Welcome back to Quick Reads' Decade in Review. Today we're going to look at the best running back totals of the 2010s to show who helped (or hurt) their teams the most. We're also going to separate rushing from receiving info to see who was most effective moving the ball on the ground, through the air, or both.
Prior pieces in this series:
|Best Total DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
LeSean McCoy was quietly the most productive running back of the past decade. He led all players in the 2010s with 10,434 rushing yards and 13,923 yards from scrimmage. Among running backs, he was second behind Adrian Peterson in rushing touchdowns, second behind Darren Sproles in receptions, and third behind Sproles and Matt Forte in receiving yards. He's not a household name, however, because he was very quiet in the postseason. He only played in five playoff games, and that includes Kansas City's win against Houston last year when he was on the field for exactly one snap. He also had three playoff games with Philadelphia and one with Buffalo, losing all four while averaging 55.5 rushing yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry, and 26.0 receiving yards per game.
By rushing DYAR alone, the most valuable running back of the 2010s was Marshawn Lynch. You'll also recall that Russell Wilson was the most valuable quarterback in rushing DYAR in the last decade. Yes, Pete Carroll's Seahawks could run the ball. Though he never led the league in rushing DYAR, Lynch was dominant in the four-year stretch from 2011 to 2014, when he finished second in DYAR three times and fifth once. He also made the top ten in 2017 with the Raiders. He was "only" third in the decade with 68 rushing touchdowns, but his rate of one touchdown every 26.5 carries was better than either of the players ahead of him in scoring totals, McCoy (33.2) or Peterson (29.9).
Nine running backs made the top 20 in both rushing and receiving DYAR. Only McCoy and Le'Veon Bell made the top 10 in both categories; only Bell surpassed 600 DYAR in both. Though he was not as productive on the ground as either McCoy or Lynch, Bell was much better than either of them as a receiver, with less than half as many fumbles. He finishes third in combined DYAR despite playing only 77 games (he was drafted in 2013, missed 19 games due to injuries, and sat out 2018 in a contract dispute). He stomps McCoy and Lynch in DYAR per game, but he's not the best in that category. A trio of youngsters -- Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, and Ezekiel Elliott -- lead the way there.
And right about now, a lot of you are seeing Danny Woodhead's name in fourth place, and your heads are exploding. I mean, Danny Woodhead? The third-down back who bounced from the Jets to the Patriots to the Chargers to the Ravens? The guy who finished 79th among running backs in rushing yards but somehow made the top 20 in rushing DYAR? The guy who finished 41st in yards from scrimmage, yet finished fourth in combined DYAR? What's going on here? Well, what's going on is that in a very small sample size, Woodhead was the most consistent runner of the last decade. He only qualified for our rushing leaderboards one time, in 2013, when he led the NFL with a 60% rushing success rate. In his career, 54% of his carries have met Football Outsiders' standards of success (45% of yards to go on first down, 60% on second down, 100% on third down). That rate would have ranked eighth or better in every year of the 2010s. If we use a simpler definition of success, 57% of his carries this decade gained at least 4 yards and/or a first down. That's the highest rate among the 92 running backs this decade with at least 400 carries. With that definition, he had 288 successful rushes and only 214 failures. That difference of +74 was fourth-best this decade behind Jamaal Charles (+106), Mark Ingram (+79), and Elliott (+79). Part of this, naturally, is a reflection of Woodhead's role in the Chargers' (etc.) offense. He typically came in on passing downs, and rarely was given a handoff and forced to plow into a crowded box to satisfy some Neanderthalian need to establish anything. His high success rate can be attributed to his own talent, but also to his coaches' schemes and his quarterbacks' ability to audible to runs in good situations. Woodhead also led all running backs with 864 receiving DYAR in the last 10 years. We'll dig into the specifics behind that later.
In fifth place we have Darren Sproles, but keep in mind this does not include the first five years of his career. It doesn't include special teams data either, which means Sproles gets no extra credit for his five punt return touchdowns in the past decade.
|Worst Total DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
Denard Robinson was an option quarterback at Michigan, finishing his Wolverines career with more runs (723) than completions (427). When the Jaguars drafted him in the fifth round in 2013, it was unclear whether he would be playing at running back or wide receiver in Jacksonville. For his part, Robinson preferred to be listed as an "offensive weapon," or "OW," in the program. Well, OW indeed. Robinson eventually settled in as a running back, and the least valuable running back of the decade at that. He only lasted four years in the NFL, finishing with less than 1,400 yards from scrimmage, and with more fumbles (eight) than touchdowns (five).
