The anticipation is now over. After trading Jordan Howard to Philadelphia in March and meeting with just about every running back that entered the draft, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy got their guy in David Montgomery, a tough and bruising, yet agile, running back out of Iowa State.
Much has been made of Montgomery’s collegiate production as the box score stats did not fully match the other running backs taken around him.
Was it all on Montgomery or was it a by-product of his offensive line and other surrounding players?
In part one of this two-part series, I am going to examine how Montgomery produced his numbers as well as comparing it to other running backs taken in the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The chart below is meant to break down each individual’s yards before contact, yards after contact, the percentage of yards gained after contact, as well as the missed tackles forced per attempt.
Clearly, Montgomery’s overall production is not quite equal with the running backs, especially when looking at total yards per attempt.
However, yards per attempt is far more of a team statistic, specifically the offensive line, than it is solely a running back statistic. Conversely, much of what is gained after contact is largely dependent on the back.
Having said that, a few things stick out when examining this chart, especially when looking at Montgomery’s numbers compared to the rest of the running backs.
First and foremost, Montgomery’s yards before contact was far below the rest of the group of running backs, and that reflects what many have said about Iowa State’s poor offensive line play.
What also sticks out is the sheer percentage of Montgomery’s yards that came after contact, which is higher than any other player in his draft class as well as any other player I have studied in my research for this article.
In fact, when breaking down Montgomery’s numbers by season, his highest yards before contact was only 1.5 yards per attempt, 0.3 yards lower than the lowest career averages for anyone this list.
At least a small part of this can reasonably be attributed to Montgomery’s patient running style, but when combining yards before contact with other useful metrics such as Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and stuff rate percentage from Football Outsiders, a clear picture is painted which is that Iowa State’s offensive line really struggled to help Montgomery.
ALY was designed in an attempt to separate the ability of a running back from how well the offensive line performed.
The offensive line is credited with 100 percent of the yards from 0-3 yards, 50 percent credit from 4-8 yards, and credit for anything beyond eight yards is given to the running back and any negative run counts as 125 percent against the line.
By this metric, Iowa State’s offensive line was ranked 97th out of 130 teams. As with any statistic, context is necessary because it is not perfect by itself.
For example, on the five-yard run below the offensive line gets credit for 4 yards (all 3 yards from 0-3 yards plus half of the two yards from 4-8 yards).
There are a bunch of bigger and more athletic backs in this class, but no one comes close to David Montgomery's balance pic.twitter.com/DJlIEX9b0F
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) April 4, 2019
Another useful metric from Football Outsiders is “stuff rate percentage,” which is the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage and is much less subjective.
In fact, something that can prevent a team from accumulating an even higher high stuff rate are plays like the one above where the running back makes something out of nothing.
Iowa State’s stuff rate was 15.5 percent, 20.2 percent and 21.0 percent from 2016-2018, which ranked 12th, 81st and 98th. Expectedly, Montgomery’s career-best 5.2 yards per attempt and 1.5 yards before contact coincided with the lowest ranking of the three.
For reference, Alabama had a stuff rate percentage of 12.1 percent in 2018, and that ranked as third best in the entire country, creating many more opportunities for fellow running backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.
Lastly, according to Steve Palazollo, Iowa State was the 102nd cumulatively graded run blocking group in 2017 by Pro Football Focus and the 115th ranked run blocking team in 2018 out of 130 FBS teams.
By nearly every metric, Iowa State’s offensive line was one of the worst in the entire country during the course of Montgomery’s career.
Big Play Production
One of the knocks on Montgomery was that he failed to produce many big plays at all which means there is no way he can come in and be a productive NFL running back.
According to sharpfootball.com, an explosive run play is one that goes 10 or more yards. While Montgomery was definitely not the best in the class, he did produce runs of at least 10 yards at a close rate to some of the other running backs.
Also consider that each of the above players had statistically better offensive lines than Montgomery. According to a different Palazollo article, Montgomery was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on 132 of his 258 carries in 2017, 11 more times than anyone else making it extremely hard to maintain a high rate of explosive carries.
Stanford’s Bryce Love, a player many Bears fans wanted, is a perfect case study for the dangers of relying on the big play. In 2017, Love had 24 carries (9.1 percent) of at least 20 yards and averaged 8.1 yards that season. In 2018, that number dropped to only eight carries (4.8 percent) of at least 20 yards and in turn dropped his yards per carry to 4.4.
Remember, even the best NFL running backs are only breaking off carries of that distance around 5.5 percent of the time, meaning it is unrealistic to count on them even for the best running backs.
Now that we know what Montgomery succeeds at and how he earns a majority of his rushing yards, as well as highlighting the struggles of his offensive line, it is important to know how this all translates to the NFL.
For the next part of this two-part series, I will examine exactly how things like yards after contact, big plays and missed tackles forced have translated for other young running backs as well as seeing if Montgomery is primed for success much like when Kareem Hunt broke out in 2017.