I believe ball security is one of the most important attributes when evaluating a running back. One of the quickest ways to get sent to the bench in the NFL is to consistently fumble the football. A player could ultimately lose their job if they can't properly protect the pigskin.
Below are 24 of the top running back prospects and their college fumble percentage:
Remember, the NFL fumble percentage average the last three seasons for running backs is 1.05% (rushing and receiving touches combined).
You can see that 13 of these prospects had a collegiate fumble percentage that was higher than the 3-year NFL average. While these players are very talented, the poor fumble percentage would raise a red-flag for me. Maybe you just drop the player on your draft board, or maybe you remove him all together.
I have to say, Johnathan Franklin, Christine Michael, and Knile Davis would probably not make my draft board. Turnovers are an absolute killer in the NFL, and while they could be coached on how to protect the football better, they may never improve. It's a risk I would not take.
Let's take a look at some of last year's rookie running backs. Here is a table comparing their college fumble percentage to their first season in the NFL (Regular season stats ONLY):
Alfred Morris really stands out. While he is slightly above the 3-year NFL average, he improved dramatically over his college fumble percentage. Hillman and Rainey struggled in college and in their first NFL season.
Past college performance doesn't translate 100% to the NFL, but you can see many similarities in the above statistics. I wouldn't argue if someone wanted to give some of these players the benefit of the doubt due to the small sample sizes.
The photo above, is 49er rookie running back LaMichael James fumbling the football in the 2nd quarter of the Super Bowl. James only had 30 regular season touches and had one fumble during that time. He received 13 more touches in the playoffs, three of them coming in the Super Bowl. Regular season/playoffs combined, James had 43 touches (rush & rec) and coughed up the ball twice for a terrible fumble percentage of 4.651%. In other words, he fumbled every 21.5 touches. Looking back at his college fumble percentage, no one should be shocked that he is having issues in the NFL.
Most will agree that LaMichael James is an explosive offensive talent, but in a league where every possession is precious (more so in the playoffs), can he really be trusted going forward? If there is one thing James should be working on this off-season, it's ball security. Otherwise, he may not see the field much next year.
If your favorite NFL team is in need of a running back, don't get too upset if they pass on a player that can't protect the football. Alfred Morris appears to be the exception, not the rule.
*All college fumble statistics gathered from www.teamrankings.com. Fumble statistics on individual college players is very difficult to find in my experience. If you find a better source please let me know. These are the most accurate statistics I could find.
For a complete breakdown of my thoughts on fumble percentages, I encourage you to read this blog.