However, Robinson just barely qualifies for the last-place spot because of his -15 DYAR for a pair of pass attempts, both incomplete. If you ignore botched gadget plays and look only at the rushing and receiving numbers that we usually use to measure running backs, your new last-place finisher is Tashard Choice. Choice began his career as a productive part of a committee backfield in Dallas. Playing behind Marion Barber and Felix Jones, he failed to qualify for our running back leaderboards in either 2008 or 2009, but he topped 5.0 yards per carry both seasons, with a combined total of 309 rushing and receiving DYAR. Those years, of course, fall outside the timeframe of this study. Things turned south in Choice's third season, and he had trouble hanging on to a job after that. In a five-week span during the 2011 season, he played for Dallas, Washington, and Buffalo, ending his career with three games with the Colts in 2013.
Beyond Robinson and Choice you have … um … who are these guys? DYAR is supposed to be a counting stat, so theoretically players with significant playing time should produce the most extreme results. When we looked at the worst quarterbacks of the decade in total DYAR, we found most of them were starters for at least a year or two, sometimes much longer. Few of these running backs, however, played much in the NFL at all. Only Peyton Barber had enough runs to qualify for the decade's rushing DVOA table, while only Devontae Booker had enough targets to qualify as a receiver. Some names here (such as Choice, Thomas Jones, or Chester Taylor) were successful players from the prior decade in the twilight of their career. Kalen Ballage is still, for the time being, an active member of the Dolphins roster. The rest were total flashes in the pan; they hit the field, showed they could neither run nor catch, and got yanked. There are no Mark Sanchezes or Matt Cassels here, hanging around for years just below replacement level. While quarterbacks are typically given a longer leash to work out their growing pains, bad running backs don't usually get the chance to be bad running backs for very long.
No running back made the bottom 10 in both rushing DYAR and receiving DYAR. Andre Williams (who led the Giants in rushing yards as a rookie in 2014 before finishing his brief career with the Chargers) came closest, finishing 10th from the bottom in rushing DYAR and 11th from the bottom in receiving DYAR. He's the only player to finish below -60 DYAR in both categories.
Lynch was the decade's best runner, but he wasn't much of a receiver, with only 160 receiving DYAR. That gap of 1,131 DYAR was by far the most of any running back, followed by Ingram (1,082, 210, +874) and Peterson (959, 91, +888) and. The biggest gap the other way goes to James White (52, 729, -677), followed by Joique Bell (65, 534, -469) and Austin Ekeler (110, 535, -425).
|Best Rushing DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
While we have already discussed the credentials of Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy, we should not overlook Jamaal Charles, the best home-run threat the NFL has seen in the last five decades. You have to go all the way back to Jim Brown in the 1960s to find another runner who averaged at least 5.0 yards on at least 1,000 carries in a given decade. Charles' 5.29-yard average is by far the best in this table, and that doesn't even include the 5.75-yard average he had on 257 carries in 2008 and 2009. Charles' peak in the NFL was short, but it was high. Including 2009, he only qualified for our running back leaderboards five times -- but in four of those seasons he was in the top three in rushing DYAR, and he was first in 2010.
Mark Ingram's career was the opposite of Charles' -- he wasn't as dominant, but he had much more longevity. Last year, he was third among running backs with 249 rushing DYAR in his age-30 season. Before that, though, he had never ranked higher than eighth. However, he has made the top 20 seven times, including each of the last six seasons.
And then we get to Ezekiel Elliott, whose numbers here may actually be most impressive because he was only drafted in 2016 and has only played about 3½ seasons. Game-for-game, he was by far the most effective runner of the 2010s. Elliott's 18.2 DYAR per game is miles ahead of anyone else in this table. Alvin Kamara is second at 12.7 -- closer to 16th-place Ryan Mathews than he is to Elliott.
|Worst Rushing DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
If you were surprised (disappointed?) not to see Trent Richardson in the worst combined DYAR table, well, don't worry, we didn't forget about him. Though he was surprisingly effective as a receiver (157 DYAR, including top-20 finishes in 2012 and 2014), he had the worst rushing DYAR of any running back in the past decade. It wasn't all terrible for Richardson; he did run for 100 yards in a game three times. But he averaged less than 40 yards in his other 43 games, including just 3.1 yards per carry. This for a player taken third overall by Cleveland in 2012, and then traded to Indianapolis for what turned out to be the 26th overall pick in 2014. Rarely has so much been invested by so many teams for a runner who produced so little.
