This is Part 2 in our series taking a Contrarian look at where offensive skill players rank in reality. They are mid-season 2012 rankings meant to reflect where the back is right now. The rankings combine deep analysis of the PFF signature stats with my own eyeball evaluations. Unlike most pundits – and many scouts – I’ve watched every game played so far this season. Part One looks at QBs.
1. Jamaal Charles – Ignore what’s going on with the current Chiefs and their historically inept coaching staff/general manager. Everything you need to know about Charles can be summed up in his section of this JL3 piece from earlier in the year.
2. C.J. Spiller – Spiller was absolutely dominating the NFL running back scene when I wrote my first month recap for Advanced Touches. He currently leads the NFL in both Elusive Rating – because he leads in after contact yards by more than a yard per carry – and Breakaway Percentage. Spiller is essentially a thicker and more powerful version of the back that Chris Johnson was in 2009.
3. Ray Rice – Rice is averaging 2.3 Vision Yards per carry and makes his offensive line look much better than it is. While not as explosive as the top two, he’s broken a bevy of long runs the past two seasons. The most well-rounded back in the NFL, Rice is the biggest RB threat in the passing game outside of Darren Sproles. He’s caught 78, 63, and 76 passes over the last three seasons.
4. Doug Martin – The rookie struggled early but has been on fire as of late and is up to 8th in EPA/P. With 224 receiving yards, he ranks third among backs in that category. Like the three players above him, he’s a three down back who excels in all facets. I take a closer look in Advanced Targets – Week 8.
5. LeSean McCoy – This has been an undeniably down season for McCoy. His yards per touch are in the Marshawn Lynch impotency range. Still, he was too electric in 2010 and 2011 to stay down for long. While far short of the Barry Sanders level, his lateral explosiveness is unparalleled among active backs, and like the other backs mentioned so far, McCoy is a threat in the open field, in the pass game, and around the goal line. At 24 years of age, he’s barely older than a few of the rookies.
6. Trent Richardson – I came into the season as a Richardson skeptic, and there are numerous numbers available for his detractors: a 3.7 ypc average, a negative 0.5 EPA, a rate of missed tackles forced that is solid but not special. On the other hand, Richardson has the very worst situation of any back in the NFL and has managed 679 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. This is a rare case where the conventional stats actually tell the story better. Cerberus, as I like to call him, has flashed in the passing game as well, something that is absolutely critical if you’re going to take a back No. 3 overall.
7. Maurice Jones-Drew – Before the injury, it was business as usual for MJD, a battering ram with impressive deep speed. The scouts and team sources that hinted at a lost step couldn’t have been more wrong. Jones-Drew’s 2012 long run percentage betters that of speedsters like Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson, and LeSean McCoy despite playing in a woebegone offense.
8. Fred Jackson – You could make a pretty good argument that from 2009 to 2011 Jackson was right there with Jamaal Charles as the best running back in the game. He averaged 0.7 yards per carry more than Marshawn Lynch in ’09 behind an abysmal offensive line, and in 2011 he was averaging 5.5 yards per carry and leading the RB position in virtually every PFF advanced metric when he broke his leg. Throughout those years he was a weapon out of the backfield as well, culminating in the 39 receptions for an 11.3 average in ten games last year. Jackson is a punishing runner between the tackles, a beautiful mover in the open field, and a strong route runner with excellent hands. If ‘scouting’ was truly a thing, he wouldn’t have languished at Divison III Coe College, in lower division arena ball, and NFL Europe before finally making the Bills’ practice squad at 26. Nice talent evaluation there everybody. (Jackson has struggled with injuries in 2012 but looked back to his old self with a dominating performance in Week 7.)
9. Adrian Peterson – It’s possible to be an incredible talent, a joy to watch, and still wildly overrated. I’ve written numerous columns for Pro Football Focus detailing the way in which Peterson’s struggles before contact and his complete failure as a passing down back are connected. Most scouts praise Peterson’s lateral agility, which I think is a natural weakness of eyeball evaluations. Because Peterson is huge and blazing fast, he appears quicker than he is. He’s kind of the anti-Dexter McCluster (the Chiefs gadget man has otherworldly quicks but absolutely no long speed at all). Regardless, Purple Jesus is in the midst of his best season since his rookie year, and the reason is surprising.
