Published: Sep 24, 2020 at 11: 22 AM
A football lifer might sit on a park bench and regale the nearest listener with tales of the game’s greatest stallions.
No one ran through would-be tacklers like Jim Brown, they’ll say, and few ball-carriers compiled highlight runs quite like Walter Payton, Gale Sayers or Barry Sanders. But today’s NFL is a passing game, and with its advent came the downfall of the lead back, the old-timer might lament.
This is not entirely true; bell cows still exist. But we are in an interesting era in the professional game, in which having a strong overall backfield is arguably more important than the presence of a star running back.
Through two weeks, the most successful NFL teams are finding it’s best to spread the wealth and reap the rewards. For this edition of the Position Power Rankings, I’ve assembled the league’s best backfields as we near Week 3, focusing on each team’s primary ball-carriers. (NOTE: All stats were current heading into Thursday night of Week 3.)
Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt
If it’s true that star athletes want nothing but the spotlight, the Browns’ backfield shouldn’t work — and yet, Chubb and Hunt are clicking. Part of this has to do with their friendship, which has blossomed since Hunt joined the locker room in 2019. Instead of battling for attention and carries, the two are supporting each other (read more on that here), and their pairing is quite productive.
Hunt and Chubb rank first and third in the NFL in rushing yards over expectation (RYOE) among those with 10-plus carries, per Next Gen Stats, with Hunt’s +72 RYOE edging out San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert (+71), and Chubb (+64) sitting just behind them. The combined efforts of Chubb and Hunt have the Browns atop the league in RYOE per attempt at +2.37 (compare this to Derrick Henry’s league-leading mark of +1.05 last year).
To the surprise of no one, Chubb and Hunt are succeeding by ripping off big runs. Chubb owns eight runs of 10-plus yards, the most in the NFL, and Hunt is tied for second among running backs with six. They’re also thriving outside the tackles (where Hunt is averaging 7.5 yards per carry, third-best among those with 10-plus carries; Chubb ranks ninth at 5.3 yards per carry). And they’re running behind a blocking unit that ranks 25th in expected yards per carry (3.83).
Cleveland has spread the carries almost evenly between the two in their first couple of outings, though we didn’t see a full game’s worth of how they might do so until Week 2. In that 35-30 win over the Bengals, Chubb occupied a lead-back role with 22 carries, while a fresh Hunt served as the closer, gaining 76 of his 86 yards in the final quarter, capped by a 10-yard run to set up his 1-yard score.
Again, this seems like it shouldn’t work. But the Browns are proving conventional wisdom incorrect, at least through two weeks. The key to keeping this pair hot is operating with a lead and on schedule — and that, in turn, is easier to do with two stellar backs in the backfield.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams
Jones carries this backfield, with 63 of the running back’s 234 rushing yards coming as a result of RYOE. This production has vaulted the Packers, whose running backs have a league-high 387 combined rushing yards, to No. 2 in the NFL in RYOE per attempt at +2.02, per NGS.
They’re doing so by taking advantage of defenses concerned with the arm of QB Aaron Rodgers. Jones is averaging the most yards per carry versus light boxes in the NFL (10.7), and he’s racking up 5.7 yards per rush on runs outside the tackles, good for seventh best in the league (among those with at least 10 rushes).
If defenders think the answer is simply to set the edge and contain Jones, they’re wrong. The running back is averaging an even better mark inside the tackles, gaining 8.3 yards per tote, the best in the NFL. His 75-yard touchdown against Detroit in Week 2 skews these numbers, but with just two weeks of data available, we won’t discount its impact.
Williams isn’t doing a bad job, either. The second back in Green Bay’s offense has gained 25 RYOE on just 15 carries, good for a RYOE/ATT of +1.65, while rookie AJ Dillon has shown promise with +1.55 RYOE/ATT on 11 carries thus far.
San Francisco 49ers
Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Raheem Mostert
We’re working with a smaller sample with McKinnon, who has just six carries through two weeks, skewing the numbers a bit. But he’s made the most of his opportunities. Of McKinnon’s 101 total yards, he was expected to gain just 37, per NGS. The other 64 came as a result of his own doing, giving him a RYOE/ATT of over 10, which we’d remove when ranking RYOE/ATT leaders because his carries total falls below 10. Still, that number illustrates how much McKinnon has exceeded expectations — and provides hope to a team that will be operating without Mostert (MCL sprain) and Coleman (knee sprain) in the near term.
It might seem strange to see the Niners this high with two of their top three rushers going down, at least for a little while. But note that this ranking reflects what has been accomplished thus far, not what we think will happen in the future. And in his first two outings, Mostert overachieved spectacularly — nearly half of Mostert’s 148 yards gained have come beyond expectation, producing a RYOE/ATT of 3.07. And while Coleman’s mark was less impressive (-1.52 RYOE/ATT), San Francisco owns a RYOE/ATT of +1.98 as a team, the third-best mark in the entire NFL.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. After all, the 2019 49ers sprinted to Super Bowl LIV on the backs of their running backs, who barreled through defenses in Kyle Shanahan’s well-designed scheme effectively all season long, capped by their dominant performance against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
When Mostert and, eventually, Coleman return to health, this should again be one of the best backfields in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones
Fournette’s arrival immediately gave the Buccaneers another big name to watch, and he had his first big moment in pewter and red in Week 2 when he ripped off a 46-yard TD run to seal Tampa Bay’s first win of 2020.
The touchdown run was a welcome sight for an offense that struggled in Week 1, and the Next Gen Stats back up his impact. Fournette finished Week 2 with +63 RYOE, accounting for more than half of his total yards in the win. It also flipped his RYOE for the season, taking him from -14 RYOE after Week 1 to +49 RYOE for the season. And it gave him a RYOE/ATT of +2.87 on just 17 carries, an encouraging change of direction for a back who could play a key role for a team expected to contend.
