This offseason, the most unusual of all offseasons, produced a new metric.
That's right, folks. From the quarantine emerged a new statistic that might finally separate offensive line play from running back: expected yards per carry.
Like expected completion percentage and expected catch rate, expected yards per carry will help isolate the individual performance of an offensive player -- in this case, the ball-carrier -- from the circumstances around him, including the effectiveness of his blockers. For those of us who have spent any amount of time lined up over or alongside the football, this is joyful news. Taking into account defensive alignment, the number of defenders in the box versus number of blockers and other key factors, we now have a metric that will help provide quantitative proof of an offensive line's effectiveness separate from rushing-yardage totals.
Sure, it still sounds as if the running back is tied to the metric, but it also reflects the performance of the run-blockers on an individual play, because it tells you how many yards the ball-carrier should have gained based on the situation around him on the field at the moment of handoff, including the positioning of the linemen in relation to defenders. Whether the ball-carrier reaches, exceeds or falls short of his xYPC mark (which is a cumulative average of the expected yards on his individual rushes) helps reveal how effectively he plays his role in the symbiotic relationship between offensive linemen and running backs, while the mark itself tells us about the effectiveness of his supporting cast.
For example: Adrian Peterson's expected-yards-per-carry mark was 4, meaning, in part, Washington's offensive line blocked well enough for Peterson to pick up 4 yards per attempt. Peterson averaged 4.3 yards per carry in actual yardage, which is 0.3 more yards per carry than expectation, meaning he achieved slightly more than he was expected to. Of his 898 rushing yards (on 211 carries), 64 were gained by his achievement above expectation (rushing yards over expectation, or RYOE).
Conversely, Devonta Freeman was the worst running back in the NFL last year (among those with a minimum of 150 carries) in RYOE, logging a league-low mark of -1.18 RYOE per rush. Freeman's xYPC (expected yards per carry) was 4.7, thanks in part to the effectiveness of the Atlanta blockers in front of him, but he only gained 3.6 yards per carry, which suggests his struggles weren't the fault of the offensive line. (Notably, the Falcons produced a 4.44 xYPC for all runners, which was the fourth-best mark in the league.)
As for Freeman's 2020 replacement, in Atlanta, Todd Gurley? Avert your eyes. His RYOE rate of -0.67 per carry with the Rams was third-worst in the entire NFL last season, with just Peyton Barber standing between Gurley and Freeman at the bottom. The Falcons might not see much improvement on the ground if these numbers hold true in 2020.
And just so we're clear on these new acronyms for which you're about to form new neural pathways, here's a glossary:
- YPC: Yards per carry
- xYPC: Expected yards per carry (the baseline metric for blocking effectiveness)
- ERY: Expected rushing yards (total for the season)
- RYOE: Rushing yards over expectation
- RYOE per attempt: Rushing yards over expectation per attempt
So, do you understand how this works now? Good. Let's list the top 10 running backs from 2019 based on performance relative to expected yards per carry. Be sure to loosen those thumbs up so you don't sprain one while angrily tweeting at me.
2019 stats: 5.1 YPC, 4.0 xYPC, +1.05 RYOE per attempt, 1,207 ERY, 314 RYOE
We shouldn't be surprised, right? All it takes is viewing one Titans game in which Henry almost single-handedly put the opponent away -- rumbling right through feeble tackle attempts for first down after first down and, eventually, a will-breaking score or two -- to know he's doing more than the average back. As you'll see, Henry, who recently signed a well-deserved four-year, $50 million deal with the Titans, was the only running back in the entire league to post a rushing yards over expectation per attempt of more than 1 yard (1.05) in 2019. Only 10 running backs in the entire league posted a rate of 0.55 yards or better, and only two were even within 0.25 yards on average of Henry's mark. He was really damn good in 2019, running behind an offensive line that was adequate, but not quite 1,521-rushing-yards-in-a-season good. No, those extra 314 yards between expectation and reality were all Henry's doing. He's the rushing king in more ways than one, and his ROYE per attempt of 1.08 in 2018 proves he's not just a one-hit wonder.
