Three Years of the Elusive Rating

| 5 years ago

Three Years of the Elusive Rating

If there’s one thing better than a full season’s worth of data, it’s a full three season’s worth of data and we’re in the midst of bringing you the highlights from three years of many of our Signature Stats. Every season we offer up the Elusive Rating numbers–a look at which NFL runners are the toughest to bring down–and we’ve now taken the numbers from the past three years, loaded them in the hopper, and sifted it all to bring you the gold.

In essence, a runner can be elusive either by running over or around would-be tacklers. He gets credit for forcing missed tackles however he does it and gets additional credit for earning yards after contact. The better he performs in those areas, the better his Elusive Rating will be. If a runner fails to make people miss, and goes down on contact, he will not score well in this aspect.

If you haven’t read any of the previous Elusive Rating articles (first of all, go and do it now!), the formula first combines carries and receptions to reach a “ball-handling opportunities” figure. The total forced missed tackles in both facets are then divided by that first number and the result is multiplied by yards per carry after contact and then again by 100.

[(Missed Tackles Rush + Missed Tackles Rec) / (Rushes + Receptions)] * (Yards per Carry after Contact / Att. * 100)


In order to qualify for the three-year study, a runner must have had at least 25 carries in each of the past three seasons–the minimum number of carries to qualify for an Elusive Rating study in any one season. That removes some interesting players from either end of the list. LeGarrette Blount, in particular, has had two seasons of extremely high grades by the Elusive Rating and I would expect him to shoot into the Top 10 in the same study next year. The threshold for this study leaves us with 47 qualifying runners.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can start to look at some of the data and get an idea of what we can learn from it. There have always been a few players that have scored well in the Elusive Rating, and they are some of the more underrated running backs in the game. Once again, they appear near the top of this list looking back over the past three seasons.


Mr. Elusive

Jonathan Stewart tops the list over the past three seasons, overtaking his teammate since the last time we ran the numbers on the back of another fantastic season in 2011. Stewart might be one of the best backs in football, but the Panthers are determined to stick with a running back by committee approach. They are likely to continue to include Cam Newton as a rushing threat at quarterback, and Stewart’s opportunities to carry the football are thus likely to remain capped. With the touches he is given there is no better back in the league, and it would be extremely interesting to see if that performance would be maintained over a workhorse-type load.

Fred Jackson is another player who has long been an underrated runner, and was on his way to a truly spectacular season last year before a broken leg saw it end prematurely. Despite ranking 14th in touches over the past three seasons no player has forced more missed tackles than his 149. Adrian Peterson is next up with 148, but he has touched the ball 155 more times. Jackson has been a notable success story from humble beginnings–going undrafted and working his way into the league via the Sioux City Bandits, an indoor league team–and is playing well enough at the moment that the Bills can’t get C.J. Spiller as many touches as they would like.


The Workhorses

While Stewart and Jackson have been impressive players with the workload they’ve had, there are a few players who have been able to maintain top ratings despite the massive workload of a featured back. Michael Turner and Adrian Peterson are the third- and fourth-ranked players over the past three seasons, each having notched 145+ missed tackles and over 2,400 yards after contact.

Turner’s mark of 2.9 yards per carry after contact leads the league over that time and the numbers both players have maintained despite the volume of touches is truly remarkable. While the NFL might be steering away from workhorse running backs towards a system where backfields are formed from committee, Peterson and Turner are proving that it is still possible for a feature back to be extremely effective and tough to bring down while carrying the full load. They are the exceptions to the rule and the Falcons have noted that they are going to lessen Turner’s carries this season as they shift to a more pass-oriented offense.


The Ugly End

If there is one constant to the Elusive Rating it is that Thomas Jones will be at or around the foot of the table. Jones once again ranks as the least elusive back in football, coming in with an Elusive Rating of just 8.0; the only back in single digits and more than 50 points lower than Stewart at the table’s top. Jones should be used as a calibration tool for offensive lines, because he will get you exactly what is there from the blocking in front of him and no more. The Chiefs are expected to field Peyton Hillis in the same role this season and those results should be quite interesting. In his 2010 season with Cleveland, Hillis finished alongside Jamaal Charles with matching 37.0 Elusive Ratings.

Jones is joined at the ugly end of the table by a few interesting names. LaDainian Tomlinson has just called time on a spectacular career and his ER ranking suggests that it was certainly time to do so. Only three runners were lower over the past three seasons and his 1.7 yards per carry after contact ranks among the bottom as well. As great as Tomlinson once was, his time has gone. Cedric Benson also ranks in the Bottom 10, perhaps explaining why he has remained unsigned for so long this offseason.


More Statistical Tidbits from the Elusive Rating: 

●  Over the past three seasons Maurice Jones-Drew has rushed for 2,740 yards after contact. That leads the NFL.
●  Tashard Choice has forced both the fewest missed tackles (18), and has the lowest yards after contact average (1.5) in the study.
●  With Jason Snelling in eighth, the Falcons have two of the Top 10 rushers in ER over the past three seasons.
●  Between Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris, the Lions have two of the Bottom 5.
●  Chris Johnson has touched the ball more than any other RB over the past three seasons, with 1,087 total.


