Stats vs Fiction: A Look at Evan Royster's Debut

Before I get into the post, I wanted to introduce you to a weekly article I'll be writing for Hogs Haven called 'Stats vs Fiction' (at least until I come up with a better name). In short it is a bit of a catchall column, where I can look at various stats as how they relate the the Redskins on both a player and team level. From time to time, I'll look at how a player or unit might match-up against our upcoming opponents opposite unit (i.e. our run defense vs the Giants rushing attack). 

Now you might ask why this feature is titled 'Stats vs Fiction'? It is to remind us, that while stats (particularly the ones we know the most) are valuable tools, they don't tell us the whole picture. For instance some stats can make us think that a player is highly productive when it is not really the case. Take Donovan McNabb's passing stats last season. Had he played all 16 games McNabb was on pace for over 4,100 yards, good for 5th best in the league. He was also among the league leaders in passes over 20 and 40 yards, which led to a good yards per attempt number. Unfortunately that only told part of the story as his completion percentage ranked 25th out of 31 qualified quarterbacks. McNabb also scored low in two other important areas, as his 1st down percentage was 23rd and his quarterback rating was 24th. In the end those stats are the ones that revealed the true McNabb, who was unable to be an effective passer for the Redskins. His big play ability padded his stats, but his inability to complete short and intermediate throws when the game was still winnable, severely hurt the team.

Conversely basic stats can also paint a productive player as just an average guy, instead of showing him in his true light. A great example of this is free agent acquisition Stephen Bowen. Many Redskins fans questioned bringing in a guy who had just a sack and a half last year, and just 5.5 for his career. What the don't see are the scores of pressures and hits that he has racked up, that actually makes him among the top pass rushing 3-4 defensive ends in the game.

My goal is to look beyond the box score and paint a clearer picture using both more in depth stats, and context. First up on the list is taking a look at rookie running back, Evan Royster's debut. 

Royster was a 6th round pick this past April, and one that left many fans and observers scratching their heads. The Redskins already had Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams returning, and added Roy Helu two rounds earlier. While the team ended up moving Williams to FB, Royster's road didn't get much easier when Tim Hightower was added via trade. Royster was also considered somewhat of an afterthought, given that he doesn't have a big upside or game-breaking speed. Royster is a capable receiver out of the backfield and is at least solid (for a rookie) in terms of pass protection. He's also a tough, smart runner, who can be productive between the tackles. He can find the hole can take some contact before going down. On the downside he has zero home run hitting ability, and will struggle when asked to run outside. Royster does fit a zone blocking scheme though, given his vision and cutback ability. 

The expectations were low heading into the first preseason game, as Royster was listed as the third back, behind Hightower and Helu. Despite that it was Royster and not Helu, who was the running back that spelled Tim Hightower in the first half, and it was Royster who led the team in carries. He finished the game with 15 carries for 66 yards, including a long of 15. His 4.4 yards per carry average matched Hightower's and was above Helu's 3.5. 

Let's take a deeper look at Royster's carries. Of his 15 attempts, an impressive 13 of them went for positive yardage. And his two that didn't go for positive yardage, were both no gain carries. That means 87% of Royster's carries moved the Redskins forward down the field (Hightower by comparison only gained positive yardage on 60% of his attempts). While that number isn't sustainable, it is telling that Royster led the team in this area. 

Another thing to look at is taking away a player's lowest and highest rushing total (the outliers), and look at his yard per carry average. For Royster that means taking away his 15 yarder, and one of his no gain rush attempts. Which leaves Royster with 51 yards on 13 carries, for a 3.92 ypc average. While that doesn't seem to impressive, look at how that compares to Hightower, when you take away his 16 yard run, and his -3 yard run, he has eight attempts and 31 yards, for a 3.87 ypc average. Now there really isn't a huge difference between the two numbers for Royster and Hightower, but it does disprove a prevailing thought among some, that Royster's 4.4 average was inflated by a fluke 15 yard run. 

Now while I used Hightower as my comparision, I'm not arguing here that Royster is better than Hightower. What I am arguing is that Royster did show that he is a legit running back in this league. He displayed the ability to consistently pick up chunks of yardage and to potentially be an effective backup running back. Royster might lack the big play ability of Hightower and Helu, but he was impressive last week nonetheless. Now it is important to remember that it was just week 1 of the preseason, and 15 carries is not even close to a big enough sample size to make an accurate prediction, but until more data comes in, it was a noteworthy performance and one that firmly puts him in the running for a 53 man roster spot, and a contributing role this season. 

Steve Shoup has been a Redskins fan his entire life and dreams of the day they get back to the glory days of his youth. In addition to his regular piece on Hogs Haven, you can find his daily writings at Fanspeak.com.

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