2019 stats: 5.0 YPC, 4.1 xYPC, +0.91 RYOE per attempt, 1,224 ERY, 270 RYOE
The NFL in 2019 was ruled on the ground by powerful, explosive ball-carriers with throwback-style tackle-breaking ability and new-age downfield sprinting speed. Some might point to legends like Jim Brown to argue that this isn't anything new, but at least in 2019, only two players filled out the class of the league: Henry and Chubb. The Next Gen Stats bear this out in each key rushing metric, seeing Henry and Chubb lead in rushing yards over expectation (RYOE) and RYOE per attempt. Those pointing to the strength of Chubb's and Henry's offensive lines as the reason for their success will be disappointed to learn Cleveland and Tennessee ranked alongside each other in the middle of the pack (T-15th) in xYPC (for all ball-carriers) at 4.13. The running backs simply exceeded expectations by barreling through defenders on an incredibly consistent basis, with Chubb's 4.9 yards gained after close both illustrating his tackle-breaking propensity and placing him atop this entire group in that category. And if this were 2018, we'd all be picking our jaws up off the floor after viewing his RYOE per attempt of 1.34. No one else has even sniffed that in the last two years.
2019 stats: 4.8 YPC, 3.9 xYPC, +0.81 RYOE per attempt, 955 ERY, 195 RYOE
I'm of the opinion that Jacobs was robbed of serious consideration for Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, and while you might shout "BIASED!!" here, the numbers support my opinion in a strictly numbers-driven piece. Jacobs was as good as his 1,150 yards demonstrated; in fact, he was better. Only one running back in this top 10 (Carlos Hyde) had a tougher go with his offensive line -- Jacobs' xYPC of 3.9 paints a picture of a rusher who shouldn't be expected to do much of anything on a per-carry basis. Jacobs instead shattered those expectations, posting a RYOE per attempt of +0.81 and smashing through his expected ceiling of 955 rushing yards. The future is incredibly bright for Jacobs, especially if Las Vegas can block well enough to break the 4 xYPC threshold up front.
2019 stats: 4.8 YPC, 4.1 xYPC, +0.74 RYOE per attempt, 1,168 ERY, 211 RYOE
McCaffrey's sheer offensive output was incredible in 2019. His mark of nearly 0.75 yards over expectation per attempt landed him in this spot, the last of any runners (among those with a minimum of 150 carries) to break 0.6 RYOE per attempt. He scored the second-most rushing touchdowns of anyone on this list, and he did so while running behind an offensive line that was comparable to those in Cleveland and Tennessee in xYPC (4.1). McCaffrey, who landed on our list of the 10 most explosive runners, was among the most explosive in this group as well, registering 50 runs of 15-plus mph and 31 rushes of 10-plus yards. A decent amount of that was created by his ability to achieve beyond expectation -- and we didn't even talk about his receiving ability.
2019 stats: 4.6 YPC, 4 xYPC, +0.59 RYOE per attempt, 874 ERY, 127 RYOE
Those crushing Barkley for not posting superb rushing numbers for a second straight season aren't giving him a fair shake. This is the beauty of expected rushing yards. Even when a runner barely breaks 1,000 yards, his RYOE can show us how he's still excelling amid his circumstances. Barkley's yards per game fell slightly from his rookie mark of 81.7, but his triple-digit RYOE proves he's still playing better than expected, based on how his line is blocking for him. Barkley's totals appear a little deflated because he only appeared in 13 games, but his RYOE still stands -- especially on a per-attempt basis. Give him 16 healthy games and better offensive-line play, and his traditional stats -- you know, the rushing totals people gush over -- should jump, even if his RYOE dips a bit.
2019 stats: 4.4 YPC, 3.9 xYPC, +0.52 RYOE per attempt, 1,085 ERY, 145 RYOE
Carson joined McCaffrey on our list of most explosive runners with the last but definitely not least position, so it shouldn't be a huge surprise to see him in this group, as well. Anyone who watched Seattle perform down the stretch without him also won't be stunned to see the numbers tell us what we also saw with our own eyes: Carson achieved above expectation in 2019. The 222-pound running back runs with a speed that matches his 5-11 frame but a power that looks more like it came from someone rumbling around 235 pounds. The key indicator of a tackle-breaker -- yards gained after close -- puts Carson in a group occupied only by Henry, Chubb and Jacobs among those on this list: those breaking 4 YGAC (Carson's mark of 4.3 is third-best among those four). He's one of the lesser-known names who is an important piece of a contending team. In fact, I'd venture as far as to call Carson the key to unlocking a backfield jammed up since the departure of Marshawn Lynch (2019 cameo notwithstanding).