Fournette isn’t alone in the Tampa Bay backfield. Jones also has a slightly positive RYOE/ATT mark of +0.33, helping lift the Buccaneers’ backfield, which was dragged down by LeSean McCoy’s -2.33 RYOE/ATT to produce a +1.28 RYOE/ATT as a team, the fourth-best mark in the league.
J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Mark Ingram
We must always remind readers that Baltimore’s backfield numbers do not include rushes by quarterback Lamar Jackson — and still, this group is achieving. Baltimore owns the fifth-best RYOE/ATT mark (+0.82), powered by the efforts of the rookie Dobbins and Edwards, who both currently rank in the top 10 in RYOE with +34 and +28. Dobbins has been the most effective on a per-carry basis, posting a RYOE/ATT mark of +3.82 on just nine carries. Edwards’ +2 RYOE/ATT mark (on 14 carries) isn’t far behind, and their efforts have helped uplift the backfield from negative territory, where Ingram resides with a mark of -1.35 RYOE/ATT on 18 carries.
Baltimore is doing so while receiving a slightly worse performance from its offensive line, which blocked its way to the best expected yards per rush in 2019 at 4.7. It currently ranks 13th in the NFL in the same category at 4.26 through two games.
James Conner, Benny Snell
This one is a little different from the rest in that Pittsburgh’s production came as a result of two very different games. Conner’s injury in Week 1 gave Snell the majority of carries in that game, while Conner returned to take the lion’s share in Week 2. Each produced similar results in their individual performances, though, proving the Steelers have two viable options, even if they haven’t yet shared the wealth in a given contest. Conner and Snell are finding success in a similar fashion, averaging 6.4 and 6.3 yards per carry on rushes outside the tackles, good for the fifth- and sixth-best marks in the NFL (minimum 10 rushes). Snell did so in an advantageous position, averaging 6.2 yards per rush versus light boxes, the fifth-best rate in the league.
Their combined efforts have produced the NFL’s No. 6 backfield in terms of RYOE/ATT (+0.72), proving that no matter the individual runner, the Steelers can still find success on the ground.
Los Angeles Rams
Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson
Once we move out of the top five, the advanced metric results tend to decrease fairly significantly. That’s the case with the Rams’ RYOE/ATT, which comes in at ninth in the NFL at +0.34. Henderson has produced much of the positive output, gaining 35 yards over expectation on just 15 carries. He gained all of the positive yards over expectation in the Rams’ Week 2 win over the Eagles, with +40 RYOE, just shy of half of his total rushing yards in the game. Brown has been steadier if less explosive; while he has just 10 RYOE on the year, his numbers in both games (6 RYOE in Week 1 and 4 in Week 2) were nearly even, while Henderson finished Week 1 with -5 RYOE.
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Combined, they’re helping lift rookie Cam Akers out of the cellar; with one full game under his belt so far (Akers missed most of Week 2 with an injury), he’s posted -1.45 RYOE/ATT.
Kansas City Chiefs
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darwin Thompson
In his NFL debut, Edwards-Helaire logged the best RYOE/ATT mark in the entire NFL in Week 1, and that performance has powered Kansas City’s output through two weeks. The Chiefs have gained +0.35 RYOE/ATT, the eighth-best rate in the league, thanks to Edwards-Helaire’s +38 RYOE in Week 1. He came back to Earth in Week 2, finishing with -14 RYOE as the Chiefs worked to erase their deficit against the Chargers, but his total is still above expectation (+24) after two contests.
Thompson, meanwhile, gained all of his RYOE in Week 2, exceeding the expectation of 12 rushing yards by gaining 9 more for a total of 21 in the win over Los Angeles. This is still a backfield led by Edwards-Helaire, but it’s nice to know Thompson can make an impact in the small spaces between Edwards-Helaire’s lead share of the carries. Darrel Williams, who suffered an ankle injury in Week 2, is on the wrong side of the RYOE/ATT balance sheet (-1.01).
Los Angeles Chargers
Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley
Ever the versatile back, Ekeler is proving in the first two weeks he’s difficult to contain. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry on rushes outside the tackles and 4.6 yards per carry between the tackles; both marks rank eighth-best in the NFL (among those with a minimum of 10 carries). Kelley is doing his part, too, averaging 4.1 yards per carry on rushes between the tackles and proving that stopping the Chargers on the ground isn’t just about keying on Ekeler.
Ekeler ranks 17th in the NFL in RYOE/ATT at +0.45, while the Chargers currently stand at 13th in the league in RYOE/ATT at +0.04. This rate is diminished by Los Angeles’ blocking efforts, which have produced the league’s No. 14 mark in expected yards per carry at 4.25.
Myles Gaskin, Matt Breida
While he hasn’t been a notable name since his days in the Pac-12, Gaskin is starting to make folks pay attention to his play. The running back ranks 10th in the league in RYOE/ATT at +1.44, one spot ahead of James Conner (+0.88) and just behind Jamaal Williams (+1.65), while logging about as many carries. Gaskin is doing this by gaining yards between the tackles, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on such rushes, the fifth-best mark in the NFL.
The speed back in the equation, Breida currently owns a negative RYOE/ATT (-0.44) on just 12 attempts as part of a backfield that is nearly evenly splitting carries between Breida, Gaskin and Jordan Howard. But thanks to the contributions of Gaskin, the Dolphins are still 11th in the league in RYOE/ATT (+0.16), an encouraging development for a team still trying to claw its way back to respectability.