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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Born to Run
All Out Blitz: Volume 137

One of the more underutilized free tools available to the fantasy public is Next Gen Stats. While I certainly have some ideas in terms of adding to the usefulness and scope of the information it does track, it can nonetheless answer some of the more advanced questions we have about our players … and that is always a good thing. Combined with other metrics sites such as Pro Football Focus, we can certainly get a better sense of what is happening without actually having to study and analyze every snap from every game.

The focus of this week's column will be utilizing the metrics Next Gen Stats provides for the running back position and using PFF to fill in some gaps when necessary. Whether this becomes a regular feature or not will ultimately depend on how well it is received, but most of the questions owners have from week to week tend to be about running backs. The position is often heavily affected by game script, except for those players who are either well-established as their team's three-down workhorse or play for a team whose defense simply keeps the game script neutral or positive most of the time. At the very least, it is interesting information. Ideally, it will help readers understand why a back may be overachieving or underachieving.

Key for the table below:
(definitions as provided by Next Gen Stats)

Efficiency (Eff) - Rushing efficiency is calculated by taking the total distance a player traveled on rushing plays as a ball carrier according to Next Gen Stats (measured in yards) per rushing yards gained. The lower the number, the more of a north-south runner.

8+ - Percentage of snaps there were eight or more defenders in the box when the ball is snapped.

TLOS - Average time behind the line of scrimmage; the amount of time a ball carrier spends (measured to the tenth of a second) before crossing the line of scrimmage. TLOS is the average time behind the line on all rushing plays where the player is the rusher.

 Next Gen Stats' Running Back Metrics (through two games)
Player Tm Eff 8+ TLOS Att RuYds YPC
Phillip Lindsay DEN 2.72 24.14 2.45 29 178 6.1
Isaiah Crowell NYJ 2.72 9.09 2.64 22 137 6.2
Frank Gore MIA 2.90 22.22 2.35 18 86 4.8
Matt Breida SF 2.99 18.18 2.83 22 184 8.4
Austin Ekeler LAC 3.06 18.75 2.91 16 116 7.3
Christian McCaffrey CAR 3.42 22.22 2.74 18 87 4.8
Lamar Miller HOU 3.50 17.65 2.75 34 166 4.9
Latavius Murray MIN 3.54 26.67 2.62 15 61 4.1
T.J. Yeldon JAC 3.59 41.67 2.70 24 109 4.5
Jordan Wilkins IND 3.70 33.33 2.67 24 101 4.2
David Johnson ARI 3.70 18.18 2.92 22 85 3.9
Jay Ajayi PHI 3.77 27.27 2.47 22 85 3.9
Joe Mixon CIN 3.78 26.32 3.00 38 179 4.7
James Conner PIT 3.90 46.15 2.93 39 152 3.9
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 3.97 21.88 3.19 32 147 4.6
Dion Lewis TEN 4.03 30.00 2.60 30 117 3.9
Alvin Kamara NO 4.06 57.14 2.60 21 75 3.6
Kareem Hunt KC 4.07 26.47 2.67 34 124 3.6
Saquon Barkley NYG 4.08 24.14 3.02 29 134 4.6
Jordan Howard CHI 4.11 -- 2.72 29 117 4.0
Tevin Coleman ATL 4.20 36.00 2.81 25 126 5.0
Rex Burkhead NE 4.25 16.67 2.56 24 86 3.6
Jamaal Williams GB 4.29 9.68 2.59 31 106 3.4
Melvin Gordon LAC 4.29 16.67 2.92 24 92 3.8
Todd Gurley LAR 4.31 25.64 3.05 39 150 3.8
Bilal Powell NYJ 4.37 35.29 3.04 17 66 3.9
Royce Freeman DEN 4.39 56.52 2.89 23 99 4.3
LeSean McCoy BUF 4.52 -- 3.15 16 61 3.8
Alfred Morris SF 4.58 34.62 2.46 26 86 3.3
Kenyan Drake MIA 4.74 20.00 3.04 25 101 4.0
Marshawn Lynch OAK 4.99 34.48 2.79 29 106 3.7
Alex Collins BAL 5.12 62.50 2.89 16 48 3.0
Peyton Barber TB 5.28 31.43 2.81 35 91 2.6
Dalvin Cook MIN 5.34 11.54 2.69 26 78 3.0
Adrian Peterson WAS 5.38 35.14 3.11 37 116 3.1
Carlos Hyde CLE 5.42 26.32 3.02 38 105 2.8
Derrick Henry TEN 6.05 32.14 2.82 28 82 2.9
Rashaad Penny SEA 7.68 -- 2.85 17 38 2.2

