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Running backs getting shorter and heavier

Short and stout is what NFL teams look for in a running back

Short and stout is the ideal look.

In December, I noted that fewer rushing yards are coming from first round picks. That’s a trend that seems very likely to continue in 2014, and perhaps for the foreseeable future. As it turns out, running backs are also getting shorter and heavier.

LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris, Frank Gore, Knowshon Moreno, Zac Stacy, DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Giovani Bernard, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, Danny Woodhead, and Mark Ingram are all 5’10 or shorter. As you can probably infer from the sheer quantity of the group, those players aren’t significant outliers: the “average” running back, weighted by rushing yards last season, was only five feet and 11.1 inches tall. That means backs like Jamaal Charles (6’1), Matt Forte (6’1), and Adrian Peterson are more outliers than the 5’10 backs.

This is a weighted average, so McCoy (who had about 3% of all rushing yards from running backs last year) counts three times as much as, say, Donald Brown when calculating the 2013 (weighted) average running back height. Regular readers will recognize that this is the same methodology I used when calculating the average (weighted) average of each team’s receivers last season. The graph below shows the average weighted height of all running backs since 1950:

avg rush ht

As you can see, running back used to be a tall man’s position.  But average running back height has steadily decreased, dropping 1.8 inches from 1965 to 2013.  At the same time, running backs are getting heavier, although players at all positions are getting heavier. Still, I thought it would be useful to calculate an average weighted weight of running backs since 1950 using the same formula:

avg rush wt2

This trend towards shorter backs looks to continue in this year’s draft. Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas (5’9, 174) is this year’s shifty/third down back model, while LSU’s Jeremy Hill (6’1, 233) and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (6’0, 230) fit the bruising back stereotype.

But most of the other top backs are in the short but stocky range: Auburn’s Tre Mason (207 pounds), Wisconsin’s James White (204), and  combine superstar Jerick McKinnon (209) from Georgia Southern are all 5’9. Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and Washington’s Bishop Sankey are both 5’10 and around 208 pounds. Florida State’s Devonta Freeman (5-foot-8, 206 pounds) and Boston College’s Andre Williams (5’11, 230) also fit the general mold.

This makes sense to me, even if someone like Peterson remains the best back of our era. For running backs, a lower center of gravity helps, and as weight training and nutrition improves, packing on 210 pounds of muscle on a 5’10 frame is no longer atypical. Franco Harris, Jim Brown, and John Riggins were all 6’2, 230. Larry Csonka was even bigger. But the shorter back model is clearly preferred now.

One other note to keep in mind: Over the last decade, running backs are getting lighter. This is a pretty noticeable departure from historical trends, and I can’t imagine this feature is being duplicated at many other positions. But since lighter backs tend to be better in the passing game, this result isn’t too surprising, either.

  • Bob

    Your article “Running backs and BMI” was one of my favorites from the PFR Blog: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=489

    Needless to say, I liked this one as well.

  • Richie

    That means backs like Jamaal Charles (6’1), Matt Forte (6’1), and Adrian Peterson are more outliers than the 5’10 backs.

    After reading the initial paragraph, my thought was: “if most RB’s are getting shorter and heavier, would there be value in going the opposite way?” Charles, Forte and Peterson are 3 of the best backs of the past couple years. So maybe there is some value to having a tall RB against defenses designed to stop the smaller guys.

    • sn0mm1s

      I don’t think so. I actually think Jamaal Charles’ height is wrong. His combine page had him at 6’1” but NFL.com, ESPN.com, his wiki page, all have him listed at 5’11”.

      Defenses aren’t designed against stopping smaller guys – they are designed to stop the pass. I would guess there are two reasons for the shift.
      1) Being shorter puts less stress on the joints so shorter players likely don’t have the same rate of serious leg injuries.
      2) There comes a point where being big, with straight line speed, can’t make up for the size of the defensive opponent. Being able to elude tacklers is much more effective than trying to run through tacklers especially when the tacklers are almost always significantly bigger. The lower center of gravity helps with short area quickness.

  • ansum

    Good points. Also, shorter backs are harder to see.

  • lifesyourcup

    Where are you getting your heights from? Moreno is 5’10-5/8″ http://www.nfldraftscout.com/ratings/dsprofile.php?pyid=65960&draftyear=2009&genpos=RB

    If you round up, he’s 5’11”.

  • Examining this three years ago, I found pretty convincingly that the optimal height for a running back is 5’9″. The most successful short-yardage backs are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 69″ tall, 210-215 pounds, BMI between 31-31.75.

  • Jay

    So what runningback would you say is responsible for setting the trend of short and stocky?