Hall Of Fame Game: Backs for the Future – Bears Run Game

An earlier post looked at the interesting players in the Hall of Fame Game. Now let’s look at the best positions for each team starting with the Bears. For the Bears I would say the highlight of a disappointing 5-11 season in 2017 was the Bears run game. They have a dynamic running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen referred to as Thunder and Lightning. In 2017 the Bears averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt (11th), had 13 rushing touchdowns (11th), had a 22% 1st down conversion per attempt (11th) and had 5 rushes of 40+ yards (1st – tie).

The Bears will have some tough decisions to make concerning the rushing backfield come September. Their RB1 and RB2 players are already set. After that it is wide open. How many backs will make the roster? Last season they kept five which included a fullback. But what will new coach Matt Nagy want to do? In his former job as Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator he got to work with a roster of four backs which included a fullback.  Here is a look at the current roster of backs on the Bears.

Thunder and Lightning – The Starters

Jordan Howard is one of only four backs that had over 1,000 yards rushing in both their rookie and second season over the last 10 years. Jordan’s rookie season in 2016 was his better year. That year he was third in the league in rushing average (5.2), second in rushing yards (1,313 yards) and third in rushing attempts of 20+ yards (10).  Howard has a decisive, one-cut running style. He sees the hole and is deceptively fast through it. His feet keep going after contact and gets those extra 3-4 yards falling forward. Howard will run right thru tackles. He is the thunder of the Bears Lightning and Thunder running back duo.

Lightning is Tarik Cohen. He has got speed. At the combine Cohen was third in the forty (4.42s) among backs and his Pro-Day 3-cone (7.22s) would have been tenth.  Cohen will change direction, reverse back, juke around would be tacklers. Among 27 rookie running backs Cohen had the tenth best average rushing yards (4.3), the fifth longest rush (46 yards) and the fifth best 20+ yard runs (4).

In week three of 2017 the Bears beat the Steelers in overtime. Thunder and Lightning combined for over 200 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Howard, had to leave the field on two separate occasions because of a shoulder injury but he kept playing. Here is a film of their highlights for that game. Due to NFL content when you click it you will have to  click again to select to view it on YouTube. It’s a good film to see their two different running styles. They highlight in the bottom left corner who is carrying.

Being preseason we probably won’t see much Thunder and Lightning as both are a lock to make the team. We should see the players battling for a roster spot – rookie undrafted free agent(UDFA) Ryan Nall, 2nd year UDFA Taquan Mizzell, 6th year veteran Benny Cunningham and 4th year veteran fullback Michael Burton.

The Roster Competition

Ryan Nall was nicknamed the “Wrecking Nall” in college. He shows the ability to break tackles and to fall forward for extra yards. His last year he converted 77% of his third down rushing attempts and 85% when there was only 1-3 yards to go. His combine/Pro-Day results shows athleticism, agility and quickness. In what may be the most important drills for running backs – 3 cone, 20 and 60 yard shuttle – Nall finished in the top six among backs in all three. (Aside: An article I found useful on combine drills: What does combine data mean )

In college Taquan Mizzell achieved a 31% team market share for yards from scrimmage his last two seasons. He is one of only ten current running backs that had a college season with both 500+ rushing and 500+ receiving yards since 2013.  Mizzell had over 1,300 yards from scrimmage each of his last two years in college. He is a fast cutting, shifty runner with good hands.

The other competitor is Benny Cunningham.  This guy can do it all – returns, special team gunner, runner, receiver and blocker. In his five years in the NFL he has had 102 kick returns, a 26.7 yard average, 82 returns of 20+ yards, 9 returns of 40+ yards and only 1 fumble. His career average of 26.7 is second among active players.  He has had long returns of 102, 75 and 61 yards. As a gunner he was tied last year for team lead of 12 special teams tackles including a Bears best 9 solo. As a receiver he caught 20 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed nine times for 29 yards with an average of 3.2 yards. Cunningham was the Bears passing down blocking back. He presents a veteran presence among the young backs and is well liked.

Fullback Michael Burton will also figure into the competition. He is a lunch-pail, hard working, smash-mouth football player. He is an unselfish team-first player. At his combine Mike Mayock called Burton a thug “in a good way”. Burton can block, catch the ball and open up holes. He’s a football player. After his rookie season in 2015 on the Lions, Pro Football Focus graded Burton as the third highest fullback.  Since then his grade dropped slightly in 2016 (79.3) but fell off the cliff for 2017 (40.2). We probably won’t see much of Burton on television coverage as he plays at a thankless position. But keep an eye out for number 46. If one of the backs breaks one open you may catch 46 leading the way.