*** Backs needed at least 15 carries to qualify

Bronco Buster

Phillip Lindsay is tied with Isaiah Crowell for first place among all qualified backs in terms of efficiency at 2.72. To put that number into some perspective, Alvin Kamara's 3.23 led the league last season (Dion Lewis was second at 3.3). And since Next Gen Stats began releasing their data in 2016, DeAndre Washington's 3.14 in 2016 is the best full-season mark. Efficiency - at least the way Next Gen stats defines it - should be very much tied in with TLOS since north-south runners typically don't dance or spend a lot of time behind the line of scrimmage. While I would not have guessed Crowell to be at the top, he is a player who will generally make his living between the tackles. Both players broke off huge runs in Week 1, which obviously skews the data in their favor.

At 5-8 and 190 pounds, it's fair to wonder if the success Lindsay has experienced thus far can continue if he is used in the same way he has been up to this point (mostly between the tackles). As we know, lack of size doesn't necessarily mean a player can't hold up to a heavy workload or run inside on occasion. It is also apparent he has very good balance, vision and quickness, so he has the proper profile to succeed inside. However, lack of size can become a problem if he is asked to continually run inside (all but four of his 29 runs have been charted as in between the tackles). And let's not forget about his competition. Up to this point, he has faced the Seahawks and the Raiders at home. Denver will face Baltimore, the New York Jets and the Rams over three of the next four games, so does that mean his carries will go down and his work in the passing game will go up? I don't think we know that for sure yet.

Additionally, as someone who played their college ball at elevation, Lindsay inherently had a bit of an advantage over the opposition, especially given the warm temperatures for both of their games thus far. Two of those upcoming games I just referenced will be on the road. I'm not exactly recommending selling high or holding, because I believe he will ultimately settle into the same kind of role the Chargers have for Austin Ekeler, who interestingly ranks fifth in efficiency at 3.06. The Broncos seem committed to a committee approach, as Lindsey (76 snaps) has only a moderate edge in playing time over Devontae Booker (59) and Royce Freeman (45). When we consider Booker has only touched the ball on 11.8 percent of the snaps (compared to 42.1 for Lindsay and 51.1 for Freeman), it's fair to wonder if Booker won't simply get phased out in one or two more weeks. For what it's worth, Freeman has seen eight men in the box on 56.5 percent of his carries, which should be a clear message to OC Bill Musgrave that Freeman needs to run more than 7.5 routes per game (per PFF). Then again, Lindsey is only averaging 8.5 routes despite averaging 15.5 more snaps per game.

Sinner or Saint?

One of the more interesting early trends among backs belongs to Alvin Kamara, whose efficiency per Next Gen Stats (4.06) is way down from last year (league-best 3.23). There appears to be a simple reason for this, however. Only Alex Collins (62.5) is facing eight men in the box more often than Kamara (57.1), who is being used more in the passing game as a result. Kamara is on pace for 144 targets and 120 receptions - usage that would shatter last year's production in those categories. It's probably not a surprise he's picked up the pace in TLOS (2.8 last year to 2.6 this year) given how often he's facing a stacked box. Kamara was always going to struggle to meet his rushing efficiency last year (3.6 YPC, down from 6.1 as a rookie), but there is also no denying his talent. Kamara's usage in the passing game so far is not only a clear reflection of HC Sean Payton realizing how defenses are playing him but also a reminder that good coaches will get the ball to special players almost regardless of what the defense is doing.

