Just about every season it seems there is one running back, picked in the later rounds, who takes the league by surprise and outperforms more hyped players who were drafted several rounds earlier. Some names from recent draft classes that come to mind are Tyler Allgeier, Elijah Mitchell, James Robinson and Phillip Lindsay.
In 2022, Eric Bieniemy’s Kansas City Chiefs selected hard-charging RB Isiah Pacheco with the 251st pick as the seventh round of the draft was winding down. Through the course of the season, Pacheco overtook 2020 first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the Chiefs’ lead back. He finished the regular season with 830 rushing yards and five TDs, plus 130 receiving yards, then added 197 rushing and 65 receiving yards plus a TD in the playoffs. Pacheco’s 960 total yards from scrimmage ranked fourth in the rookie RB class, ahead of Day 2 picks Breece Hall, James Cook, Rachaad White, Tyrion Davis-Price and Brian Robinson Jr.
In his first draft as Washington’s Offensive Coordinator, a lot of Commanders fans were convinced that Beiniemy would take advantage of a deep TE draft class to find himself a replacement for KC superstar Travis Kelce. He didn’t. Instead, in the sixth round the Commanders drafted him a running back who, like Pacheco, was known for his physical, downhill running style.
I was mildly surprised by the pick because, based on draft profiles I had read, Rodriguez seemed to be a poor man’s version of the running back the team had selected the previous season. I had overlooked Rodriguez in the lead up to the draft because he was so poorly rated. That was before I watched the highlight clips and then went back and had a look at the college stats.
What I discovered was physical running back who seems to have an instinct to find the lane directly and explode through for chunk yardage, whether there are tacklers in the way or not. The running back I was in film clips didn’t seem to have the “below-average burst getting through [the] line of scrimmage” that the draft profiles had led me to expect. The “lack of finesse to navigate tight run lanes” didn’t seem to be that big a problem either, because Rodriguez is so hard to tackle.
The college stats revealed Rodriguez to be the SEC’s second leading rusher in 2021, with 1,379 yards and 9 TDs. In 2022, he was the eighth ranked rusher in the SEC with 904 yards in just eight games due to a four game suspension for DUI. And most impressive to me, as an analytics guy was his average of 6.3 yards per carry over 548 carries in a five-year college career.
Could Bieniemy have found 2023’s answer to Isiah Pacheco? The early indications are promising. Through three preseason games, Rodriguez was Washington’s leading rusher with 122 yards on 17 carries. His 7.2 yard per attempt average ranked fourth among RBs with at least 10 attempts in the preseason, and all of the players ranked ahead of him had one run of 40 yards or more, which skews the averages. He did lose a fumble against the Ravens, but ball security has not been a major issue for Rodriguez aside from his junior season in college.
If Rodriguez can reliably gain chunk yardage in the regular season like he has done in the preseason and like he did in college, the Commanders just might have hit on the late-round steal of the 2023 RB class. To get an idea of whether that might really be the case, I had a look at the “hidden gems” of the RB rookie classes over the past decade, plus one year, to see if there is a common profile and, if there is, whether Rodriguez fits the mold.
Hidden Gem Running Backs, 2012 to 2022
To identify the hidden gems at the RB position I searched the Pro Football Reference database for all running backs drafted in the fifth round or later or undrafted free agents with over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage in their first or second NFL season from 2012 to 2022. The reason why I pushed the search back to 2012, rather sticking with an even 10 seasons will become apparent when you see who the leader is.
The following table shows the 14 hidden gem RBs of the past 11 years, ranked by total yards from scrimmage, with Chris Rodriguez’s details provided for comparison.
The king of the hidden gem RBs over the past 11 NFL seasons is Washington’s Alfred Morris, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for an amazing 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season, alongside fellow rookie sensation Robert Griffin III at QB. Unlike his rookie classmate, Morris continued to produce at a high level for another year and would have still made this list if I had capped it at 2013. Although then he would have only ranked fifth. His rookie season stats were so spectacular, I had to list them.
Now, let’s see if there is any method to how these players managed to get overlooked in the draft process.
Draft Status – Sleepers vs Sliders
Quality running backs can become available in the later round as “sleepers”, by sliding under the radar through the draft process, or as “sliders”, who go later than pre-draft projections.
To classify the hidden gem RBs as sleepers, sliders or accurately projected, I searched the internet for pre-draft projections. I relied heavily on Lance Zierlein’s draft profiles on NFL.com, which go back to 2014, but also searched far and wide to get a sense of where the draft cognoscenti projected each player to go. A few of the players were not widely profiled by draft analysts.
