Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Running Backs

Nathan Jahnke breaks down the Top 10 PFF-graded running backs of the past five years.

| 4 years ago

Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Running Backs

It’s been five seasons since PFF opened its doors and tackled the subject of performance-based evaluation in the NFL.

We’ve seen many breathtaking performances, whether it be over a year or in an individual game, but we’ve never really looked back on things in a longer sense. So consider that something we’re rectifying, adding up the grades each player has earned and then normalizing their performance on every snap based on the position they played.

We’ve shown the Edge Rushers, the Wide Receivers, the Cornerbacks, the linebackers, and the interior defenders… Up next: running backs. They are ranked only by their rushing rating, with a list of the top receiving backs at the bottom.

(Players had to have participated in at least three seasons to qualify.)

Running Grades for Running Backs

1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (+71.1)

It should come to no surprise at all that the 2012 MVP is not only the top man on the list, but by a wide margin. He tops the league in attempts, yards, yards after contact, tackles avoided, breakaway runs, breakaway yards, and fumbles over the last five years.

He has improved each year, especially with not fumbling, to the point where Peterson’s 2012 season was, by far, the best we’ve seen out of a back. Even though he is only 28, there are only two backs currently on a roster with more career rushing attempts than him. The question now is just how much longer he can keep this up so we can enjoy watching his greatness.

2. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (+42.8)

In 2009 and 2010, the man who led our PFF Run Rating was Jamaal Charles. After getting drafted by the Chiefs in 2008, Charles began to break out at the end of his sophomore season with 656 yards in his last four games. His 2010 season was one to remember after he averaged 6.5 rushing yards per attempt over the course of the entire season which led to a playoff appearance.

An injury held him to just 34 snaps in 2011, and in 2012 he had a mix of excellent 200-plus yard performances mixed with five games of 40 rushing yards or less. Over the five years, his 5.8 yards per carry is by far the highest for all backs. His season and a half of dominance is enough to make him the second-best runner over the last five years, and a strong finish to 2012 gives reason to believe he has a chance to return to that form.

3. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints (+31.0)

By far the biggest surprise of the list is Pierre Thomas of the Saints ranking third. Each of the last five years, Thomas has been part of a running back rotation, and he has been as consistent as you can be.

Only 5.7% of Thomas’ carries have been for a loss of yards, which is the lowest rate for backs with at least 300 carries. On top of that, 48.6% of his carries have gone for 4 or more yards, which is the second-highest rate behind C.J. Spiller. In addition, he has never had a season with more than one fumble. Thomas isn’t the kind of player to have breakaway runs for huge gains which hurts his yards per attempt. While you’re not going to see Thomas too often on the highlight reel, he simply gets the job done of moving the ball down the field.

4. Arian Foster, Houston Texans (+26.4)

To little surprise, Foster is high up on our list despite not being in the league in 2008 and barely playing in 2009. His story is well-known going from an undrafted rookie to a starting back to an All-Pro. He has improved his running in each season he has played, and that, mixed with his high amount of opportunities, has landed him so high on the list.

He has a decent 4.5 yards per carry, and although some of that can get credited to the Houston offensive line, he’s caused 97 players to miss tackles on him in the run game. Although touchdowns only tell part of the story, he has 49 which is good for third-most over the last five years.

5. Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks (+25.8)

When you’re drafted with the 12th overall pick, you become well-known regardless of how good you are. Over his first several years in the league, he was an above-average back who compiled a lot of yards due to a high number of carries while he hovered around 4 yards per carry each year.

He became more of a household name after his incredible run against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs. It wasn’t until this past year that Lynch became one of the best backs in the league. This past year he increased his yards per carry up to 5.0, while 58 players missed tackles on him which is third-most for any player in a season over the last five years. The combination of one extraordinary season along with four decent ones led to Lynch being the fifth-best runner over the last five years.

6. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills (+25.7)

What made Marshawn Lynch expendable for the Bills was the drafting of C.J. Spiller. It wasn’t until his third year in the league that Spiller saw a lot of opportunities, but he played so well in 2012 that he ended up on the list.

Spiller is best known for breaking away plays for big gains. 5.4% of his carries have gone for 20 or more yards, which is the best rate in the league. Some backs who break away runs like this end up also having a lot of carries for few yards, but 71.4% of his carries have gone for 2 or more yards which is a bit better than the league average of 69.1%. While the best days might be behind some of the backs on the list, chances are the best days for Spiller are ahead of him.

7. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers (+20.8)

While backs like Lynch and Spiller made the list off of great 2012 seasons, Williams has made it in large part thanks to his great 2008 season. That year, he maintained a 5.5 yards per carry average with 3.9 of them coming after contact. While three backs have reached the 1,500 yard mark over the last five years, no one has done it in as few carries as Williams’ 273.

