How the NFL’s Top Running Backs Perform Beyond the Line of Scrimmage

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How the NFL’s Top Running Backs Perform Beyond the Line of Scrimmage

In 2015 and 2016, 9.96% of NFL run plays were stopped in the backfield. For the most part, these tackles for a loss were due to poor offensive line play. If you asked Average Joe the best number to rank running backs by, his answer would likely be yards per carry, but there is no source to find these yards per carry numbers without the bias of offensive line execution and stuffs in the backfield.

These “TFL percentages” can stretch from the 5.38% of the 2016 Indianapolis Colts to the 13.71% of the 2016 Detroit Lions. There should be an accessible way to find yards per carry numbers without the massive impact of the discrepancy between TFL percentages from team to team.

Using Sharp Football Stats’ database, you can track down exactly how many carries and yards per carry any running back in the league had in 2016 by just about any qualification. To see if excluding carries of less than one yard could give us a ranking system closer to what our eyes match up with, I decided to run the numbers for every running back who posted at least 100 carries of one or more yards last season.

The 34 running backs in the study combined for 6,000 carries on the dot and 33,062 yards. That gives the pool a 5.5 “expected” yards per carry mark. To see which backs had the most positive and negative influences on their teams, relative to “expected,” I also subtracted a back’s expected yardage, based on their volume of carries, from their actual production.

Here are the results:

NameCarriesYards Per CarryTeamYardsYards Above Expectation
LeSean McCoy1787.6BUF1352.8373.8
Jay Ajayi2096.7MIA1400.3250.8
Jordan Howard2096.5CHI1358.5209
Ezekiel Elliott2946.2DAL1822.8205.8
Devonta Freeman2066.4ATL1318.4185.4
Isaiah Crowell1526.7CLE1018.4182.4
Mark Ingram1766.1NO1073.6105.6
Bilal Powell1146.4NYJ729.6102.6
Carlos Hyde1736SF103886.5
Le'Veon Bell2835.8PIT1641.484.9
DeMarco Murray2345.8TEN1357.270.2
Tevin Coleman1175.7ATL666.923.4
David Johnson2345.6ARZ1310.423.4
Melvin Gordon1935.5LAC1061.50
Ryan Matthews1285.5PHI7040
Thomas Rawls1115.4SEA599.4-11.1
Terrance West1525.4BAL820.8-15.2
Jonathan Stewart1665.3CAR879.8-33.2
Spencer Ware1885.3KC996.4-37.6
Rob Kelley1415.2WAS733.2-42.3
Tim Hightower1145NO570-57
Jeremy Hill1755.1CIN892.5-70
T.J. Yeldon1034.8JAX494.4-72.1
Paul Perkins1034.8NYG494.4-72.1
LeGarrette Blount2565.2NE1331.2-76.8
Latavius Murray1725OAK860-86
Jerrick McKinnon1254.7MIN587.5-100
Doug Martin1044.5TB468-104
Matt Forte1784.8NYJ854.4-124.6
Devontae Booker1444.5DEN648-144
Rashad Jennings1544.3NYG662.2-184.8
Lamar Miller2694.8HOU1291.2-188.3
Frank Gore2294.6IND1053.4-206.1
Todd Gurley2164.5LAR972-216

The numbers seem to pass the eye test, though the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy being by far the best running back in the league is a bit surprising. What’s more notable is the fact that the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, the 2015 NFL rookie of the year, is the last name on the list.

In 2015, Gurley’s Rams allowed 13.52% of their run plays to be stopped in the backfield. Beyond the line of scrimmage, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry that year, which would have tied for second among qualifying backs in 2016. In 2016, the Rams actually “improved” by only allowing 12.00% of their runs to be stopped in the backfield, but Gurley’s yards per carry on touches that took him beyond the line of scrimmage still managed to drop by 2.2 yards. Only the New York Giants’ Rashad Jennings had a worse yards per carry mark in this pool of running backs.

Isaiah Crowell and Jay Ajayi finishing neck and neck behind LeSean McCoy shouldn’t be too surprising. Despite playing behind a line that allowed the 31st worst TFL percentage in the league last year, Crowell still managed to run for a raw 4.8 yards per carry in 2016. If added talent to the offensive line can minimize that TFL percentage, and the quarterback and defensive line of scrimmage situations can put the Cleveland Browns in more manageable positions this year, a Crowell breakout season could be in the works.