Chris Rodriguez was accurately projected to the sixth round by Zierlein, as well as other analysts. That was the most common situation among the hidden gem RBs. Eight out of 14 players (57%) were projected to at least the ballpark of where they were selected. The most borderline player in this category was Phillip Lindsay, whom Zierlein projected to the 6th to 7th rounds. I counted that as accurate, since there isn’t much difference between being a 7th round pick and going undrafted. Latavius Murray went under most analysts’ radars, but WalterFootball projected him to the 4th to 6th rounds (2013 rankings appear to have been taken down while I was writing this article).
Four of the players (29%) were sliders: Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, Alex Collins, and Andre Ellington. Howard had been projected as a Day 2 pick, but fell to the fifth round, possibly due to injury concerns, a perceived lack of suddenness and/or poor Combine testing. Ajayi had a similar draft projection, but slid due to medical concerns about one of his knees. Alex Collins had been projected as a third-round pick, but slid to the fifth round due to a combination of concerns including poor athletic testing, unproven pass catching and ball security issues. Andre Ellington was widely projected as a Day 2 pick but fell to the sixth round due to being undersized, poor combine testing and a history of nagging injuries.
Only two (14%) of the hidden gems were true sleepers. Matt Breida and Alfred Morris, playing in smaller Sunbelt Conference schools, managed to fly under the analysts’ radar through the draft process as judged by the absence of draft profiles on the internet. Latavius Murray was also not widely profiled, and only seems to have caught the eye of WalterFootball.
The fact that most of the players were accurately projected to be taken later than they would go in a redraft raises the question, how did all the analysts and teams miss them? One possibility is attending low-profile college programs.
This was clearly not the issue with Chris Rodriguez, since Kentucky is an SEC program. His first-place rushing efficiency mark of 6.6 yards per carry in 2020 and his second-place rushing total of 1,379 yards in 2021 in the premiere conference of the FBS could not have escaped NFL scouts’ attention. Was that typical of late round standouts?
For ease of reference, I color coded FBS programs red in the table. Eight of the fourteen hidden gem RBs (57%) played at high profile programs, which are mainstays of the scouting circuit. It is possible that playing for lower profile programs might have contribute to some of the other six players flying below the radar. James Robinson, Alfred Morris and Latavius Murray, in particular seem to have got less attention than might be expected if they had played for bigger programs.
In summary, attending small schools, off the main scouting circuit, might have contributed to a few of the players getting missed, but it does not appear to be the main cause. That might be a good sign for Rodriguez, who played five seasons in the SEC.
As mentioned above, Chris Rodriguez ranked among the top running backs in the SEC throughout his career at Kentucky. That was typical of the RBs who outperformed their draft position.
All but one of the hidden gems ranked in the top three or better in key rushing categories in their respective conferences during their time in college and a few topped the NCAA leaderboards. Jay Ajayi led the NCAA in TDs from scrimmage in his final college season and was fifth in rushing yards. Tyler Allgeier led Independents in rushing yards, yards per attempt, rushing TDs, yards from scrimmage and points in his final season. Alfred Morris, Elijah Mitchell, and Matt Breida all led the Sun Belt Conference in key rushing categories for at least one season and were in the top three in others for at least two seasons. James Robinson was second in rushing yards in the FCS in his final season. Zac Stacy was second in the SEC in rushing TDs and third in rushing yards in his junior year.
The only hidden gem who did not finish in at least the top three of his conference for at least one year in college was C.J. Anderson. In his best season he ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards.
Physical Traits and Athleticism
Rodriguez’s exceptional production in the SEC, including a career rushing average of 6.2 yards per carry, was all the more remarkable because he lacks elite athletic traits. Did any of the other hidden gems fall past the middle rounds of the draft because of less than ideal physical attributes?
To answer that question, I had a look at the height, weight, Relative Athletic Score and 40-yard dash times of the hidden gems and compared them to all the RBs selected in the first three rounds of the draft in 2022 and 2023.
The median size of hidden gem RBs was 180 cm (5 ft, 11 in) and 218.5 lbs, which is pretty standard for a pro running back. Rodriguez is around 1” taller and 1.5 lbs lighter than the median. Out of 14 players, only Phillip Lindsay stands out as being significantly undersized. Andre Ellington and Matt Breida are small for lead backs but are not particularly small for change of pace and third-down backs.
The athleticism scores tell a different story. To quantify players’ athleticism, I used 40 times and the Relative Athletic Score (RAS), which provides a composite measure of combine athletic testing results relative to a player’s size, on a scale of 1 to 10.
