Analysis

Next Gen Stats' 10 most explosive runners of 2020: Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson atop rankings

The explosive play is the one most desired by talent evaluators and coaches at every level of football.

Given that reality, it made plenty of sense that the NFL's most explosive ball-carrier in 2019 -- Lamar Jackson -- won the league's Most Valuable Player award that season. So who were the most explosive ball-carriers in 2020? With the help of Next Gen Stats' player-tracking data -- which provides us with distance and speed measurements, among many other bits of valuable information -- we explored our vast database of tracking data to answer that question.

To no one's surprise, the aforementioned Jackson again landed in the top 10. But unlike last year, he's not No. 1. And before we dive deeper into the list, we need to provide some important statistical baselines.

A minimum of 100 carries was required to create a group of qualifiers with relative volume. From there, we examined the total number and percentage of 15-plus mph runs as the defining measurement of an explosive run. And to truly filter through the masses to find the best, we required a minimum of 20 runs that resulted in a gain of 10-plus yards.

To review, here are our three criteria:

  • A minimum of 100 carries in 2020.
  • At least 20 carries of 10-plus yards.
  • The defining metrics: the total number and percentage of 15-plus mph runs.

What we found was a group of the NFL's most consistently explosive ball-carriers. Many of these names won't surprise you -- but be prepared for a few curveballs.

Rank
10
Damien Harris
New England Patriots · RB

10+ yard runs: 20

10+ pct: 14.6%

15+ mph runs: 31

15+ mph pct: 22.6%


Here's one surprise right off the bat. Harris landed on this list because of his productivity despite seeing just 137 attempts last season, but he proved to be an occasional spark plug for the Patriots on the ground. Harris' 31 runs of 15-plus mph showed he can consistently ramp up to a dangerous speed when carrying the ball, and when he has the space to really let it rip, he's proven to be among the league's fastest. Harris reached 20.6 mph on a 41-yard rush in Week 4 against Kansas City, which was the highest speed on a single rush by a Patriot since the 2018 season. His 90.3 overall PFF grade was the second-highest among running backs, trailing only Derrick Henry (92.4) in 2020. Harris is good for an explosive carry or two a week, and all it takes is one explosive tote to end up changing a game.

Rank
9
Darrell Henderson
Los Angeles Rams · RB

10+ yard runs: 20

10+ pct: 14.5%

15+ mph runs: 32

15+ mph pct: 23.2%


Henderson is another running back who didn't see a huge workload in 2020 as part of a committee backfield in Los Angeles. He recorded just 138 carries but still ripped off 32 runs of 15-plus mph and sneaked into the qualifiers with 20 runs of 10-plus yards. Henderson's five touchdowns were the highlight of his productivity, but we shouldn't overlook his 4.5 yards per carry. His Pro Football Focus grade of 90.2 between Weeks 1-10 is also remarkable, as it was the highest among all running backs in that span. He might not be a true lead back, but Henderson has a knack for making explosive plays.

Rank
8
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB

10+ yard runs: 35

10+ pct: 15.1%

15+ mph runs: 37

15+ mph pct: 15.9%


Taylor's total of 10-plus-yard runs (third most in the league) and 10-plus-yard run rate (fifth) lands him here even though he broke 15 mph at a lower rate than the other players on this list. Taylor broke out in the second half of the season and when he really got going, the rookie became one of only three running backs to reach 22-plus mph as a ball-carrier (the others: Kenyan Drake and Raheem Mostert). He posted three of the 10 fastest ball-carrier speeds recorded by running backs in 2020, and despite having a relatively slow start to his first NFL season, he finished with the seventh-highest rush yards over expectation total at +180. He did so by gaining +223 yards over expectation between Weeks 13 and 17, the second most in that span in the entire league, and his +2.33 RYOE per attempt in that same stretch of time was the third-highest rate (minimum 25 rushes). Taylor is a throwback with a one-cut running style that helps him become a home run hitter once he sees an opening. He had 133 carries for 683 yards and seven touchdowns when running inside the tackles in 2020. His yardage total in such situations was the second most in the league last season, and when opponents dared to spread their defenses out to defend the pass, he made them pay, gaining 10-plus yards on one-fifth of attempts versus a light box, good for the fourth-highest rate of productivity among runners last season. Taylor's rookie season grew into an impressive one, giving Colts fans good reason to be excited about his potential.

