Which Running Backs Outperformed Their Teammates the Most in 2016?
Rushing performance in the NFL depends a good deal on the overall offense.
Even the most elite rushers can't consistently churn out positive plays against stacked boxes and turn hits in the backfield into positive yardage. That's why you should always prefer to tie your fantasy football running backs to efficient passing offenses.
While we can't fix every team's offense and make every situation equal across the league, we can at least do running backs the favor of comparing how they performed relative to their own teammates in 2016.
That can help shed some light on who played well in a poor situation -- and vice versa.
Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric indicates how a team or player performed on the field, through the lens of increasing or decreasing a team's chances of scoring. You can -- and should -- read more about it in our glossary if you're unfamiliar with it.
While expectation might indicate that league-average is zero, the average running back carry in 2015 yielded a Rushing NEP of -0.02, meaning rushing the ball lost expected points. (That's why establishing the run is a losing formula in the NFL.)
Anyway, that's important to keep in mind. In 2016, 16 teams had a positive Rushing NEP per carry among all running backs, just one team (Buffalo) was better than 0.10 per play, and 6 teams were at -0.10 or worse.
The point is that adding context to rushing performance -- to help account for offensive line and other variables -- probably isn't the worst idea. It won't tell us everything, but we can at least see which players outperformed their teammates in terms of Rushing NEP per play and Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of carries that lead to NEP gains. The NFL average Success Rate in 2016 was 40.28%.
Because NEP is hard to gain on the ground and because fumbles can result in big negative swings, I've removed them from the equation. The NFL average rates without fumbles are 0.01 Rushing NEP per carry and a 40.14% Success Rate.
Of the 53 backs with at least 75 carries on a single team last season, 29 produced higher Rushing NEP per carry rates than their teammates posted.
Here are the 25 who did it by at least 0.02 Rushing NEP per carry.
|Kenneth Dixon||0.23||Zach Zenner||0.09|
|Ty Montgomery||0.21||Matt Asiata||0.09|
|Bilal Powell||0.20||Devonta Freeman||0.09|
|Mike Gillislee||0.19||Spencer Ware||0.09|
|Carlos Hyde||0.18||Alfred Blue||0.08|
|Le'Veon Bell||0.15||Jalen Richard||0.06|
|Jacquizz Rodgers||0.15||Jonathan Stewart||0.06|
|Jordan Howard||0.13||DeAndre Washington||0.05|
|Jay Ajayi||0.11||Paul Perkins||0.04|
|Ezekiel Elliott||0.11||Melvin Gordon||0.03|
|Mark Ingram||0.10||Theo Riddick||0.02|
|Christine Michael (SEA)||0.10||C.J. Anderson||0.02|
That's a lot to break down, but we'll cover the most important backs at least.
Kenneth Dixon is ineligible for the first four weeks of the season. That gives Danny Woodhead time to act as the lead back for Baltimore, but as far as Terrance West goes, well, Dixon should be able to outperform him the rest of the way. In 2016, West lost 10.36 expected points on his 193 carries (-0.05 per carry) with just a 36.79% Success Rate. Dixon added a full 15.02 Rushing NEP on just 88 carries (0.17 per carry) with a stellar 48.86% Success Rate, suggesting he didn't rely on big plays to boost his per-carry efficiency.
Ty Montgomery just met our cutoff with 76 non-fumble carries and benefits from James Starks' wait-what-are-you-serious? marks of -0.32 Rushing NEP per carry on 63 rushes with just a 22.22% Success Rate, but that doesn't take away from TyMont's promising rushing tallies: 10.57 expected points, 0.14 per carry, and a 47.37% Success Rate. Eddie Lacy also played well with 71 carries for 5.61 Rushing NEP (0.08 per carry) but had a Success Rate of just 40.85%. That's a positive checkmark for Montgomery's potential as an chain-moving runner as he transitions to his new position full-time entering the season.
