A lot of running backs get undeserved credit for their contributions after their offensive line does most of the heavy lifting, and some don’t get enough because their line gives them nothing. This list is about accounting for what a running back can do not within the context of their team, but for themselves. This includes everything from vision to evaded tackle rate and anything in-between. These statistics are designed to rate running backs on an individual basis, not within the context of their teams.
One way I’ll do that is by comparing a running back’s Yards per Carry (Y/C) with their offensive line’s Adjust Line Yards (ALY), a statistic created and calculated by Football Outsiders, which essentially finds the number of yards that an offensive line is responsible for on any given run play. It isn’t an exact science, but combined with other statistics, it’s enough to distinguish which backs ride on their line’s shoulder and which have good enough vision and evasiveness to be ranked among the top in the league.
The higher a running back’s Y/C is above their line’s ALY, the more yards they can create for themselves. This list will be extremely controversial to the point where people will think I am insane by the end of it, but that’s just because not many people really dive into the intricacies of the running back position and this list will do just that.
10. Mark Ingram
Now, let’s be realistic here. Mark Ingram has something that nobody else on this list has: Lamar Jackson. But, even without the 1,200-yard rusher, Ingram’s skill set and ability to produce is far beyond anything I could have imagined without looking at his advanced statistics. He averaged 5.04 Y/C behind the Ravens’ third-ranked offensive line.
However, the Ravens’ ALY stood at 4.73 yards last season, which means that he had to create 0.31 yards of his own accord. That is the fourth biggest difference of any player on this list. Again, Jackson definitely opens up room in the middle of that blocking scheme by occupying the edge rusher, but here’s where Ingram’s stats get really fascinating.
Ingram had the #1 evaded tackle rate in the league last season at 35% (evaded tackles divided by total touches). This is undeniable proof that he can make tacklers miss and create his own yards, not to mention, he ranked 11th in Yards After Contact (YAC) and 10th in Yards After Contact Per Attempt (YAC/Att).
Without any context for these statistics, he has cause to be placed in the top-7 running backs in the league. However, when you factor in Jackson’s impact as well as the rest he gets playing in a committee system, Ingram has just about reached his ceiling in his current situation. I expect another phenomenal year from him as the Ravens fight to get back the postseason.
9. Josh Jacobs
Josh Jacobs was robbed of the Rookie of the Year award last season. No offense to Kyler Murray, but Jacobs was on a whole another level last season. The Raiders had the 6th-best offensive line in the league last year after giving 4.63 ALY to their backs, but Jacobs still ran for 4.75 Y/C, which is a healthy 0.12-yard increase. He also finished seventh in rushing and 11th in Y/C after only playing 13 games. As a rookie, I don’t know how he could have made a better first impression on the league (other than maybe playing all 16 games).
What was most impressive to me about Jacobs’ rookie campaign was his ability to transition so flawlessly to the physicality of NFL defenses. Playing in the SEC definitely prepared him for the next level, because he demonstrated great vision, patience, and elusiveness in his first go-round. He ranked fifth in both total YAC and YAC/Att, and it’s only going to go up with experience. The 22-year-old phenom also ranked 8th in evaded tackles at 81 and 6th in evaded tackle rate at 30.9%. Jacobs has a really solid foundational skillset and I see him being a problem in the league for a while.
8. Dalvin Cook
The two problems I have with Dalvin Cook are the same ones I have with Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley: they didn’t outperform their offensive lines and they can’t stay healthy. Cook does a little better in both respects, which is why he’s on this list instead of Kamara.
The Vikings’ offensive line gave Cook plenty of room to run with their 4.60 ALY, yet he only ran for 4.54 Y/C; that’s only a 0.06-yard difference, but that still speaks to Cook’s reliability in a run-first offense. One thing that undoubtedly hindered Cook’s ability to break out of the second level was the average 6.9 defenders stacked in the box during an average run play, ranking 14th in the league.
Another fact that slightly excuses Cook’s mediocrity is that he was responsible for 30.5% of the Vikings’ total offense, ranking 6th in the league, and he only played 14 games. His ability to create his own yardage is undeniable with his fourth-ranked 86 evaded tackles and 11th-ranked 28.4% evaded tackle rate. He is great once he gets out of the clutches of the defensive line, but his inconsistent vision impedes his ability to do that.
