Whether you’re in the “running backs don’t matter” crowd or not, one thing is for certain: athleticism matters at the position. Running back is arguably the easiest position to see the effects of athleticism on the game. Thanks to formations and TV angles, we see running backs from the start of a play to the end. There are a ton of great athletes at the position, but who are the most athletic running backs in the NFL heading into 2020?
There are several ways someone could define what athleticism is. For our purposes, we’re going to rely on Relative Athletic Scoring, or RAS. RAS — developed by Kent Lee Platte — is a metric based on NFL Combine or Pro Day results that we can use to compare the overall athleticism of a player to his position group. More than that, however, it also allows us to compare those results historically, with data going back to 1987.
To make for a more fair comparison, only running backs who qualified for a RAS grade were considered for this study. We have also narrowed our results to running backs who achieved a full qualifying score in each of the four categories that comprise a RAS grade: Size, Speed, Explosion, and Agility. This, regrettably, excludes several great running backs who would otherwise make this list, such as Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Todd Gurley.
Athleticism is great, but it doesn’t mean much if the skill set doesn’t translate on the field. What value does being a great athlete bring if you can’t get playing time? To further narrow our field and give us the most useful answer, only ball carriers appearing in Matt Williamson’s top 25 running backs were in consideration. That eliminates notable 2020 NFL Draft darlings like Jonathan Taylor and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
With that in mind, let’s answer the question of who are the most athletic running backs going into the 2020 NFL season.
Top 3 most athletic running backs in the NFL
3) Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals
The new era of Bengals football starts with number one overall pick Joe Burrow at the helm. Coming off one of the best seasons in college football history, Burrow steps in with high hopes and high expectations. The burden on Burrow will be lightened somewhat by having one of the most athletic running backs in the league behind him in Joe Mixon.
Mixon starts off our look at the most athletic running backs for the 2020 NFL season by combining great size with great speed. Mixon came into his 2017 Pro Day and measured at just under 6’1″ and weighing 228 pounds. Those marks were good for an 8.93 and 8.87 RAS, respectively. Then Mixon upped the ante by running a 4.5 40-yard dash with a 1.51 10-yard split — numbers good enough for an incredible 9.13 and 9.69 RAS.
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When you throw in “Good” marks in agility and explosion, it all adds up to a RAS of 9.46. More importantly for the Bengals, it all adds up to a running back who is a nightmare for opposing teams and defensive coordinators. If the Bengals are going to be successful in 2020 and beyond, it will be because Mixon improves his value to the team out of the backfield.
2) David Johnson – Houston Texans
To most, David Johnson was a little-known running back coming from a little-known school in the University of Northern Iowa. Most knew of UNI in the abstract thanks to the success of Kurt Warner, but it’s not a school the average fan pays much attention to. Johnson made people pay attention to him after his performance at the Combine.
Johnson turned in a performance that earned him a 9.84 RAS grade, spearheaded by his 41.5-inch vertical jump. That mark is good for 9th all-time, out of the 861 running backs who have recorded a vertical jump since 1987. But the vertical wasn’t the only place where Johnson shined. Johnson also put up top 50 all-time marks in the broad jump and 3-cone test, while finishing just outside the top 50 (56th) in the bench press.
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Johnson has the highest RAS grade of the three running backs on this list. Why then, is he listed in the two spot? Injuries have slowed Johnson down in recent seasons, and they are beginning to add up for the supremely talented back. Johnson has missed time with back, ankle, and knee injuries over the past few seasons. Combined with entering his sixth season in the league and creeping closer to 30, it’s fair to say there’s a degree of depreciation.
1) Miles Sanders – Philadelphia Eagles
Penn State is known to many college football fans as Linebacker U. But in recent years, it’s been their running backs who have stolen the show. In 2018, the uber-talented Saquon Barkley took the college, and subsequently pro, world by storm. Next year, current running back Journey Brown is likely to join him. And yet, it’s Miles Sanders who comes in at the top of our look at the most athletic running backs in the NFL in 2020.
Now, before anyone yells at me for having Sanders on this list over Barkley, let’s refer back to our parameters for inclusion. To be included, a player had to have a score in each of the categories that make up a RAS grade. This eliminated Barkley, as he did not participate in the broad jump or the 3-cone, thus not achieving a full grade in explosion or agility.
Sanders is an athletic specimen in his own right, achieving an overall RAS grade of 9.49. Sanders didn’t stand out in one particular area of testing. Rather, Sanders was consistent over all areas of testing, with his lowest score — excluding height and weight — coming in the bench press. Sanders “only” put up 20 reps, good for a 7.04 RAS. All other scores for Sanders were between 7.83 and 8.95. Consistency was the key to Sanders’ grade.
Chris Spooner is an NFL Draft and Analytics contributor to PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @CSpoonerPFN.