They all have worked hard to get where they are. I wish them success in the preseason. If not to make the Bears then perhaps another team will take notice. It makes for an interesting story-line to see how it plays out.


2018 NFL Top Running Backs

Today I take a look at who are the 2018 NFL top running backs going into the new season. Following the approach taken on my posts on the top receivers, I will again draw the line at 16.6% of the current backs would be the top ones. That gives a nice rough 1 in 6 backs would be in the top.  Currently there are 140 veteran running backs on NFL rosters. In addition there are 52 rookies on NFL rosters. Of the veterans the 16% would mean 23 top backs.

To examine the prospects I took the performance statistics for the last three seasons. That goes back far enough so it is not overly influenced by a peak last season but still maintains a recent sample. Two areas will be examined – the rushing statistics and the receiving statistics. The rushing statistics I used are

  • Percent of games that were 100+ yard rushing games
  • Percent of first downs achieved to total rush attempts
  • Games to touchdowns ratio
  • Percent of Fumbles to rushing attempts
  • Percent of Big Plays to rushing attempts. A big play is a rush of 10+ yards.
  • Percent of Stuffs to rushing attempts. A stuff is a rushing attempt that is held to zero or negative gain.
  • Rushing Yards per game
  • Rushing Yards per attempt
  • Long rushing play.
  • Yards per Stuff.

More teams now use the pass play to a running back as a designed play or a relief valve under pressure. I have weighted the pass play at roughly a third less important than the rushing play.  For the pass evaluation I used the same criteria used in the wide receiver evaluations. They are

  • Yards after the Catch (YAC) per reception
  • Percent of 100+ receiving games to total games
  • Percent of first down receptions
  • Catch percentage or Receptions to Targets
  • Yards per target
  • Games to receiving touchdowns ratio
  • Yards per reception
  • Drops and Fumbles to targets
  • Receiving Yards per game
  • Percent of Big Plays to Receptions. A big play is a reception of 25+ yards.

With receptions the data can be skewed on a small sample size to look good. To avoid this I limited credit on receiving data for running backs that averaged less than an arbitrary number of receptions per game, 1.6 to be precise. I placed a similar limit of the Percent of Big Plays when using a low number of receptions.

Here are the results of the top 23 running backs going into the 2018 season.

AFC East

AFC East Running Backs
AFC East Running Backs

LeSean McCoy, of the Bills, has the sixth best 100+ yard games percentage of active NFL backs with 32.6% of his games going 100+ over the last three seasons.  His yards per game of 76.7 yards is ranked seventh.

Bilal Powell, of the Jets, had a 75 yard touchdown run in 2017, good for 2nd longest touchdown run in Jets franchise history. It was tie for sixth best long run among current NFL players over the last three seasons.

Isaiah Crowell, of the Jets, had an 85 yard touchdown run against the Ravens in 2016. That was the 2nd longest in Browns history and ranked tied for third longest over the last three seasons for current NFL players. Of current players no one had a lower fumble percentage (0.51%) with more attempts (589) over the last three seasons.

Frank Gore, of the Dolphins, is working out in the off-season with his incredible work ethic. It has allowed him to achieve 12 straight seasons since his rookie season of a minimum 1,200 yards from scrimmage each year. That, his drive and his toughness have helped Frank to play 112 consecutive games. Frank has averaged 61.5 rushing yards per game over the last three seasons. That is 15th best among active running backs.

AFC North

AFC North Running Backs
AFC North Running Backs

Giovani Bernard, of the Bengals, has a 28.5 receiving yards per game over the last three seasons. That is ranked 10th among current NFL players. In 2017 Bernard had 458 rushing yards with an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Only ten running backs had more yards with a better average. Bernard is a well rounded back. He also had 389 receiving yards with an average of 9.0 yards per reception. Only four other backs had more yards with a better average.

Le’Veon Bell, of the Steelers, has the 2nd most receiving yards per game (42.6 yards) over the last three seasons among current NFL players. He has the most receptions per game (5.58) in that time-frame for current players. As for rushing he is ranked second in 100+ games/game with 39.4% of his games going 100+ yards. This among active NFL players. Bell is also second among active NFL backs in rushing yards per game averaging 94.4 yards/game over the last three seasons.