Again, though, we see that most of these players were able to put up decade-worst numbers in only limited playing time. Four of them had fewer than 100 carries (special notice to Laurence Maroney and Ryan Williams, who registered as two of the worst runners of the decade in only nine games between them), while only five qualified for our DVOA leaderboard.
Speaking of which…
|Best Rushing DVOA, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
|(Minimum 400 rushes; 92 running backs qualified)|
Our minimum here is 400 carries -- theoretically enough to qualify for our leaderboards four times, though of course some players got there much faster than that. That left us with 92 qualifying runners, and carry-for-carry, none of them was more effective than New Orleans' Alvin Kamara. Among the top 20 running backs in rushing efficiency, Kamara had the highest first down rate and the lowest fumble rate, while averaging nearly 5.0 yards per rush. It's easy to understand why he's at the top of our list.
Kamara is followed by Green Bay's Aaron Jones, whose average carry gained even more than Kamara's, and who brought additional goal-line punch -- his rate of one touchdown every 16.1 rushes is best of any runner here. Both of these runners were drafted in 2017, Kamara in the third round, Jones in the fifth. Don't draft running backs early, is what we're getting at here.
Kamara and Jones are followed by Woodhead and Sproles, a pair of passing-game specialists who shined in the limited opportunities they had to carry the ball. Then we get to Charles, and if you're wondering why the best home-run threat the NFL has seen in the last five decades isn't higher, it's because he suffered from the occasional case of butterfingers, with the most fumbles and worst fumble rate of any runner in this table. On that note, let's applaud Denver's Phillip Lindsay, who has already amassed nearly 2,500 yards from scrimmage without a single fumble in his young NFL career.
|Worst Rushing DVOA, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
|(Minimum 400 rushes; 92 running backs qualified)|
Many of these players were allowed to rack up high numbers of carries because they had big seasons early in their careers. Doug Martin was ninth in DYAR and 14th in DVOA as a rookie in 2012; he played a half-dozen more seasons, but never had a positive DYAR again. Darren McFadden's best DVOA was his 11.6% mark in 2011; he qualified four more times, but never had a positive DYAR again. Chris Johnson ran for over 2,000 yards in 2009 (which, it should be pointed out, is not included in his numbers here); he qualified for our tables in six seasons after that, but only had a positive DVOA once. Chris Ivory had a DVOA of 10.0% or higher in each of his first three seasons, then had negative rates six years in a row. Jonathan Stewart's career peaked with a second-place DVOA of 23.4% in 2011; only once in seven seasons after that did he achieve a positive DVOA on 100 or more rushes.
Frank Gore finished the decade with a DVOA of -0.7%; his 2,380 carries are the most for any runner with a negative DVOA (or a positive one, for that matter). Doug Martin finished with -2 DYAR on 1,322 carries, the most carries of anyone who finished below replacement level.
|Best Receiving DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
As mentioned, Danny Woodhead had the best receiving DYAR of any NFL running back in the last decade. He narrowly surpasses Darren Sproles, who had far more targets, but converted a lower share of those targets into catches and first downs, while also averaging fewer yards per catch. James White finishes third on the strength of his 24 receiving touchdowns, most of any running back listed here. We should also point out that in nearly 600 combined rushes and receptions, White has yet to fumble the ball even one time. (You will find one fumble in White's official statistics, but that came on a failed lateral on the last play of New England's loss to Miami in Week 17 last year.) Christian McCaffrey finishes the decade fourth in receiving DYAR, but first in receiving DYAR per game. He's followed in that category by Kamara, Ekeler, and Kareem Hunt, each of whom debuted in the NFL in 2017. It's good to be a young running back.
|Worst Receiving DYAR, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
Again we see that many of the players with the worst DYAR got there in tiny sample sizes. An exception to that rule, however, is Justin Forsett, who finished the 2010s with the worst receiving DYAR of any running back. Going back to 2009, the Colts, Seahawks, Texans, Jaguars, Ravens, Broncos, and Lions all tried to turn Forsett into a quality receiving back. None succeeded. In six qualifying seasons, Forsett never made the top 30 in receiving DYAR; in three of those seasons he finished outside the top 50.
Forsett, Carlos Hyde, and Ronnie Hillman are the only players here with enough targets to qualify for the DVOA leaderboards. Because the sample sizes are so small, some players show up here simply because of a couple of fumbles. One of those guys is named "Clutts." Because of course he is.
|Best Receiving DVOA, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
|(Minimum 100 targets, 106 players qualified)|
Again, we set our minimum here as the fewest plays needed to qualify for our seasonal tables four different times. In this case, that means at least 100 targets, which left us with 106 qualified players.