10. Pierre Thomas – I debated having Thomas above Peterson, but the Saints back just doesn’t have the responsibilities to merit that type of promotion. Currently second in PFF’s Elusive Rating, Thomas is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. A great tackle breaker, he’s also nearly as efficient as Darren Sproles out of the backfield.
11. Ahmad Bradshaw – Bradshaw is the one stark outlier in my Vision Yards/Agility Score thesis. He’s a back with incredible lateral agility who struggles to gain yards before contact but thrives on his ability to punish defenders. Bradshaw has actually been remarkably consistent, averaging fewer than 4.5 yards per carry only once in his career. He’s also an undervalued receiver with nearly 100 receptions – if you include the playoffs – during 2010-11.
12. Alfred Morris – It may be too small of a sample for Morris to deserve this ranking, but the numbers definitely back it up. An adept one cut runner, the sixth round product out of Florida Atlantic is very difficult to bring down. Unlike Marshawn Lynch who breaks tackles but stops his momentum in order to do so, Morris is always pushing forward. That’s helps explain why he has an identical yards after contact number to Skittles but has also broken ten 15+ yard runs despite limited speed. The next stop for Morris will be to contribute in the passing game.
13. Chris Johnson – I guess I’m a Johnson apologist. Even in what constitutes another down season, Johnson is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and a whopping 2.9 Vision Yards per. His long speed has been on display repeatedly as of late, and his ridiculous lateral agility makes him a threat out of the backfield. Johnson hasn’t been given much credit for the 101 passes he caught during his down seasons of 2010 and 2011. I still like him to bounce back.
14. Reggie Bush – Bush is another back who doesn’t get enough credit for his receiving prowess and how it affects the game. Injuries, not ineffectiveness, have been the real bane of his NFL existence. Bush’s career arc on a per touch basis is much closer to that of a player like Marshall Faulk than most realize. After averaging a sturdy 5.1 yards per carry in 2011, Bush was on the verge of a true breakout season before injuries once again curtailed his effectiveness over the last several weeks.
15. Matt Forte – Forte is like a slow Reggie Bush. Perpetually overdrafted in fantasy leagues, Forte is slightly overhyped in reality as well. The owner of a pedestrian 4.2 career per carry average also struggles badly in short yardage. He does possess a clockwork ability to catch 50 passes a season, although his per catch average has plummeted now that the Martz offense is gone. (Although not as heavily utilized as some would have liked, Forte experienced something of a renaissance under Martz in terms of yards per carry and yards per reception.)
16. Frank Gore – Considering how badly Gore struggled in 2010 and 2011, it’s tempting to give all the credit for his age 29 season to the mauling performance of the 49ers’ offensive line. It would also be inaccurate. His understudy, Kendall Hunter, is also having a good season averaging 5.0 yards per carry, but Gore’s numbers are sharply better in terms of broken tackle percentage and long run percentage. Miscast as a pile pusher – Gore is almost as bad at the goal line as LeGarrette Blount – the 49er is incredible in space and has elite splits in both before and after contact yardage.
17. Darren Sproles – Sproles is really a wide receiver out of the backfield, but he has no peers in that role. In many ways he’s the engine of that offense. Attempts by teams like the Falcons and Chiefs to develop similar players – Rodgers, McCluster – have fallen far short.
18. Arian Foster – Perhaps it’s the Vegan lifestyle, but Foster has been very cruelty-conscious when it comes to hitting opposing players this season. Averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, over half of that is actually coming before contact as Foster’s forced missed tackle rate has fallen below 10%. (To put that in context, Chris Johnson’s 2011 debacle registered an 11.1.) Foster is the No. 1 fantasy back because of an otherworldly touchdown rate, but most of that owes to the work of other players. His reality value the past several years has been heavily tied up in his receiving ability, but his total number of receptions and yards per reception are also cratering.
