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How Does Height Affect Running Back Performance?

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Strength, speed and intelligence are a few important factors to consider when evaluating a running back. Does height have similar value?

Kevin C. Cox

More than most athletes, football players are judged on their size. Bigger, as they say, is better.

At least most of the time.

Overall weight and strength are heavily emphasized in this sport, but the true value of height is often questioned. For some positions, most notably interior linemen, tall players are usually better than their shorter counterparts. For others, however, the tape measure holds less significance.

Running backs certainly fall in the latter category. There are behemoths such as Brandon Jacobs, and there are diminutive sprinters like Maurice Jones-Drew -- both of whom carved out successful careers in the NFL.

It's clear that short and tall running backs alike can succeed in the pros, but the question remains: what is the relationship between height and RB production? Let's take a look.

The Process

To analyze the relationship between height and running back production, I plugged in data from 100 individual seasons from 2009-2013. A random assortment of 20 RBs were used from each year, and only those who collected at least 150 carries qualified. Repetition of players were avoided when possible.

I broke the numbers down in three categories: yards per carry, touchdowns per game and yards per reception. YPC is the one we should truly focus on. I avoided dealing with yards per game and yards per season, as they are largely dependent on factors outside the RBs' control-such as coaching decisions and quality of competition from other guys on the depth chart.

Yes, TD/G and Y/R are also highly influenced by those factors, but I was curious to find the results anyways. My guess was taller backs score more often, if only because RBs used in goal line situations tend to be bigger.

Anyways, here's what I found:

The closer R^2 is to 1, the stronger the relationship; the closer it is to 0, the weaker. As these graphs clearly illustrate, there is a very, very weak correlation between RB height and production.

Applying the Data

So how does this relate to the Falcons? Well, I think it's most valuable when looking at someone like Devonta Freeman: a petite yet talented RB who is still an unproven commodity.

At first, the weak relationship between height and production seems to bodes well for Freeman (and it still does in the end), but there is one important caveat: all but one of 100 RBs sampled are taller than the Atlanta rookie.

Do I think an inch or two is worth fretting over? No. However, this detail is worth keeping in mind.

Of course, Freeman's height will have a role in his pass blocking, and his playing time will largely depend on how well he's able to pick up blitzes. But if we're talking about running and catching the football, there's little evidence to suggest that his 5-foot-8 frame will be a hindrance.

Same can be said for 5-foot-9 Antone Smith and 5-foot-6 Jacquizz Rogers.

To be clear, this doesn't mean RB height has little to no effect on the field. Steven Jackson's 6-foot-2 body allows him to gain leverage on opposing defenders, which has undoubtedly helped him throughout his career. On the other hand, Jacquizz's short stature aids him when attempting to fit through small openings.

What the above metrics do show, however, is that height on its own tells us very little about a given running back. We kinda knew that already, but at least we now have proof.