Cardinal confessional

Speaking of special players, most fans understand David Johnson has been a victim of his circumstances thus far. What is particularly disturbing is that defenses aren't going out of their way to stop him. Johnson has faced eight defenders only 18.2 percent of the time (tied for 10th fewest and includes the three qualified backs who have yet to see a stacked box). His efficiency (3.7) and TLOS (2.9) are roughly on par with his breakout 2016 campaign (3.87, 2.7). This means we are most likely looking at unimaginative play-calling (20 of his 22 rush attempts have been charted in between the tackles) and poor offensive line play (per PFF, only two offensive linemen have a run blocking grade over 60 - which is not particularly good - and both are tackles). Facing the Rams' stacked defensive line last week certainly didn't help matters, although his rushing average in Week 2 (3.7 YPC) wasn't all that bad considering the opposition. Of course, Johnson lacks two key things that Kamara has, namely a capable offensive line and a play-caller who won't run his back into a wall when they are just as capable in the passing game (and in space) as they are in between the tackles.

So are things going to change for Johnson soon? To his credit, HC Steve Wilks cited the need to get him more involved in the passing game earlier this week. We shall see if the first-time coach is someone who can get his assistants to understand his message the first time or not. The creativity and volume are going to have to pick up in the coming weeks, however, as he faces Chicago, Seattle (which surprisingly stuffed the run despite being shorthanded on Monday night), San Francisco, Minnesota and Denver over the next five games. Johnson is a smart buy-low, but I'm not entirely sure he's hit rock-bottom yet. I'm of the belief it is going to get better, but it might take a while - especially if the current regime in Arizona doesn't look back at the tape and utilize some of the plays/packages/concepts that former HC Bruce Arians did.

Gold Rush

While there is no perfect formula to build the NFL's leading rusher after two weeks, a good recipe for one is can get north-south quickly, doesn't face stacked boxes, doesn't spend much time behind the line of scrimmage and has some explosion to his game. Matt Breida ranks fourth in efficiency (2.99), is tied with David Johnson for 10th in terms of lowest percentage of eight men in the box (18.2) and is hitting the line of scrimmage in less than three seconds (2.83). What makes his numbers more special is that unlike a back like Crowell or Lindsay, he's reaching those first and third metrics despite running outside a lot more than they are. Only four of his runs have been charted as "middle," while his other 18 have been outside the guards or near the sideline. Although I didn't use this data when I said it this summer, I thought a comparison to Tevin Coleman was appropriate for Breida on multiple levels. Although we still need a few more weeks of proof, I think a look at Coleman's running chart and Breida's suggests that is how HC Kyle Shanahan sees him as well.

Sub-four club

There's lots of good information in the table above, but my mind was blown by three entries in the same column: Jordan Howard (4.0 YPC), LeSean McCoy (3.8) and Rashaad Penny (2.2) have not faced a single stacked box in their combined 62 rushing attempts, yet none of them are averaging more than four yards per carry. So why was my mind blown? I didn't think it was possible for defenses to go two full games without putting eight men in the box at least once, even by accident. Given the quality of the offensive lines in Buffalo and Seattle, it is not overly surprising Penny and McCoy find themselves struggling to hit the league average YPC mark, although poor line play is far from the only reason both have struggled.

The stunner of the group, however, was Howard. By comparison, Howard saw eight men in the box 43.1 percent of the time in 2017. Some credit needs to go to Chicago's new and improved supporting cast for striking some fear into defensive coordinators, but even more credit needs to go to new HC Matt Nagy for opening things up, especially considering how much more development Mitch Trubisky needs. Howard deserves the benefit of the doubt in regards to his slow start given his track record, although his involvement in the passing game has helped him from being a disappointment for his fantasy owners. Chicago doesn't have a viable alternative to him if things don't change (so he's not in danger of losing his job), but a league-average YPC behind a good line for a runner with the vision and patience of Howard isn't good enough. Perhaps a visit to Arizona in Week 3 (and more volume, as Nagy hinted this week) is just what he needs.