Rank
7
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · RB

10+ yard runs: 27

10+ pct: 14.4%

15+ mph runs: 40

15+ mph pct: 21.4%


Kamara's rushing totals might not be as prolific when it comes to explosive plays, but he gets the nod over Jonathan Taylor for seventh on this list because of his dangerous versatility. Kamara is as big a weapon in the passing game as he is on the ground, receiving a target on nearly one third of his total routes run (33.1 percent) in 2020, good for the second-highest rate in the NFL (minimum 200 routes run). He gained the second-most receiving yards per route run among running backs at 2.3, and he forced 20 missed tackles on receptions in 2020, tying for the third most in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. And when it comes to the running game, Kamara is just as deadly, rushing for 12 touchdowns on runs outside the tackles, the most in the NFL, while gaining the most yards per attempt inside the tackles at 6.6. His +101 rushing yards over expectation were the 12th-most in the league, and his singlehanded destruction of the Minnesota defense on Christmas Day produced five rushing touchdowns against stacked boxes, the most such touchdowns in a single game since the start of the Next Gen Stats era (which dates back to 2016). Even when defenses focused on shutting down Kamara, they still weren't able to stop him. It's no wonder he's such a nightmare in every area of the offensive attack for the Saints, and no surprise he's on this list.

Rank
6
Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

10+ yard runs: 34

10+ pct: 17.9%

15+ mph runs: 30

15+ mph pct: 15.8%


Chubb is another example of a runner whose percentages might not stack up against others who appear on this list, but his output is impossible to overlook. The tape, of course, is also difficult to ignore, as is his 10-plus-yard run rate of 17.9 percent, the highest mark in the NFL. Chubb is known as a player who rarely goes down after first contact, ping-ponging arm-tackling defenders with ease as he bursts upfield for significant gains. He did so plenty in 2020, finishing as the only player in the NFL to gain 4 or more yards per rush after contact (4.1), per Pro Football Focus. He also gained 17 more first downs than expected, the most in the NFL, and posted the second-highest rush yards gained over expectation (+327), finishing as the league leader in RYOE per attempt for the second time in three seasons at +1.75. Finally, and perhaps most important, no one closed better than Chubb in 2020. When the Browns needed to salt away one of their 11 regular-season wins, they turned to Chubb, who averaged 10 yards per carry and +6.38 yards per rush over expectation in the fourth quarter. Chubb is simply a beast, as reliable as they come, and perennially one of the league's most explosive ball-carriers.

Rank
5
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

10+ yard runs: 46

10+ pct: 14.7%

15+ mph runs: 76

15+ mph pct: 24.4%


Cook finished second on this list last year with nearly half as many 10-plus-yard runs, so his increase in big gains ensured his place in this group again. The home run hitting Cook (19 rushing touchdowns scored on runs outside the tackles since 2019, the most in the NFL) again found great success in Minnesota's zone scheme last season, finishing fourth in the league in 15-plus mph runs with 76. Cook is also a master of making the unlikely a reality, ripping off four runs that gained 30 or more yards over expectation in 2020, tying for the most such runs in the NFL with Green Bay's Aaron Jones and Tennessee's Derrick Henry. His 252 rushing yards gained over expectation in 2020 were the third-most in the NFL among running backs. Even when defenses think they have Cook in their sights, he's proven to be a runner capable of crushing opposing hopes. He was one of two running backs in the NFL to gain 1,000 or more rushing yards after contact in 2020, per PFF, joining Henry in that elite club. He and Henry also own another prestigious title: They're the only two running backs with 10 or more rushing touchdowns both inside and outside the tackles since 2019, proving defenses can bring everything they have to Minnesota's rushing attack with No. 33 in the backfield, and they're still not very likely to shut him down.

Rank
4
J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore Ravens · RB

10+ yard runs: 20

10+ pct: 14.9%

15+ mph runs: 33

15+ mph pct: 24.6%


Dobbins' fit with the Ravens almost made too much sense when Baltimore selected him in the second round in 2020, and the pairing paid off immediately. He finished with the fifth-highest 15-plus mph run rate at 24.6 percent, and gained the fourth-most rushing yards over expectation at +222. Sharing the same backfield with Lamar Jackson undoubtedly helped Dobbins find room to run, as evidenced by his 7 yards gained per rush outside the tackles. Dobbins was the only running back to gain more than 6 yards per rush on such attempts, underscoring just how unpredictable and flummoxing the Ravens' offense is for opposing defenses. While Dobbins' ascension meant the end of Mark Ingram's time in Baltimore, it's only the beginning for the former Ohio State star, who found his niche in the NFL in his first season and is poised for more success in the years ahead.

