bit. 2022 was a bit of an anomaly, though, with the number of receivers drafted (17) on the first two days. Barely missing a day-two selection is a little more interesting in light of how the draft fell.
Anyone who has kept up with my RB articles this season should know how I feel about Pierce. There is a lot of conversation about his production profile and how abysmal it is compared to the class. Normally, I would say, “watch the tape,” but I want to provide a perspective shift. I can accept a high correlation between lousy production profiles and poor NFL outcomes. What I cannot accept is treating those numbers as the “truth” of the player absent from a film review.
What He Brings
If you are a numbers person, you should at least bounce the production profile off the NerdScore. Sure it is a subjective quantitative evaluation of a player’s qualitative attributes, but at least you are getting an assessment of what the tape shows. Furthermore, I like to combine this with Running Back Vision metrics to see if there is something beyond the documented metrics.
NerdScore has Pierce as the sixth-ranked rookie RB in this class (16th since NerdScore inception). To break this down further, he ranked top five in pad level, contact balance, physicality, and all-important pass protection. From an RBVision standpoint, Pierce had the top overall ASR in the class. His carries were lower, and RBVision trends show a regression to the mean with increased carries even for the most talented runners. Outside Zone and Power, a deadly combination if it can be blocked adequately, are where Pierce showed ASRs above 90 (very good).
His patience to press the point of attack, intelligence, and burst show out on tape. To reiterate, his burst is very good. Compared to the rest of the class, he was tied for the fourth fastest 10-yard split. For RBs, burst, somewhat measurable by the 10-yard split metric, is more important than the 40 time. My evaluation of his film indicates his vision-decision-action cycle to be high-level. If it translates, it will result in consistent linebacker deception and exploitation of the edge.
What Do We Need to See?
Whether you are a doubter or a believer in Pierce, he still has the same things to prove. For doubters, if you see these indicators of success early, then it will be an excellent decision to pivot to trust your eyes over the numbers. If you are like me (a believer) and the indicators aren’t showing, wait for the random explosive game and sell, sell, sell.
First, he must earn the featured role. His game-day production and performance in practice will address that, and it will be easy for us to measure. Once he seizes this role, we must see the same patience, burst, and competitive toughness he showed in college. Additionally, we will want to see durability, given his play style. While it is unlikely to happen, this will be an extreme added bonus if Pierce somehow earns a significant pass-catching role. Getting that work should add snaps, but the translation of his pass protection will be the strongest determining factor on 3rd down.
Houston’s strength of schedule per RBV gives a dismal outlook on the start of the season. The initial measurement is based on 2021 performance data which has underperforming RBs and an injured OL baked in. With their line starting healthy and new RBs in the fold, we should resist urges to dismiss early success in 2022. This is especially true for Dameon Pierce if he is a heavy contributor.
The younger brother of Dalvin Cook, James, probably has the most intriguing landing spot. The Bills drafted Cook at the tail end of round two. This is extremely interesting for a few reasons. First, we know the Bills need an upgrade at the position. Second, the draft capital spent screams, “we have a specific vision for this player.” He may be related to Dalvin Cook, but they are built a little differently. Therefore, the responsible GM should treat him as though they are unrelated. James Cook is his own person and should succeed in the NFL in his own way.
What He Brings
James Cook came in right behind Pierce in overall Running Back Vision ASR, which piqued my original interest. As a Zone runner, he brings excitement and functioned in the Georgia offense as a versatile weapon. The RBV Profile on Cook boasts about his vision, burst, elusiveness, and homerun speed. The NerdScore agrees, giving Cook top-5 grades in burst, quickness, elusiveness, and speed.
His fit with the Bills is excellent, specifically with Josh Allen throwing the rock. As the second-ranked rookie in this class in pass-catching acumen per NerdScore, there is plenty of upside in addition to his rushing prowess. Cook showed some deep explosiveness in the passing game, and we know Allen can get it to him, so we should look for a lot of this:
The Bills have wanted someone with Cook’s versatility for a while now, and now they can reduce the franchise risk posed by Josh Allen’s rushing. The heavy Zone running Cook did at Georgia should come in handy since the Buffalo run scheme was ~61% Zone with traditional handoffs to the RB.
What Must He Show
I may have dropped a hot take in my article 2022 Rookie Running Back Landing Spot Analysis. I fully believe that Cook has Alvin Kamara-type of upside! PFF’s David McFarland made a similar inference in this article. Pass-catching is how we expect him to be used, and he could be deadly in the slot or even mismatched on the outside. For this, we will be looking for the deployment of Cook in this fashion.
As with any player, we want to see that play speed translate. In this case, burst, quickness, and elusiveness all dovetail off of that play speed. This should manifest as decisiveness, and sharp upfield cuts or cutbacks on Outside Zone runs.
Many regard Cook as having a sub-prototypical build, but I am not worried. My lack of concern is due to his hip fluidity and ability to reduce his contact surface. If this skill translates through the trenches and in the open field, then Devin Singletary could find himself in a backup role real quick. If Cook can bring this skill, his total fantasy upside would be one we could ride for years. Runners of his style are good at minimizing direct contact, and it should reduce soft tissue issues over his career.
What to Do with Training Camp Buzz
As stated with the wide receivers, Tracking Translation will return after the conclusion of week three of the 2022 NFL season. In the meantime, the training camp takes are sure to be flying into your notifications. Given that, there are a few things that I keep in mind for running backs when processing all that information:
- Just as with receivers, nothing is Gospel; treat everything as a grain of salt
- No tackling in camp means we cannot read into reports and infer qualities like elusiveness, contact balance, etc.
- Rookies could be encouraged to be more aggressive regarding the size of gaps to adjust their play speed and vision
- Consider the defensive fronts against which they succeed if the information is available
- Trench warfare is light, so the dynamic in real action will be different
Happy training camp to all! Tracking Translation will revisit these running backs starting in week three. Please ensure you are using all the tools available to the NerdHerd like the DynastyGM, the Prospect Film Room, and the NerdScore! The Discord access is a must-have as well! Running Back Vision is an additional resource you could consider for some RB-specific tools. Until next time, follow me on Twitter @FFB_Vern for my latest insights.