AFC South

AFC South Running Backs
AFC South Running Backs

Lamar Miler, of the Texans, has had 4 fumbles on 700 attempts over the last three seasons. No current player has a better fumble rate with that many carries. Miller had an 85 yard rushing touchdown in 2015 which was tied for third among active NFL backs over the last three seasons. That run was second in Miami franchise records for long rushing plays. Lamar also owns first in Miami records for the longest rushing play of 97 yards set in 2014.

Leonard Fournette, of the Jaguars, had five 100+ yard rushing games in his rookie season. He had 38.5% of his games were 100+ yard rushing games. That was ranked 4th among current NFL running backs for over the last three seasons. His 80 yards per game was ranked fifth among current backs over the last three seasons. His 90 yard touchdown run against the Steelers is the longest run among active running backs over the last three seasons. Fournette had 9 rushing touchdowns in 13 games for a 1.44 games to touchdown ratio. That ranks third among active running backs averaged over the last three seasons.

Dion Lewis, of the Titans, has a 26.3% first down conversion rate on rushing attempts over the last three seasons. That ranks at seventh among active backs with a minimum 10 carries. Lewis’s 13% big rushing plays (10+ yards) to attempts ranks eight among active backs with minimum 100 carries over the past three seasons.

AFC West

AFC West Running Backs
AFC West Running Backs

Kareem Hunt, of the Chiefs, has six 100+ yard rushing games in his rookie season. This was good for a 37.5% ratio of 100+ games per game. It ranked fifth among active NFL players as  averaged over the last three seasons. Kareen had 3 receiving touchdowns which earned a games to receiving touchdown ratio of 5.33. That was tenth best among active backs over three seasons. His receiving yards per game of 28.4 is ranked eleventh of a three season average.

Melvin Gordon, of the Chargers, has a three year average yards per game of 63.8 yards which is ranked 13th among active running backs. His 87 yard rushing touchdown in 2017 is second longest among active running backs over three seasons.

NFC East

NFC East Running Backs
NFC East Running Backs

Ezekiel Elliott, of the Cowboys, has led the NFL over the span of his two year career in yards per game with 108.7 yards per game. He leads active running backs in 100+ rushing games per game with 48% of his games being 100+ yards. His two year games to touchdown ratio of 1.14 leads all active running backs averaged over the last three seasons.

Chris Thompson, of the Redskins, has a three season games to receiving touchdown ratio of 4.88. That ranks seventh among active NFL running backs. Thompson’s 510 receiving yards in 2017 ranks sixth among active NFL running backs. Thompson’s average of 5.2 yards per rushing attempt over the last three seasons ranks seventh among active NFL running backs with minimum 40 attempts.

NFC North

NFC North Running Backs
NFC North Running Backs

Jordan Howard, of da Bears, has twelve 100+ rushing games in his two year career for 38.7% of his games. This ranks third among active NFL running backs over a three year period.  His 78.5 yards per game ranks sixth over a three year period. Howard has had two fumbles in 528 rushing attempts. Among active running backs over the last three seasons he has the least fumbles for backs with over 400 attempts.

Ty Montgomery, of the Packers, converted from a wide receiver to a running back in his 2nd year in 2016. In his 1st year as running back Ty had a banner year with 457 rushing yards, a 5.9 yard average, 3 rushing touchdowns, a 61 yard long play, 12 big plays of 10+ yards, one 100+ rushing game and a 26% 1st down conversion rate. Ty is moving from “winging it” to understanding techniques and reading gaps and defensive fronts. In 2017 Ty was injured and played in only 8 games.

Latavius Murray, of the Vikings, has a combined 3 season 1.77 game to rushing touchdown ratio which is 8th best among active running backs. Murray ran a 4.38 forty at his pro-day in 2013. That would have been 3rd best among running backs at the combine. Murray was ranked as the third best running back in pass protection during 2016.

NFC South

NFC South Running Backs
NFC South Running Backs

Devonta Freeman, of the Falcons, has eight 100+ rushing games over the last three seasons. That is the tenth best 100+ games to game ratio among active backs.  His games to rushing touchdown ratio of 1.55 is fifth best. Freeman’s yards per game of 66.7 yards is ninth best. His 75 yard touchdown run in 2016 against the Saints is tie for sixth longest over the last three seasons among active backs. Freeman’s 30 receiving yards per game is eighth best among active backs.

