Devin Singletary is one of the more polarizing rookie backs from last year. While some see him as a dynasty running back sweetheart after his stellar finish to the season and being grabbed late in drafts, others still don’t believe in the talent. This article is intended to provide information to permit you to create your own opinion on this player through my film and statistical analysis of his first season in the league.
Let’s look on the bright side first. 2019 third round pick Devin Singletary was an absolute gem for many people who drafted him late in the second and third rounds of rookie drafts. He displayed the rare ability to turn any run into a big play. His 5.1 yards per carry is outstanding for any back but for a rookie? That’s incredible – it falls in between the 5.0 YPC and 5.3 YPC Saquan Barkley and Nick Chubb put up during their respective rookie years back in 2018. Singletary displays great vision and cuts to find space at the line of scrimmage.
Check this out:
Somehow he seems able to make something out of nothing. His elusiveness corresponds with his 2.7 yards before contact per rushing attempt (sixth most in the NFL) as well as the fifth lowest attempts per broken tackle in the NFL (7.6 attempts per broken tackle). Clearly, he is getting yards before contact and breaking tackles very efficiently.
He finished his rookie campaign with 775 rushing yards, and 194 receiving yards on 29 reeceptions. This placed him as RB31 on the season, while missing 4 full games. This ranking doesn’t do his production at the end of the year justice, where Buffalo began to lean on him progressively more. He finished the season with 15 fewer rushes than ageless wonder Frank Gore. This displays the increase in workload and trust that the Bills had in the rookie, even with his smaller frame of 5’7” 203lbs. And when you’re connected to the Bills rushing attack, trust can go a long way. Since 2015, the Bills have finished 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, and 6th respectively for most rushing attempts per game in the NFL. Clearly they want to rely on their defense and run game. The end of the season demonstrated that they aren’t concerned with relying on Singletary for the latter.
Linked to a run heavy offense, and a good defense alongside his clear natural ability, it’s easy to see why people are excited. However, I want to illustrate some other statistics that might slow this hype train. I’ve discussed a lot about the team and how great Buffalo is for running backs, but I have not addressed that Buffalo only had 4 total rushing touchdowns by running backs last season. How can a team that runs as much as they do manage to have only 4 rushing touchdowns by running backs? Well, that’s the downside of having a mobile quarterback in Josh Allen. We’ve seen this before with Houston and Deshaun Watson. When the team gets inside the 5, the quarterback becomes the second back, and usually the first option. Both Watson and Allen have finished in the top 3 for rushing touchdowns at the QB position each of the last two years, and Allen’s rushing touchdowns aren’t going anywhere.
While reviewing the tape further it became clear that, while his work at the line of scrimmage was impressive, two concerns with his running ability became increasingly apparent. He was great at breaking big runs, however, once he got moving there was little if any lateral movement. This ultimately led to the first tackler in the open field bringing him down regularly, and if not, definitely the second.
Earlier I cited his 2.7 yards before first contact per attempt (good for sixth in the league) as a reason to be optimistic about his game moving forward. What I did not mention is that he faced a loaded box (Eight defenders or more in the box) at the lowest rate of any running back that had 85 rushing attempts or greater (5.3% of his rushing attempts). To put this in perspective, Frank Gore faced a loaded box on 37.35% of attempts. My initial impression was that perhaps this speaks more to his ability as a receiving threat, but his 5.3% much below known star receiving backs Christian McCaffery at 23.34% and Austin Ekeler at 10.61%. This means he would have fewer defenders at the line of scrimmage to contend with, possibly boosting his yards before contact and potential yards per carry. Since we have now displayed before first contact, what about after first contact you ask? Singletary finished 2019 15th in the NFL in yards after first contact per attempt (2.4). This finish is fairly average in yards after contact as players 9 through 24 are all between 2.6 and 2.2.
Secondly, when breaking runs it is important to be able to extend the play and stay inbounds. Unfortunately there is no statistic for times ran-out-of-bounds unnecessarily. However, I was surprised when observing his tape that, while he has the ability to hit a hole hard when the blocks are set, his awareness on the fly seemed precarious. He often displays a lack of awareness for the sideline or inability to read blocks and cut inside to gain more yards. Sometimes he would jump out of bounds himself, or run around his block directly into a defender.
Here is some film of this:
My final concern with Singletary is the one that is often the most cited – his fumbling issues. We all know that fumbling issues at the running back position are the quickest way to earn yourself a one way ticket to the bench. Last season Devin was tied for second most fumbles at the running back position with 4 (behind Chris Carson’s seven). In correspondence with the amount of total touches Singletary had, it comes out to a 2.2% fumble rate (4 fumbles on 180 touches). You know who else had a 2.2% fumble rate in 2019? Only running back fumble leader Chris Carson last season (7 fumbles on 315 touches). That’s concerning.
Overall, there are many reasons to both be excited and unsure about Singletary. Currently on our MDF rankings, he comes in at consensus dynasty RB21. I can’t help but look back on what expert Matt Waldman described after watching hours of Devin Singletary tape in his 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Waldman said, “he must prove his great vision can compensate for his lack of athletic ability.” I think that these same concerns are present in his game at the professional level. Ultimately it comes down to if you believe in the talent and like what you see in Buffalo. Personally, I would be looking to sell and view his value somewhere between other young backs such as Kerryon Johnson, (even considering the concerns of injuries and drafting a high profile back this year) or similar to a veteran along the lines of Chris Carson. I believe he is clearly the third best back in the 2019 class behind Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders.