The 10 Best Red Zone Rushers of 2015

DeAngelo Williams is no young buck anymore, but he still showed what it takes to be a goal-line hero.

There’s a reason why the closer position in Major League Baseball still exists. It’s the same reason why bouncers at clubs are bald, burly dudes with sunglasses and leather jackets and why we should want our best teachers in our lowest-achieving school districts. It’s the same reason why the hero myths of our cultures survive and are adapted and retold, time and time again.

Three words: high-leverage situations.

In the most tense, important situations in life, we want the best of the best performing at their absolute peak. In the National Football League, this means that on the goal line and in the red zone – on the precipice of scoring – we need to know who the most impressive rushers are, who can deliver a touchdown to our teams.

In 2015, there were plenty of heroic moments on the professional football field, but some players were a clear tier above the rest. Which 10 players belong in our heroes’ pantheon of red zone rushing for 2015?

How We Analyze Them

Most analysts tend to look at box score statistics like yardage, touchdowns, and fumbles to judge how well a rusher performs. We do much more than that, though, because basic numbers tell a story but not always the whole story. We use a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to give context to the production that occurs on the field.

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows, depending on how a player performs in a certain situation, how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. A 5-yard gain means a different thing on 3rd-and-2 than it does on 3rd-and-10, so why should it be valued the same? For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

It’s important, too, to look at NEP from both a cumulative standpoint -- how a player performed across an entire year -- but breaking the metric down can be even more beneficial when analyzing a player. For rushers, this means looking at how much NEP they gained on a per-carry basis in the red zone (minimum 70 total rushes).


So, which 10 rushers in 2015 generated the most red zone Rushing NEP? The table below shows us exactly that.

Rank Player RZ Rush NEP Per Carry RZ Success Rate
1 DeAngelo Williams 14.44 0.31 55.32%
2 Todd Gurley 12.97 0.43 60.00%
3 Jeremy Langford 7.41 0.53 57.14%
4 Giovani Bernard 7.03 0.22 40.63%
5 Cam Newton 6.91 0.23 56.67%
6 Jeremy Hill 6.71 0.17 35.00%
7 Spencer Ware 6.62 0.55 50.00%
8 Jamaal Charles 6.38 0.71 44.44%
9 Tyrod Taylor 6.17 0.44 50.00%
10 Lamar Miller 6.08 0.32 47.37%

It should come as little surprise that DeAngelo Williams was the league’s best red zone running back this year. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a wildly-successful offense in 2015, and when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and star running back Le'Veon Bell went down with injuries, it was up to Williams to carry the team on his back. His 47 red zone rushing attempts were tied for second-most among all players this year, and he scored a whopping 11 times from inside the 20-yard line.

Todd Gurley, too, was a monster inside opponents’ 20’s. When we examined red zone rushing usage, we saw thatGurley was actually one of the most successful red zone backs this year because he was nearly the entirety of the St. Louis Rams’ offense. His 0.43 Rushing NEP per carry in the red zone was extremely efficient, and his 60.00% Rushing Success Rate there (the percentage of carries that go for positive NEP) was behind only Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews, and Karlos Williams at the position -- and they combined for only nine more red zone rushes than him.

Jamaal Charles was our most efficient red zone running back, somewhat as a result of having just nine carries inside the 20, due to going down with a season-ending ACL tear in Week 5. His 0.71 Rushing NEP per carry was 0.16 more than the next-best player, teammate Spencer Ware, who became the Kansas City Chiefs’ primary goal-line back with Charles on the mend.

Jeremy Hill makes a shocking appearance on this list, as his 35.00% red zone Rushing Success Rate ranks 38th among the 62 qualifying running backs. His 0.17 Rushing NEP per carry inside the 20-yard line ranks 22nd among the same, but this is primarily on the back of his 10 red zone touchdowns. Teammate Giovani Bernard -- not a power back, like Hill -- outshone him in every category.

Some running backs who just missed the cut: Karlos Williams (0.50 Rushing NEP per carry),  Mark Ingram, Sproles, and rookie David Johnson.

Two quarterbacks make this list, as well. Cam Newtonthe best red zone quarterback by Passing NEP, was -- sure enough -- the top signal-caller by red zone Rushing NEP as well. He saw the most carries of any quarterback in the red zone in 2015, and understandably, he had a much lower per carry efficiency than colleagues Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson, and Alex Smith. His 56.67% Rushing Success Rate is also pretty stellar, however, showing that his 10 ground touchdowns were not a fluke.

Kirk Cousins also deserves a shout-out here, for his incredible 100.00% red zone Rushing Success Rate and his 0.88 Rushing NEP per carry in the red zone. Sure, that was on just seven red zone carries (only 26 total rushes), but he converted five of those seven into touchdowns, and that’s pretty darn heroic.