C.J. Anderson, of the Panthers, while not excelling in any specific metric, he performed good on all rushing metrics and decent on the passing ones. Anderson had a good 2017 season breaking 1,000 rushing yards and 1,200 yards from scrimmage. I will leave Anderson with this highlights of his 2017 season – NFL.com videos _ Anderson 2017 highlights.

Christian McCaffrey, of the Panthers, had a receiving yards per game of 40.7 yards which was ranked fourth among active backs over the last three seasons. His 5 receiving touchdowns in 2017 made a games to touchdown ratio of 3.2. That was tie for first among active running backs over the last three seasons. His 45% receiving first down conversion rate was third for active backs with over 100 targets over the past three seasons. His rushing numbers are not as impressive but in his rookie season on 177 attempts he did have a long of 40 yards, 8 big plays (10+ yards),  two rushing touchdowns, an average of 3.7 yards and only one fumble.

Mark Ingram, of the Saints, has 18% of his games being 100+ rushing yards. That is ranked ninth among active backs over the last three seasons. His 1.83 games to rushing touchdown ration is tenth. With 601 rushing attempts over the last three seasons, Ingram has the lowest stuff per attempt ratio (7.15%) for any active back with over 300 attempts. His 66.7 rushing yards per game is ninth best. Ingram’s 4.9 yards per attempt ranks tied for 9th among active backs with minimum 40 attempts. Ingram’s 2016 touchdown run of 75 yards against the 49ers is ranked tied for sixth among active backs over the last three seasons. Ingram has had a long rushing play of 70+ yards in each of his last three seasons.

Looking at all active running backs average over the last three seasons, Alvin Kamara, of the Saints, in his rookie season has a rushing first down conversion percentage of 33% which is ranked third. His rushing big play (10+ yards) per attempt ratio of 22.5% is ranked fourth. On his 120 rushing attempts Kamara’s 6.67% stuffs per attempt is ranked fifth lowest among backs with a minimum 20 attempts. Kamara’s 6.07 yards per rushing attempt is ranked fourth. Besides being a top rusher  Kamara’s receiving skills are also tops. Among active backs he had the most receiving yards (826 yards) in 2017 and the second most over the last three seasons. His receiving game per touchdown ratio of 3.2 games was tied with McCaffrey for first. Kamara’s 51.6 receiving yards per game is ranked first. His receiving big play (25+ yards) per reception ratio of 8.6% is ranked ninth.

NFC West

NFC West Running Backs
NFC West Running Backs

Even though David Johnson, of the Cardinals, missed all but one game in 2017 due to a dislocated wrist he still makes the top backs list based on his three season performance.  Johnson’s 1.38 games to touchdowns ratio is ranked second. His 54% receiving first down conversion rate on his 122 receptions leads all active backs with a minimum 20 receptions. Johnson’s 4.13 games to touchdown ratio is ranked fifth.  His 11.5 yards per reception ratio is ranked fifth among active backs with a minimum 20 receptions. His 42.5 receiving yards per game ranks third.

Todd Gurley, of the Rams, averages 29.6 receiving yards per game which ranks ninth among active backs. His 10.16% big plays to receptions ratio ranks seventh. One fourth of his games are 100+ rushing yard games which ranks seventh. His 1.52 games per rushing touchdown ratio ranks fourth. Gurley’s 74.9 rushing yards per game ranks eighth.

Data Backup

I have included the data sheet I used in evaluation for those that may be interested. One sheet has the player’s total list of score summaries. The top 23 players are highlighted by yellow in column B. Two other sheets has three seasons of data on the players followed by columns of calculations for evaluation criteria.  One is for rushing data and the other for receiving data. At the top is a line showing the average value for the evaluation criteria. Each player has a line for the season denoted by year. This is followed by a line for the Summary of the three season average. The average line is followed by a line denoted by Score in column A. That Score line is a score summary line computing how far the player’s average is from the baseline by a percentage calculation. The Score line is summed and those are the totals on the summary sheet. There are two other sheets containing the Summary lines only for each player. These can be sorted by the evaluation criteria to see where a player ranks in relation to other players.

Using the data I avoid putting to much emphasis on the results. Specifically the scores. The exercise was to help systematically come up with a top 16% of current running backs. It is more for a verification with data of what is generally reported on the player’s skills. I would not use the scores as a “ranking” of those top receivers. Although it was useful to tweak the calculation to arrive at a list that looks reasonably accurate.

If you are interested I have attached the data here – Running Back Data.