Who's Projected to Be 2019's Most Efficient Running Back?
Statistics in sports have come a long way over the years.
It would've been hard to imagine something like numberFire's live updating win probability model back when you had to wait a day or two for box scores in newspapers, depending on how late games concluded.
Typically, though, stats like these are just descriptive, informing us of what has already happened in the past. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) model does well to differentiate between the value of a five-yard catch on third-and-two and a five-yard catch on third-and-nine, yet it does so after a play is completed.
Why not use that same algorithm to project 2019's best performers? I couldn't think of a reason not to do it, either, so here we are. Here is how every qualified running back is projected to fare in our Rushing NEP per carry and Reception NEP per target stats in 2019.
For context, the league-average Rushing NEP per carry for running backs in 2018 was 0.00, meaning the average NFL rush play was expected to put up 0.00 points on the scoreboard. Rushing the ball isn't an efficient way to score, and that mark had actually been negative in every year since 2000. The projected output this season is again 0.00.
As for receiving efficiency, the league average Reception NEP per target in 2018 was 0.34. It's expected to be 0.39 in 2019. So, there's the issue: receiving backs will generally grade out as more efficient players. That's not surprising when a running back target adds roughly 0.4 points to a team's expected output and a running back carry is -- at best -- a neutral play, on average.
We'll start off with the receiving leaders, using 36 backs projected for at least 40 targets in 2019.
|Player||Reception NEP per Target||Receptions||Yards||TDs|
- It's no real surprise that Alvin Kamara leads the list. He posted a 0.57 Reception NEP per target in 2017 and 0.51 in 2018. Those are both top-17 marks among 117 backs since 2000 to get at least 75 targets in a season.
- Austin Ekeler notched a 0.48 Reception NEP per target last season on 53 targets, and his 56.6% Target Success Rate (successful catches per target) ranked third among third among 32 backs with at least 40 targets in 2018. Teammate Melvin Gordon ranked ninth in that sample in per-target Reception NEP (0.43). That was a bounceback from a still solid 0.36 in 2017, but Gordon's 0.55 Reception NEP per target in 2016 ranked fifth among qualified backs.
- The New England Patriots will need weapons to replace Rob Gronkowski. James White should help again. After ranking third in per-target receiving efficiency in 2018, White is projected for another top-five season. After a down season in 2017 (0.36 Reception NEP per target), White is anticipated to get back on track after an elite 0.70 mark in 2015 (54 targets) and a strong 0.46 in 2016 (86 targets).
- David Johnson had been the league's best receiving back in 2015 -- by far -- before trending down. His 0.74 Reception NEP per target was one of two marks above 0.55 among qualified backs in Johnson's rookie year. His 0.58 ranked third in 2016. Even in the dreadful 2018 Arizona Cardinals' offense, Johnson mustered a 0.34 Reception NEP per target, right around the league average.
Here are the top-25 rushers in expected Rushing NEP per carry -- among the 45 backs projected for at least 100 carries in 2019.
|Player||Rushing NEP per Carry||Rushes||Yards||TDs|
- Last season, Aaron Jones posted a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.15 to rank him fourth among 47 backs with at least 100 carries. Only the hyper-efficient Gus Edwards (who led qualified backs in both Rushing NEP per carry (0.17) and Rushing Success Rate (52.55%) had a better Rushing Success Rate than Jones (50.38%).
- Melvin Gordon makes both top-five lists, with good reason. You guys remember when Melvin was inefficient? Man. That was actually the case in 2015 (-0.19 Rushing NEP per carry), and he was around league-average in 2016 and 2017 (-0.03). His Rushing Success Rate hadn't surpassed 37.00% until 2018 when it spiked to 45.14% while running behind FootballOutsiders' fifth-ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards.
- Christian McCaffrey also experienced a boost to his rushing efficiency in 2018 despite tacking on more than 100 carries to his rookie season total (117 to 219). His per-carry Rushing NEP jumped from -0.05 to 0.09, and his Rushing Success Rate increased from 41.88% to 46.12%.
- Todd Gurley smashed last year, compiling 41.36 Rushing NEP on 256 carries (0.16 per carry) and a 49.61% Rushing Success Rate. Of 240 backs with at least 250 carries since 2000, just seven running backs produced 40.00 Rushing NEP on a Success Rate of at least 49.00%. Gurley was the first to do it since 2008 (DeAngelo Williams).
