Running backs hit rock-bottom in 2015: Only seven backs reached the 1,000 yard mark that year–a record-low. Sure, it had been fairly obvious over the past few years that the NFL was becoming more of a passing league. But with more teams relying on two, and even three, running back systems and spending less money on backs as a whole, it appeared as if 2015 would mark the beginning of the end for one of football’s most sacred positions. And who would’ve thought it would happen this quickly.
Luckily the running back position reemerged this season–at least to a certain extent. Nine backs have already surpassed the 1,000 yard plateau; and while that’s a far cry from the mid-2000’s when it wasn’t unusual to see eighteen backs run for as many yards, four backs–Devonta Freeman, Frank Gore, Mark Ingram, and Spencer Ware–need no more than 80 yards to reach that threshold. Plus, if it weren’t for injuries to Melvin Gordon and Carlos Hyde, who have 997 and 988 yards respectively, they too would’ve ran for well over the century mark.
This revival can mostly be attributed to the rise of a younger generation of backs. You probably know who I’m referring too. Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott has quickly established himself as one of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive players, as he leads the league in rushing by close to 400 yards. Then there’s David Johnson, who in his second year with the Cardinals is one game away from breaking the record for most consecutive games with over 100 yards from scrimmage (16) held by Barry Sanders. Yeah, Barry Sanders.
Yet for every young gun that’s burst onto the scene, there’s been a former star who has returned to post big numbers. Think former rushing champions DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy, who currently rank third and fourth respectively in rushing entering Week 17. Or, take Le’Veon Bell, who has returned from a torn ACL and a three-game suspension to begin the year to rank second in rushing yards behind Elliott.
It’s surprising that I haven’t mentioned Adrian Peterson’s name yet. After all, he’s been the league’s best running back ever since LaDainian Tomlinson’s reign ended in 2008. But after another lost season for AP–this time due to injuries–and with so many backs thriving in 2016, all this brings me to one question: Who is the best running back in the NFL? Not who is having the best 2016 or who is the best to build around: Who deserves the title belt right now?
With all due respect to Murray, McCoy, and a host of other backs, this question comes down to three in particular. I mean, you read the title right? This is Zeke vs Le’Veon vs David Johnson. No disrespect to guys like Murray or McCoy, but they don’t rank as highly in many of the most important metrics to evaluate running backs, many of which I’ll explain in greater detail shortly. And if that doesn’t convince you as to why this question is a three-horse race, it should become clear shortly why these backs are in a tier all to themselves.
Nonetheless, let’s start with the case for Zeke. It doesn’t matter that he’s a rookie: The dude just looks like a future Hall of Famer. Not only that, but he has the numbers to back up the eye test. In addition to leading the league in rushing yards, he has the most 20+ yard carries in the NFL and leads all running backs in Football Outsiders’ Yards Above Replacement (YAR) statistic as well. He has also been extremely efficient–and I love efficiency. Elliott is tied for first among backs in success rate, which looks at successful running plays, depending on down and distance, relative to a player’s total amount of runs (Bilal Powell of the Jets, for the record, is tied with Elliott in this category). And one more thing worth mentioning: Zeke also is tied for third among running backs in yards per carry.
However, Elliott has a distinct advantage over Bell and Johnson: He’s got a sick offensive line. You don’t even need to look at any fancy stats to know this, either. I mean, Dallas is sending three of its linemen–Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin–to the Pro Bowl once again. However, while this certainly helps Elliott, he’s clearly not a product of his line. Zeke’s been one of the league leaders in yards after contact all season long. He’d still be pretty damn good no matter who he played for.
Let’s turn now to Bell, who is second in rushing behind Elliott. Again, keep in mind that Bell missed the first three games. If we look at yards per game, Bell is still behind Elliott (108.7 vs 105.7), but Bell is miles ahead of LeSean McCoy, who is in third with 89.8 yards per game.
A couple of other things stand out about Bell. Not only he is a terrific rusher, but he makes a big impact in the receiving game. He has nearly double the reception and receiving yards output of Elliott, and he’s second overall in those categories among all running backs behind another guy I’ll discuss shortly. Plus, like Elliott, Bell is efficient, as he also ranks in the top five in success rate this season. But you want to know what might stand out the most? He doesn’t fumble. No, seriously. He’s fumbled just four times in his entire four-year career, only losing two. Elliott, on the other hand, has already mishandled five balls this season. Same goes for David Johnson, who I’ll analyze next.
First things first, Johnson needs a nickname. I mean, we know Elliott is known as ‘Zeke and refer to Bell as Le’Veon. Johnson could definitely use a shortened name that makes him stand out too, but I digress. Either way, Johnson may not have an elite sounding name, but he’s having a remarkable season. As mentioned, he is closing in on Barry Sanders’ record for consecutive games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. However, while Johnson is certainly a very good runner–he is fifth in rushing yards–he does most of his damage in the receiving game. Bell comes close, but there’s really been no other running back who has caught the ball quite like Johnson this season, as he leads all backs in receptions and receiving yards. I’ve even heard broadcasters say that he’s practically a receiver. Moreover, it’s also worth mentioning that Johnson leads all backs in forced missed tackles this year. In short, he may not play for the most high profile team, but definitely don’t overlook that guy for the Cardinals.
So who is the best running back in the NFL? Boy, it’s tough to call. Since I’m not an NFL scout, I think the most objective way to do this is to evaluate each player’s respective resume and determine whose stands out the most. And based largely on everything I’ve already said, I think Le’Veon Bell’s terrific body of work, particularly over this past season, trumps Elliott and David Johnson’s credentials.
To review, Bell is second in the league in rushing yards despite playing in three fewer contests. He also is very efficient, ranking fourth out of all qualified backs in success rate, and is just as good of a receiver out of the backfield as Johnson. Moreover, he secures the ball like no one else in the league, particularly when compared to ‘Zeke and Johnson.
In addition to his spectacular numbers this season, Bell also has more of a track record of success. This isn’t to say ‘Zeke and Johnson will be one-year wonders, but it isn’t unheard of for running backs to decline after one or two great seasons early in their careers. Take Mike Anderson, who ran for nearly 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in his rookie season with the Broncos in 2000 only to never reach those same heights again. Then there’s Cadillac Williams, who was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2005 with Tampa Bay, but never reached the 1,000 yard mark again in his career. To use a more recent example, just look at the drop-off Todd Gurley had this season.
I bet ‘Zeke and Johnson continue to excel moving forward, but who am I to say that will necessarily happen? As it stands now, Bell has excelled for a longer period of time. Not only did he finish second in rushing two years ago behind DeMarco Murray, but he was the league’s second highest graded back according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), which takes into account all the other other elements of the game (i.e. blocking, receiving) as well. Moreover, before his 2015 season was cut short, he was the league’s highest graded back according to PFF and led the league in yards per attempt after contact with 3.4.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t make two more points. For the last three years, he’s been arguably the league’s best pass-catcher out of the backfield. For instance, he led all running backs in receptions and receiving yards in 2014. He’s also been a great blocker, too. Take this stat: From 2014-15, Bell surrendered the least amount of pressures per pass-blocking snap (three) among all qualified running backs. Both Elliott and Johnson, for the record, allowed as many before Week 6 of this season.
Bell simply does it all. He may not be a better runner than Elliott, but he’s a slightly more dynamic offensive weapon while being just as good of a pure-runner. And though Bell may have been surpassed as a pass-catcher by Johnson, he has the edge over him as a runner. Combine this with Bell’s superior blocking ability along with his longer period of excellence and the title for the NFL’s best running back becomes more clear.
Le’Veon’s got the belt.