The 40 times had an interesting distribution. Four of the hidden gems had 40 times below 4.4 sec, which is very fast for RBs: Latavius Murray, Phillip Lindsay, Elijah Mitchell and Matt Breida. The remaining 10 players (71%) had 40 times of 4.55 sec or slower, and five of them (36%) had 40 times of 4.6 or slower. Rodriguez’s time of 4.52 sec puts him slightly ahead of the slower group of hidden gems, which constitute the majority.
As a group, the hidden gems had slower 40 times than RBs drafted on Days 1 and 2. Similar to the hidden gems, out of 12 early round RBs with 40 times, four (33%) had 40 times below 4.4. However, eight (67%) had 40 times below 4.5, and none had a 40 time over 4.55. The median of the early round RBs was 4.47, a full 0.12 sec faster than the hidden gems.
In addition to his height and weight, Rodriguez’s RAS (7.71) is also very close to the median of the hidden gems. RAS values tended to rate hidden gems as less athletic, relative to size, than the early-round RBs. Only five of 14 hidden gems (36%) scored in the very good to elite range (> 8), compared to eight out of 12 (75%) early rounders. At the other end of the scale, six out of 14 (43%) hidden gems had RAS values below 6, as opposed to one (8%) of the early-round RBs. The one early round RB with a low RAS (5.72) was Devon Achane, who has been described as an athletic freak, but is small for a RB at 5’8” and 188 lbs. Six of the hidden gems (43%) had RAS values below Ellington’s.
In summary, Rodriguez has prototypical physical and athletic traits of a late-round hidden gem RB. It is likely that his less than ideal athletic scores contributed to him being available in the sixth round of the draft. Fortunately for Commanders’ fans, similar athletic abilities have not prevented other running backs from outperforming their draft status over the past decade.
Type of Back – Runners vs Pass Catchers
I was also curious to know whether hidden gem RBs were more likely to be pass-catching backs or backs who mainly contribute in the running game. To answer that question, I used the ratio of receiving yards to rushing yards in the hidden gems’ first peak seasons (first season over 1,000 yds from scrimmage) to quantify how rushing dominant or receiving oriented they were.
In 2022, the median ratio of receiving yards to rushing yards among the 64 RBs with the most total yards from scrimmage was 0.301, which equates to around 3.3 rushing yards to every receiving yard. The most receiving oriented back in the top 64 was the Chiefs’ Jerick McKinnon, with a ratio of 1.76 (512 rec yds/291 rush yds). At the other end of the spectrum, 10 backs had ratios below 0.1 (10 rushing yards per receiving yard), indicating heavy run dominance.
The median receiving/rushing yards ratio of the hidden gem RBs in their peak early seasons was 0.205, which means they tended to be significantly more rush-dominant than the average top-64 RB in 2022. Four of the 14 hidden gems (29%) had ratios above the median: James Robinson 0.321 (344 rec yd/1,070 rush yd), Matt Breida 0.321 (261 rec yd/814 rush yd) C.J. Anderson 0.382 (324 rec yd/849 rush yd) and Andre Ellington 0.569 (371 rec yd/652 rush yd). The other twelve hidden gems had ratios below 0.368, indicating that they were predominantly rushing backs. The most rushing dominant of the group was Alfred Morris with a ratio of 0.048 (77 rec yd/1,613 rush yd).
How do the hidden gems compare to RBs drafted in the early rounds? The median first-year receiving/rushing yardage ratio of the 20 RBs drafted in rounds 1 to 3 from 2020 to 2022 was 0.296, around 44% higher than the hidden gems. That means that RBs drafted in the early rounds, tended to be more pass-oriented than the hidden gems. Ten out of 20 (50%) of the early round RBs had receiving/rushing ratios above 0.301, indicating more than average pass-orientation, as opposed to just 29% of the hidden gems.
These results indicate that hidden gems tend to be more run-dominant types of running backs, while running backs drafted on Days 1 and 2 contribute more in the passing game.
Throughout his college career, Chris Rodriguez had just 116 receiving yards to 3,644 rushing yards, which gives a receiving/rushing ratio of 0.032. He was even more rush-dominant than Alfred Morris. That is likely a key factor that led him to drop to the later rounds.
To see if there were any other factors that Rodriguez might have in common with the hidden gem RBs, I did a bit of a textual analysis on the players’ pre-draft scouting reports. I was unable to find any pre-draft scouting reports on the deep sleepers Alfred Morris, Latavius Murray and Matt Breida. For the rest of the players, I relied predominantly on Lance Zierlein’s draft profiles on NFL.com for consistency, and because he provides fairly comprehensive and publicly available coverage dating back to 2014.
This is how Lance described Chris Rodriguez’s key strengths and weaknesses:
- Two-time team captain.
- Thick frame with ability to pick up tough yards.