The Vikings favor an outside zone run scheme and Cook needs to find the right gap in between those fast-moving blockers. He often doesn’t succeed, resulting in a ton of negative and small gain plays. If Cook is able to improve that part of his game, he’ll be a top-5 back without a doubt.
7. Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott at #7 seems preposterous even to me. He’s been in the league for four years; in that time, he’s won two rushing titles, yards per game three times, and been selected to three Pro Bowls. However, he’s also had a top-5 offensive line in three of those years and a top-8 offensive line in all four. When you look at Zeke’s performance compared to that of his offensive line, it’s nothing beyond of average.
Last season, Elliott’s 4.51 Y/C was 0.4 yards below the ALY that his second-ranked offensive line provided for him. That’s the single worst margin on this list and his evaded tackle total and rate support his inability to create yardage for himself. Zeke’s legacy was built by the likes of Travis Fredrick, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin. Without them, who knows what his career would look like right now.
Now, I can’t say Zeke has been all bad because he does have some positive advanced statistics. In 2018, he outperformed his line by 0.11 yards, which isn’t anything to ride home about on its own, but if you combine that with his league-leading 304 attempts and 1,434 yards it certainly makes him a steady and reliable back.
Zeke ranked first in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) last season and fourth in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Zeke is still a top-10 back in this league because he carries a workhorse load and succeeds consistently, but he’s just not the top-3 superstar that many believe him to be.
6. Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones played a bigger role in the Packers offense than most people realize. Everyone raves about how Aaron Rodgers carries them each and every year, and that’s usually true to an extent, but it was Jones who accounted for 35.0% of the Packers’ total offense last season, ranking third in the league. He led the league in rushing touchdowns and tied for the lead in total touchdowns. There is no doubt he has a nose for the end zone. However, the Packers offensive line deserves a lot of credit for his success last season.
The Packers’ fifth-ranked offensive line supplied Jones with 4.63 ALY last season, and Jones only ran for 4.59 Y/C. However, let’s not forget that in the 2018 season, he led the league in Y/C at 5.47, which was a whopping 0.76 yards above his line’s ALY. So, we know he can hit that second level and go beyond what his line gives him, but he didn’t show it consistently last season, which is why he didn’t make it in the top 5.
When he did meet defenders in the second or third level, it was game over for them. At 5’9” 208 lbs, Aaron Jones, by means I have no explanation for, led the league in broken tackles and ranked third in Attempts Per Broken Tackle (Att/Br) at 7.4. How he was able to accomplish that with his body type is beyond me. On top of that, he finished with 86 evaded tackles with a 30.2% rate, which ranked fourth and eighth respectively. I don’t know how Jones does it, but once he hits that second level, he can evade tackles in any and every way possible.
5. Joe Mixon
You have to feel for Joe Mixon. The man had to run behind the 26th-ranked offensive line that only provided him with 3.90 ALY while complimenting the 28th-ranked passing offense. Yet, somehow, he eclipsed 1,000 yards with ease. His Y/C was a mere 4.09 last season, but when you consider the 0.19-yard difference between that and his ALY, that’s pretty impressive. How was he able to make his own space? He did it with his league-leading 103 evaded tackles and astonishing 32.9% evaded tackle rate, ranking 4th in the league.
You didn’t think Mixon was going to get any actual help from his offensive line, did you? They only gave him 1.8 yards before contact last season, which was the third-worst of any 1,000-yard rusher. He is a perfect example of a back who doesn’t get nearly enough recognition because his stats are deflated by the offense he’s in. If you plopped Joe Mixon down in Dallas last year, I guarantee you he rushes for more yards than Ezekiel Elliott did. Mixon is a top-5 running back in the league, and that will become clear once this young Bengals cast, starting with Joe Burrow, starts to produce around him.
4. Nick Chubb
Nick Chubb doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his contributions. Chubb was second in the league in rushing yards and averaged a whopping 0.55 yards more than his tenth-ranked offensive line provided for him in ALY; that’s the second-biggest difference on this list. His 96 evaded tackles, ranking second in the league, and his 28.7% evaded tackles rate, ranking 10th in the league, certainly helped him create yards for himself.
