Kenneth Gainwell was the “onion” in Memphis’s offense; he served as their leading rusher and lined up in many different alignments. At his 2021 Pro Day, Gainwell measured in at 5’8” and 201 lbs. He ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, benched 225 lbs. 21 times, executed a 35” vertical jump, and ran a 4.46-second short shuttle. After his performance, Gainwell had some kind words to say about himself: “My skill set is very, very different. I can play between the tackles, I can play outside the tackles, I can line up at the slot. So my position is very, very different than these other running backs in the draft.”
Is Gainwell correct? Maybe. He did come from a Mike Norvell system that produced Antonio Gibson, Tony Pollard, and Darrell Henderson. Antonio Gibson notably was out-touched 282 to 71 by Gainwell, therefore Gainwell must be, like Gibson, a top-10 RB in the NFL. Can Gainwell carve out his onion role for an NFL team? Let’s peel back some layers and see.
Kenneth Gainwell measured just above 5’8” and 201 lbs. which equates to a very solid BMI over 30. The 22-year-old’s size would be in the 46th percentile among running backs who have competed in the NFL Combine from 2000 to 2020.
Since 2000 there have been 109 running backs to test in the NFL Combine weighing 201 lbs. or less; only 13 of them had any fantasy relevance, an 11.9% rate. The success stories are very positive: Brian Westbrook, Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Ahmad Bradshaw, Steve Slaton, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Justin Forsett, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, C.J. Spiller, Tarik Cohen, and Nyheim Hines are the players that attained fantasy success at 201 lbs. or lower. Notably, Cohen and Hines are the only two success stories to occur while under the rookie salary cap CBA era.
How do Gainwell’s measurements compare to the historical trend in the NFL? To get an accurate evaluation of this, I found the NFL Combine outputs from 2000 to the current date (excluding the 2021 Pro Day results to date) and looked at average measurements compared to their draft round. The expectation is not that we will find much of a difference because of the outliers such as the 6’3” and 247 lbs. Derrick Henry and 5’11” and 197 lbs. Chris Johnson both offer elite traits that would land them high draft capital.
Looking at the averages by draft round selection for running backs, we can see that, as expected, there is not a very high delta in physical measurements. The two interesting trends are that the early-round picks are younger, and trend older as the draft picks become less valuable. We also see the weight for a first-rounder at the highest amount, and gradually trending downward as the picks become less valuable.
How does this relate to Kenneth Gainwell? If we are to look at Gainwell’s measurements individually based on his age being 22-years-old this would land him in the sixth round or UDFA cohort. His weight is below all cohorts, as is his height. His 30.2 BMI would land him in the fourth-round cohort. This information in itself is not that useful; rather let’s look at players who fit Gainwell’s measurement and where those players were drafted.
As we can see, running backs who have similar physical profiles to Kenneth Gainwell have a most likely range of outcomes as a Day 3 NFL Draft selection or an undrafted free agent. Though it is in the range of outcomes that he could be selected as high as round two, but not with a high probability based on just physical measurement.
Brian Westbrook, Villanova, 2002
James White, Wisconsin, 2014
James Williams, Washington State, 2019
Javon Ringer, Michigan State, 2009
Josh Ferguson, Illinois, 2016
Matthew Dayes, North Carolina State, 2017
Myles Gaskin, Washington, 2019
Ray Graham, Pitt, 2013
Steve Slaton, West Virginia, 2008
T.J. Logan, North Carolina, 2017
A player’s physical profile is not a major component for projecting draft capital or NFL success; let’s take a look at arguably the most important factor to future statistical success, which is past statistical success.
As a redshirt-freshman in 2019, Gainwell was the lead back for Memphis, but in reviewing his film, it is clear that Memphis had multiple RBs on the field on nearly every play. The running backs would line up next to Brady White in the backfield, and another would be aligned in the slot.
At 5’8” and 201 lbs., Gainwell may have a brighter NFL future as a slot receiver than a running back, food for thought. He was a college fantasy stud both season-long and in DFS fantasy formats, accumulating 1,459 yards and 13 TDs on the ground to go along with 51 catches for 610 yards and three TDs through the air. Gainwell earned a dominator rating of 27% and an adjusted dominator rating of 28.8% which is in the 90th percentile among all college rushers since 2000. His adjusted yards per team play was in the 97th percentile.
Gainwell’s production profile paints a more optimistic picture for Gainwell’s NFL outlook. For this exercise, we are going to look at players who ran for over 1,300 yards, caught more than 41 passes, scored 15 or more TDs, earned a dominator rating over 25%, and averaged over two yards per team play. Cutting the sample size down this tremendously is going to skew the averages to the outside and return a lot of outliers.
While the small sample size here also skews heavily in favor of a Day 3 selection or undrafted free agent, it is worthwhile to show that a first-round draft pick is now much more likely in the range of outcomes based on production than just his physical profile. To ensure that we are being fair to Gainwell’s true production profile, let’s look at the 30 players to achieve rushing for over 1,300 yards and catching over 40 passes in a season.
As we can tell from expanding the sample size, the percentages hardly move in any meaningful direction; what does this mean? Production in college at this high of a level is much easier against lesser competition. Thus 56% of the 30 players to achieve over 1,300 yards and 40 catches were from non-Power 5 conferences. Notably, Najee Harris was removed from the sample size as we do not yet know his draft capital; he is the first player to achieve these production thresholds against SEC competition.