Over the last three seasons, Crowell has posted 0.63 yards above expectation per carry. Last year, the only backs to hit that number among the 100+ carries group were: McCoy, Ajayi, Crowell himself, Jordan Howard, Devonta Freeman, Bilal Powell and Ezekiel Elliott.

Powell is another interesting back. He gained 102.6 yards above expectation last year. Matt Forte, the number one back for the majority of the 2016 Jets season, cost New York 124.6 yards below expectation. Powell should be the clear starter in New York, based the numbers. Over the last three seasons, Powell has averaged 0.72 yards above expectation per carry, higher than Elliott’s efficiency numbers from last season.

To try to get a multi-year look at these numbers, I had to use Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder. As a small sample, I decided to look at running backs who theoretically should still be under rookie contracts. I took a look at the combined career numbers for every running back drafted from 2014 to 2016, including the significant free-agent running backs.

In this data set, 5.48 yards per carry was considered “expected,” based on the 53 backs. These numbers didn’t include Lache Seastrunk, Tyler Gaffney, Marcus Murphy, Kenny Hilliard, Kelvin Taylor, Darius Jackson, Keith Marshall and Zac Brooks, who have yet to record even one NFL carry.

Here are the results:

NameCarriesYards Per CarryYardsYards Above Expectation 
Jay Ajayi2356.661565.1277.3
Isaiah Crowell4016.132458.13260.65
Devonta Freeman4266.032568.78234.3
Jordan Howard2106.471358.7207.9
Ezekiel Elliott2736.221698.06202.02
Carlos Hyde3295.811911.49108.57
Jalen Richard736.92505.16105.12
Karlos Williams806.74539.2100.8
Thomas Rawls2125.851240.278.44
DeAndre Washington736.52475.9675.92
Duke Johnson1335.99796.6767.83
David Johnson3375.671910.7964.03
Tevin Coleman1645.86961.0462.32
C.J. Prosise257.218043
Ameer Abdullah2315.641302.8436.96
Charles Sims1685.68954.2433.6
Tre Mason1875.641054.6829.92
Kenyan Drake296.38185.0226.1
Kenneth Dixon705.77403.920.3
Todd Gurley4015.512209.5112.03
Matt Jones1865.491021.141.86
Tyler Ervin133-2.48
Jerick McKinnon2645.471444.08-2.64
Jonathan Williams205.15103-6.6
Derrick Henry945.4507.6-7.52
Lorenzo Taliaferro665.29349.14-12.54
Wendell Smallwood635.25330.75-14.49
Alex Collins264.88126.88-15.6
Cameron Artis-Payne665.18341.88-19.8
Daniel Lasco103.232-22.8
Zach Zenner825.17423.94-25.42
Marion Grice133.4644.98-26.26
Peyton Barber474.83227.01-30.55
Storm Johnson234.0492.92-33.12
Josh Robinson143.0742.98-33.74
David Cobb364.5162-35.28
Robert Kelley1415.21734.61-38.07
T.J. Yeldon2425.271275.34-50.82
Javorius Allen1145.03573.42-51.3
Ka'Deem Carey944.86456.84-58.28
Paul Perkins964.86466.56-59.52
James White614.46272.06-62.22
Mike Davis363.47124.92-72.36
Melvin Gordon3335.261751.58-73.26
Terrance West3395.211766.19-91.53
Dwayne Washington684.03274.04-98.6
Branden Oliver1534.75726.75-111.69
Jeremy Hill5515.262898.26-121.22
Bishop Sankey1704.66792.2-139.4
Devontae Booker1444.46642.24-146.88
Jeremy Langford1714.56779.76-157.32
Andre Williams2464.591129.14-218.94
Alfred Blue3604.831738.8-234

Measuring careers by volume numbers, even through the lens of efficiency, has a bias toward pulling players who have carried the ball more often to the extremes. With that being said, it does seem to measure if a back is or isn’t on track to become a contributor long-term.

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