- Saquon Barkley would need a big step up from his rookie season efficiency (0.02 Rushing NEP per carry and 37.55% Rushing Success Rate) to get to 0.07 per carry. The New York Giants ranked fourth-worst in adjusted line yards last year.
Overall Efficiency Leaders
I'll make two lists to separate out huge volume discrepancies. The first list -- spell backs -- are projected for fewer than 150 touches. Then the primary backs are pegged for more than 150 touches.
|Duke Johnson||57||0.41||Damien Harris||99||0.09|
|Devontae Booker||55||0.30||C.J. Anderson||122||0.08|
|Corey Clement||73||0.30||Paul Perkins||68||0.08|
|Austin Ekeler||129||0.26||Ryquell Armstead||66||0.08|
|Jalen Richard||82||0.24||Kalen Ballage||144||0.07|
|Kenneth Dixon||51||0.22||Giovani Bernard||128||0.06|
|Jaylen Samuels||85||0.21||Jerick McKinnon||97||0.06|
|T.J. Yeldon||83||0.19||Mike Davis||53||0.06|
|Theo Riddick||96||0.18||Myles Gaskin||51||0.06|
|Chris Thompson||79||0.17||Dion Lewis||123||0.06|
|Kareem Hunt||98||0.13||Gus Edwards||67||0.05|
|Matt Breida||102||0.12||Jamaal Williams||133||0.04|
|Justin Jackson||59||0.12||Rex Burkhead||59||0.04|
|Frank Gore||69||0.12||Tony Pollard||57||0.03|
|Alexander Mattison||61||0.10||Chase Edmonds||62||0.01|
|Nyheim Hines||140||0.10||Elijah McGuire||96||0.00|
|D'Onta Foreman||113||0.10||Alfred Blue||81||0.00|
|Miles Sanders||108||0.09||Ronald Jones||147||-0.01|
|Devin Singletary||88||0.09||Doug Martin||85||-0.03|
- As expected, the top of this list features backs with a lot of receiving work projected and not a whole lot of rushing to bog down their efficiency. Ekeler really stands out as an efficient back with significant volume.
- Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is Carlos Hyde at -0.05 Total NEP per touch. He has never recorded a positive Rushing NEP in his five seasons, and his Rushing Success Rate has dropped in fie straight seasons to a dreadful 33.14% last season. The Kansas City Chiefs' efficient offense could help, but it's not a guarantee.
|James White||156||0.39||Kerryon Johnson||256||0.10|
|Christian McCaffrey||327||0.26||Joe Mixon||318||0.09|
|Alvin Kamara||281||0.26||Derrius Guice||196||0.09|
|Tarik Cohen||194||0.24||Nick Chubb||299||0.07|
|Melvin Gordon||290||0.23||Sony Michel||256||0.07|
|Saquon Barkley||367||0.20||Chris Carson||256||0.07|
|Todd Gurley||239||0.19||Josh Jacobs||274||0.06|
|Aaron Jones||223||0.17||Darrell Henderson||193||0.06|
|Kenyan Drake||229||0.17||Mark Ingram||255||0.06|
|Damien Williams||257||0.16||Ito Smith||150||0.05|
|David Johnson||329||0.16||David Montgomery||195||0.05|
|Le'Veon Bell||342||0.13||Derrick Henry||263||0.04|
|Phillip Lindsay||241||0.13||Latavius Murray||178||0.03|
|Ezekiel Elliott||404||0.12||Lamar Miller||237||0.03|
|Tevin Coleman||217||0.12||Leonard Fournette||297||0.02|
|James Conner||305||0.11||Adrian Peterson||151||0.02|
|Dalvin Cook||306||0.11||Royce Freeman||158||0.00|
|Marlon Mack||245||0.10||Jordan Howard||212||-0.01|
|Devonta Freeman||281||0.10||LeSean McCoy||200||-0.03|
- James White's usage really just breaks the mold when compared to other running backs. More than half of White's projected touches are receptions, and no back with at least 50 projected touches is even above 40% -- and just five other backs are even at 30%. The consistently high-efficient touches make White a strong bet to add more expected points per touch than any other back in the NFL.
- McCaffrey and Kamara are both efficient rushers and have the receiving work to climb that overall leaderboard. While White projects -- by far -- to have the best Total NEP per touch rate of all running backs, it's because of his unique usage. If we're seeking the most efficient true workhorse back in 2019, the numbers say it's McCaffrey by 0.001249 expected points per touch.