Duke Johnson, Miami, 2014
Giovani Bernard, UNC, 2012
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, 2016
Javorius Allen, USC, 2015
Let’s look at the final major piece to the puzzle in figuring out a running back’s draft capital, which is very strongly correlated to their fantasy success: athletic testing.
At the 2021 Memphis Pro Day, Gainwell ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, which is exactly what was expected of him. That 40-time at 201 lbs. equates to a 100.6-speed score, which is in the 55th percentile among running backs, giving some added context to his 89th percentile 40-time as a stand-alone figure. His running back freak score, a Rotoviz metric that correlates strongly to NFL TD scoring early in a running backs career equates to 319, just in the 27th percentile among running backs since 2000.
Gainwell did test very impressively. If we are looking just at athleticism for a running back we want to highlight 40-yard dash times and short shuttle times. These two metrics identify what prospects have top-end breakaway speed and change of direction abilities. Here are some running backs to compare to Gainwell who ran in the 4.4-second 40-yard dash range as well as the same criteria for the short shuttle.
Again, Gainwell compares favorably to elite fantasy assets such as Joseph Addai, Adrian Peterson, and Cam Akers. However, there are also comparisons to some more irrelevant fantasy assets namely Travis Prentice, George Atkinson, and Karlos Williams. The difference between these outlooks is their draft capital. If Gainwell is drafted in the top-two rounds we could expect an Addai, Akers, or Peterson-Esque outlook. However, as you can see, all of these players are over 210. This is why we so desperately wanted to see Gainwell weigh in at a higher weight.
Speed Score is an advanced metric that is predictive of running back success. The formula is (weight *200)/(40-time^4). Gainwell earned a speed score of just over 105. There have been 109 running backs who had a speed score between 102 and 108. Here is how those running backs were drafted for an idea of Gainwell’s value using just speed score.
While some “Twitter Nuts” were running victory laps based on Gainwell’s strong 40-yard dash time, others were pointing to his weight as a red flag. It appears from the athletic profiling that Gainwell has a small chance of being a top-two-round selection this offseason if NFL teams are okay with looking past his less-than-ideal size.
Tashard Choice, Georgia Tech, 2008
DeAngelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina, 2017
Karan Higdon, Michigan, 2019
Darrell Henderson, Memphis, 2019
Cam Akers, Florida State, 2020
The reason why this is most notable is that Gainwell opted out of the 2020 college football season. Many expected Gainwell to use the time to bulk up to 210 to 215 lbs. to get an athletic profile of a three-down workhorse.
After four family members died from the global pandemic, Gainwell opted out of the 2020 college football season, a campaign where the Memphis offense would run through him. . While we all can respect his decision to do so, we also expected him to be a gym rat and raise his weight from the 210 lbs. to 215 lbs. range, where we could profile him as an NFL workhorse. Memphis had Gainwell listed at 191 lbs. for the 2019 season. However, it is well known that teams will exaggerate player measurements (see Gainwell listed at 5’11” not his true 5’8”); he may have played at a much lower weight at Memphis.
However, let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. Coach Mike Norvell left Memphis to join the Florida State coaching staff to join the Florida State Seminoles in 2020. Did Gainwell know that the offensive efficiency was going to plummet in a new system and held out to keep his stats padded? No, football players are insane human beings who are uber-competitive. We can presume that Gainwell was acting only to keep his family safe by opting out.
Draft capital is the single most useful metric to predicting NFL success. NFL.com’s most recent mock draft had Kenneth Gainwell going in the third-round to Kansas City. ESPN’s draft analysts only have released first-round mock drafts, none of which have Gainwell as a top-32 pick. PFF, a site whose content has gone downhill as of lately, has Gainwell not being drafted in the top-three rounds. However, all of these sources have Gainwell as a top-five running back in the class.
I believe that it is most likely based on Gainwell’s physical, athletic, and production profiles that Gainwell is the RB5 in this class. This means the most likely scenario is that Gainwell goes in the range of pick 75-125, which would be decent draft capital, but not great.
This is much murkier as we look at later-round picks, if the Falcons or Steelers pass on a top-three running back at the beginning of the draft, and draft Gainwell, this would be an elite landing spot for his outlook. The next tier of landing spots would include the Cardinals, Bills, Broncos, Dolphins, and 49ers. If Gainwell lands in any of these spots it will be “wheels up” for him in the NFL.
In the interview before his Pro Day, Gainwell did confirm that he has had dialogue with both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons. These teams are likely exploring all options at the running back position to support Arthur Smith’s play-calling tendencies that worked with the Titans.
Kenneth Gainwell is a very talented and athletic collegiate running back, but his size is a real concern at the NFL level, especially if he slims down closer to his playing weight of 191 lbs. He is an elite pass-catcher out of the backfield and has the skills to transition to a slot receiver. His best-case scenario is to be drafted in the second round to a team with a need at running back such as the Steelers or Falcons. He could go later in the draft or go undrafted to a team that doesn’t have a clear path to opportunities such as Kansas City. His top-end comparisons who fit his production, athletic, and physical profiles are what could have been with Steve Slaton in Houston, or an Aaron Jones-type in Green Bay. However, if he falls in the draft, we may look to his more pessimistic outcomes such as Kerwynn Williams or Karan Higdon.
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