Bilal Powell won't be handed the keys to the New York Jets' backfield, as Matt Forte will still be in the mix this year. However, Powell outperformed Forte quite substantially in 2016 by our metrics. Powell produced 21.62 Rushing NEP on 132 carries (0.16 per carry with a whopping 51.52% Success Rate). Forte was roughly average with -6.32 Rushing NEP on 218 carries (-0.03 per carry with a 35.32% Success Rate). Other Jets running backs increased NEP on just 35.15% of carries, so Powell clearly has the potential to outperform Forte even in a 50/50 split.
Both Mike Gillislee (0.29 Rushing NEP per carry on 101 carries) and LeSean McCoy (0.15 on 234) offered stellar efficiency, but the other backs on the Bills struggled mightily. Jonathan Williams lost an astounding 9.96 Rushing NEP on just 27 carries (-0.37 per carry). Excluding two fumbles, Williams posted a Rushing NEP of -1.76 on 25 carries (-0.07 per carry) on a Success Rate of just 36.00%. The Bills' backs in total had a Success Rate of 46.84%.
This is a good sign for Carlos Hyde, whose role appears somewhat uncertain under the new scheme of Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Hyde saw 98.2% of his carries from the shotgun last year. Atlanta Falcons backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman ran just 14.2% of their carries from the shotgun under Shanahan last season. Still, Hyde mustered an above-average Rushing NEP per carry of 0.03 if you exclude his fumbles behind FootballOutsiders' 32nd-ranked run-blocking offensive line.
Few backs in the league can come close to Le'Veon Bell, and we saw that on his own team last year. Bell's marks (260 carries, 29.59 expected points total and 0.11 per carry, with a 45.00% Success Rate) outpaced most of the league. DeAngelo Williams and the smattering of other running back carries produced a Rushing NEP per play of -0.04 with a below-average Success Rate of 38.60%.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running backs combined for -40.04 Rushing NEP with fumbles and -26.33 without them, and the only back to be on the right side of zero was Jacquizz Rodgers, who added 4.02 expected points on 129 carries with a 47.29% Success Rate. With Doug Martin's suspension lasting until Week 3 this year, Rodgers could be the answer. Charles Sims produced a Rushing NEP of -5.14 on 50 carries (-0.10 per carry) with just a 28.00% Success Rate. It's also worth noting that Martin maintained a rate of -0.15 on 143 carries with just a 34.27% Success Rate in 2016.
Jordan Howard thrived as a lead back for the Chicago Bears in 2016. He added 16.26 Rushing NEP on 250 carries (0.07 per carry with a 44.00% Success Rate). Jeremy Langford lost 11.41 expected points on 62 carries with a 38.71% Success Rate. Factoring out his pair of fumbles, Langford posted a -0.05 Rushing NEP per carry on 60 totes with a 40.00% Success Rate. Howard has a stranglehold on the backfield for a reason.
Jay Ajayi became the focal point of the Miami Dolphins offense down the stretch -- and for good reason. Ajayi racked up 19.59 Rushing NEP on 259 carries (0.08 per rush) with a 41.31% Success Rate. Other Dolphins backs recorded -3.29 Rushing NEP with just a 33.67% Success Rate.
While it's true that the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line -- which ranked fifth by FootballOutsiders' metrics -- could make most running backs look good (and they did), Ezekiel Elliott still gave them something extra. Elliott turned his 320 non-fumble carries into a league-high 40.93 Rushing NEP (0.13 per carry) with a 47.19% Success Rate. Still, Alfred Morris broke even with 0.00 Rushing NEP per carry on 69 attempts with a 42.03% Success Rate. Of the 100-plus attempts not by Elliott, Cowboys backs produced 0.02 Rushing NEP per carry with a 43.27% Success Rate. What a great situation to have in Dallas.
Mark Ingram was dinged pretty heftily from two fumbles. Without them, he produced a Rushing NEP of 26.87 (0.13 per carry) with a Success Rate of 45.81%. With them, his marks dropped to 13.139 and 0.06 per carry. The New Orleans Saints as a running back group produced a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.08 with a Success Rate of 44.17%.
Christine Michael fared well with the Seattle Seahawks. He churned out a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.01 on 117 non-fumble plays with a Success Rate of 40.17%. Other Seattle backs posted a Rushing NEP per carry of -0.09 with a Success Rate of 30.37%. But he was outplayed by his Packers teammates on a limited 31 carries: -0.05 Rushing NEP per carry and just a 29.03% Success Rate. The tease heads to the Indianapolis Colts for 2017.