2019 stats: 5.1 YPC, 4.6 xYPC, +0.51 RYOE per attempt, 903 ERY, 101 RYOE
It's funny; when toying with minimum-carry thresholds, I noticed Ingram's teammate Gus Edwards outperformed him in RYOE per attempt -- but on nearly 100 fewer attempts. We bumped it up to 150 to get a better picture of those receiving consistent carries, and of course, Ingram, the lead back (though not the lead rusher) of the NFL's best rushing offense, appeared in the top 10. The wild statistic that you won't find anywhere else on this list was Ingram's astronomical 4.6 xYPC, an indicator of the Ravens' highly successful offensive line. (Spoiler alert: They're No. 1 in that category, a stat we'll explore deeper in a separate piece.) With a number like that, it's really difficult to land near the top of RYOE per attempt, because the floor is already higher than everyone else's. For some perspective, only two backs matched Ingram's YPC of 5.1: Derrick Henry and the Bills' Devin Singletary. And though Buffalo won't land atop the offensive-line rankings (we'll get to that later), Singletary had an even higher xYPC and only 151 carries, a formula for an effective campaign but also one that falls short of this list. Anyway, Ingram is excellent, which we all knew as soon as we saw the Ravens run into a brick wall in the playoffs, when Ingram wasn't running at 100 percent.
2019 stats: 4.3 YPC, 3.8 xYPC, +0.48 RYOE per attempt, 922 ERY, 116 RYOE
Hyde, who signed with Seattle this offseason, traveled a hill steeper than anyone else on this list during his time with the Texans last year. Houston's offensive line helped account for an ugly 3.8 xYPC -- the second-lowest xYPC in the entire NFL -- yet Hyde still found a way to make lemonade out of lemons. His 4.3 yards-per-carry mark is, if adequate, also the lowest mark of anyone on this list, but when considering what the expectation was, his 116 yards RYOE prove he was at least doing his job, if not more. Hyde isn't among the league's elite backs -- he's the only back on this list with a 10-plus-yard run percentage below 10 percent -- but for a team in need of a lead runner, he fulfilled his duties at a satisfactory level.
2019 stats: 4.4 YPC, 3.9 xYPC, +0.47 RYOE per attempt, 1,027 ERY, 124 RYOE
Here lies a unique case in which the RYOE per attempt difference knocked Fournette down when he essentially led the man above him in every other category. We can explain that by virtue of Fournette's extra 21 carries compared to Hyde, which diluted Fournette's totals ever so slightly. The rest of his marks put him among the rest of the class, with his 11.7 10-plus-yard run percentage falling short of only Barkley, Henry and Chubb. Fournette is another back who was battling through a season in which his offensive line wasn't quite opening enough room for him to break through 4 yards per carry without a little additional effort on his own, but that didn't stop him from finishing with more than 1,100 rushing yards in a season that was largely lost, from an organizational perspective. We'll see if he gets more help in 2020.
2019 stats: 4.5 YPC, 4.1 xYPC, +0.41 RYOE per attempt, 1,034 ERY, 101 RYOE
Cook's success, as we all know, came as a result of style blended with personal prowess. The Vikings committed to the zone run with Cook as their lead man and a line capable of opening lanes for him, and he took it the rest of the way on his own, scoring 13 rushing touchdowns (third-most on this list) and posting the only rush efficiency mark above 4 in this entire group (rush efficiency is the distance traveled by the ball-carrier on a run play divided by the net yards gained). This offense was effective because of its line, and even more so because of Cook's efforts. As for explosiveness, no one had more 15-plus mph runs in this group than Cook (by a wide margin), who had 73.
Kenyan Drake would've been in the top 10 had he not split his 2019 season between Miami and Arizona, which broke his total carries into two disproportionate groups that disqualified him from the 150-carry minimum threshold. It's tough to draw strong conclusions about Drake's apparent underperformance in Miami, where he had a league-average xYPC of 4.3 but struggled to crack 4 yards per carry -- scheme and low usage totals (47 carries in six games) could be a factor. But it's clear that when Drake moved to Arizona, where he rushed against loaded boxes just 23.8 percent of the time (compared to 27.7 percent in Miami) and against eight-plus defenders just 8.2 percent of the time (compared to 10.6 in Miami), play-calling created better opportunities for Drake to exploit his speed.
|NGS category||Drake in Miami||Drake in Arizona|
|RYOE per attempt||-0.63||0.68|
|Total rush yards||174||640|