RankPlayer'09 Carries'10 Carries'11 CarriesTouchesMissed TklesYACnYACn Avg.ELUSIVE RATING
1Jonathan Stewart22117814261413516432.758.8
2Fred Jackson23822217074614919912.753.3
3Michael Turner17833430184714524542.949.6
4Adrian L. Peterson31328320890114824402.744.5
5Marshawn Lynch12020228568512716052.343.4
6Ahmad Bradshaw16327617171212317412.442.2
7Pierre Thomas14783110458849622.138.5
8Jason Snelling1428744373677602.036.6
9DeAngelo Williams216871555147313102.536.2
10Felix Jones1161851275287812672.435.4
11Darren McFadden1042221135267113402.534.4
12Maurice Jones-Drew312301343108614727402.534.2
13Rashard Mendenhall24232422886011821062.433.6
14Justin Forsett11411846375627612.033.6
15Mike Tolbert25182120422639282.232.8
16Chris D. Johnson358316262108714225182.330.3
17Willis McGahee109992494986211892.429.7
18Donald Brown78129134388449742.528.5
19Knowshon Moreno247182375427111572.128.0
20Brandon Jacobs2241481525646114482.627.8
21LeSean McCoy15520727380110716492.127.5
22Matt Forte25823720385811817062.027.3
23Ronnie Brown14720042436539562.226.7
24Marion Barber III2141131144835311702.426.6
25Bernard Scott7461112276296902.526.3
26Beanie Wells1761162455645714552.626.1
27Arian Foster543272787869216782.125.0
28Leon Washington712753185194452.424.7
29Steven Jackson324330259105210524912.423.6
30Derrick Ward1145045236245472.323.6
31Michael Bush1231582566096013992.322.6
32Shonn Greene1081852535925713802.322.4
33Cadillac Williams209125875115510592.122.3
34Reggie Bush7036216446577671.722.0
35Tim Hightower142153844734510722.321.6
36Frank Gore2292032828297718412.220.6
37Ray Rice254307291106910821402.020.2
38BenJar. Green-Ellis262291814594110362.320.2
39Darren Sproles935087421526681.619.6
40Cedric Benson3013222739568520882.219.4
41Joseph Addai2191161185385110451.918.4
42Ricky Williams2411591085754513272.318.1
43Kevin Smith2173472396357681.917.1
44LaDainian Tomlinson223219756314710631.712.5
45Maurice Morris939080340226251.811.9
46Tashard Choice646657238183581.511.4
47Thomas Jones3322451537593214331.98.0


Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamMonson … and our main Twitter feed too: @ProFootbalFocus

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • tucan

    Why not include the entire list of qualified runningbacks?
    I could understand if you were saving the full content for the premium members, but I am a premium member and this 3 year chart isn’t there.
    It can’t be saving the tress, it can’t possibly be a bandwidth issue, it can’t be to encourage premium membership as this information isn’t even listed there.
    I assure you geeks like us who seek out things like the three-year elusive rb rating chart on PFF will not say, “Jeez, why did they have to include the runningbacks that were rated #16 through #32. Too much information. I only want to know who is at the top and the bottom. I find this extra information very annoying. Plus I had too flick my mouse wheel an extra time.”

    • Sam Monson

      It was purely for looks, so as not to swamp the article with a giant table, but you’re right, for the sake of an extra third it’s not really worth cutting out. We’ve updated it to include the full list of qualifying backs.

  • bfett81

    Why are Darren Sproles and Ray Rice given low ratings?

    The general opinion is that they are two of the most elusive guys in the NFL.

    Is there a flaw in the PFF rating system, or are a lot of fans ignorant?

    • Sam Monson

      I don’t think Ray Rice is a particularly elusive back. He has never forced a large number of missed tackles, except on his receptions, and his yards per carry after contact isn’t great either. I think the MTs he forces on receptions show that if you get him in space, he can make people miss, but in a phonebooth he has less room to work with and can’t avoid the tackles.

      Sproles is a similar player in that he makes people miss when he has space to work with, but when you ask him to carry the ball inside or work without that space, the numbers go down.

      The last point worth making is that the Elusive Rating will likely always penalize players that rely more on speed in their game, because that won’t necessarily be reflected in any of the numbers used, and there’s just no reliable way of incorporating it into the formula. If you simply outrun the defense without forcing a missed tackle or breaking through contact, you’ve made a great play, but it won’t really show up on the ER. Speed is the area of the ER that doesn’t really get addressed, so true speed players should always be given a little more of a break than we give them. Sproles is a speed guy and so is probably more elusive than the ER gives him credit for.

  • esau1

    That’s really interesting to see Arian Foster so low down – I would’ve thought he’d be way up near the top. Fun highlight:

    • Sam Monson

      Have to remember the quality of the OL he’s been running behind. Textbook one-cut runner, cuts into space and makes big yardage from it, doesn’t necessarily have to make much happen himself, as opposed to an Adrian Peterson for example.