Pick up the pace, buddy

A running back spending an average of more than three seconds behind the line of scrimmage is not necessarily a problem per se, but here are the backs who are at that mark or below through two games: Saquon Barkley (3.02), Carlos Hyde (3.02), Bilal Powell (3.04), Kenyan Drake (3.04), Todd Gurley (3.05), Adrian Peterson (3.11), McCoy (3.15) and Ezekiel Elliott (3.19). All but two - Barkley (4.6) and Elliott (4.6) are averaging at or below four yards per carry, and Barkley's mark was obviously aided by the fact he broke loose for a 68-yard score late in Week 1 - a single run which accounts for 50.8 percent of his total rushing yards thus far. All of the aforementioned backs are seeing eight defenders in the box at least 20 percent of the time, with Powell surprisingly leading the group at 35.29 percent and Peterson close behind at 35.14.

Just in case owners needed some more statistical proof as to why Chris Carson should be playing more often than Penny right now, here is some: Penny's efficiency (or lack thereof) is at 7.68. For some perspective, Derrick Henry's 6.05 mark would be the worst in the three-year Next Gen Stats era. In case readers are wondering what Carson's efficiency is, so is the rest of the world. Carson's 13 carries aren't enough to qualify for the list. Per PFF, Carson has avoided five tackles on 16 touches, while Penny has avoided one in 21. Considering one of Penny's strengths coming out of college was his ability to break tackles, this is troubling - even only two games into his NFL career. And remember how Seattle claimed this was going to be the year it got back to running the ball? The Seahawks have 38 rushing attempts through two games, including only five from Russell Wilson. While former OC Darrell Bevell was not a play-calling genius by any stretch of the imagination, new OC Brian Schottenheimer has made this offense noticeably worse so far. Maybe he deserves a bit of a pass because he really hasn't had Doug Baldwin at his disposal, but Wilson isn't running and there is no commitment to the ground game.

Resistance is not always futile

For reasons beyond my comprehension, defenses are stacking the box 31.43 percent of the time on Peyton Barber. He's averaging 2.6 YPC. Tevin Coleman is facing a stacked box 36 percent of the time and averaging five yards per carry. A mistake most owners make (and most coaches seem to, for that matter) is not understanding that certain types of runs - and the situations in which they are executed - are naturally going to net more yards than others. I have never believed in the concept of "hot hands" in the backfield, but anyone (coaches included) who uses yards per carry as proof of this phenomenon is akin to a realtor who wants to sell a house without showing off the inside. (In other words, there is so much more to analyzing running back performance, but I digress.) Coleman's game chart is a clear reflection of a play-caller who understands what he is. I think the same can be said for Barber. The difference? Atlanta blocks better, Coleman is more explosive and runs outside more often to accentuate his explosiveness. As a result, he is less likely to get tracked down by a defensive lineman who is moving parallel to the line of scrimmage because he isn't going to be able to keep up. Barber is almost exclusively running between the tackles (all but six of his attempts have been charted inside the hashes) and doing so with a less-talented line. Of course, I'd rather have Coleman, but the point is that it is much more difficult to break off the long runs that boost YPC if a back is always running inside. Defenses track these tendencies as well, so backs like Barber are running against defenses and usually have a good idea where he will run to on any given play.

(AFC/NFC) Northern exposure

One more interesting comparison is between Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in the Minnesota backfield. While it's no secret Cook (5.34, fifth-lowest among qualified backs) is the more elusive of the two, Murray (3.54 eight-highest) has been substantially more efficient per Next Gen Stats' metric. Cook (11.54 percent) has seen eight in the box less than half as much as Murray (26.67), although there is plenty of reason to believe defenses aren't stacking the box against Cook because they know how dangerous he is as a receiver.

Let's wrap this up with a comparison which I'm sure will go over well: 2018 James Conner versus 2017 Le'Veon Bell.

Conner has been a more north-south runner (3.9 for Conner, 4.17 for Bell), although that is hardly a surprise given Bell's trademark patience. Conner has seen eight men in the box 46.15 percent of the time, while Bell ran against a stacked front 19.94 percent of the time. Conner has also been faster to the line of scrimmage (2.93 versus 3.11), which goes pretty much hand-in-hand with what I said two sentences earlier.


Two games do not a season make, so treat this information for what it is: some early trends. This is data I plan on revisiting sometime over the next month when we have more of a sample size. In the meantime, I would advise everyone to bookmark Next Gen Stats and visit the site at least once a week.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.