Over a 40-game span from 2009-2012, Williams had just one 100-yard game, so he has yet to reach that kind of dominance since 2008. During that time, he still played at a decent level on his limited number of carries. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he had a 210-yard performance against the Saints, so there is a chance he could still be a great player, but prior to that game he had just 3.5 yards per carry over the season.

8. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers (+20.6)

Part of the reason Williams has had limited carries is because the Panthers also have Jonathan Stewart. Over the last five years, Stewart has averaged 3.1 yards per carry after contact, which is the third-most for backs with at least 500 carries behind only Adrian Peterson and DeAngelo Williams.

His part-time role has made it difficult for Stewart to get much recognition, but he has played well for the most part in that role. He had a down 2012 due to injury, but outside of that, consistent solid play is hard to find for a back even if it is in a part-time role.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars (+19.3)

At Pro Football Focus, we care a lot more about the quality of a players carries and less about their attempts or yard totals. There are a number of backs who do better on a per play basis but on significantly fewer snaps, and others who accumulate more yards and carries, but Jones-Drew has done well enough on his high number of carries to make the list. He has averaged over 4.2 yards per carry in all five years, and has three seasons of 1,300 or more rushing yards. He ended up with negative rush ratings in both 2008 and 2010, and has no excellent season which made it hard for him to climb much higher than this on the list.

10. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles (+18.2)

McCoy is another back whose appearance on this list is not a surprise, though it might be surprising how low he is. Being drafted in 2009, rather than an earlier year, hurt him as well as a poor rookie season where he managed just 2.2 yards per carry after contact. He broke one run for 66 yards, but ignoring that, he managed just 3.7 yards per carry. He followed that up with two very good years to help overcome that poor rookie year. Last year was very hit and miss with more hits than misses. If you ignored his rookie year and extrapolated his last three years into five, he would have been much higher on the list.

Top 10 Receiving

1. Ray Rice, BAL (+40.4)

2. Pierre Thomas, NO (+31.7)

3. Darren Sproles, SD & NO (+24.7)

4. Matt Forte, CHI (+19.2)

5. Darren McFadden, OAK (+11.3)

6. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX (+11.1)

7. Arian Foster, HOU (+10.2)

8. Danny Woodhead, NYJ & NE (+9.1)

9. Mike Tolbert, SD & CAR (+6.7)

10. Fred Jackson, BUF (+6.4)


Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • db

    It’s interesting to see that so many of the players on this list have either had only a couple of dominant years since 2008 or have been solid but not spectacular while in a RB-by-committee situation. I’m not exactly sure if that says something about the shelf life of backs, the interchangeability of them, injury rates, or something else.

    Also mildly surprised that Ray Rice didn’t grade in the top ten. I’m guessing the Ravens o-line has graded very high during his reign.

    • jeff

      I am surprised there is no Chris Johnson

  • sgtrobo

    i think you guys really sell MJD short. He has great hands, he’s a darn good blocker, and he’s stuck on an offense that, other than him, is purely wretched. In 2011, the guy had more yards from scrimmage than the next 6 Jaguars combined. You gotta take into account the pure incompetence of the rest of the team.

  • Budahmon

    Now how can JC be the #2 RB when he did not even make your Top 101? Oh that’s right, he did not break enough tackles in your view. I guess running for 1,500 yds on his rehabbed knee is not good enough to make the Top 101. BTW where is Frank Gore on your list?

    • [email protected]

      The top 101 was the best of 2012. Not the best in the last 5 years overall. Completely different.

      • Budahmon

        Hmmm…I think 2012 is part of the last 5 years….which means Charles’s contribution for the 5 years were 2012, 2011 (injured), 2010, 2009 (6 games-part time), 2008 rookie….. So in all reality they have Charles there for 2 whole seasons…2010…2012. I guess his 1700+ total yards in 2012 is not better than Gore or Spiller who did make the Top 101, but elevates him to #2 on this list. BS….. He’s one of the Top 5 backs (even when playing for the worst offense in the league) or he’s not the #2 back for the past 5 years.

        • WitnessKipnis

          The PFF top 101 list is serious business. Good to see you’re devoting so much time to a list on a website. Maybe start an Occupy PFF movement to reall escalate things. They devoted an entire column to why Charles didnt make the list. Read it, Disagree if you want, but whats the point of continuing to regurgitate this nonsense?

  • Andrew

    Peterson is by far the best RB in the league.
    Top 10 RBs
    1. Adrian Peterson
    2. Jamaal Charles
    3. Ray Rice
    4. Marshawn Lynch
    5. MJD
    6. Doug Martin
    7. CJ Spiller
    8. Arian Foster
    9. Lesean McCoy
    10. Steven Jackson

  • KJ

    It’s always good seeing Pierre Thomas get some love, he’s so incredibly underappreciated.

  • Pauly S.

    Why are we separating running and receiving grades for a position? What sense does that make when RB do both and have value in each area? Do RB run every single snap?

  • Dan Marino

    Reggie Bush gonna make this list look stupid this year, especially that Top 10 Receiving RBs list at the bottom.