19. Ryan Mathews – Mathews entered the NFL with tremendous collegiate metrics and then led the NFL in fantasy points per touch during his abbreviated rookie season (which is actually a pretty good method for deducing reality efficiency). He followed that up with a sophomore campaign that saw a 4.9 yard average and 50 receptions. Mathews appeared poised for stardom. His 2012 has been depressingly average in all respects. The Chargers’ offense has collapsed around him, but big time backs are supposed to succeed anyway. With only one 15+ yard run on 82 carries, he now looks more like a product of their previously explosive system than a driver of its success. If you want an even more vivid description of his 2012 blandness, here it is: Mathews ranks 4th among running backs in success rate but 32nd in EPA/P.
20. Stevan Ridley – The Patriots new bell cow featured heavily in this week’s PFF wrap-up. He’s not an electric talent or a tackle-breaker – he rates near the bottom of PFF’s Elusive Rating which focuses on forced missed tackles – but he’s a great fit for the New England offense. Ridley is well on his way to having the season I projected for him in an offseason study on Agility Scores.
21. Jonathan Stewart – From 2008 to 2011 Stewart was the best running back in the NFL after contact and twice averaged over five yards per carry. A bruiser with surprising long speed and deceptive receiving ability – he caught 47 passes out of nowhere last season – Stewart seemed on the verge of stardom. His 2012 has imploded with the rest of the franchise. Although dealing with a turned ankle, Stewart’s chronic Achilles issues were supposedly behind him. Now being given his first real chance at the bell cow role, he just doesn’t look like the same back.
22. Marshawn Lynch – Frequent readers know my position on Lynch. While AP is overrated, there is no player in the NFL, regardless of position, for whom the perceived value and true value diverges so sharply. All but worthless in the passing game, Lynch entered this season averaging less than 4 yards per carry on over 1000 attempts. Consider that for a moment. Average NFL running backs are not capable of such consistently pitiful production even in adverse circumstances. The explanation is simple. Lynch has no vision and is painfully slow to first contact. Everyone is in love with his frantic, punishing freneticism at the point of contact, but it is only on the very rare occasion – his signature Beast Mode highlight runs – that he’s able to turn that into a long gain. He’s been slightly better this season, but even now ranks only 22nd in EPA/P.
23. Darren McFadden – Still only 25, McFadden’s collapse is more concerning than the 2011 travails of Chris Johnson. Simply put, McFadden has made a case as the worst running back in the NFL this season. Averaging 3.3 yards per carry, he’s not making anybody miss, nor is he breaking any tackles. McFadden is pretty big at 6’2”, 210 but plays like a smaller, shiftier back. McFadden rarely squares his shoulders when striking a defender around or behind the line of scrimmage. He relies on making the first guy miss and then delivering a blow 10 yards down the field. That leads to a lot of negative carries when the first tackler almost always brings you down.
24. DeMarco Murray – Through his first season and a half Murray has feasted on below average rush defenses and failed miserably against elite units. This season, for example, he’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry but has come in at or below 3.7 in his bouts with Seattle, Tampa, and Chicago. Add in his extreme propensity toward injury and this ranking seems overly favorable.
25. Willis McGahee
26. Mikel Leshoure – Expect Leshoure to flourish in 2013 with another offseason to recover from the Achilles injury.
27. Donald Brown – The advanced splits suggest an underrated talent having a solid walk year.
28. Daryl Richardson – It will be interesting to see how the electric speedster develops.
29. Rashad Jennings
30. Jonathan Dwyer
32. Ben Tate
34. Kendall Hunter
35. Ryan Williams – Possibly a sympathy selection, Williams did actually break more tackles than some other players on this list. Walter Payton couldn’t run behind this Arizona line, so it’s tough to get an accurate read.
Shonne Green, Beanie Wells