Devonta Freeman outdid his teammates by posting 23.87 expected points on his 226 carries (0.11 per tote) with a 44.25% Success Rate. Tevin Coleman's 118 carries averaged 0.04 expected points per play, but his 37.29% Success Rate indicates he relied on bigger plays to reach that efficiency than Freeman did.
Spencer Ware lost 15.09 Rushing NEP on 214 carries (-0.07 per carry) if you include fumbles. Eradicate those, and he posted a Rushing NEP of -0.30 on the season (0.00 per carry). Charcandrick West lost 6.37 on 88 carries (-0.07 per carry) with or without them. The big difference -- aside from the fumbles -- is that Ware maintained a Success Rate of 44.55%. West's was just 26.14%. Woof.
Jalen Richard (0.10 Rushing NEP per play with a 46.99% Success Rate), DeAndre Washington (0.09, 45.35%), and Latavius Murray (0.05, 39.69%) all played above the NFL averages on a per-carry basis behind a strong offensive line, but Richard still managed to play a cut above his teammates. But as the third back behind Marshawn Lynch and Washington, he's likely to be nothing more than an efficiency guru in a limited role -- at best -- in 2017.
Jonathan Stewart's average marks of 0.01 Rushing NEP per carry over 216 totes and a 37.50% Success Rate weren't fantastic, but the other Carolina Panthers backs notched marks of just -0.05 per carry and a woeful 33.07% Success Rate. Stewart's 2016 efficiency relative to his teammates and apparently stable role could cap the upside of Christian McCaffrey in his rookie season.
Paul Perkins is shaping up to be a stellar fantasy football target this year, and that comes primarily from his chance to be a featured back in the New York Giants offense. He also outperformed his teammates behind FootballOutsiders' 24th-ranked line. His 37.50% Success Rate and -0.03 Rushing NEP per carry don't look great, but other Giants backs combined for a -0.07 Rushing NEP per carry and a 33.85% Success Rate.
I know that's a lot to soak in, but I'm going to throw out even more. These are the 15 backs who recorded a Success Rate of at least three percentage points higher than their running back peers in 2016.
|Bilal Powell||10.55%||Matt Asiata||4.80%|
|Ty Montgomery||9.57%||Alfred Blue||4.74%|
|Jacquizz Rodgers||9.08%||Jalen Richard||4.73%|
|Kenneth Dixon||8.80%||Paul Perkins||3.65%|
|Mike Gillislee||8.61%||Devonta Freeman||3.51%|
|Zach Zenner||7.35%||Matt Jones||3.51%|
|Spencer Ware||6.59%||DeAndre Washington||3.09%|
|Christine Michael (SEA)||6.08%|
A good bit of the list is the same, which is nice. That means these guys really outdid the rest of their respective backfields not only on a per-carry basis but on a play-by-play rate as well.
Goal-line and short-yardage types such as Zach Zenner, Matt Asiata, Jonathan Stewart, and Derrick Henry saw boosts to their Success Rates relative to their teammates' rates. Zenner and Asiata, both now with the Detroit Lions are in a crowded backfield and Henry still has to deal with DeMarco Murray, so there's only so much to expect there.
But the inclusion of Powell, Montgomery, Dixon, Gillislee, Ware, and Freeman on both lists are promising for their potential to take over or retain big workloads in 2017.
There are quite a few takeaways here, obviously, but perhaps the biggest, most overarching one is that all of this could mean nothing for the 2017 season.
Without a boost in carries, these low-volume efficiency guys such as Jalen Richard will still be afterthoughts for fantasy football purposes. Without an improved offense, players such as Carlos Hyde could just be the best of a miserable bunch.
But isolating situation and talent helps to add context to football, especially with rushing efficiency, and separating performances between guys like Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West can go to show that Ware -- despite poor efficiency results overall -- was miles better than his Chiefs teammate, so keep these situations in mind for your fantasy drafts.