Chubb takes contact better than almost any back in the league, averaging 3.0 YAC/Att last season, ranking third behind Damien Williams and Derrick Henry. He also ranked second behind Henry in total YAC with an impressive 882 yards. It should be no surprise that he can take contact well considering he lead the league in broken tackles with 32 and was tenth in Att/Br at 9.3.
He did all that on a team with a horrible passing game and an average of 6.8 defenders in the box, which ranked 15th in the league. Skill set-wise, there is very little Chubb can’t do, and his production last season was undeniable. It’s time for the NFL world to realize the star they have in Nick Chubb. Don’t be surprised if he leads the league in rushing by a handsome margin in Kevin Stefanski’s offense next season.
3. Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry isn’t quite like anything we’ve ever seen in the NFL before. A 6’3” 250-pound man who consists almost entirely of muscle and runs a 4.54 40-yard dash isn’t something any defense can afford to take lightly. Henry had his breakout season last year, leading the league with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns in 15 games. He also outperformed his offensive line, which is impressive considering just how dominant they were.
The Titans’ ALY ranked 4th in the league at 4.65, but Henry managed to truck his way to 5.08 Y/C. That 0.43-yard difference ranks third in the league, and there is a clear drop off between him and the next player. His best attribute is his ability to take contact, but that may not be a surprise to anyone.
Henry led the league in YAC with an incredible 938 yards, finished second in YAC/Att at 3.2, and his 29 broken tackles were good for third. He accounted for 34.7% of the Titans total offense last season, which ranked fourth in the league and it’s virtually impossible to take him down solo. You can ask Earl Thomas about that.
2. Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley is a mad man. His combination of speed, size, and strength should terrify defenses each and every week because it’s extremely hard to come by, especially when you combine it with his vision and pass-catching ability. In 2018, he averaged 5.01 Y/C; that’s 1.11 yards more than the Giants’ 29th-ranked ALY that season. That number is first on this list by 0.45 yards and the second-place player is HIMSELF in 2019 at 0.66 yards. You can’t make this stuff up.
That isn’t his only outrageous statistic in the last two seasons. In 2018, he led the league with 114 evaded tackles, which ranks first of any player in the last two seasons. His contributions in the passing game can’t be overlooked either, as his receiving yards per game ranked in the top 10 in each of the last two seasons.
Here’s some context for his miraculous rookie campaign. Barkley led the league in scrimmage yards with 2,028 and did so as his team’s one and only lifeline. He accounted for 37.6% of the Giants offense in 2018 because the rest of the offense was truly brutal to watch, so defenses just stacked the box.
The average amount of defenders in the box on one of his runs that year was 7.0, which is incredibly high and ranked 16th in the league, but he still managed to become one of just three rookies in NFL history to gather 2,000 scrimmage yards. Saquon Barkley is the best pure runner in the league and it’s not even close.
1. Christian McCaffrey
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Last year, Christian McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, accumulating the third-most scrimmage yards in a single season in NFL history. Almost every play revolved around getting him the ball or using him to draw defenders away from the ball. When someone is dominant to that extent, it’s impossible to rank them anywhere else.
McCaffrey’s Y/C is 0.53 yards higher than the Panthers’ 17th-ranked ALY created. That difference ranks third on this list behind only Nick Chubb and Saquon Barkley. He is producing at a rate far higher than should be expected of someone with his line and his team’s passing attack. His 87 evaded tackles, ranking third in the league, certainly helped him in his pursuit for self-made yards. McCaffrey’s running ability is so obviously elite, but his pass-catching ability may be even more impressive.
McCaffrey’s 1,005 receiving yards and 4 receiving touchdowns speak for themselves, but what’s even more impressive is his 116 receptions ranked second to only Michael Thomas and his catch percentage of 81.7% ranked eighth out of all running backs with 50+ targets, even though his quarterback situation was pitiful all year. In the end, after accounting for an otherworldly 45.8% of the Panthers’ team yards and touchdowns, the man only lost 1 fumble. Need I say more?
Honorable Mentions (why they didn’t make the list):
- Alvin Kamara (underperforms his line by a ton + durability; health and workload are just as important as ability in this league)
- Leonard Fournette (inconsistency on a per run basis + bad vision)
- Kenyan Drake (hasn’t proven he can carry a season’s workload)
- Chris Carson (committee system lightens workload + isn’t explosive)
- Todd Gurley (underperforms line + durability)