- Makes tacklers feel his size at impact.
- Stays square getting through downhill cuts.
- Low success rate guaranteed for arm-tacklers.
- Stays on his feet through heavy angle strikes.
- Allows lead blockers to do their work.
- Steps up with force against incoming rushers.
- Below-average burst getting through line of scrimmage.
- Lacks finesse to navigate tight run lanes.
- Change of direction is heavy.
- One-speed running style is easy to track for linebackers.
- Pad level is a little tall as run-finisher.
- Inconsistent finding assignment versus blitz.
An analysis of the draft profiles of the 11 hidden gems for whom they were available revealed some common themes. A few these Rodriguez shared and some he didn’t.
The most common strengths noted in the draft profiles were power/hard charging/difficult to bring down (7/11 players) and vision/takes good angles/anticipation (7/11 players). Rodriguez is definitely a power back who is known for being difficult to tackle and finishing defenders. While Zierlein doesn’t mention vision to identify running lanes as a key strength, when I watch his film clips he seems to have a knack for running straight through holes, without any stutter stepping or hesitation. Of course, that could simply be a function of watching highlight clips.
The next most common strengths were contact balance, fluidity/agility/wiggle, and receiving ability, all of which were noted for four of the 11 backs. I was a bit surprised that pass protection was only commented on as a key strength for two of the backs.
The most common weakness, by far, was poor burst/suddenness/”one speed runner”, which was mentioned in profiles of eight of the 11 backs. That seems to be a key perceived weakness of Rodriguez. The funny thing is, when I watch him play, I don’t see it.
No other major weakness, such as lack of high-end speed, not elusive, poor receiving or ball security was mentioned for more than two players. Of course, since combine stats are generally provided with draft profiles, reviewers might not always feel the need to mention slow 40 times or poor agility scores.
Injury History and Off the Field Issues
Chris Rodriguez appears to be made of iron. I was unable to detect any mention of any injuries suffered in his five-year college career. He was suspended for a DUI, which caused him to miss the first four games of the 2022 season and probably raised a red flag for NFL scouts.
Did any of the hidden gems fall in the draft process due to injuries or off-the-field concerns? Injury histories are not reliably commented on in scouting reports, so I had to venture further afield. One useful resource is the Draft Sharks website which provides injury histories on players.
Seven of 13 players for whom I was able to locate information had some kind of injury history in college. It was not always clear if the injury history was a significant issue for draft evaluators. For example, Jay Ajayi had an ACL tear in 2011, which seems to have been a distant memory when he was drafted in 2015. In five cases (Jordan Howard, Chris Carson, Latavius Murray, Zac Stacy, Andre Ellington), a history of major injury or nagging injuries seems to have been a significant factor in draft evaluation.
The only player with a serious incident off the field was Jay Ajayi who was arrested for shoplifting in college.
Conclusion – Does Rodriguez Fit the Mold of a Late Round Gem at RB?
There is an axiom among NFL talent evaluators that traits outweigh production. That appears to be particularly the case at running back. NFL teams that have found the greatest value for draft capital at running back over the past decade, and those that have unearthed great talents without spending any, have generally done so by swimming against that current.
Based on my review of late round and undrafted players who have made an impact early in their careers, I can summarize the profile of a hidden gem running back as follows:
- Solid build, around average size for the position
- Production among the top players in their conference in college
- Lack of elite athletic traits made up for by exceptional vision, smarts, power, and/or ability to run through contact
- Often, more of a runner than a pass catch catcher
Counter to my initial expectations, college program doesn’t seem to matter. Late-round values at running back are just as likely to have come from FBS programs as small schools. Similarly, while many of the profiled players had some injury history, that doesn’t appear to have been the major reason that these players fell to the later rounds.
Chris Rodriguez is a very good fit to the mold. He has prototypical size and athletic profile of a hidden gem RB. He was a highly productive running back in the SEC, despite lacking the elite speed, burst and elusiveness that teams seek in the early rounds. What he lacked in speed and elusiveness, he more than made up for with exceptional power and ability to stay upright after contact.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he is destined to become this year’s Tyler Allgeier or Isiah Pacheco. What it does mean, is that he is precisely the type of late-round or undrafted RB who vastly exceeds expectations a little more than once every NFL season.
Whether he does or not may depend on who decides which players see the field on the Commanders’ offense. What excites me most about Rodriguez is that, in preseason action he looks like the same as he did in college. If he does get the opportunities, I would not be surprised if he overtakes Brian Robinson as the starter early in his rookie season due to his ability to gain more yardage per down.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
Who will lead the Commanders in total rushing yards in 2023?
This poll is closed