From Darren Sproles to Ryan Mathews to Danny Woodhead to Austin Ekeler, today's piece covered many of Philip Rivers' receiving options out of the backfield during his time in California. Target for target, the most efficient of those receivers has been Ekeler. In three NFL seasons, Ekeler has ranked 12th, fourth, and third in receiving DVOA. He has been consistent, with the best first-down rate in this table, and he has been explosive, with the second-best yards per catch. We'll see what happens to Ekeler now that Rivers is in Indianapolis and Justin Herbert is in L.A.
|Worst Receiving DVOA, Running Backs, 2010-2019|
|(Minimum 100 targets, 106 players qualified)|
Justin Forsett had the worst receiving DYAR of the decade, and he had the worst DVOA too. He's followed by Carlos Hyde, who has averaged a woeful 5.5 yards per catch in his career. With a catch rate of barely 70%, that's an average of only 3.8 yards per throw! Hyde has played for four teams over seven seasons and been targeted by 11 different passers. He recently signed with Seattle, so we'll see if Russell Wilson is able to succeed with Hyde where all those other quarterbacks have failed.
The two most surprising names in this list are Ty Montgomery and Dexter McCluster. Mongtomery started his NFL career as a wide receiver with Green Bay and though he's a full-time running back these days, he continues to wear No. 88 with the Jets. McCluster has usually been listed as a "RB/WR" on official rosters, and he has gained nearly twice as many yards receiving as he has rushing in his career. You might think those backgrounds would make Montgomery and McCluster effective receivers out of the backfield, but you would be wrong -- both have been less effective than the average running back as pass targets.
DeMarco Murray managed a -2.8% DVOA on 376 targets, most by anyone with a negative receiving DVOA. Bilal Powell had -21 DYAR on 310 targets, most for any running back with negative receiving DYAR.
Antonio Andrews led all running backs with 39 passing DYAR. He completed his one pass attempt with the Tennessee Titans in 2015, hitting Marcus Mariota for a 41-yard touchdown. Jerious Norwood was last with -58 passing DYAR, and we really should talk for a moment about how Norwood's torn ACL ruined his career. Norwood averaged better than 5 yards per carry for several years as Atlanta's change-of-pace back, but he tore his ACL two games into 2010 and was only able to last nine games with the Rams the following season. His numbers for this decade: 26 carries for 69 yards, a 2.7-yard average; one catch in four targets for a 9-yard gain; and one pass attempt, which was intercepted by San Francisco's Tarell Brown. That was enough to land Norwood on our worst combined DYAR list earlier in this article.
Jaylen Samuels led all running backs with five pass attempts, all with Pittsburgh last season, because if you were down to Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, you'd ask your third-string running back to throw a bunch of passes too. Samuels completed four of those passes for 35 yards, though the fifth was intercepted. He finished with -44 passing DYAR.
We're not going to go in-depth on the best and worst seasons of the decade because A) we just wrote about that for ESPN+ in December, and B) all that information is freely available elsewhere on the site for anyone who wants to compile it. But a few bullet points:
- Christian McCaffrey's 2019 season was the best of the decade in both receiving DYAR (386) and total DYAR (642). Adrian Peterson's 458 rushing DYAR in 2012 was the best of the decade in that category.
- The worst marks of the decade were Ray Rice's -169 rushing DYAR and Ben Tate's -125 receiving DYAR, both in 2013, and Darren McFadden's -235 combined DYAR in 2012.
- Only two running backs topped 450 combined DYAR more than once. LeSean McCoy did it in 2013 and 2016; Todd Gurley did it in 2017 and 2018.
- Nobody had positive combined DYAR in every year of the decade. Mark Ingram, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Darren Sproles each missed it by one year.
- Among seasons with at least 100 carries, Mark Ingram had a positive rushing DYAR eight times, while Doug Martin had negative DYAR five times, both the most in the league.
- Two players topped 200 receiving DYAR twice: Darren Sproles did it in 2011 and 2012, and Danny Woodhead did it in 2013 and 2015. Yes, three of those seasons were in San Diego. (Sproles was in Philadelphia in 2012).
- Among seasons with at least 25 targets, Matt Forte had a positive DYAR eight times, while Justin Forsett had negative DYAR four times, both the most in the league.