Rank
3
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

10+ yard runs: 48

10+ pct: 12.7%

15+ mph runs: 89 (2nd-most in NFL, most among RB)

15+ mph pct: 23.5%


Henry's 10-plus-yard runs percentage is the lowest of any player on this list, but that's primarily a product of Henry's massive volume of carries. He led the league in rushing attempts in both 2019 and 2020 and set a new career high in the category last season, toting the rock an incredible 378 times en route to a 2,027-yard campaign. With a massive volume considered, we're comfortable overlooking Henry's lower percentages and placing him third on this list because his production and impact on the game is undeniable. Henry gained the most rushing yards over expectation (+412) in the league in 2020, and forced the most missed tackles (75) in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Defenses can stack the box in an attempt to limit him, but King Henry proved again that it's a futile effort, as his 5.9 yards per carry versus stacked boxes (eight-plus defenders) was the second-highest average in the league. His 10 rushing touchdowns against stacked boxes also led the league, as did his 10 rushing scores on runs inside the tackles. Henry gained 6.3 yards per rush inside the tackles (third-most among running backs with a minimum of 50 rushes inside the tackles) and racked up 1,490 yards after contact in 2020. The latter mark was the most in a season by any player in the PFF era, which dates back to 2006, and when combined with the Next Gen Stats numbers, one conclusion is painfully clear: Henry is a bulldozer, and chances are, defenders are going to be left lying flat on the ground in his wake.

Rank
2
Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

10+ yard runs: 32

10+ pct: 20.1%

15+ mph runs: 85

15+ mph pct: 53.5%


One year after Jackson dominated the 10-plus-yard runs category, the quarterback saw a significant decrease in big gains on the ground (47 to 32). Jackson still landed among the league leaders in such runs, though, and he again made defenses pay for letting him find open space. Jackson's 85 15-plus mph runs were the third most in the NFL. Jackson tied Murray for most 20-plus mph runs among quarterbacks with four (Daniel Jones also posted four but didn't have enough total carries to qualify). Jackson had an even better yards-per-carry mark than Murray against light boxes at 7.8 yards.


The Ravens relied on running plays or play-action on 69.7 percent of their plays, the highest rate in the league, bringing a significant element of unpredictability to their dangerous offense. As you might expect, Jackson leads the league in yards gained on read options over the past two seasons (1,220), riding the misdirection to great success. No one is even in the same area code as Jackson in this department, with teammate Gus Edwards finishing a distant second with 611 yards gained on read options since 2019. Ever the speed demon, Jackson was responsible for four of the eight fastest speeds reached by a quarterback in 2020, making him a threat on every single down.

Rank
1
Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · QB

10+ yard runs: 32

10+ pct: 24.1%

15+ mph runs: 94

15+ mph pct: 70.7%


Murray succeeds Jackson as the NFL's most explosive ball-carrier, and did so not by ripping off more 10-plus-yard runs -- they had the same total at 32 -- but by breaking 15 mph more often. Murray's 94 runs of 15-plus mph were the most of all ball-carriers in the NFL, leading to the highest rate of 15-plus mph runs in the entire league (by far) at 70.7 percent. That's what pushed Murray past Jackson for the No. 1 spot, but we're not done there. Murray gained the second-most rushing yards on scrambles in 2020 (427 yards), per Pro Football Focus, and accounted for 88 of Arizona's 133 rushes versus light boxes (less than seven defenders), gaining 621 of Arizona's 819 yards in such scenarios. His 7.1 yards per carry against light boxes was the third-highest average in the NFL (minimum 50 rushes versus light boxes), and his six rushing touchdowns scored in such scenarios were the most in the league. The point we gain from this info is simple: Kliff Kingsbury's spread offense makes for easier going on the ground for ball-carriers and especially for Murray, maximizing his potential as a runner while also forcing defenses to respect the threat he poses as a passer. He was NGS' No. 3 deep-ball thrower in the league last season. Murray couldn't be in a better offensive situation than the one he occupies in Arizona, and it has helped elevate him to the status of most explosive runner in the NFL.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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