MVP Watch: The NFL's Top Positional Performers (Week 15)

Despite having a chance at Eric Dickerson's record, could it be that All-Day isn't the best back in the league?

Most other places use common metrics to tell you who the best player in the NFL is. We're better than that. In order to determine who the best player in the NFL is, we ask one simple question: who gains their team the most points? And to find out, numberFire likes to use a number called Net Expected Points. In a past top performers article, I gave this explanation for NEP:

Every single situation on the football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation. For example, the Chiefs may be facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a third and two on the 50 yard line. That's a ton of variables, but luckily, numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be "expected" to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the "expected" point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That's Net Expected Points.

Since passing is often more efficient than running the ball, you'll often see running backs with negative NEP per play scores, meaning that they are losing their team expected points every time they touch the ball. Receivers and tight ends, meanwhile, will usually have high, positive NEP per play scores, since receivers don't touch the ball unless it's a high-yardage completion. Quarterbacks can be in the middle, either positive or negative: completions typically help their score, while incompletions lower it. So when you're looking at NEP, it's important to look at the numbers based on position.

And when you take a look at what the NEP numbers give us this week, you find that the best back in the league is up in the great White North... of New York State.

Top NFL Performances by NEP Through Week 15

Quarterbacks: Tom Brady - New England Patriots
Season Total NEP: 200.04
NEP per Pass: 0.32
Last Week: #1

Brady only netted the Patriots less than three points above expectation this past Sunday against the 49ers? The Mayans were right after all! Quick, to the cellar Johnny, and wait for your new alien overlords from Tau Ceti!

OK, maybe it's not that bad. Maybe. (I'm not counting out the alien overlords yet.) But it says something about Tom Brady that he can throw two costly picks, only one touchdown, 29 incompletions, and still gain the Patriots net points for the week. Sure, it would have been nice for New England if Brady could have gotten closer to his 14.3 NEP per game average, especially considering that the 11 points he left on the table is greater than their seven-point margin of defeat. But I don't think they're complaining about their QB too much up there in Boston.

As it stands, Brady still holds slightly less than a 30 NEP lead against Matt Ryan, who had an extraordinary 26.75 NEP day of his own against the Giants. For Ryan to catch Brady, he would need to average 15 more NEP than Brady over the final two games. The Falcons have Detroit and Tampa Bay, two easier defenses. But the Patriots have Jacksonville and Miami, two horrific secondaries. I'll take my chances with Brady, thank you.

Best of the Rest
2. Matt Ryan: 170.64 NEP, 0.29 per pass (Last Week: #2)
3. Aaron Rodgers: 151.33 NEP, 0.25 per pass (Last Week: #5)
4. Robert Griffin III: 142.08 NEP, 0.22 per pass, 0.54 per rush (Last Week: #3)
5. Peyton Manning: 140.31 NEP, 0.26 per pass (Last Week: #4)

Running Backs: C.J. Spiller - Buffalo Bills
Season Total NEP: 34.98
NEP per Rush: 0.13
Last Week: #1

I know it's heresy to not have Adrian Peterson as the No. 1 back in the entire NFL right now. I get that. But ultimately, our analytics ask one question: how many points does your rushes gain your team? And AP simply doesn't gain as much as a pass-catching back like Spiller.

Despite Adrian Peterson's otherworldly statistics, and the possibility of breaking Eric Dickerson's record, the Vikings are only numberFire's No. 15 opponent-adjusted offense this season. Why is that? It's because passing is simply more efficient than running. As I analyzed in my waiver article this week, only nine backs with at least 50 carries are producing well enough to have their average rush be above the league-average play. Meanwhile, only five current starting QBs (Lindley, Quinn, Henne, Foles, and Sanchez) are performing poorly enough to have their average pass attempt be below the league average play. It's the lay of the land in the NFL right now.

So even with over 15 NEP gained on the ground this season, Peterson's 5.36 NEP catching the ball (over eight less than Spiller) may just be the difference. For backs, the more you run, the less likely your team is passing, and thus being more efficient. It's a cruel, cruel world to be a running back in the Land of Analytics.

Best of the Rest
2. Adrian Peterson: 20.44 NEP, 0.05 per rush, 0.11 per catch (Last Week: #3)
3. Ray Rice: 15.39 NEP, -0.05 per rush, 0.37 per catch (Last Week: #2)
4. Frank Gore: 8.08 NEP, -0.02 per rush, 0.40 per catch (Last Week: #5)
5. Doug Martin: 3.65 NEP, -0.07 per rush, 0.35 per catch (Last Week: #4)

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson - Detroit Lions
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 91.69
NEP per Catch: 0.90
Last Week: #1

Was Tom Brady's less-than-a-field-goal NEP day not enough evidence of the Mayan apocalypse for you? Well, how about Megatron - the man who gained 121 yards on 10 catches this past week - only gaining the Lions 0.23 NEP above expectation. Quick, the aliens have already gotten to Detroit circa five years ago; they attempted to take over by destroying the American auto industry!

OK, maybe it's not that bad (again). But we learned something with Calvin Johnson's week: big stats do not a productive day make.

Of Johnson's ten catches, six occurred on first down, the down where expected point values are typically highest and a successive first down conversion would not change much. Only two of his catches were drive-prolonging third down conversions - both of those catches came on a third-quarter field goal drive that would double as Detroit's last points of the day. And to top it off, a deep pass intended for Johnson, thrown from the Detroit 2, was picked off and returned to the Detroit 3 by Arizona, setting up a touchdown. The stats look pretty, but the game itself did not.

Best of the Rest
2. Andre Johnson: 79.35 NEP, 0.89 per catch (Last Week: #4)
3. Demaryius Thomas: 71.60 NEP, 0.87 per catch (Last Week: #2)
4. Brandon Marshall: 69.77 NEP, 0.86 per catch (Last Week: #6)
5. Julio Jones: 64.83 NEP, 0.94 per catch (Last Week: #8)

Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez - Atlanta Falcons
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 71.45
NEP per Catch: 0.90
Last Week: #1

This race has gotten boring: with Gronkowski out, nobody's catching Tony Gonzalez for the best tight end award this year. His 13.05 NEP from this past weekend's Giants game essentially clinches it, everybody else go home, we're pretty much done here.

Ah, but there's still the historical factor to take into account. As I discussed last week, Gonzalez's best season since 2000 (the first year from which we have NEP numbers) came in 2004, when the then-Chiefs tight end gained his team 73.76 points of expected value over the average NFL play. Since then, despite being an easy first ballot Hall of Famer for revolutionizing the tight end position, Gonzalez had never put up more than 64 NEP in a single season.

Until now. Yes, at the ripe old age of 36, Old Man Gonzalez could very easily be having the best season of his career statistically. If he continues his 5.10 NEP per game average through the end of the season, Gonzalez will finish with gaining the Falcons 81.65 NEP over expectation. That would be the fourth-highest mark for a tight end since the 2000 season, behind Rob Gronkowski's record-breaking year last season (110.69 NEP), and Antonio Gates' 2009 (93.16 NEP) and 2004 (83.48 NEP) seasons.

Best of the Rest
2. Rob Gronkowski: 57.71 NEP, 1.00 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Heath Miller: 55.44 NEP, 0.89 per catch (Last Week: #3)
4. Jason Witten: 47.16 NEP, 0.66 per catch (Last Week: #4)
5. Jermaine Gresham: 39.48 NEP, 0.74 per catch (Last Week: #6)