Can Rashaad Penny’s Collegiate Statistics Tell Us Anything About His Potential Success?

Sebastian Pycior
May 4, 2018 · 7 min read
This is just a football.

All data has been taken from @collegefb_ref’s website except for the BackCAST and offensive line data, which I took from @fboutsiders. I’ve been a huge fan of all things sports-reference since forever, and I believe Football Outsiders have some of the best football statistical analyses. Both worth digesting. I’ve been learning to use R programming for statistics and data visualization, which is the main motivation for this piece.

I don’t think fans should be too giddy with the decision to go with a running back in the first round. The position is a bit overrated in the draft, and there were good linemen available at the end of the first round that the Seahawks could’ve selected. On the other hand, there was a movement to grab running backs at the time, and the Seahawks wouldn’t have had the chance to grab a good back in the third round.

As we’ll see, there’s a clear talent drop-off after running backs Derrius Guice, Royce Freeman, and Ronald Jones. However, I’ll be focusing on Rashaad Penny as a prospect and his potential in the NFL.

So for the following, I tried to answer 5 questions:

  1. Can Rashaad Penny actually run?
  2. How efficient is Rashaad Penny?
  3. How do advanced statistics project Rashaad Penny at the next level?
  4. How much help did Rashaad Penny have in college?

To be clear, Rashaad Penny is an absolute stud. Besides Saquon Barkley, Penny is the best at turning nothing into something and those somethings into touchdowns. He’ll also most likely be returning kickoffs for the Seahawks as well, since his vision in the open field is excellent. Penny is tied with seven career kickoff return touchdowns at the collegiate level.

The graph above simply shows the average number of yards per attempt for some of the better running backs from this past college season. The important takeaway here is noticing how far and above Rashaad Penny is from the rest of this class. You could draw a line from Sony Michel in the lower left straight to Rashaad Penny and see just how significantly efficient these players were on the field compared to the rest on a per carry basis.

Not every running back is defined by this average, but this confirms Rashaad Penny’s ability to stay consistent, as he’s been given the ball just under 300 times while amassing 2,250 yards on the ground in his final year.

Take a look a this snippet, showing how Penny is able to take advantage of each possession. What better way to summarize Penny’s collegiate career than:

I conclude that in fact, he can run.

Look in the upper right! All alone…

Here I wanted to see if there was a way to find the most efficient running back. Basically, the graph is telling us who averages the most yards per run and gets his team the most touchdowns. Again, Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel seem to be in a class of their own. Penny can find gaps and make the correct moves for big plays. He’s incredible at finding ways to score and it shows on film.

Is there a better statistic that can project a player’s ability to succeed in the NFL? We can look into football outsider’s BackCAST statistic, and you can read more about it here. The site’s descriptions seem reasonable, and even admit that the reason why Rashaad Penny’s BackCAST score isn’t better is because his coach didn’t give him the ball enough. Penny had been a backup to Donnel Pumphrey, a record setting running back himself at San Diego State University. Looking back on Penny’s stats from his days as a backup, one could make the argument that he would’ve been better than Pumphrey. If Penny had played with the majority of the carries, then one would expect Penny’s BackCAST score to be a little more impressive.

Here’s how Penny’s BackCAST compares relatively to other backs:

Rashaad Penny highlighted in navy.

To be clear BackCAST is still a formula that’s being worked on. It has missed a little bit on players like Ezekiel Elliot, and has overrated a couple of bust running backs. The data at the beginning of this post favored Sony Michel and Penny, but BackCAST still projects Penny to have a relatively successful career.

I decided to analyze the kinds of offensive lines that Saquon Barkley, Royce Freeman, Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb/Sony Michel, and Rashaad Penny ran behind. This analysis can help us look at which running back had the most or least help coming out of the backfield.

Each dot represents a school. These circles are grouping a “bunch” of schools together to try and form a narrative of “tiers of quality” for collegiate offensive lines.

This graph pits lineman opportunity ranking against its stuff ranking, where:

  • Rk4 = Opportunity Rate
    - “The percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak.”
  • Rk6 = Stuff Rate
    - “[P]ercentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.”

You can read football outsider’s musings on collegiate offensive lines here.

For Rashaad Penny, San Diego State’s line has opened up plenty of opportunities for their running backs, but clearly not as much as Penn State’s or LSU’s offensive lines. For as many carries that Penny was allowed, he not only gained a ton of yards per carry, but converted a bunch of his carries for significantly more touchdowns than any other back in the nation. If players like Derrius Guice and Royce Freeman are projected to be better in the NFL per BackCAST, then shouldn’t they have performed that much better in college? How I see it, Rashaad Penny is by far and away the most efficient college prospect, and will have no trouble finding open lanes and finishing.

For the team’s labeled:

  • Penn State: the line gave Saquon Barkley a great amount of opportunities, but Barkley was stuffed often.
  • Georgia and Oregon: these lines are more consistent and disciplined, giving their backs a decent amount of opportunities without allowing for a ton of penetration into the backfield.
  • LSU: a line in a league of their own. Great amount of opportunities for running backs without fear of getting touched behind the line.
  • SDSU: a more consistent version of Penn State, and still a solid offensive line. Grouped with other good running schools.

The Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks offensive line is no better at stopping defenders than lukewarm butter trying to stop a knife, so it’s troubling to think about Rashaad Penny’s ability to succeed in the NFL at the next level. For Seattle, running backs haven’t really been an issue. Thomas Rawls has been able to put up big numbers before his injuries, and good prospects like Chris Carson and CJ Prosise have come through to carry the ball. The Hawks have hired Brian Schottenheimer and Mike Solari to help change the offense and the running game.

For those that don’t know, Solari has been behind some of the more potent and historically great offensive lines during his time on the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. Brian Schottenheimer also has had success in the running game as an offensive coordinator for the New York Jets where he brought Thomas Jones into prominence. It took Schottenheimer two seasons to establish his offense entirely, so it might take a while in Seattle as well. In the fifth round, the Seahawks took tackle Jamarco Jones from Ohio State. Given the status of the current Hawks line, there should be no surprise if this fifth-round pick eventually becomes a starter.

Rashaad Penny’s line at San Diego State was a great one. Grouped with SDSU are programs like Washington, South Florida, and Wisconsin, all of which have outstanding lines in the running game. I have no doubt that Rashaad Penny will be able to take advantage of any opportunity he gets at the next level, but clearly, those opportunities might not be available.

Lastly, I’ve seen some really empty and hollow criticisms on Rashaad Penny that I hope readers can take away here. The most common criticism being that he didn’t face quality competition in order to get his yards. I haven’t done a statistical rundown yet on the opponents he faced, but isn’t this criticism just saying that he’s a great runner? It’s not his fault that he can’t face a Washington Huskies defensive line every week, and it’s not like Penny had averaged 5 or even 6 yards per carry. He averaged almost 8 yards per carry. So again, with the opportunities, Rashaad Penny performed about as best as a player possibly could. Should the Seahawks reciprocate, Penny will succeed in the NFL.

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, rip it to shreds and let me know if there’s a better way of looking at running back data using R.

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